Pedaling with Parkinson’s: My dad’s great win at the Tour De Tucson

 

n 1995 my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and in 2008, Alzheimer’s. In the prime of his life he was a renowned Clinical Psychologist, a pain in the ass, and a great dad—funny, strong and trustworthy. Now he spends his days in a nursing home playing with dolls he steals from old ladies.

About five years ago, my dad got a hankering to join me in the El Tour De Tucson. I had already signed up for the century ride, and I agreed to have him join me for the 35-mile adventure. What the hell was I thinking—and what was he thinking? He was a full-blown Parkinson’s victim with tremors, bad balance, early onset dementia—the whole nine yards. But how would I tell him no—and who was I to tell him no? He was told by his doctors that he shouldn’t try to ride a bike, that his lack of balance made it dangerous. Thankfully he disregarded their warnings and my concerns, as the bike proved to be what kept him “alive” until the disease got the best of his next chapter.

I knew riding my road bike would prove to be a challenge at the speed I anticipated, so I bought myself a big fat beach cruiser with huge 24×4? tires and ape hangers. Dad needed a bike too, so I got him a classic 27-speed comfort bike. He never shifted, said he hated it and it was too complicated, yet he latched on to that bike with love, riding the wheels off of it for the next few months, never taking a ride longer than a few miles, but loving the independence and benefits cycling gave him—a brief respite from his Parkinson’s.

Flash forward to the big day. Dad’s Parkinson’s was in high gear. His balance was horrible, his nerves were kicking, his tremors were heavy, and his muscles were very rigid. It was not looking good. Plus, being stubborn as can be and a little crazy from dementia, Pops had already been in his helmet for five hours prior to the ride.

Dad was helpless and slow as we approached the start. I had to push both bikes up to the crowded staging area. We waited in the back of the pack to avoid clustering. When the crowd took off, Dad couldn’t even get his leg over his bike. I tried to help him and was joined by a nice stranger who saw what was going on. She and I grabbed his rigid leg and swung it over his bike, then together, we grabbed either side of him and ran with him until he was launched almost balance-less toward the crowd ahead. I ran back and grabbed my bike and quickly rejoined him.

He never said a word as he rode. Never stopped at an aid station—probably for fear of not getting back on or off the bike without injury. Never drank a sip of water. Never acknowledged anyone. I rode next to him on the climbs and shifted gears for him in order to make it more bearable.

Our pace was incredibly slow by the halfway point but he kept on pushing. At one point, about five miles from the finish, spectators and emergency staff were getting concerned by his appearance. People were approaching me asking if he was okay as we rode by. At one point I was about twenty feet behind him, and someone asked as I rode by if the old man in front of me was okay, to which I replied, “He’s better than okay, he’s amazing!”

Finally, with the finish line in our sights, I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of what we had done. We finished, he finished, it was finished—we did it. We were in with the last of the last, and it took us a grueling five hours to complete the 35-mile ride, but we did it.

As we got to the finish line, I helped my cold, clammy, sweaty, rigid hero off his bike and onto the curb. He hung his head and stared at the pavement. My eyes were drenched with tears. “Dad, I am so proud of you,” I said in awe. Moments later—and still wearing that damn helmet—he looked up at me and said, “I just couldn’t let you down.”

By far, that was one of the best moments of my life, shared with the man I love the most, doing the thing I love the most.

That was the last time I rode with my dad, since his health, stamina and brain have deteriorated so much. He doesn’t recognize me anymore, and I don’t know if he remembers that day, but I will—always. And I hope that one day I can look at my kids after having dug deep inside of myself to overcome my own battle and say, “I just couldn’t let you down.”

              Check out the results from that year. 974th and 975th across the line out of 978.