By Kierstin Kloeckner
What seems like eons ago, back when I was a junior road racer, one of my cycling heroes was Davis Phinney. A member of the famed 7-Eleven team, Phinney was the second American to capture a Tour de France stage win in 1986. For two decades, he continued as a successful racer and then went on to be a sports commentator, public speaker, journalist and Nordic ski racer. He also married one of the strongest female racers, Connie Carpenter, from Madison, Wis.
Then, at young age of forty, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease (PD). I remember the news breaking in VeloNews and feeling so sad for him and his family. I thought “What would I do if I were diagnosed with a degenerative disease that didn’t allow me to do what I wanted with my body?”
Phinney’s fitness and mental health began to slip. He sunk into depression as his body started to fail him. It was his son, Taylor Phinney – also a pro-racer – who helped keep him focused. In 2008, Davis underwent deep brain stimulation, a risky surgery that works very well for some and not at all for others, but thankfully this surgery was exactly what Davis needed.
Since then, Davis started the Phinney Foundation to help those struggling with PD. While Michael J. Fox put most of his energy into finding a cure for the disease, Phinney focused on the current physical/mental health of those struggling and how exercise – especially cycling – could help.
Because I had followed this entire story as a personal trainer, it was natural of me to want to get involved and learn as much as I could. In 2010, I completed instructor training with Becky Farley, out of Tuscon, Ariz., in the Parkinson Wellness Recovery program. This, in turn, quickly led me to teaching indoor cycling classes for those with PD. Because in 2012, the Radiological Society of N. America released findings that a forced sustained rate of 80-plus rpms for at least twenty minutes greatly decreased tremors for up to four hours. For those who have or have known someone with PD, this was huge! No, not all struggling with this disease have tremors, but it is one of the worst side effects that oftentimes changes lives and forces people to lose their independence. Finding a non-pharmaceutical/non-surgical way to calm tremors, and allow the body to rest for a period of time, can make living with this disease bearable. In fact, people will often say they are able to bike almost normally when they are not able to walk.
Not only is biking being used as a treatment for Parkinson’s, it is also being used as a fund raiser to help support subsidized exercise programs in Southern Wisconsin. Five years ago, Bike Like Mike was started in Madison by a young man who wanted to do something to help his father and help the PD community. “Donyo” (the nickname his parents gave him) had this say about why he started the event for his father, who was a very avid cyclist and still continues to ride:
“I am extremely passionate about my family, and I have wondered for a long time if there was any way I could help my father deal with his disease. I want to be a part of something, rather than wait for others to make change happen. I first wanted to bike for the adventure, but I was inspired to help out the most important man and hero in my life: my father. Since he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, I have not done much to study the effects or learn more about the disease. I have just tried to be the best son I can be. As I embark upon this journey, I find myself wanting to become better educated and more connected with my father. I’ve always loved him and he’s always loved me, but there is a bit of pride that I feel I must attain in this bike ride.”
Since the ride started, Donyo has raised several thousand dollars and has brought more awareness about this disease to the local community. His passion is proof that small grassroots events can make a huge difference in the lives of others. In fact, just out of Hampshire, Ill., the Sub-5 Century is hoping to raise over $100,000 for the Davis Phinney Foundation on Sept. 11, 2016, and the annual Pedal and Roll – out of Maple Grove, Minn. – also helps fund weekly rides for those with PD.
Here in Madison, another great program that is trying to get off the ground through the Wisconsin Bicycle Federation is “Everyone Can Ride.” This program was initially started for those who are visually impaired using a tandem bike, but is now being considered to help those with PD ride. By using a tandem, those with Parkinson’s benefit in two ways. First, safety concerns decrease greatly for those with either balance or movement issues, since the person up front steers. Secondly, the rotations per minute are forced by the person up front, which helps the person in back achieve the 80 rpm rate that lowers tremors. It’s a wonderful way to work as a team and get folks out there who wouldn’t normally be confident riding alone. I’m hoping this program continues to grow in upcoming years, so everyone can experience the joy and freedom of outdoor riding.
If you are a cyclist and want to participate in helping those with PD, I urge you to contact your local APDA (American Parkinson’s Disease Association) chapter to either start a weekly ride, a fund raiser or a tandem ride. You’ll be amazed by the changes you can make in someone’s life through the aid of two wheels!