Joe Williams is all smiles in the 2015 Iron Horse right before a snow squall sets in. With the help of his “wingmen,” he made the Molas gate by seven seconds./Courtesy Photo

Not your average joe

Local Iron Horse rider with Parkinson’s to be featured on CNN

by Missy Votel

To say longtime Durango resident Joe Williams is an inspiration is a massive understatement. Sort of like saying the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic is just a little spin.

This week, both will be in the spotlight as CNN film crews descend on Durango to film a segment for the network’s regular series, “Fit Nation.” The latest installment, “Around the World in Eight Races” will highlight eight races as well as a personal story of a participant in each one.

The show’s producers heard about the Iron Horse and contacted event organizers looking for a compelling story. That’s when race founder Ed Zink recommended Williams, 63, a friend and Iron Horse participant since 2011.

“My story is Parkinson’s,” said Williams by phone on Tuesday. “I was diagnosed in 2010. I was 57 years old.”

A winning combination

IHBC raises $90k for Parkinson’s

Ask Iron Horse riders why they do it and the list is long: because of the scenery; because of the challenge; because it’s there. Now, there’s one more “cause” to add to the list: Parkinson’s Disease.

This year, as in years past, the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic is teaming up with The Davis Phinney Foundation to raise funds for Parkinson’s research and support.

Riding as “The Victory Crew at Iron Horse,” riders raise funds for the Phinney Foundation, with half of funds raised directly supporting the Parkinson’s community in Durango.

Since partnering with the foundation, the IHBC has helped raise more than $90,000 for Parkinson’s.

The Davis Phinney Foundation was founded in 2004 by Olympic medalist and cyclist Davis Phinney, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2000 at the age of 40. Today, Phinney is considered a role model and inspiration to the estimated 1.5 million Americans and 10 million worldwide living with the disease. The mission of the foundation is to help people with Parkinson’s to live better lives through health, fitness, education and inspiration.

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– Missy Votel

Williams, who has lived in Durango since 1983, said he refused to accept the “death warrant” he was issued by his doctor at the Mayo Clinic. “He told me there was nothing to be done and I walked out, shell shocked,” he recalled. “I said, ‘I want another neurologist.’”

The next doc, who he refers to as “Dr. Erica,” had a different approach. “She said, ‘Take your medications and get on with your life,’” he said. Upon finding out he was formerly an avid cyclist – riding his bike to his job working for the natural gas industry in Ignacio for years – she encouraged him to get back out there. 

He decided to take her advice and got his 1983 road bike out of the garage, brought it into Mountain Bike Specialists for upgrades, and hit the road with wife, Jan. But for Williams, the Parkinson’s had taken a toll on his balance, and riding was a little like, well, learning to ride a bicycle all over again.

On his first ride out, barely out of the driveway, his body involuntarily seized up. “I locked up, froze and crashed,” he said. “I tumbled into the bushes and was picking sagebrush out of my buttocks.”

His derriere be damned, he got back on. And crashed. Again.

“Jan said, ‘We’re going home,’ and I said, ‘No, we’re not,’” he said.

Soon after, Williams and a group of 10 friends signed up for spin classes, and team “Go Joe Go” was born.

As Williams explains it, the team – he calls them his “wingmen” – complete with matching jerseys, travels around, training and riding in five or six different races a year. “I don’t go fast, but I get there,” said Williams of his approach to racing. “I’m the most blessed person in the world to have this support group.”

This weekend will mark Williams’ sixth Iron Horse attempt – he is not afraid to admit to catching a ride on the “bus of shame” one year. Then, there was last year, he made the Molas Pass cut-off by seven seconds. “My wingmen came back and told me, ‘If you ever could ride your butt off, now’s the time,’” he recalled. “And I made it! It was the most momentous time of my life.’” 

In addition to pushing himself, Williams enjoys the lift he can give to other people as well. “Sometimes we’ll pass someone and they’ll ask, ‘Who’s Go Joe Go?’ and they’ll say, ‘He just passed you,’” said Williams. “I love when I hear, ‘This guy inspired me.’ This disease sucks, but I’ve been given a great opportunity to talk about it and help others.”

For now, though, Williams – who is nursing a bum adductor – is focused on getting over the mountain, film crew in tow. “All I have to do is get to the top of Molas before they close the gate and listen to the bells on the way down,” he said. “If I get done in 4½ hours, it’ll be a miracle.”

But do it, he must, not only as a sanity saver but as a barometer of his health. It’s ironic, considering Williams, during his Ignacio commuting days, promised himself he would never ride the Iron Horse. “It’s something I swore I would never do,” he said. “And now I’ve got to chase that mountain every year.”