Phoenix Cyclist Rides El Tour to Honor His Father

Monday, November 2nd, 2015

By Michael Murphy

Joe Berman takes time from a training ride in  preparation for El Tour. - Photo Courtesy Joe Berman

Joe Berman takes time from a training ride in
preparation for El Tour. – Photo Courtesy Joe Berman

Parkinson’s disease had left him barely able to walk. He trembled and froze in place, his feet bolted to the floor by the neurological disorder.

So when Dr. Mark Berman insisted on joining his son, Joe, in the El Tour de Tucson, the younger Berman was understandably dubious.

“What the hell was he thinking? He was a full-blown Parkinson’s victim with tremors, bad balance, early onset dementia – the whole nine yards,” Joe Berman recalled. “But how could I tell him no – and who was I to tell him no?”

The 66-year-old Berman disregarded his son’s concerns and his doctor’s advice not to ride his bike, and completed the 35-mile ride in 2006. It was dicey from beginning to end – the elder Berman needed help getting on his bike, and didn’t stop for water or food for fear of falling over. Joe Berman shifted gears for him on the climbs.

After a grueling five hours, Joe Berman helped “my cold clammy, sweaty rigid hero” off his bike.

“My eyes were drenched with tears. I told him, ‘Dad, I am so proud of you,” He looked up at me and said, “I just couldn’t let you down.”

Berman, 42, of Phoenix, will return to El Tour in November to honor the memory of his father, who died three years ago. He will carry his father’s photo and the helmet sticker from that 2006 adventure.

“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,” Berman said.

“I feel like I’m going back for the both of us. He can’t ever go back, but I can.”

One of the beneficiaries of El Tour is the Arizona Chapter of the American Parkinson Disease Association. Last year, El Tour raised $13,629 for the non-profit organization that seeks to help Parkinson’s patients and their families and helps raise awareness of the disease.

Parkinson’s is a neurological disorder in which some of the brain cells that control movement die. Many patients have surprised their doctors – and the experts — by riding bikes for miles and miles, even though they can barely walk.

The phenomenon has gotten new attention thanks to the Davis Phinney Foundation. Phinney, a former American professional cyclist who won multiple Tour de France stages and an Olympic bronze medal in 1984, was diagnosed with Young-onset Parkinson’s disease in 2000 at the age of 40 — a much earlier age than average patients (he had retired from cycling in 1993).

Joe Berman, who owns Sunday Cycles in Phoenix, said his father, a once renowned clinical psychologist, began cycling after he was diagnosed in his 50s as a way to “prove he could do things with Parkinson’s.”

The elder Berman loved the independence and benefits cycling gave him – and the brief respite from the symptoms of Parkinson’s.

On the day of El Tour, Joe Berman recalled, “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.”

Joe Berman and another rider helped him get on the bike and then they launched him onto the 35-mile course. The younger Berman ran back, hopped on his bike and joined his father.

“Our pace was incredibly slow by the halfway point but he kept on pushing,” Joe said. “At one point I was about 20 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!”

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