SALT LAKE CITY — Andrew Bishop knows adversity. When he was a young boy he lost his mother to an awful disease to which he, too, was predisposed.
There are few worse rolls in the genetic crapshoot than Huntington’s disease, a rare degenerative disorder that has been compared to Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s — all rolled into one. Deseret News writer Lois Collins wrote a memorable and award-winning feature story, “Generations of Tears,” about the disease and the Bishop family’s travails with it in 1999 when Andrew’s mom, Amy, was in the throes of her battle, and Andrew, now 24, was just 6 years old.
Children of a Huntington’s parent have a 50-50 chance of inheriting the gene that guarantees they will also, at some point, become stricken. It might be in their 20s, as happened with Amy Bishop, or it might be in their 50s, as happened with her father. But it will happen.
While there is no known cure, there is a test to tell if you’re carrying the gene. Andrew’s brothers and sisters all took the test. None had the gene.
Andrew was the last of the Bishop kids to be tested, electing to wait until after he’d served a two-year LDS mission to Oregon and Washington. When that was completed in 2014 he returned to Salt Lake City and, knowing the family had already significantly bucked the odds, crossed his fingers and took the test.
“Well,” he said when the result came back positive. “Thank God the others don’t have it.”
But knowing the future like this was a bitter pill to digest, and Andrew, by his own admission, “to a large degree checked out.”
He decided to bail on college — what was the point? And pursuing a relationship didn’t just appear pointless, but cruel. “The closer I’d get to someone the more I’d hurt them when the inevitable came to pass,” he says.
He moved into an apartment, got a dead-end job and spent a lot of time on the couch.
Until last year at Christmastime when he thought about what he could get his dad for a present.
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Robert Bishop, 57, has spent the second half of his life battling a disease he didn’t know existed in the first half. After first losing his wife to Huntington’s he had to deal with the fact all their children were candidates for the disease as well.
Over the years, one of the best ways Robert found to keep the stress at bay was riding his bicycle. Pedaling down highways and over Utah's mountain passes was a lifeline that kept him sane.
In September, he sometimes rode the LoToJa Classic, covering the 206 miles from Logan to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in the country’s longest single-day bicycle race. What might look like masochism to some was pure therapy for Robert.
As he was growing up, Andrew watched his dad’s love affair with his bike.
Thinking about that, he knew what he’d give his dad for Christmas.
“What would you think of you and I riding LoToJa together?” he asked.
To say Robert was floored would be understating it. For the past two years, the most exercise he’d seen out of Andrew was playing video games.
How could Andrew possibly, in five months, train enough to ride 206 miles without stopping?
That’s what he thought privately. Outwardly, it took Robert about half-a-second to say, “Let’s do it.”
Robert asked a neighbor and good friend, John Lauck, a champion road cyclist whom he knew had several times won his division at LoToJa, including in the tandem category, what he thought of them riding the LoToJa on a tandem.
In answer, Lauck took Robert to his garage and pulled down a custom tandem bike off the wall. “All yours,” he said.
After figuring out the basics of two people riding a bike at the same time without sustaining serious injury, for their maiden distance voyage Robert and Andrew joined a Bonneville Cycling Club group ride in April, traveling 68 miles from Lehi to Centerville.
They came north over the Point of the Mountain, hitting 50 mph on a steep decline, when the silence was shattered by a sound very close to Robert’s ear.
Andrew Bishop was behind him shouting at the top of his lungs.
Hearing this unmistakable sound of sheer glee — from a boy on his bike — the others on the ride responded accordingly. Soon they were all wah-hoooing.
Robert Bishop will never forget it.
“For a long time Andrew had kinda disappeared on me,” he said. “I never saw any joy on his face, and on that downhill he just blurted out, ‘Wah-hoo!” and all the guys around us did, too, and I thought, 'There’s my son! There’s my son again!'”
Virtually every Saturday through the spring and summer, Robert and Andrew rode a 100-miler or more. They saw Utah’s valleys and its summits. Clocking mile after mile after mile together, they talked about everything under the sun (other than the time they were ascending the Sundance climb on a 12-percent pitch and a gasping Robert turned to his jabbering son and said, “Andrew, if you can talk like that you’re not working hard enough”).
Some people knew what the Bishops had gone through — were going through. Word spread. When the people who organize the Huntsman 140, a cancer fundraiser from Delta to Salt Lake City, learned that Robert and Andrew had signed up for their ride, they waived the entry fee and gave them Huntsman jerseys to wear.
By the time of the LoToJa race on the second Saturday in September, wearing their Huntsman kits, they were as ready as they’d ever be.
At 6 a.m. they stood at the starting line, put their heads down and aimed for the Tetons. A little over 11 hours later they got there. Only one tandem team had finished ahead of them.
They were on the podium. Silver medalists.
“Can you believe it?” exults Robert.3 comments on this story
No one’s lost sight of what’s ahead. No one’s suggesting finishing high in a bike race is a cure-all. But for Andrew and his dad, their time together on a bicycle and on a quest served as a great reminder that the present doesn’t have to be mortgaged by the future.
“Whatever’s coming, we’ll always have this treasured memory,” says Robert. “No one can take this from us.”
“Instead of looking at what has happened and what could happen,” says Andrew. “We stopped to enjoy the time that we have.”
(To read Robert Bishop’s extended account of the bicycle race and the family’s battle with Huntington’s disease, go to https://goo.gl/mM9TJ3).