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Top 14 stories of 2014: Taking flight

In his column, "At the back" from the October issue of Velo, Dan Wuori remembers one of cycling's ultimate fans, Robin Williams

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Editor’s note: To close out the year, we are counting down the top 14 stories of 2014. VeloNews and Velo magazine’s editorial staff voted this piece, from the October 2014 issue of Velo, as one of our favorite stories of the year.

I never met Robin Williams in person. But when he took his own life in August, it still didn’t hurt any less. We shared a lot in common.

Like most people, my first exposure to the hyperkinetic Williams was as a comedian and actor — the star of more classic films than you could count on your fingers and toes. But my strongest connections to the comic had little to do with his gut-busting, big-screen persona. Like us, Williams was passionate about cycling. And, like me, he was a sufferer of depression who found solace on the bike. His loss in the battle hit me particularly hard.

The actor came to cycling as an altogether different sort of escape. At the height of his popularity in the early ’80s, Williams battled a cocaine addiction that climaxed on the night of March 4, 1982, when he visited the Los Angeles hotel room of his friend and fellow addict John Belushi. Finding the drug-addled Belushi in no condition for visitors, Williams reportedly parted, telling the Saturday Night Live star, “If you ever get up again, call.” The next morning Belushi was dead, having overdosed on a mixture of heroin and cocaine.

The event was a life-altering wake up call for Williams, who took up road cycling shortly thereafter. Soon, a new addiction took hold.

“It was after Belushi died that he started really riding,” the comedian’s longtime friend, Tony Tom, told me. “Cycling saved his life. He always used to tell me, “Bikes are a whole lot better for you than cocaine.”

Who could argue with that? Over the next 30 years, Williams became a fixture on the California cycling scene, frequenting bike shops around his Marin county home, including Tom’s Sausalito-based shop, A Bicycle Odyssey. Though not a competitive cyclist, Williams was a proficient roadie, often logging 50 miles or more per day.

“When he was on location, he would always have a bike with him,” Tom explained. “If he was away for any particular length of time, we would usually send a bike out, or he’d just buy one while he was there. By no means were we the only shop he patronized, but I can tell you we sold him a lot of bikes.

I would sometimes say, ‘You know Robin, you don’t have to spend all of your money here.’”

How many bikes is a lot? When Williams divorced from his second wife in 2008, Tom was brought in to inventory the actor’s collection. By his count, the comedian had 27 bikes in his Tiburon home and an additional 73 at his retreat in Napa — a collection valued at well into the six figures. Among his favorites was a U.S. Postal Service time trial bike, and a collection of hand-painted Pegorettis. In recent years, Williams joked of needing to “thin the herd,” which he accomplished by donating bikes to charity. Days after his death, a Williams-owned Pegoretti raised $20,000 for a San Francisco-based non-profit.

Despite his machine-gun comic persona, friends described the real Williams as thoughtful, quiet, and — befitting the actor’s battles with depression and addiction — often melancholy. As a cyclist, a consistent theme emerges. Williams liked to ride alone and could often be spotted on the Paradise Loop, a scenic waterfront route circling the Tiburon Peninsula.

“He would cycle in solitude,” Tom said of his friend. “He said it was the closest thing to flying.” Responding to questions during a 2013 Reddit Ask Me Anything interview, Williams spoke directly to the benefits of riding solo. “For me, it’s mobile meditation.”

To my ears, truer words were never spoken. While I can, and do, ride with friends, it’s not my default style. In truth, I prefer a chance to clear my thoughts alone after a long day, over a chatty social ride or a paceline hammerfest — and find that time alone in the saddle is often just what the doctor ordered.

Done right, cycling requires a presence of mind that makes it virtually impossible to focus on anything else — one’s troubles included. That may be why it’s been said that “a bicycle ride is a flight from sadness.”

I think Williams and I shared that belief. And it seems to have served him well for more than 30 years. I only wish he’d found it in him to get on the bike that day.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.