Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Riding With Robin

Biking with Robin Williams was like taking a spin class at the old Holy City Zoo. Every time I rode alongside him, he matched our tempo with manic, mile-a-minute shtick, a running comedic commentary on everything from the spandexed rear of the rider in front of him to the French obsession with Lance Armstrong’s doping. I interviewed Williams maybe ten times over the years, and rode with him at least five, in the Bay Area and Los Angeles; Austin, Texas; and even at the Tour de France, where we both cycled as ardent fans before Armstrong and the other pros took the course. After Williams’ suicide last week, I dug through my archives and, while I still can’t find the photos I know we took during some of those rides, I did find old recordings of some of his in-the-saddle routines, some captured while we were riding, others taped during rest stops or by the side of the road, watching the peloton rush past us.

In the company of a radio reporter, even one clad in lycra, Williams was always on, almost incapable of biking in silence. He knew people expected him to make them laugh, and he was determined to deliver. And that he did, in frenetic, hilarious, often self-deprecating fashion, his mind racing even faster than his thickly muscled legs to churn out a stream of comic consciousness.

“Look at the lovely Miss Dee, what a derriere,” he said during one Texas ride as we caught the wheel of the woman riding in front of us. “To draft behind Dee is a gift. I would say this is like swimming behind Jennifer Lopez.” He joked about the smoothly-shaved legs of the professional riders in the peloton. “In my case, it would take a weedwhacker. I’m a Chia pet. The moment I shaved, it would start to grow again. It would be a frightening thing. Forget US Postal, I’m going to be sponsored by Poulan Weed-Eater.” Asked how much he enjoyed biking with the obviously much faster Armstrong, Williams quipped “it’s the best two seconds of my day.”

For years, when he lived in San Francisco’s Seacliff neighborhood, the comic icon and Oscar-winning actor rode five days a week, a thirty-mile loop over the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin and back. Williams would joke that he wasn’t built for distance; after 30 miles, he’d poop out. But he was strong for those first thirty, able to keep the jokes coming even as he pumped out the miles. He had a stable of about fifty bikes, and employed a bike wrangler to maintain them. I never saw him ride the same one twice, and he was always fantasizing about the Pinarello or Colnago frame he would buy next.

It was tough to keep up with Williams, and I don’t just mean on the bike. His mind would boomerang from one joke to the next, flashing like lightning from one pop culture reference to another. If some of the gags went over your head, were lost on your not-as-nimble mind, that was okay, as long as that stitch in your side was from laughing so hard that you couldn’t keep the cadence up.

Williams was close with Armstrong, helping the cycling champion raise money for his cancer foundation. They bonded over biking, and Williams would visit Armstrong in France during the Tour every year and also appear at his annual Ride for the Roses bash in Austin, where the comedian’s bike-themed performances became a highlight. Once, he did a bawdy, ten-minute riff on Armstrong’s testicular cancer, joking that after the cancer survivor’s success, every rider in Europe was having one cut off to improve aerodynamism. He spoofed Armstrong’s main rivals, trotting out his arsenal of foreign accents. He joked about the Texan’s friendship with fellow Lone Star icon George W. Bush. “I had a telegram for you Lance, from President Bush, but they’re still correcting the spelling.” Like many of us, he refused to believe Armstrong was doping. He defended Armstrong’s insistence that he had only used EPO and other doping products as part of his cancer therapy.

From the first time I met him, Williams struck me as deeply insecure, someone with a pathological need to entertain, using humor to deflect and defend and protect his own fragile psyche. It’s an all too common trait among comedians. But Robin was also an unusually sweet and generous man, with a warm heart and a kind soul. He would talk sincerely and passionately about the “extraordinary people” he met through cycling, and included Armstrong in that group. He said of the cancer survivors he met, “it humbles me in a great way. It’s a good humbling, unlike when Lance kicks my ass on the bike. Hey, I hung with Lance a little longer today. He waited a full four seconds before he decided to actually ride. He dropped me with a fierce breakaway.”

You could sense the sadness inside Williams, the tears of the clown masked by the rush he got from making other people happy. In the end, he leaves us all so sad, because he couldn’t find a way to do the same for himself, even on his bike.