The cycling community lost one of its most ardent and funniest ambassadors Monday with the death of Robin Williams.
The 63-year-old comedian and actor became cycling’s unofficial ambassador-at-large during the boom days of the 2000s. Williams brought legitimate star power to cycling, and helped the sport enter the American mainstream.
The Oscar-winner wasn’t at the Tour de France because he was promoting his new movie or trying to chum up to Lance Armstrong, but rather because he was truly passionate about the sport.
“I love bike racing. It’s like NASCAR and downhill ski racing, but the racers are wearing little more than pajamas,” Williams told VeloNews during one of his annual trips to the Tour de France. “I love the bike. It’s my meditation. I think I am ‘bike-sexual.'”
Twitter and other social media were alight with messages of condolences and memories of Williams, who became a regular fixture on the cycling circuit.
British sprinter Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) posted this note on Twitter: “Such sad news about Robin Williams. Being around him have you the same continuous giggles as watching his films. Lovely man and iconic actor.”
In a Facebook post, former Coors Classic race promoter Michael Aisner said, “His deep love of cycling and passion was unbridled. 60 bikes, insistence to film directors that he ride during film shoot breaks and even harrowing tales of dumping his bike and sliding under a bus to avoid crashing into it in the Presidio were touches of his dedication to riding and for the sport.”
That sentiment echoed across the peloton Tuesday as the news broke overnight in Europe that Williams died of an apparent suicide in his home in California.
Williams became a regular visitor to races and teams, sometimes jumping inside team buses, and giving surprise improvisations to riders before the start of stages. He would often ham it up with fans around the team buses.
The actor and comedian was an ardent fan and passionate cyclist, often bringing bikes with him on movie locations and riding in charity events and century rides in Northern California.
“I try to ride up to 100 miles per week,” Williams told VeloNews years ago at the Tour. “I have so many bikes I’ve lost count. When I am on a long movie shoot, I always bring a bike with me.”
This reporter interviewed Williams for a story included in the 2001 Tour de France magazine produced by ProCycling. Williams quickly “turned on,” and went into a 30-minute improvisation about Marco Pantani, Armstrong, Jan Ullrich, and the French that was impossible to dictate. Instead, we put him on speakerphone, and the entire office gathered around to listen to Williams’ rapid-fire delivery. Many of those jokes would regularly appear in Williams’ stand-up routines.
Williams was closely linked to the now-disgraced Armstrong, who’s been stripped of all seven of his Tour de France victories.
At the height of his media powers, Armstrong drew in celebrities from all quarters, and Williams was one of the most loyal and dedicated of Armstrong’s “Hollywood peloton” that also included actors such as Matthew McConaughey, Ben Stiller, Matthew Damon, and Jake Gyllenhaal.
But of all the Hollywood entourage, Williams was the one who was truly passionate about the bike. He was a regular visitor to the Tour, and become close with other riders, such as George Hincapie and Levi Leipheimer.
Like many who were close to Armstrong, Williams said he felt burned in the wake of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency case that revealed widespread doping in the U.S. peloton.
Williams was one of Armstrong’s staunchest supporters and would regularly back Armstrong’s claims that he was not doping. Williams would joke, calling Armstrong, “The Uni-baller,” in reference to Armstrong’s testicular cancer. “The French hate him. He’s got one testicle. He’s more aerodynamic.”
Williams never publicly revealed his thoughts on Armstrong’s eventual confession, but a source told the London Daily Mail in 2012 that Williams “feels like he’s been stabbed in the back.”
“Robin’s supported Lance through thick and thin, and believed him when he said he wasn’t doping. He bought it,” the paper quoted the source. “Robin didn’t doubt Lance’s word, and told everyone the accusations were hogwash.”
It’s unclear if Armstrong and Williams ever had a chance to settle things before the tragic series of events in California. On Monday, Armstrong posted this Twitter: “RIP Robin. I will always remember you as one hell of a friend. I love you and will miss you terribly.”
Williams will be remembered for his contributions on the stage and screen, but for many in the cycling community, Williams was a true ambassador who will be sorely missed.