Shine On, Ride On, Bill Walton

This was a bunch of years ago. I’d driven down from Los Angeles to San Diego to talk to pro cyclists at the Tour of California bike race, and I managed to get myself lost. I had no idea if I was heading in the right direction until I saw someone headed my way:

Bill Walton, atop a gigantic orange bicycle.

He was unmistakable, riding that gargantuan 70-centimeter bike custom made for him by a local builder, Bill Holland. His graying red hair poked from the vents in his helmet as his size 17 Sidi shoes leisurely pushed at the pedals.

“I am not a good cyclist,” Walton told me once. “Most people don’t like to ride with me because I’m so slow.”

shine on, ride on, bill walton

Walton, who died Monday of cancer at age 71, was a one-of-a-kind human, an erudite basketball sensation who came of age at John Wooden’s UCLA, carried the Portland Trail Blazers to their only NBA championship, and transformed into the greatest Sixth Man ever with the peak Larry Bird Celtics.

He was also a committed eccentric, devoted Deadhead, an orthopedic disaster-slash-miracle, and, in recent decades, the most digressive voice in basketball history, the kind of analyst capable of a pivot from Pac-12 action to an extended rhapsody on Galápagos iguanas.

He was all that and more. I knew him as a cyclist.

I’m not special that way. Plenty of people knew Bill Walton, the cyclist. He would blanch at the description, but Walton was one of America’s best known and most beloved bike riders, someone who famously pedaled to the Blazers victory parade, rode up and down the jagged length of the Pacific coast, and once wrote an essential bible called “Bill Walton’s Total Book of Cycling.”

Long after he put down the basketball, Walton kept riding.

“I love to ride all day,” Walton told me. “My dream is to do 100 miles a day. Get up, have breakfast, get going, ride all day, stop for lunch, ride, come home, take a swim, take a Jacuzzi, have a hot shower, have dinner, go to bed, get up and do it again, day after day.”

It was actually more than that. Walton believed riding a bike saved his life. As that giant body of his continued to break down, pushing him mentally to the brink, a bicycle was a rare refuge where the pain dissipated and he could feel like himself.

The soulful side of riding a bike—the mind-body connection that can happen when an imperfect human spins an optimal machine, Walton believed in all that. So do I.

“My bike is my medicine,” Walton said. “I’m always sick of something, or somebody, and I know that when I go out on my bike, my bike makes me happy.”

We stayed in occasional touch, almost always about bikes. Walton loved the sport, followed its heroes and villains, and watched everything—not just the Tour de France. He eagerly promoted his home state Tour of California. He knew how to pronounce Tadej Pogacar. He enthused about Christian Vande Velde, the pro turned TV analyst he’d ridden with (Walton also rode with a couple of Freds named Eddy Merckx and Greg LeMond). Sometimes he signed off Shine on, Ride on, a Deadhead-gearhead mash-up.

Walton wrote to me when the sprinter Mark Cavendish made a stunning comeback to the sport. He did the same when the San Diego cycling innovator Richard Bryne was inducted into the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame. He once worried that the Jonas Vingegaard-Primoz Roglic intersquad rivalry on Team Jumbo-Visma would become as complicated as Chris Froome’s and Bradley Wiggins’s friction on Team Sky.

shine on, ride on, bill walton

And yes: If you asked him a cycling question, it was just like when his ESPN co-pilot Dave Pasch tried to navigate a college basketball game. You strapped on your seat belt, and let Bill take the controls.

Though not always. Last fall I emailed Walton to discuss Coloradan Sepp Kuss’s magical ride at the Vuelta a Espana. He waved me off.

“Please no results,” he wrote back. “I watch every second on the Peacock stream. I’m a little bit behind.”

If none of this means a thing to you, it’s OK. Cycling talk often sounds like it’s emanating from Mars.

The point is that riding a bicycle brought Walton a lot of joy. It’s what I’ve thought most about since learning of his passing. Walton led a remarkable life that spanned generations of sports history, and if you had one game to win for Planet Earth, he might still be the big man you take.

But Bill Walton may have been most at peace when he was on a bike. Shine on, ride on.

Write to Jason Gay at [email protected]

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