Robin Williams in Marin: The Man on the Bicycle
"My favorite thing to do is ride a bicycle. I ride road bikes. And for me, it's mobile meditation."
Paradise Drive twists around the Tiburon Peninsula, hugging the Marin coastline. It loops from San Francisco to Sausalito, giving way to views of the city, the Richmond Bridge and the surrounding mountains, crushing in their beauty. It leads inland, shedding tourists en route to Mill Valley, San Rafael, San Anselmo and Fairfax, quaint villages in the tony county where mountain biking was born. Robin Williams rode Paradise Drive into these towns.
Williams' ties to cycling, to Marin County and to San Francisco ran deep. On Monday, news of his suicide engulfed the Northern California enclaves that view him as a celebrated son. His renown as the best his generation had to offer as a comedian and actor looms so large it's disingenuous to pretend he was anything else. Yet the way he wove in and out of everyday life here allowed him safe passage as a neighbor.
A fan reads penned tributes to Williams outside the Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley.
"Of course everyone knew him for his celebrity," says Felicia Burgess, a barista at Marin Coffee Roasters in San Anselmo, where he would stop for a coffee after riding from his home in Tiburon. Two customers within earshot then share stories of meeting Williams — on his bike — as she continues. "But around here, he was known as an avid cyclist, well-mannered and a really nice guy. Marin County is known for cycling. People always saw him on his bike."
Williams made his passion clear in a 2013 Reddit AMA: "My favorite thing to do is ride a bicycle. I ride road bikes. And for me, it's mobile meditation." Wander into any local bicycle shop and people know the comedian. Walk into Mike's Bikes in San Rafael and talk to the assistant sales manager, Erik Lindquist, who waited on the actor as a 15-year-old server during the Mork & Mindy era, then continued to commune with him via cycling. Lindquist last saw Williams on the Fourth of July at a private party on Sonoma Mountain, where Williams also loved to ride.
One of the world's funniest men rode through these small towns on customized ultra-light bikes, his infamous body hair contrasting with the shaved legs of other serious road cyclists, giving away his identity. According to Quoc Phan at Tam Bikes in Mill Valley, Williams' reps made him stop mountain biking as a safety precaution — though road biking is often considered more dangerous. So Williams would bike through these towns, completing an informal loop of bike shops, coffee houses and book stores.
Fellow cyclist Johnny Knowles recalls introducing the comic to his young daughter. Williams, remembering the family had a house in Greece, greeted her in Greek. Afterward, she announced she didn't believe it was really him. The comedian, about to jump on his bike, "unzips his sports jersey like a mad flasher," recalls Knowles, "sticks his chest out and yells, 'I am Robin Williams! Who else could have this much chest hair?!' "
Brad McKenzie knew Williams from his regular visits to 3 Ring Cycles in San Anselmo. "He did a Happy Feet routine with my kids here. It was pretty awesome because we had this little show that he did on his own, with just our family here in the shop," he says.
In the fraternity of local bike retailers, Williams was appreciated as a patron and, at times, a savior. When an iconic San Francisco bike store was up for sale 10 years ago, the actor was approached to back a bid that would keep the shop in the hands of its managers. He quietly offered $200,000, but the bid ultimately fizzled. Years ago, when A Bicycle Odyssey in Sausalito was crippled by an embezzling employee, owner Tony Tam faced tough times. The actor wrote him a check for $10,000 as a "down payment for bikes" when Tam refused his offer for help.
But it was the regular outings, where he would come in and shop for parts and gear for customized bikes, like a $12,000 Bianchi, that the small retailers appreciated. Given his collection at one point hovered around 100 bikes (many of which he auctioned off for charity), it was no small act.
"He would come in and special-order parts and then come back and pick them up. He could have shopped online or sent an assistant, but he always came in himself and waited in line, just like anybody else," says George Travin, a bike mechanic at Tam Bikes. "He always picked up in the store to support the business. Very humble, quiet. He's just a nice guy."
A tribute to Williams at The Depot Bookstore & Cafe in Mill Valley
The staff at The Depot Bookstore & Cafe down the street echoed the sentiment. "There's a Barnes & Noble nearby, but he came here to shop for his daughter's birthday card and asked us which one we liked," a clerk tells me. Williams had coffee with an elder statesman of comedy, Mort Sahl, at the Depot on Sunday, less than 24 hours before he died.
For the last 10 years, Williams biked to the Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley for Tuesday Night Comedy With Mark Pitta & Friends. "He sort of created his own little safe haven to come and work on his new material," says the theater's marketing director, Julian Kaelon. Afterward, Williams would dine with Sahl down the street at Vasco. This past Tuesday, the show was canceled for the first time. The theater remained dark as fans dropped off flowers and cards and wrote messages in memoriam.
Almost a decade ago, Knowles, who currently works at Tam Bikes, knew Williams as a customer at Sunshine Bicycle Center in Fairfax. Knowles' father had cancer, and he bought him Lance Armstrong's book, It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life.
Knowing that Williams and Armstrong were friends, Knowles asked Williams to get the book autographed by the Tour de France champion. Williams delivered the signed book two weeks later, having added his own line, "Dearest Jack, Don't get caught in a hot tub with a bunch of naked men."
Then Williams asked, "Where does your father live?" Learning his was just a few blocks from the store, the comic offered, "Let's go see him and say hello." Sadly, Knowles' father was in San Francisco getting chemotherapy but loved to tell the story of how Robin Williams came to visit.
Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley went dark Tuesday. The Mark Pitta & Friends weekly comedy night was canceled for the first time in 10 years after Williams' death.
"He made us feel like we were lucky enough to be his friend," says Knowles. "That's what I think is so upsetting to people — that this guy we thought was so happy and funny and brought so much joy to our lives was so depressed himself."
Williams won't bike on Paradise Drive anymore, or stop in at Odyssey or Mike's or Tam's or 3 Rings or Above Category. He won't buy any more gear, order any more coffee, swap notes over any more books. But between all of these stops between San Francisco and Sonoma and Marin, Robin Williams rides on.
Photo of Robin Williams in Tam Bikes shirt courtesy of Tam Bikes.