By now, you may have heard that Robin Williams was a cycling fanatic. He loved the sport—its history, its pageantry, its champions magnificent and raffish.
He was also a devoted rider, and adored the machinery. Over the years, Williams accumulated a substantial bicycle collection—what Jay Leno does with cars, Williams did with bikes.
"He had everything," said Chad Nordwall, owner of Above Category, a high-end bicycle retailer based in Marin County, Calif., where Williams was a devoted client. "Everything."
Williams collected bikes of all types, but he was passionate about one brand in particular: Pegoretti. If you know bicycles, you probably know Pegorettis. Custom-made in Italy by master builder Dario Pegoretti, who built frames for cycling icons such as Miguel Indurain, they are wild pieces of art, almost always steel, colorfully painted by hand. They're also serious road machines. Imagine riding a high-performance Basquiat. That's a Pegoretti.
One day Williams was visiting Above Category when Nordwall mentioned that the North American Handmade Bicycle Show was coming to Portland, Ore., in early 2008. A show like NAHBS was catnip for an aficionado like Williams: an international gathering of the great bike craftspeople, showing off their glorious machines. In the bike mecca of Portland, no less.
Better yet, it sounded like Dario Pegoretti—who had been battling cancer—might be there.
Williams wanted to go, but the show was months away. Nordwall assumed Williams would wind up getting consumed with his work and be too busy. Closer to the date, Nordwall told Williams he would start looking into plane tickets. Just in case he still wanted to go.
No, no, no, you don't need to do that, Williams said, according to Nordwall. We can take my plane.
And that was how Robin Williams ended up on a plane to Portland where he would meet Dario Pegoretti.
Back in Italy, a recovering Pegoretti was on the road back from fighting lymphoma. His last chemotherapy treatment had been in December 2007. He was exhausted, his body worn. But there was a call for him to come to the U.S., asking him to make an appearance at the handmade bike show.
And that was how Dario Pegoretti ended up on a plane to Portland where he would meet Robin Williams.
Williams's arrival at the 2008 NAHBS was low-key, but word began to spread. "I heard a rumor he was at the show," recalled the show's founder, Don Walker, an esteemed bike builder himself. "I didn't know it was true until I saw him come around the corner. I was like, 'Oh my gosh, it's Robin Williams.'"
A buzz began to build inside the Oregon Convention Center. Williams visited many booths at the show, including Walker's. Wherever he went, he posed for photos, asked about bikes, inquired about frames in his 54-centimeter size. He already knew many of the bike companies. "He really loved that part of it," said Nordwall.
But before he did anything, Williams was brought to meet Pegoretti. There are photographs of Williams inspecting a collection of eccentric frames, a tall, beaming Pegoretti looking on with pride.
That night, Williams and Pegoretti went out for dinner with a small group that included Nordwall and Giorgio Andretta, the owner of Gita Sporting Goods, the company that distributes Pegorettis in the U.S.
"He talked to me about my situation, and gave me a lot of strength," Dario Pegoretti said from Italy on Wednesday.
At dinner, the virtuoso comic actor and the virtuoso frame-builder talked about bikes, but they also talked about things besides bikes. Williams spoke a little Italian, and his Italian was pretty good. He recalled his visits to Rome, about once meeting Fellini. To everyone's delight, by the end of the night, he also did an extended Pegoretti impression for the table.
"I was just rolling on the floor," said one of the dinner guests, Nelson Frazier, a rep for Gita. "It's the only time I've seen Dario pretty much speechless."
"It was really a beautiful night," Pegoretti said. "I have so many beautiful memories."
In the years since, Williams would frequently be seen riding and at races. He became friends with top pros and teams. Not long ago, Team Sky sent him an entire kit—exactly what its pros wear at the Tour de France, with his name printed on the side of the jersey. Back in Marin, Nordwall would often find Williams on a local ride called the Paradise Loop, often atop a Pegoretti. That's what he kept in his house, Nordwall said, ready to go out the door when he needed to go on a ride.
"The best part of my job is to know that people can be happy riding my bicycles," Pegoretti said. News of the actor's death had left him stunned.
"I'm completely sad about this," Pegoretti said.
Several years ago, I interviewed Williams about a stand-up comedy tour he was doing, and he spoke about the "combination of serenity and exhilaration" that came from making people laugh. When the interview was over, I asked him about cycling. He talked about the sport, his dedication to riding, his bikes. He mentioned Pegoretti.
I asked Robin Williams why he loved riding a bicycle so much. I'll always remember his answer, because it was wonderful and true.
He said it was the closest you can get to flying.