Rare Groove: The Bill Walton Chronicles
When it comes to sportswriting, David Halberstam resides in a world of his own.
Halberstam penned one of my all time favorite works of journalism, The Amateurs: The Story of Four Young Men and Their Quest for an Olympic Gold Medal, a book which seemed to leap off the shelves of a dusty used book store collection and soon became spot welded into my cerebellum back in my high school days. I’ve been a fan of rowing ever since, even dabbled in the sport while I was abroad in Ireland during college (training with a few freaks, and I mean freaks, of nature on the Irish national team), and the recently concluded Beijing Olympics again sparked my memories of the sport (and of The Amateurs). If my body was the archetypical rower’s physique who knows what direction I would have taken, but stubby legs and a dearth of opportunity stateside torpedoed that proposition.
But the sportswriting which Halberstam is likely most know for is The Breaks of the Game, the embedded chronicle of the 1979-1980 Portland Trailblazers’ tumultuous NBA season, a book recently brought to my attention by one of the most fascinatingly cryptic and esoteric insider sports blogs anywhere: Free Darko. And little did I know, tucked away near the book’s conclusion, would be a single sentence which got me thinking about Bill Walton:
One night a San Diego sportswriter, covering a bicycle race at a local arena [the San Diego velodrome] because Olympic skater Eric Heiden was supposed to be competing, was astounded to see Bill Walton there, careening around the track at breakneck speed. pg. 347.
The iconoclastic Bill Walton–champion collegiate and professional basketball player, vegetarian, peace activist, pot smoker, Deadhead, musician–has been and always will be a cyclist, too. Poking around a bit online led me to the introduction of Walton’s book, Bill Walton’s Total Book of Bicycling, in which his fascination with cycling was fully elaborated (including his time spent training with future 1980 Olympic track cyclists in San Diego).
My first derailleur bike was a green Bertin, which I bought because it was the tallest bike I could find - about a 25 1/2″ frame, I think. It came from Hans Ort’s Westwood bike shop, and they fixed me up with an extra-long seatpost which let me stretch out my legs for the first time in years. It also gave me a pretty radical position on the bike, since the handlebars were about five inches below the seat. After buying the Bertin, I took to dropping in at Hans’ shop when I had free time, and it was there that I found out about more serious cycling. I went out on rides with the guys who were racing, and through this I learned to respect the sport and the people involved in it. On the bike I was no star, just one of the group.
In college I got in the habit of riding quite frequently, especially in summer. Usually 40-60 mile rides, long enough to loosen up and unwind. I would do that probably four days a week during the summer. A couple of hundred miles a week, probably. I never consciously rode for fitness, but I know now that those rides were very beneficial in a variety of ways. I’m sure they gave me stamina and leg strength without putting stress on my knees and feet, and it never felt like work. It was the kind of activity that settled me down. I’ve always had to respect what a good ride can do for my mood. Going out on a bike is my idea of an excellent way to enjoy a sunny day. Being outside, getting into the movement and joy of the bike - it’s very satisfying to me, that feeling of freedom.
I took advantage of something else about the bicycle then, too: the privacy. There were a lot of basketball fans at UCLA and it could be difficult to cope with this at times. Between playing basketball and attending classes, I needed to get away, so I rode around campus rather walking. On the bike I was a lot less vulnerable, you might say; I was moving too fast for conversation. The bike gave me time by myself to digest the experiences I was having, and this was really important to me.
I finally hammered that poor Bertin to the point where I needed something new, and was lucky enough to meet a British professional rider named Norman Hill. He runs the Vancouver velodrome now, but at the time he was associated with the Falcon team. He arranged for me to get a road and a track bike. These Falcons were a necessity, actually; my size and weight were wrong for any stock bike. The were made of stronger tubing and had less flex; and I could feel the difference, especially when hammering a big gear or climbing hills off the saddle. My first ride with the track bike was a completely new experience, and I found I was still learning a lot about bicycles. These bikes were still a little on the small side, though; manufacturers aren’t geared up for out-size frames, basically. I measure out to a 29 1/2” frame, which creates all sorts of problems for the builder.
I might still be riding those Falcons except for a coincidence that brought me in contact with the 1980 Olympic track team, which moved to San Diego for quite some period of time to be near our velodrome. Harvey Nitz, Eric Heiden Mark Gorski, Brent Emery, John Beckmann, Dave Grylls - I can’t remember all the names - they were at a hotel near my house, and I’d go out with them, riding my Falcons. I learned a lot chasing them down the road, and missed them when they left. At that time, Eddy Borysewicz, the National coach, did me an important favor, by measuring me and arranging for Ted Kirkbride, who also built the American Masi bicycles, to build me a pair of bikes that really fit. Ted sent to England for special heavy tubing normally used on tandem bicycles, then built me both a road and a track bike, and they were just fine. It way my first experience with what it’s like to be on a bicycle that really fits and has good rigidity, and I can vouch for the advantages of this.
I’m not sure what was in the water in California which led freaky big, ex-UCLA centers to so completely and publicly embrace cross training (remember Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s big screen debut?), but I think it’s pretty cool that Bill Walton to this day is still a fixture, a rather unmistakeable fixture, on the Southern California cycling scene. And if Cycle Sport ever brings back their Rare Groove series of features, Bill Walton would be a shoe-in for inclusion.
Here’s some additional Bill Walton references for your perusing pleasure:
- Dave Moulton has the full skinny about the Ted Kirkbride-built custom frames. Damn that bike is HUGE!
- From the Sports Illustrated vault: a sportswriter tags along (sort of) on a 2-day, 150-mile bicycle ride with Bill Walton in 1977. There’s shades of Svein Tuft tucked away in there.
- A bit more about Walton’s 150-mile ride, which was captured in a documentary.
- Even more about the documentary…
- Walton has ridden the last three editions of the Death Valley Century.
- A 1974 Time article with mentions of cycling in general, Walton’s racing aspirations, and mentor Norman Hill.
- Random Bill Walton sighting.