Bill Walton during a cycling trip with CTS

Bill Walton’s Lessons on Joy and Bike Riding

Our friend Bill Walton passed away last weekend and many of the CTS Coaches and CTS Athletes who rode with him and got to know him have been sharing their memories on social media. Back in 2013, CTS Founder Chris Carmichael wrote a Road Bike Action Magazine column about riding with Bill. The gentlest and happiest of giants joined us to ride every mile of multiple editions of the Tour of California and USA Pro Challenge stage races. We got to know him on and off the bike and those relationships continued on for years afterward. To celebrate the positive impact Bill Walton had on the world, here is Chris’s column from 2013 – unchanged and still in present tense. 

By Chris Carmichael,

I’ve always said that cycling – particularly competitive cycling – is a small person’s sport. If you can produce a lot of power and only have a small body to carry uphill, you can be a very good cyclist. Bill Walton is most definitely not a small man. At 6-feet 11 inches, the now 60-year-old former NBA All-Star is a towering and inspiring figure on a bicycle. He’s not particularly fast, but in a lot of other ways he’s the cyclist we should all strive to be.

I had the pleasure of riding with Bill during the 2013 USA Pro Challenge Race Experience in Colorado, on of the events on the CTS Epic Endurance Bucket List. He was a member of Team CTS, a group of amateur athletes who rode every stage of the race with a head start on the pro peloton, ate their meals with the pro teams, stayed in the team hotels, and enjoyed pro-level support on and off the bike.

Bill Walton with CTS Athletes at the finish of the 2013 USA Pro Challenge Experience.

This column is usually about the science or specifics of training, but being a great cyclist really begins with inspiration, so I want to share some of the inspirational things I learned riding with Bill:

“I love my bike.”

He really does. Some stages at the USA Pro Challenge were nearly 120 miles long with huge, high-altitude mountain passes. There were days Bill was on his bike for more than 10 hours, but he finished each stage. Whether it was hot, windy, or raining; and regardless of how long or steep the climbs were, he just kept pedaling. As long as there’s enough food and water available, I’m pretty certain he would happily ride from dawn to dusk.

When I asked Bill about his interest in cycling, his eyes lit up, he smiled broadly, and he said, “I love my bike!” I’ve been a cyclist for more than 40 years; it’s been a constant in my life for so long that I don’t think about whether I love it or not. But hearing him say it, and knowing how sincerely he meant it, reminded me that we all started with that “I love my bike” feeling. Sometimes we forget that and get too wrapped up in power numbers, fitness markers, KOMs, and carbon envy. During the tough miles during the Pro Challenge Race Experience, Bill’s simple mantra came back to me and immediately brought me back to the simply enjoying the fact I was on my bike.

Bill Walton and Chris Carmichael during 2013 USA Pro Challenge

“The bike is my gym, my wheelchair, and my church.”

Basketball was very hard on Bill’s body. His wrists don’t work well, he has fused vertebrae in his back, he has fused ankles, and he endured many fractures and surgeries on his feet. Walking long distances is painful, and so is standing for long periods. But he’s an athlete and the bike provides an opportunity for him to work hard, cover long distances comfortably, and satisfy his passion for sport.

I see a lot of athletes who find excuses for why they can’t or won’t perform, and we all face our share of challenges, but if a man as battered as Bill Walton can ride more than 500 miles in a week and smile through every one of them, then you and I can find solutions that keep us on our bikes and riding strong.

Whatever works

Dr. Andy Pruitt at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine is fond of saying that the bike is adjustable and body is adaptable, and no one epitomizes that sentiment more than Bill Walton. He rides a huge custom-built bike with a 36-spokes in his front wheel and 40 spokes in the rear. Because of his fused ankles, he can’t use clipless pedals, so he rode the entire USA Pro Challenge on flat pedals with sneakers. Because of the fused vertebrae in his back he has a very upright position, he’s not worried about being aero, but his equipment and his position work for him.

Bill Walton riding his bike during the 2014 USA Pro Challenge Experience with CTS.

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The lesson for the rest of us is that we are lucky to be cyclists and in the end being a cyclist is what’s important. A lot of cyclists feel pressured to achieve a certain position on the bike, use specific equipment, or even achieve a certain level of fitness in order to be a “real” cyclist. But being a cyclist has nothing to do with how low your stem is or how high your power-to-weight ratio is. The only requirements for being a cyclist are to love riding your bike and to use whatever works to keep you on your bike and make riding comfortable and enjoyable.

The best cyclists I’ve known over the past 40 years in this sport are the ones who are happiest when they are on two wheels. Training and nutrition and a great plan are all necessary components for being successful as a cyclist, but the things that separate and elevate the great from the good are the passion and joy for riding. If riding for a week with the biggest man in a small man’s sport, it is that the greatest risk for a cyclist is getting stuck in the minutia of data and equipment and vanity, and thereby losing touch with the “I love my bike” passion that drew us to this great sport in the first place.


Bill Walton riding away

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Comments 15

  1. To really appreciate Bill Walton, and for some true inspiration, watch the movie “The Other Dream Team.” Probably on Netflix or youtube.

  2. I first remembered Bill as one of the first white basketball player who succeeded in the sport back in the 70s. Secondly, as a true Grateful Deadhead who followed Jerry’s troupe whenever he could. Third, as an avid cyclist who really enjoyed the sport. RIP Legend!!!!

  3. He joined me on a ride once and we rode together for about ten minutes before our paths split. He was a warm and friendly everyday kind of guy. I realized later why he seemed so familiar.

  4. Thank you for sharing the info about Bill Walton. What an inspiration! My condolences to his family and the CTS family. I have always appreciated the messages. I have been too poor to afford a coach. Now I am nearly 75 and too old. But your coaching messages have always kept me going. Thanks so very much.

  5. This man was not only a great athlete, he was one of the happiest persons ever! His gift was making others feel good and to ride bikes with him was an honor. RIP big man. Thanks Chris Carmichael for all the great bike riding with Bill. Bob & I sending 🙏 to Lori and his family.

  6. Thank you for reprinting the letter. Very inspirational.
    Condolences For the Walton Family and the CTS family. You are all very much

  7. For all of you around the country who were lucky enough to know, ride or talk with him, my condolences.
    Thought winning two titles was tough. What a beast he was and as kind as he was tough. Beautiful man and gone too soon.
    Sending love to his wife, four boys and the rest of his family.

  8. Fond memory of Bill, featured rider at El Tour de Tucson, who came to the dinner with his special “tall” chair.

  9. Loved reading this and always loved having Bill and CTS at our races in California and Colorado. RIP to one of a unique. Sure he will be missed by all incl the team at CTS and Chris

  10. What a great guy. I will always remember the few days I got to spend riding with him in Aspen. Thanks Chris for the opportunity. I really appreciate the chance to get to know him a little bit.

    1. Rip big red. My condolences 🙏🏿 to the Walton family …being a very tall cyclist myself l knew I wasn’t the only one. As we say the cycling community is small but very big indeed

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