A Ride With Dennis Christopher

A Ride With Dennis Christopher

I’ve met a lot of famous people. I’ve had lunch with Peter Gabriel. I’ve picked up Ozzy Osbourne from jail. I’ve walked in on a groupie doing to Tommy Lee what you’d expect a groupie to do. I’ve tasted wines with Emilio Estevez, and came away without a scrap of duct tape. It’s not uncommon to want to chat with any famous person you meet. It’s true of me, too. And while we like to observe that big stars are the same as ordinary folk in that they get dressed, eat and poop, the same as you and me, that never stopped me from hoping that in a brief chat with someone we’d find common ground and that this person of stature and importance would conclude that I was … hell, I’m not really sure what I hoped they’d think.

And that’s the thing—meeting famous people never goes the way you think it will.

So it was on the morning following the Masi 90 Celebration that I got up and headed over to the Campagnolo office in Carlsbad for a ride to raise money for the Pablove Foundation. Tom Kattus, Campagnolo’s manager of North America, will be doing the Pablove Across America ride for the second time. What many people don’t know is that Kattus’ son was diagnosed with cancer and thanks to amazing medical care he recovered and is living a happy life. Kattus, like many, sees Pablove as a way to repay an unrepayable debt. Pablove founder and Pablo’s dad, Jeff Castelaz himself, was on hand to talk about the charity’s work and help lead the ride.


The ride had yet another added attraction; Dennis Christopher had pledged to attend and roll out with the group. A ride with Dave bleeping Stohler. Who could pass that up?

Now for a little dose of reality. Christopher doesn’t ride much. He even confessed that for a while some years back he had his beloved Masi from the movie converted into a flat-bar ride. Then one day he realized he’d committed sacrilege and had the original parts reinstalled. But he’s an actor with a bi-coastal life and cycling is recreation when he has time, which isn’t much. That said, he’s become a big believer in ebikes and the promise they hold for keeping aging baby boomers active when they might otherwise just sit around and get fat. So for our ride, he was sporting an ebike from Del Sol, made by Masi’s parent, Haro.

Can I just say he could have been on a kid’s tricycle and I’d have been enthusiastic about the event? I would have. Christopher elected to hold back while the mass of riders rolled out. For a split second an old gene in me fired as I watched the group roll through the parking lot and me standing there with but one foot clipped in. There was a time when I couldn’t have allowed myself to let a group go like that. No matter. Christopher had a friend along and turned to make sure he was ready to roll as well. For me, the whole point was to have a chance to get a shot, if only one, of Christopher out riding a bike.

Why was that such a big deal? I’ve thought about this, about why a guy whose life wasn’t about bicycles mattered so much, about why I should let a whole group of riders (including many friends) roll up the road while I stayed back to get a picture of some actor on a bike. What I realized is that I’d surmised on a very instinctive level that such an image would say much about the enduring pleasure of riding a bike, that it’s something just as fantastic in your 50s as it was in your teens. What could better sell that idea than to capture an image of Dave Stohler out riding all these years later? At a certain level it helps sell the idea that despite much, all is right with the world.

So I had to get that shot.


And then a crazy thing happened. Despite some familiarity with ebikes, Christopher had never used a bike with the Shimano STEPS system and wasn’t getting that hand-of-God boost. We pulled over and I offered to take a look at it. The system, while technically “on” was set to zero boost. I bumped it up for him and like that, we were back on the road.

It was then that he confessed some self-consciousness. He was, after all, the star of a movie famous for its bicycling scenes and he was aware of the image that people have of Stohler, and he didn’t want to do anything that would hurt the mythos of the film or memory of him.

I didn’t want to spend the ride discussing the film. That was the last thing he needed, but I did take a moment to point out the obvious, and that was how by taking the brave step he did to convince Steve Tesich (the writer) and Peter Yates (the director) to allow him to play Dave Stohler different from how the role was written. He’d found something honest and resonant, which was why cyclists so revere the film. It was also why he had nothing to fear. “Trust me,” I said. “You’re one of us.”

“But I’m baby boomer. I’ve got some health issues. I’m not really a cyclist.”

In that instant, I felt the pressure he was under to hold up this icon of cycling as innocence, of the search for identity. That filled me with determination, a determination to just do what I could to help him have a pleasant ride. I mean, I could at least do that for a guy who’d given us all so much, right?

Again, I pointed out the obvious. The group was up the road. There was no one left to impress. I had the picture I wanted and was just hanging out to share a fun ride. We were riding on the coast in northern San Diego County. How could you not have a good time doing that?

And so we began chatting. I was amazed at how thoroughly he had connected with the idea of ebikes and seen an opportunity to advocate for them as a way to help people whose health wasn’t what it once was. He’s committed to riding more often, at least when he’s on the West Coast. His place in New York is a walkup and he’s doubtful of his ability to carry a 40-lb. bike up all those stairs.

The conversation become remarkably intimate as we rolled south along the coast. We talked about the power of ritual and focused thought, whether you call it prayer or meditation. He’s a big believer in spiritual practice, whether you’re properly religious or not. We discussed fear and how it has the power to short-circuit both individuals and societies alike.

I couldn’t help but note as we rode how being on the bike was allowing us to forget about our roles and just talk, how the bike had simplified our encounter and how it was a metaphor for a larger conversation we kept returning to—how the bike could have the power to transform society again, as it did during the 1970s 10-speed boom—but this time with the addition of an electric motor, and in that remarkably circular way all the best stories go, to do it for the same population involved in that bike boom 40 years ago.

As a writer, it’s in my nature to share more of the actual details of our conversation, that whats, the wheres, the hows, the whos, but I’m sensitive to the fact that to the degree that he dropped the facade of star actor, to get there, I’d had to drop the role of writer as well. In that, he placed a certain trust in me and I’d worked hard to create a safe space where he didn’t have to be that guy, if only for an hour or so.

We stopped in Solana Beach to check out an ebike store. Just as he was about to walk in, a guy spied the Cutters jersey he was wearing and stopped him to get a picture. He recognized the film reference, but not the actor. I took his phone, snapped a quick photo and Dennis (by this time we were truly on a first-name basis) walked into the store. Once he was out of earshot, I handed the guy his phone back and said, “You realize who that is, right?”

“No, who is it? I just saw the shirt. Loved that movie, man.”

“That’s the film’s star. That’s Dennis Christopher. He played Dave Stohler. That picture is so much cooler than the one you thought you were taking. That’s THE dude.”

I gave him a thumbs up and turned away while he was still slack-jawed.

Later, back at Campy headquarters, I bumped into a couple of friends who asked where I’d been, why they hadn’t seen me on the ride. I told them I’d stayed with Dennis and we’d ridden together. And then a funny thing happened. My voice went hoarse and all I could do was shake my head in disbelief.

On my drive home I thought of a quote from Cameron Crowe’s film “Almost Famous.” Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing the great music critic Lester Bangs, says,“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.”

It never goes the way you think it will.

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    1. Tom in Albany

      Ozzie and jail were made for each other. And Tommy Lee, well, go watch the movie.

      I want to hear about the lunch with Peter Gabriel!!!

  1. Chris

    Any chance you can review some of these Masi steel bikes, like their Gran Criterium, new upcoming 650b Randonneur, or Giramondo? Masi’s making an effort into a come back and probably deserve the recognition. Especially their 650b Randonneur and how it holds up against other adventure bikes like the new Specialized Sequoia, Soma Wolverine, etc.

  2. silas little

    at over 70 and thankfully not using an ebike yet, great post and hope to see you all on the road between seattle and san fran. i will be the one on a masi cross bike, white beard, wire rims and “boarder’s helmet. sept the oneth to ?

  3. Sebastian

    I greatly admire that Dennis understands what that movie means to many of us, for whatever reason. Being consciously aware of that, and doing his best to not tarnish our fondness, does nothing but garner my respect. Mad props to you both, this was a pleasant read.

  4. Alan Cote

    Fantastic story. Such a great case of how sometimes riding at the back can be more rewarding than riding at the front.

  5. skip1515

    A great read, and wonderful perspective on the movie, Christopher’s willing investment in honoring the film’s message and role, and your role as dialogue partner while on the ride. Thanks.

  6. Donald Dickson

    Curious thing is that Dennis turned the director away from the stereotyped urban Italian-American character they had planned – perhaps because he was all too familiar with it. Since he was born in Philly as Dennis Carrelli, likely he took on an Anglo-sounding artistic name for his acting career and wanted to stay away from his roots. The role as conceived by the director would have taken him back too close to what he was trying to escape. . .

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