Risk

April 26, 2017 § 8 Comments

I hope you like reading about Steve Tilford and the things he said, wrote, and did. Since his death I can’t stop thinking about him, which is weird because I only met him twice. The more I read, combing through his War and Peace of-a-blog, the more things stand out and make me think.

Steve wrote a lot about risk, indirectly and indirectly, something especially germane to cyclists in general and road cyclists in particular. Here’s one of his quotes:

We hate to admit it, but we don’t have control of our lives minute by minute. This is the way in bicycle racing. And in the way in life. The best way I know to do exceptional things in the sport, or in life, is to live a bit on the risky side. Get out of your comfort level. Raise your comfort level. In racing, hopefully, this will become your new base, your new comfort level, and this will allow you to progress in the sport. In life, it is a way to gain new experiences and to realize that the barriers that were holding you back were really not there at all.

Steve was superficially the archetypal big risk taker, or so it seems when you read through the things he experienced, tried, failed at, and conquered. But in the most basic way he wasn’t a big risk taker. He was a very careful guy. He did things after careful preparation, he never leaped blindly with no plan or idea or concern about the possible outcomes, and he always reevaluated and used what he learned to hone his approach the next time.

For him, risk wasn’t something to be avoided. It was something to be embraced, analyzed, and wary of, all at the same time.

Steve engaged in a hugely risky sport and survived it by constantly reducing risk. Checking equipment, evaluating the course, evaluating himself, evaluating the competition, taking calculated risks … all these things allowed him to thrive and survive.

What’s interesting is that Steve died not as the result of an incident on his bike, but while driving. In a way, this kind of makes sense. Driving is the riskiest thing any of us will ever do. No matter how good you are, how careful you are, or how experienced you are, Interstate travel over long distances carries with it so many risks that are so difficult to mitigate, especially when you do it for the millions of miles that Steve did. Crisscrossing the US in a van is so boring compared to bike racing, but it was ultimately the hazard that ended Steve’s life. Weather, night time, trucks, and so many other factors all came into play at just the wrong time.

If it had happened to someone else, Steve would never have concluded that we should stop driving, or that we should quit racing, or that we should quit taking risks.

Instead, he would have learned from it and not made the same mistake twice. He didn’t get a do-over. But we do.

END

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Fondo worlds ?!?

April 22, 2017 § 8 Comments

The UCI did away with masters road world championships and USAC is now encouraging riders to race qualifying gran fondos in order to have a shot at becoming a “gran fondo world champion.”

At first I wondered if they were doing this to fatally poison the delusion of masters racers. Maybe they were thinking that no self-respecting delusional old person would call himself a “gran fondo” anything. By ruining the competition pyramid so that “mature” riders are no longer the base, maybe they were trying to get the competitive focus back where it belongs, on young people.

But then I realized that road racing is still falling off a cliff at the rate of 32.2 feet/sec2, and that’s not going to change by jiggering around the titles for old fart race winners.

Then I thought that maybe someone got really pissed at all these masters world champions. I know several masters world champs and they can smash me without even trying. But maybe it rubbed someone the wrong way.

Maybe they were thinking that a world champion by definition shouldn’t be delimited by the word “masters”? Just like a true World Series of baseball shouldn’t be delimited by the geography of North America, maybe someone got upset about sticking the word “masters” in there next to “world champion.”

Or, I thought, maybe someone got ticked off that the masters worlds champions wear the same arm bands as UCI pro world champs, kind of like trademark infringement. Someone out there in pro UCI Land was afraid the masses will think there’s some equivalency between a rider who wins the elite pro road race and a grandpa who wins the 65+ masters leaky prostate road race?

Perhaps they were upset that when you win a masters world title in anything, you’re not winning based on ability, you’re winning it on ability plus the artificial limiter of age. It’s a stacked deck, a grossly un-level playing field because you’ve excluded reams of people who could beat you like a drum, people who are so much better than you, you’d be dropped after mile one.

They might have complained that if you’re going to have world championships based on age, why not also do them based on race, or native language? Or better yet, further refine it based on weight + age, like Strava. And why stop there? Why not name people world champions of certain Strava segments? Maybe they were scared we would have thousands of world champions every year, each one entitled to wear the same UCI stripes that Eddy once wore. “Wanky McWankster, UCI World Champion of The Driveway In My Gated Community Segment.” Bands, please.

However, none of those explanations panned out. I think the UCI looked at the amazing number of people who do grand fondues and decided they wanted a piece of the action. That certainly fits with USAC’s new motto of “be everything to everyone.” And as goofy as being a fondue champ sounds to the average bike racer, most fondue participants don’t race bikes at all and don’t want to.

They want to do grand fondues, and to them it’s way more prestigious to win the NYC GF than the East Dumblecrook Jakeleg Crit.

What’s awesome about the new Gran Fondo Worlds is that the words “grand fondue” put an emphasis on what the participants of these events really are: Hobby cyclists who are very serious and very good, and especially good when compared to people near them in age. Having the words “gran fondo” make it clear that no matter how seriously the athlete takes it, in the end, this is all just for fun. Gran fun.

No cyclist I know is going to brag about being a grand fondue world champion. Instead, they’ll do the race, get the result they get, and come back from what was a fun vacation in Italy or wherever with their attitude in the right place: They did a good race, got a good result, and are ready to move on to the next one. In fact, I’m doing Phil’s Cookie Fondue in October.

Minus the arm bands. Please.

END

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Washed up seals

April 20, 2017 § 15 Comments

 

“When I was watching, I almost couldn’t understand how that small gap could be so nearly impossible to close. But I did understand because that gap has been in front of me so many times before. The cool thing is when you do close it.” — Steve Tilford.

I had great legs for Telo last night, which I chalk up to the last two weeks of time-trail training. It seems that 60-minute efforts are thoroughly miserable but they make you stronger. And they do help you close a gap.

Before the race I told Derek that I had great legs. “The first rule of having great legs is to never tell anyone you have great legs.”

“My legs feel awful,” I said.

“Really?” Derek asked.

Bike racing has lots of rules. One of the rules is don’t buy a poster from http://www.allposters.com unless you see it first. I have always liked Albert Bierstadt even though he is considered hokey by real art lovers. His work is overdone and drippy and maudlin, supposedly. I love his pictures because he really did paint the beauty of the West. If you think it’s overdone, that’s because you’ve never seen nature in its grandeur. He’s not overdone, you’re underdone.

Anyway, I bought one of his paintings called “Seal Rock.” I bought the poster for $10 because the painting’s $7,900,000 tag was out of my price range. My daughter and wife immediately said it looked horrible, and it was a pretty lousy reproduction, as if someone had fallen asleep with their finger on the “saturation” button. Still, I wasn’t about to throw away ten bucks so I hung it on the wall.

My daughter looked at it. “Well at least it fits with the other cycling stuff.”

“It does?”

“Aren’t you always talking about clubbing seals?”

She had a great point, and using that clever reasoning we now have another cycling work of art to go with my 1990 World Championship banner and my poster from the 1957 worlds held in Spain. So cycling poster purchase Rule #1 is Make Sure It Is Related to Cycling. And this one was because, seals.

There weren’t many baby seals at Telo yesterday. Mostly they were people I’ve never beaten before. But since I had great legs I planned to beat them anyway.

“What’s your plan?” Eric asked me.

“Hammer from the gun.”

“That’s not a winning plan.”

“What do you suggest?”

“Well, if Frexit shows up, he’s going to win. And Josh or Derek will make the split with him. So one of us covers Josh and the other covers Derek. That way one of us will make the split. They’ll still beat you, of course.”

“Makes sense. What about just following Frexit?”

“He will tire you out then counter while you’re putting a lung back in and you’ll miss the split. Like every week.”

“Okay.”

The race started and we went easy for three laps. Then Aaron strung it out. It was a small group, maybe 25 riders, which is bad at Telo because there’s nowhere to hide. The headwind stretch was its usual howling headwind. My legs felt beyond good, like I could go with anything.

Daniel Park started the attacks, and pretty soon Frexit went. I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm so I forgot about marking Derek and Josh and went with him. It was hard but I was okay. Then there were a few more counters and we were about thirty minutes in and suddenly I wasn’t okay. Just as I came off the front a huge counter came with Frexit, Derek, Eric, Josh, Bader, and everyone else in a line, one of those grim-faced lines.

I got dropped and was in a chase group of about ten riders. We were all pinned. The leaders were about fifteen riders or so and they simply vanished. I recovered a little and started rotating hard along with Jon Paris and Tony Wang. Then Scott Torrence began putting in some massive efforts. He had been following wheels and had a lot in the tank. He finally put in one huge pull about the time that the leaders sat up.

That effort closed the gap and as we rushed up onto the tail of the leaders I could see that they were all sitting up and gassed. It was a case of a break going so hard it tired itself out, or it had too many people to get organized, or both. We caught them just before the right-hander into the driving headwind, so I swung wide and kept punching, which turned out to be the winning move, just not for me.

I was now in a break with Derek and Attila, who is ostensibly my teammate, but neither one of us can sprint. Then David Wells came across a hellish gap solo which made it 3-to-1 but still terrible odds because although Heavy D has a good finish, he’s not as fast as Derek.

We were in tactical hell. If I quit driving the break we’d get caught by Frexit, Brexit, Aaron, and Eric and my meaningless fourth place would go to meaningless-minus-four-places eighth. It’s funny the kind of loser math you do when you’re about to get your ass kicked. But if I kept my foot on the gas Derek would cream us in the sprint. He had no incentive to drive the break because he had two teammates in back, one of whom could likely close the deal. However, he wanted to keep the break going just enough to stay away from Frexit, who’d beaten him soundly last week, especially since the chance of losing to the three of us on Team Lizard Collectors was zero.

This is where if I’d have been a bike racer I would have taken the risk of getting caught and forced Derek to work harder. Instead I attacked him, which he easily followed, and neither of my teammates was able to counter, so we were back where we started, with the added disadvantage of having removed all doubt from Derek’s mind as to our respective energy levels.

On the final lap it was hopeless, so I told Attila I’d lead him out but he’d have to close the deal. That was wasted air, of course, because the only deal he closed was beating me for third. Derek attacked before the end of the chicane and came through the last turn clear. Heavy D gave him a run for a little while but Derek’s kick was too much.

The rest of the field, at least the part that hadn’t quit, finished in twos and threes. Everyone’s face looked green. I’m certain that’s the first time I’ve ever beaten Frexit or Brexit. Even though it seemed successful from the vantage point of instigating the break, driving the break, and getting one of my best Telo finishes ever, it was still loser math, fourth out of four with three teammates in the break.

I’ll keep doing the TT practice and see if that helps. That’s the first time I’ve made the split at Telo in about a year. But as Derek likes to say, the determining factor in winning any race isn’t how you ride, it’s who shows up. Maybe next time I’ll send out a group email telling everyone that the race has been moved to Wednesday.

END

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#Frexit

April 14, 2017 § 10 Comments

Another frustrating Telo Tuesday. Not that that’s unusual. They have been consecutively frustrating now for about ten years. Not much reason for that to change.

Evens Stievenart, our adopted French hammer, is one of the best riders in California and one of the top marathon-endurance riders in the world. He won the 24 Hours of LeMans last year, bike version, and has his sights trained on 2017, too. Glad I’m not the target.

He showed up at Telo, our Tuesday night worlds, and said he was very tired. “I’m very tired,” he said. That didn’t mean anyone else had a chance of winning, it meant he would win with different tactics.

His usual tactic is to attack into the wind each lap. Finally people get tired of riding in the gutter and they give up. Then he rides off by himself or with one or two others. Then he beats them in the sprint.

My problem is that I’m not fast enough to follow the crazy hard attacks when the good guys are fresh, and I’m not strong enough to break them when they’re tired. My bandwidth is straight up mediocre.

Derek Brauch was there; he’s never an instigator, that’s not his style. Instead he’s a conservative. He doesn’t waste energy, reads the race, and invariably goes with the winning move. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him miss it at Telo except for one race last year when he said, “Go with Cowan if he attacks from the gun.”

Cowan attacked from the gun, I didn’t go with him, and “Head Down James” stayed away solo for the entire sixty minutes. The races are always harder and better when Velo Club LaGrange shows up, that’s for sure.

Last week I had followed every one of Evens’s attacks, about twelve of them. He finally got tired of me shadowing him, sat up and drifted to the back. Then he attacked on the final turn and smoked everybody in the finish, everyone who hadn’t crashed, that is. Afterwards he texted me, “You followed me so much I almost called the police for stalking.”

He has a good sense of humor.

This week I had crazy good legs, which is always a bad sign. It means I will squander them in pointless attacks, which I did, starting with an attack in the neutral zone with Michael Smith. We got caught after a few laps, then he broke a seatpost and was done.

I kept attacking but Evens and Derek were filing their nails. When I sat up for a second, after about thirty minutes, Evens attacked and took Derek with him. We never saw them again. Evens did most of the work then outsmarted and outsprinted Derek in the finish. I don’t know how you outsmart Derek. He’s the savviest guy out there, period.

No one wanted to chase because, I don’t know. Aaron Wimberley was there and he had a teammate up the road. Eric Anderson was there but he wasn’t going to chase the break so Aaron could sprint him fresh. Josh Alverson would normally have bridged solo but not today. In most races you know when the winning move goes because everyone kind of heaves a collective sigh. The fight goes out of the group.

With four laps to go I thought we had three so I figured I could at least give my teammates a three-lap leadout. I wondered at the end of lap three why no one was coming around. “Dang, maybe they can’t.”

But of course they could. I saw Emily holding the one-to-go card and was gassed. I probably made a d’oh-ing sound. They kicked me out the back on the headwind section and I finished last. I learned again that if I have good legs I should ride at 80 percent and wait.

It also occurred to me that if you have to learn the same lesson over and over and over, maybe you aren’t really learning.

END

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Aim for where he was

April 8, 2017 § 9 Comments

This is what they always told me about avoiding crashes and why I rarely avoided them. “Aim for where the dude who’s falling was, because he won’t be there anymore by the time you get there.”

Instead, I always watch crashes like a fascinated little kid with a front row seat, trying and failing to will away that I’m a grown man with brittle bones and the front row seat is moving, rapidly, into the vortex of the blood bath.

Last Tuesday after Telo finished we were all standing around the prostrate bodies and charred carbon frames that were 100% pure carbon doing what you always do when your moaning or inert friend is laying in a twisted lump of bloody lycra, that is, you ask meaningless questions like “Where does it hurt?” and the friend urgles or maybe says “Unnnnnh,” or his eyes flutter like he’s in the middle of a seizure and as red seeps from an ear he moans “Everywhere.” Everyone is trying to figure out who has insurance, what the deductible will be, and whether it’s better to limp over to the hospital a few blocks up and sever the spinal cord or call an ambulance.

I was misdiagnosing all of Patrick’s injuries. “You were knocked out, dude, you have a severe concussion.”

He looked at me, lying on his back. “I never lost consciousness. I remember everything.”

“Oh. Well, your head took a huge whack. You still have a big concussion even though you didn’t black out.”

“I landed on my shoulder. My helmet isn’t even scratched.”

I helped him to his feet. “Where does it hurt?”

“My shoulder,” he said.

“You have a broken collarbone,” I said with great certitude.

“Then why can I do this?” He raised his arm.

“Fuck it dude, glad you’re not hurt.”

He winced in excruciating pain and clutched his shoulder.

I ambled over to the curb where other wounded warriors were sitting and evaluating their injuries, and way more importantly, the damage to their bicycles. Only Boozy P., who hadn’t fallen, seemed unconcerned. I wondered why until Alx Bns noted that “It takes a kind of genius to have a bike repair shop adjacent to the race course.”

Aaron was holding his left hand as his index finger swelled up into a giant Italian sausage. “Is it broken?” I asked.

“No,” he said, grabbing it by the end and yanking it so that it made a grinding and cracking noise as it snapped back into place.

“How’s your bike?” I asked.

“Dunno,” he said, with most of his butt cheek grated into fine mince and hanging out of his vaporized shorts. “All’s I know is my hand hurts.”

I was concerned about his bike, not because it was damaged, but because as we had come through the final turn on the final lap everything had seemed so perfect. Being on Aaron’s wheel at the end of Telo was nirvana. It guaranteed you weren’t going to win, because his finishing kick was impossible to come around, but it also guaranteed you weren’t going to fall off your bicycle, because nowhere in a bike race is safer on the last turn of the last lap than Aaron’s wheel.

Why? Because Aaron never has bicycle falling off incidents. No one has ever seen one. In fact, no one has even heard of one. Instead, people have seen magician skills, Aaron vanishing on the other side of ten-bike pile-ups unscathed, Aaron going sideways through a slamming garage door of falling racers, Aaron bunny hopping heads and butts and backs and airborne bicycles, Aaron somehow being the one who dodged the bullet when everyone else was buried in a shallow grave.

So it was with detached intellectual curiosity that I saw him come through the turn, my wheel just barely overlapping his on the outside, and then to see his bike begin to slide. As I waited for the application of the magic Aaron essence that would extricate him, and therefore me, from what was going to otherwise be a nasty bicycle falling off incident, I noted that no magic wand was ever waved. Was Aaron really going to fall off his bicycle? End times.

His bike continued to slide until his tires were no longer touching Mother Earth and, amazingly, a massive shower of sparks flew up in front of me, like July. “Hmm,” I thought, only partially considering that the next thing about to happen was going to be me hitting the pavement, “his bike is obviously not made of 100% pure carbon. Fake carbon. Alternative carbon.”

In the next prolonged time-lapse sequence, his body and bike were now in front of mine, and it occurred to me that NOW would be a great time to begin considering my next phase of this unplanned ballet. Should I tuck? Should I hit the front eject brake? Should I jerk my handlebars hard to the left? Should I aim where he wasn’t? He seemed to not be everywhere except in front of me, so there were actually a lot of places to aim for, but that assumed I could aim.

There were too many decisions to make and too little time, so I did what I had learned to do at the dentist’s office as a small child, which is close my eyes and prepare for the pain. When I opened them I was past the carnage and on the straightaway with no one in front except Frexit, King Harold, and someone else.

Behind me was the sound of more carbon and hard-earned dollars hitting the asphalt. A few riders who had survived the carnage were now sprunting full gas for sixth or seventh. They could do a u-turn and see how their wounded friends were faring after crossing the finish line. I watched them speed to the line, focused like granny glasses on nothing but the end.

Bike racing.

END

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Workin’ the mouth

April 7, 2017 § 14 Comments

I’ve always maintained that industrial park crit racing is really boring for spectators. A huge mass of people go round and round, they’re harder to distinguish than fall warblers, then someone shoots out at the end, throws her hands up, and the race is over.

Who’d want to watch that for fifty minutes, or even fifteen?

But then I thought about America’s most popular sport, throwball. The players are indistinguishable if you’re a neophyte. What they are doing is incomprehensible. Some umpire dude is constantly blowing a whistle and throwing a flag. Everyone suddenly decides to give the throwball to the other team. Someone runs across the finish line. Another dude kicks the throwball through the fork tines. Weird point combinations of six, three, one, sometimes two, appear at random. WTF?

And for all that, people go ape-fuggin-shit and hundreds of millions of dollars change hands online.

What do they got that we don’t got?

Then it hit me. Announcers. They got announcers. Some of them are great. Some of them are awful. All of them have mountains of crap to say. One dude talks about how four seasons ago one throwball dude dragged down another throwball dude. Another talks about somebody’s fifth knee operation. Some other dude compares one throwball team to the Pittsburgh Flintstones’ Stone Curtain from the 70s. It may be drivel, but it’s informative drivel.

But bike races? Crits have four types of announcers:

  1. This is my playlist. Hope you like the 70s.
  2. Nathan Newbie. “Hey everbody!! (Is this mic live)?”
  3. Jaded Fuddy Duddy. (“Looks like you all missed the break. Hahahaha.”)
  4. Awesome Announcer (“You’re not paying me? See ya.”)

Numbers one and two are self-explanatory and common. And guess what? Spectators don’t have to come to your industrial park crit to listen to K.C. and the Sunshine Band.

Number three is some dude who’s been around forever, is sarcastic and cynical, and when he pays attention, if at all, it’s for the pro race. Men’s.

This year the CBR Crit took a different approach. It got Rahsaan Bahati, David Worthington, and David Wells to create an actual commentating crew.

AND IT PAID THEM.

These three guys are all smart, glib, and experienced announcers, but most importantly they know the racers and they know how to race. Whether it’s the Cat 5 Crit or the Masters 55+, they call out names, real names. None of that “Here comes number 69 leading the pack!”

It makes all the difference to a mom, dad, brother, girlfriend, sister, or boyfriend to hear a name called out. And it makes all the difference to all the spectators to hear experienced racers break down what’s going on, lap by lap. Analyzing riders’ strengths, speculating about weaknesses, commenting on strategy, filling the time with anecdotes and explanations makes these races become for the spectator what they are for the racer: Fun.

It’s easy to get great bike race announcers, but after a day or two spent in the hot sun shouting yourself hoarse for eight hours it transitions from “fun” and “helping the community” to “work.” Professionalizing it by paying the announcers for what they bring to the event is one of the best investments a promoter can make.

END

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Exit, stage center

April 6, 2017 § 91 Comments

Steve Tilford didn’t go quietly into that dark night, and he certainly didn’t exit stage left. He went out from the center in a thrashing, twisting howl of shredded metal, his van hurtling through the body of an overturned semi-tractor trailer in a winter storm on I-70. The last act of Steve’s life, one marked by countless falls, broken bones, and injuries, was a massive freeway crash.

Steve Tilford died the result of a violent collision, something that couldn’t have been predicted or avoided, but that he nonetheless found himself smack in the middle of, going full tilt, no time to brake, swerve, or take evasive action. Incredibly for anyone but Steve, smashing through the first tractor-trailer didn’t kill him, no, he survived that just fine. It was the second 18-wheeler that plowed into the crash scene that left him with injuries from which even Steve Tilford, the man of steel, the phoenix who rose from every injury faster and stronger and tougher than before, the time-defying ageless competitor, could not recover.

This was just like when things go sideways in a tightly packed, high speed crit. It was just like in the uproarious, furious, full-throttle story of Steve Tilford’s incredibly short life. He was 57, and still younger than all of us.

The last time I talked to Steve he had texted and said that he was on his way to California, and could we grab a bite near the airport before he headed on down to San Diego?

There was only one possible answer to that invitation, which was “Absolutely.” We met at The Habit burger grill in El Segundo, and I wasn’t really sure why he’d reached out, but didn’t exactly care. He had fallen on a training ride in October of last year and suffered a catastrophic closed head injury. He had been slated to come and speak at our annual South Bay Cycling Awards again, but of course couldn’t after the fall.

Tilford-like, he’d gone down at 30 on a training ride, unhelmeted, taken out by a dog, such that his skull shattered. When the inevitable victim blaming sprang up, Tilford shrugged. “I didn’t wear a helmet and it didn’t work out for me, but I don’t go around blaming riders with helmets who’ve been injured or killed.”

The first words out of his mouth when we met were an apology. “Really sorry I missed the awards last year,” he said, as if hovering between life and death wasn’t a good enough reason to stay home.

And that summed up one part of Steve Tilford: Decent to a fault. Reflective to an almost painful degree. Keenly aware by orders of magnitude how his life, his actions, and his words affected others. Not by random chance did he end up that way. His parents were alcoholics, and at a young age he was abandoned by his mom and sent to live with his grandmother, who was in her 80s.

“Never really cared for drinking,” he told me. “And living with my grandmother, that added years to her life.” He said it with a laugh as he regaled me with the story, because the other part of Steve was his storytelling. Everything may not have happened for a reason, but it happened, and he recalled the smallest of details to give you the blow-by-blow. His memory was extraordinary, photographic, total recall. “I’ll never forget being down in Austin one winter, I was staying with Fields and the Dicksons. They were always doing stuff.

“One morning I got ready to ride and my bike was super heavy. I couldn’t figure it out. It was like ten pounds heavier. Turns out they had yanked the seat post and filled the seat tube with gravel.”

Behind the smile and the kindness was the hardness of Steve’s early Kansas boyhood, and it was fitting that the town of Topeka gave rise to one of cycling’s greats. If American cycling has a soul, it is in the Midwest and the Great Plains, where the wind, the cold, the wet, the heat, and the wind, the wind, the wind made bestial pain the price of bike racing. Steve was a product of hard scrabble and hard wind, and it showed in everything he did.

And what he did, mostly, was whip ass. His, hers, yours, mine, everyone’s. The first and only time we rode together was on the Donut Ride in 2015. He had come out to be a guest speaker for our annual awards ceremony, and that morning we had our weekly slugfest. Word was out that Tilford was in town, and quite a bit of heavy artillery had been rolled into position. Steve made short work of everyone, “everyone” being at least twenty years younger.

But aside from the national titles, the masters world titles, and the thousands–yes, thousands–of races he competed it, Steve stood for something a lot bigger than ripping your legs off and screaming through corners at 35. Steve stood for what is right, and he stood for it by living it.

A prodigious talent, a tremendous competitor, a disciplined athlete, a meticulous strategist, Steve never made the big time in the sport of bike racing. It’s not because he lacked the legs or the will or the smarts or the drive. It’s because he refused to cheat.

It grated on him to watch the big generation of drug cheats, the Armstrongs, Hincapies, Leipheimers, Vaughters, the entire cheating hall of shame that not only scooped up the money but retired to lucrative clothing lines, profitable grand fondues, and the management/ownership of UCI Pro Tour teams. But rather than dwell on what he might have done, he didn’t dwell at all. You can’t dwell when you’re railing the corners at 35.

He called dopers what they were, shrugged, and raced his fuggin’ bike. It was this relentless honesty and his world-renowned blog that, in the second half of his racing career, kept him on the sidelines yet again. His writing was direct, personal, powerful, and unvarnished. He didn’t whore out to rebadged component makers, didn’t extol the fake virtues of new bike frames or disc brakes, didn’t attribute his success to magical elixirs or power meters, and insisted on speaking The Hard Truth: If you want to be a good bike racer, you have to train hard and race hard. There is no second path, there is no Plan B.

And he lived the corollary to that truth: If you race, you’re going to get hurt. This amazing and beautiful piece written by Bill Strickland twenty years ago captures the cycling side of Tilford’s life in brutal prose. By age 38, Steve had sustained the kind of wounds and injuries and PTSD that we normally only associate with war. And at the time Strickland’s piece was written, Steve had almost twenty more years to go, years into which he would pack the equivalent of a hundred other lives in terms of danger, competition, injury, victory, and excitement. A hundred lives? A thousand.

Strickland calls this piece “Why We Ride,” but in truth, if Tilford’s life is the model, it’s why we don’t. Because we can’t.

Steve’s writing captured the imagination of thousands, and it chapped the asses of cycling journalism because it paid them no homage, paid them no advertising, and spoke only the introspective and reflective thoughts forged from a lifetime of real racing. Steve wrote true things, and those who read them knew them to be true.

Roy Knickman, one of America’s legends during the golden age of cycling, raced with Steve and summed it up like this: “There was only one Steve Tilford, a guy who spoke his mind but never with malice, he simply said what he believed to be true. He lived his life like no one else–I love racing my bike and I’m going to race my bike forever–that was Steve. He found a way to make it work and developed so many relationships along the way, and it’s amazing, the goodwill that he spread and the following that he had. People loved him because he was Steve Tilford who could do anything; at 57 he could do a P12 crit and still get in the money, or be the masters world ‘cross champ, or win an MTB series.

“One of my best memories of Steve is the year at the Coors Classic we were getting ready for the banquet and instead of dressing up we spray-painted t-shirts in my driveway. Hampsten’s shirt read KOM, but Steve’s read KOS, King of Spills (or Stories). He would crash, get up, and tell a story about it … and he could sprint pretty good for all that.

“One of the last times I saw him I had just mentioned off-hand on the phone that I was getting married and we were at the rehearsal down at the beach in PV and suddenly up rode this guy looking like Keith Richards on a bike. It was Steve who had come by to say hello, who for all I knew should have been in Kansas, not California. Classic Steve.”

A friend of mine, Michael Smith, also a Kansan, talked about how watching Tilford at a race in Scottsdale in 1997 had inspired him to race bikes. Fifteen years after that race, “My cycling career was complete when I was able to battle it out with Steve, shoulder to shoulder, racing up a finishing hill in a nothing race in nowhere Kansas. Might as well have been the Alpe D’Huez, that’s how much I cared. After the finish, which of course Steve won, I told him the story of how he inspired me with his performance that night in Scottsdale. As we stood there breathless, he recounted that race from fifteen years ago in vivid detail, move by move. I think he knew how much that meant to me.”

Michael is only one of thousands whose lives were affected for the better by Steve’s kindness and his amazing exploits on the bike. Steve’s life was a big picture, but it was lived and shared and scripted in the details, of which none seemed to escape his keen eye and digital memory.

As tributes poured in from all over the world, another thing became clear. The reward to a virtuous life can only be reaped in death. It is not only what people say about you when you are alive, but when you are not.

As Steve and I sat and talked over hamburgers and fries that night in El Segundo, we didn’t really talk at all. Steve did. He talked about his injury, about the splitting headaches that hurt so bad he couldn’t open his eyes for hours on end, about how long it was taking for his brain to function properly again, about his fear that he might never fully recover, and about how he was going to race anyway. He was in California, after all, to train. He’d set the Belgian Waffle Ride in his sights and was there to recon the course.

We parted company and he headed on down to San Diego. I figured I’d see him again on his way back to Kansas.

I never did.

END

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