Tilford Tuesday

May 2, 2017 § 27 Comments

“So, for the weekend, Trek/HRRC took five of the six podium spots. That was kind of lucky really.” Steve Tilford, 2007.

I think about Steve every day now, which is weird because I didn’t when he was alive. I don’t understand why people can affect us more after they’re gone than when they were here. Maybe it’s because I didn’t really know him that well, and it was only after he died that I started to understand the mark he’d left on so many people. Maybe it’s just plain old guilt, discovering that there was a really great person out there who rode bikes and was contributing, day in day out, and for whatever reason I was only peripherally aware of it. And maybe that’s a core function of death, it cuts off forever the possibility that you’ll ever again be able to see the person, and so you have focus on what they left behind. In Steve’s case, what he left behind was massive.

Anyway, here’s a brief history of his blog. In 2003 it started out as a PR thing, with posts by his friend Vincent. Then in 2006 he started writing his own stuff. That’s when the grit started. One of the things that immediately struck me was how admired he was by his peers in the sport of cyclocross. In 2007 he was voted the best U.S. ‘cross racer of all time: 508 votes for Tilford, 224 for Jonathan Page who’d almost won UCI Worlds, and 53 votes for third place.

He was known for loving tough conditions. In 2007 he fell onto a frozen lake in a ‘cross race, then fell through the ice, got out, and kept racing. His gloves froze to his hands and he had no gears or brakes. His hands hurt for days afterwards.

Detail: He won.

At age 47 he was 2nd at the elite nationals crit in 2006, behind Kayle Leogrande who later was banned for doping. That race is a great example of what Steve always said, that dopers steal things from people, and that unlike normal thieves, they steal things you can’t ever get back. What kind of crown would that have been, to have won outright the national title at age 47? Pretty cool, that’s what.

So anyway, Tuesday seems like a good day of the week to dedicate to Steve. His blog has a lifetime’s worth of material to think about, like the line I started this post with.

I love that line because it has two great ideas in it. First is that Steve was humble. He was keenly aware of how good he was, of how he affected other people, and of how people admired him. But he was equally aware of where he stood at any given moment in time, and more importantly, where he stood at the finish of any given race. He never let the things he had accomplished get in the way of who he was: A regular guy who loved to race bikes, who raced them really well, and who loved to share his knowledge and enthusiasm.

The other thing I like about the quote is the way he uses “lucky.” In a way he’s right. It’s always lucky, i.e, random, when you win a bike race. The sport is fickle. No two courses are ever raced the same way because of the road, weather, competition, and your own condition. You can’t win without being the beneficiary of random chance.

But he also uses “lucky” in its Jeffersonian sense, i.e., “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Steve was all about preparation, going through the motions, and paying attention to the details. One friend told me how, whenever possible, Steve always got to the race early and lined up on the front row. The start isn’t always important in a crit, but it can be and it’s a detail, and one he rarely overlooked.

Good lessons are packed into that line for life, not only for cycling:

  1. Acknowledge random chance when it helps you succeed. It’s not all about you. You’re lucky to be here.
  2. Put in the effort. It increases the chances of a good outcome.

I’ll see how long I can continue these Tilford Tuesdays. There’s certainly no shortage of material.

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