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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Bookends

October 21, 2013 § 47 Comments

I just finished reading “Tour de Lance” by Bill Strickland and “Breaking the Chain” by Willy Voet. Voet was the soigneur/drug dealer who was busted by French customs officials as he crossed over from Belgium into France with a load of goodies destined for the Festina team a few days prior to the 1998 Tour. The bust and its payload of EPO, among other things, resulted in the exposure of French star Richard Virenque as a doper, and got Festina booted from the Tour.

Strickland is one of the worst hacks in the world of faux cycling journalism, and his hagiography of Armstrong is fully revealed in the title. “Tour de Lance” is one fanboy’s masturbatory fantasy as he follows the team bus and watches Armstrong try, and fail, to win his eighth Tour. For Strickland, the project was a win-win. Either Armstrong stood atop the podium and the book could conclude “greatest athlete ever,” or Armstrong didn’t win, and Strickland could piously intone that Lance was now “more human. More like us.”

Either way, there would be a mountain of used Kleenex to get rid of.

Justice for Lance

With each disgraced doper retiring into comfortable fame, the accusation of Armstrong as “the most evil person to ever live including Hitler and Stalin” becomes sillier to read and more ridiculous to maintain. When Michael Barry begins publishing soporific, sappy little magazine tidbits that exhort us to “never forget the fun of cycling,” I have to choke back down my breakfast. This is the same Michael Barry who doped throughout his career, and we’re now supposed to take anything seriously that he has to say about what’s important in cycling?

Of course the most egregious offenders are George Hincapie and Levi Leipheimer, who run successful businesses and ragingly popular Gran Fondos that are successful due to the fame they achieved as cheats, liars, dopers, and sporting frauds. And when Christian Vandevelde or Dave Zabriskie hang up their cleats, their cheating legacies are mere asterisks, nothing more.

But Lance, of course, is different because he exterminated the hopes of countless 12k dreamers. He personally directed the deaths of millions as a leader in the Khmer Rouge and as a henchman to Idi Amin. Plus, he was really mean to Betsy, so we should pursue him forever, no matter what. If Lance hadn’t lied about drugs, I’d have won the Tour, I know that in my heart.

The real culprits

We all know who the real culprits in the doping saga are. They are the athletes who cheat. They are spectators who uncritically adulate. And they are the media who refuse to act like journalists and instead act like PR shills.

“Breaking the Chain,” written shortly after the Festina scandal, is a short, punchy, brutal look at the rich history of drugs in cycling. When Laurent Fignon piously intoned in his autobiography that in his day doping methods were minuscule, he is contradicted by Voet’s detailed description of the methods, means, and effects that had been around for decades — including the years in which Fignon raced (busted for doping twice, in ’87 and ’89).

Although it only plays a vaguely minor scale to the tune of “Poor, poor, pitiful me,” Voet’s book reveals an old truth. The mules and drug dealers and soigneurs will get hung out to dry long before the stars. At worst, Voet was a bottom feeder and a drug addict himself who worked assiduously to master the black art of obtaining and administering drugs to racers. At best he was a tiny cog in a nasty, evil machine, culpable perhaps, but nothing on the level of the real villains.

And such a real villain is Bill Strickland

If you can get through “Tour de Lance” without alternating bouts of rage, incredulity, revulsion, and despair, you are made of pretty stern stuff. Here’s a guy who writes for Bicycling magazine as its editor at large, writing nine years after the publication of “Breaking the Chain,” and who can’t do anything other than hang around the Trek team bus and insinuate himself into the good graces of the mechanics and Bruyneel and Lance himself in order to uncritically accept every spoon-fed lie that is doled out.

The book isn’t even about Lance, it’s about Strickland and his fanboy fantasy as he revels in being on the inside even at a time when no critical writer could have accepted the plethora of lying denials regarding Armstrong’s doping. To make it even more sick, there is a post-script that mentions Landis’s confessions and accusations regarding drugs on Armstrong’s US Postal team, but even with that Strickland can’t bring himself to do anything more journalistic than jerk himself off one last time as he slobbers about how much more human Lance has become in his failed comeback bid.

And Strickland’s motivations for refusing to acknowledge the truth are just as base as his motivations for writing the fanbook in the first place: He’s simultaneously working on another lickspittle book that hoists up Johan Bruyneel as the greatest race director of all time — “We Might as Well Win,” and it simply wouldn’t do to take the wind out of that sail. After all, we’re talking money here. Bill’s money.

As we all found out, the people who threw Lance under the Postal bus the quickest were the very media whores and corporate rapists who had deflected all criticism and refused to investigate even his most incredible lies. Strickland is now back to his old business, writing puff pieces about the joys of bicycling even as Lance pays for his sins — and pays, and pays, and pays, and even as Lance’s former cronies continue to profit from their ill-gotten gains, gains made possible by people like Strickland.

The juxtaposition of “Breaking the Chain” and “Tour de Lance,” especially when read in sequence, tells you everything you really need to know about how it all happened, why it all happened, and whether it’s happening still. And no matter what the fanboys say, it is.

Armstrong tots expelled from preschool

September 8, 2012 § 16 Comments

After the Chicago Marathon today rejected the 2012 entry application of seven-time Tour de France champion strippee Lance Armstrong, the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas, announced that preschoolers Olivia Marie Armstrong (2), and Maxwell Edward Armstrong (3) would be expelled from the church school, effective immediately.

Reverend Bollixy Snead, acting principal of the preschool, announced the institution’s unprecedented step at a press conference held on the steps of the state capitol building. “The Chicago Marathon, sanctioned by U.S.A. Track and Field, is obligated to abide by the anti-doping codes enforced by WADA, USADA, and NASA,” said Reverend Snead. “We felt that as a precautionary measure our church should follow suit. He appears to be a very dangerous man.”

Bewildered classmates speak to national media

Tubby Williams, a classmate and best friend of Maxwell, or “Max,” burst into tears when he heard that he would no longer be able to sit next to his best friend. “But he’s my best fwiend!” wailed Mr. Williams.

Georgina Pettigrew, one of Olivia’s colleagues in the Totties & Potties after-school toilet training class, was similarly distraught. “We was gived a peanut M&M if we poopied in the potty!” she complained. “I wike the gween ones!”

Doping issue polarizes preschooler parents

Disgraced dean of the UT School of Law Larry Sager, whose son Knuckles attends Good Shepherd, was incredulous. “Okay, so they boot him out of some marathon in a freezing Midwestern city that no one lives in unless they have to. I get that. But kicking the tykes out of preschool? It’s guilt by association. They haven’t even started doping yet.”

Mildred Bulges, another parent, sharply disagreed. “Lance Armstrong is a murderer. I read on a Twitter blog Facebook social media thingy that he’s killed more people than Idi Amin. And you know what’s worse? He ruined that poor woman Betsy Andeu’s whole life. Just ruined it.”

A brief scuffle broke out when another parent pointed out that Andreu’s life was ruined long before her battle with Armstrong, as evidenced by the fact that she was already married to a professional cyclist. Said Dave Snibblington, whose son Biffy enjoyed chocolate milk breaks with Maxwell, “That broad married a pro cyclist. How much more of a fucked up life could she have? Come on.”

Cycling journalists weigh in on controversy

Bill Strickland, former Armstrong fanboy and current nuanced reporter of the inimitable complexity of life and cheating, was reached at his ashram and pilates retreat. “Expelling the children?” he asked. “Very gray. Fifty shades of gray, at least.” A muffled fapping sound was heard while he spoke.

Rupert Guinness, former Armstrong fanboy-turned-critic-once-everyone-else-turned-critic, spoke to PVCycling from his local pub. “Who? What? Fuck, I don’t know. Who cares? What does everyone else say I should think?”

Samuel Abt, disinterred from the local cemetery, was momentarily confused when informed of Armstrong’s current status as Tour de France champion strippee. “Well, of course he fooled me, like he fooled everyone. Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.”

Longtime critics of Armstrong David Walsh and Paul Kimmage were reached as they worked their way through the seventy-fifth case of champagne since the USADA decision to strip Armstrong of everything, including his underwear. “‘E’s a murdrer!” roared Kimmage. “A fookin’ murdrer! E’s worse ‘n Stalin ‘n Hitler ‘n Pol Pot ‘n Victoria Principal all rolled into one bloody sausage! E’s killed our byootiful sport! Killed it! An’ his children an’ their children and their children ’til the bloody end of time should bear the mark, aye, the mark of the scarlet beastie cheater doper meanie!”

Walsh, although clearly supportive of the preschool’s decision, was more circumspect. “Clearly, his children are a danger to society simply by having his DNA, not to mention associating with him around the dinner table and such. As I’ve been telling people from day one, the man’s a cheat, but did they listen? Oh, no! ‘Walsh is a crank!’ they said. ‘Walsh is batty!’ they said. ‘Walsh doesn’t wear clean underwear!’ they said. Well, what are they saying now? Eh? Eh? Eh?”

Armstrong has until September 8 to appeal the expulsion. His legal team has indicated they are reviewing their options. According to spokesman Mark Fabiani, “Lance is a fighter. He fought cancer. He fought doping. He fought the Tour. He fought the French. He fought USADA. He knows he won those tours. His competitors know who won those tours. His teammates know who injected those blood bags. Lance’s children have never failed a test. Except that one ABC quiz they sprung on Max last week. And we got that anulled because he had a note from his mom.”

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