Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Dirty Kanza Collective: disciples of gravel city

Emporia rolls out the red carpet for Kanza racers
photo by Jim Jewell
The Dirty Kanza is a magnificent beast of a race. Jim Cummins make no promises except to organize the "world's premier gravel grinder". There are no guarantees except that the race will test the limits of your physical, mental, & emotional endurance. Each year the race grows more popular. Twice as many people tried to register the minute it opened in January than slots were available for the 200. The most special part of the Kanza is how the community has embraced the event. The town of Emporia has become Gravel City, the Mecca of gravel grinding each Kanza week. Thousands of disciples of dirt road bike racing converge & are warmly welcomed by all of Emporia. It is the one bike race that I'm certain to enter again, not next year, but someday.


But let's begin at the beginning, dear reader. I made my 5th consecutive trip to race the Kanza this year. I have learned an enormous amount about the event and about myself in each prior DK200. I hoped for a chance to improve on my high placing from 2016. Indeed my training this spring was better than any of the past 4 years. I had no significant injuries, no illnesses to interrupt my preparation. But there was another goal, to join the 1000 mile club. A few years ago Dan Hughes offered an engraved chalice to every racer who finishes 5 DK200's. With that my quest was clear, to seek the Gravel Grail.

Jim & I after awards, still smiling somehow




Another year meant another new crew. Somehow I end up needing to assemble a new support crew each time. This year that would be Jim Jewell. Jim was very qualified to the role, he had crewed at Leadville, traveled a large amount of Lyon & Chase counties, and is an Eagle Scout. His attention to my long emails of preparation notes gave me high confidence. He asked me early on what my goals for the race were. I told him that the first goal is always to finish, that most years only half of racers make it to the finish line at all. I had other goals too. The second goal is always to beat the sun, to finish by sunset. But I also wanted to crack the top 10 in my age group. I was 11th in 2016 despite 4 flat tires & 2 additional slow leaks. To make a perfect run at the Kanza one needs few/no mechanicals, fast crew support, & great legs. I hoped for all three, but the Kanza has a way of dashing the highest hopes.

Saddling Up


Part of my Kanza pilgrimage is a stop in Lawrence, my true hometown. Yes, dear reader, I am a born & raised Jayhawk. It was the hours I spent in Sunflower Outdoor Shop as a boy that sparked my interest in hiking, climbing, & skiing. By the time I graduated from KU I was so fixated on adventure sports I decided to live in the mountains, New Hampshire's White Mountains specifically.

Sunflower Shakedown Ride heading out
photo by Linda Guerette
Dan Hughes, the Sunflower Outdoor boss & Gravel King, organizes a Thursday afternoon shakedown ride. This is not to be missed by yours truly. Besides a test to ensure I've put my bike together correctly, & a chance to harass Dan, it's also a ride with friends I only see at the Kanza. I rode some easy miles with Kris & Amber Auer, Janeen McCrae, Colin Earhardt, & Ted King. I teased Ted that I have to fly half way across country now to ride with him, unlike when he was a new pro and would go for training rides right past my office in New Hampshire. I also had the pleasure of meeting Ted's very special guest from California, Laura Spencer. As always the pace was LFK casual until we got to the one climb, the Wells Overlook access road. A quick stop for the view, a group photo, & we cruised back to Lawrence proper. A nervous energy filled Sunflower Bike Shop when we returned. All were anxious to dial in every equipment detail for the Kanza adventure ahead.

Ted King & I descend from Wells Overlook
photo by Linda Guerete
After meeting up with Jim Jewell & packing his car we drove down to Emporia. Friday morning meant an early start to preview the course conditions on my tune up ride. I spun down Commercial Street just as the barricades were being delivered for the finish chute. As I made the first turn onto the course several other racers were snapping photo's before starting their preview rides. The disciples of the Kanza had converged on Gravel City. The track was dry & firm. If the weather forecast held true the race would be blazing fast.
welcome to Gravel City aka Emporia Kansas

I turned off course at Mile 10 to ride a straight line back to Emporia. I had hope to catch Yuri Hauswald for his Stroop Waffle/Coffee ride. But alas I was 5 minutes late & they started 5 minutes early. So I headed north of town to preview the final 5 miles of the course. By now dozens of other Kanza racers were following the route. I passed numerous groups riding those same finishing miles. I have never seen as many racers taking their Kanza preview so seriously. My fellow devotees prepared very very well.

meeting up with Rebecca Rusch on Commercial St. Emporia KS
Jim and I spent the afternoon with the final preparation chores. I kept interrupting our efforts with greeting Kanza friends as we crossed paths in Emporia. I stopped to talk tires with Jayson O'Mahoney aka Gravel Cyclist. I crossed paths again with the Auers. I also got a warm welcome from the man himself, Jim Cummins. We just got everything done in time to see the 4 p.m. screening of "Blood Road", the movie about Rebecca Rusch's mountain bike journey down the Ho Chi Mihn Trail & to her father's burial site. It is a moving & remarkable film. See it if you can, or better, donate to Rebecca's fund to help the effort to remove the hundreds of thousands remaining unexploded bombs from Laos, Cambodia & Vietnam.

All that lay ahead after a quick dinner was a nervous night of sleep, a 4:15 a.m. wake up, and the Dirty Kanza 200 would be a go.

Race Day, The Good

I cruised down to Commercial Street at 5:30 a.m., anxious to get rolling & warm up my legs. Since few people had already lined up I slotted into the front row behind the barriers. Jim found me easily for last instructions & well wishes. As he snapped a photo, my dear Kanza friend April Morgan popped over for a quick hug. Her thousand watt smile was all the encouragement I needed before the start. The featured racers were called up to the front, the start line tape removed, we were ready to rollout, over a thousand Dirty Kanza pilgrims eager for the 206 mile journey.
April Morgan wishing me well at the start

I stayed in the front group as we turned off Commercial Street and onto gravel. As expected the pace was fast. The group averaged 22 mph for the first 10 miles, with 27-29 mph surges. Quickly gaps opened in the double pace line. I kept moving up to stay in contact with the lead group. I noticed familiar jerseys as I surfed the good lines forward. I shared a word with Garth Prosser before he pushed  ahead. At the I-35 underpass I caught Kerry Duggan (K-Dog) last years 60+ winner. I spotted Amanda Nauman, the defending Queen of the Kanza, two bike lengths ahead of me. I kept her in sight comfortable that her wheel was a good one to follow.


Then at mile 11 I realized that I could feel my rear rim. I must have burped the tire somewhere in the pace line. Nervous that I would shred the tire in chunkier gravel ahead I stopped to air it up. Because it was so early in the race dozens & dozens of riders passed me in the 2 minutes I took to fill the tire. I felt woefully behind.


Knowing that 194 miles is a long way to go, I rode a high tempo pace to recover lost ground. I would catch a group, ride with them for a minute, then move ahead on the next hill. I came into Madison with a group of a 15 or so. We were stunned to see that the course climbed the steep brick paved 3rd St. hill before the 1st check point, it is the Muur of Madison. I rolled through the check point, Jim had my bottles, food, & thoughtfully set out the floor pump. A quick check of my rear tire pressure & I was going again in under 2 minutes.


As I was leaving Check Point #1 I caught Garth Prosser. He had been delayed by a flat tire in the first section. We shared a joke as we rode together. He reminded me that we should ride tempo rather than blow up trying to catch the flying front group. As he set pace we caught & gathered almost 20 other racers. I spotted Amber Auer in the group. Last year Garth & I lead a smaller bunch over Texaco Hill. I figured we would do so again. But as we started the climb my legs would not respond. I drifted to the back of the group. My Dirty Kanza was about to get very very hard.


Race Day: The Bad

As I descended Texaco hill I caught some stragglers from the group, but never the front of it. I calmed myself thinking "you just need a few easy miles to open your legs back up". But the start of Teeter Hill 3 miles latter was no better. Then they struck, hamstring cramps. After Teeter Hill we climbed a no name quarter mile grinder with a steep pitch in the middle. There both of my hamstrings cramped hard. No warning flutters, just full seizure in both legs. The cramps were bad enough that I unclipped from my pedals to shake my legs out. I took my first swig of pickle juice for the day. I had fought through persistent hamstring cramps 3 years ago, but since then I had them beat. All the training, stretching, hydration & nutrition plan I learned had kept them away for the past 2 Kanza's. They were back now with a vengeance.
hiking up the BeYotch
photo by Jason O'Mahoney
I hoped for a moment that the cramps would subside. Yet in my heart I knew better. I took another swig of pickle juice and rode an easy pace toward Eureka. I tried to save my legs for the dozens of hills yet to come. At the bottom of the BeYotch I got off to walk the hill in shame. Last year I pounded up this 8% steep pitch with authority. This year my legs would not even attempt it. Jayson O'Mahoney was on the Kanza ride of his life. He caught and passed me as I hiked the hill. Frustration had set in and was taking a toll on my psyche.

I pedaled a controlled pace for the remaining 15 miles to Eureka, watching my average speed dip lower. I wished that a some time off the bike, a few pickles, & some deep stretching would be enough to bring my cramps under control. "My legs are trash" I confessed to Jim as I rolled in. I quickly apprised him of my dire state. He got my drinks & food in order, lubed my chain & checked the air in the tires just as the check list required. I drank an extra ginger ale, ate half the jar of pickles, & refilled my empty pickle juice flask. Jim took in upon himself to help massage my calves while I stretched. He did all he could to help me get going. As I was rolling out Tom Morgan ran over to give me a high five, which made me smile. I called back "I need your legs Tom"

Last year the first 25 miles of the third section was one of the best of my race. With good legs & a little tail wind I flew through that stretch. This year I was crawling through it while other racers streamed past me. I was aware that several more steep hills lay just ahead. My frustration had reached a breaking point. I feared my legs would completely seize on some slope in the remaining 80 miles. That I would flop over like a crushed turtle on the road. I was in as much anguish mentally as physically. I wanted to quit the Kanza more than I ever have. I reached back for my cell phone then forced my hand to return to the handlebars.

I was in the middle of my A race for the season, a race I had trained for the past four months. An event I had devoted myself to for four years. So what would you do, dear reader? What do you do when your legs quit on your most important race day of the year? I soon realized that all my angst, my enormous frustration at the continual cramps was only making the ride harder. I did not know if my legs would make the distance, but I did not need my head getting in the way. I started to talk to myself positively:

"When you find yourself going through Hell, keep going" Winston Churcill
"Just Keep Spinning, Just Keep Spinning"
"There will be good times & bad times, neither will last forever" Rebecca Rusch
"That hill was o.k., the next hill will be o.k. too"
"It's just a flesh wound, I've had worse" Monty Python The Holy Grail
"You must Race with the legs you have, not the legs you want, make the most of them"
"Every day above the ground is better than one below it" my Grandma Maud
"Only 25, 20, 15 more miles to Madison"
"Pedal when you can, spin when need to, get off & stretch if you have to, it's ok"
"Keep your Eyes on the Prize, the Quest for the Gravel Grail!"

All of these phrases helped some, none of them helped enough to end my misery. I've enjoyed meeting new friends in the 2nd half of the Kanza each of the past few years. But I was so deep in my pain cave that I could barely see daylight. Every hill hurt. Most forced me to shake my legs out, or get off to stretch, or walk. I did cross paths with a new friend I had met in the 1st hundred miles, Mike Tam from North Carolina. We had introduced ourselves while riding in Garth's big group before Texaco Hill. Now he was suffering as much as I was both physically & from multiple mechanicals. When he caught up to me around mile 140 we shared some words of encouragement. I was glad to have a partner in this struggle. But soon the cramps returned & I drifted off his wheel.

Just like last year, I was counting down every mile to the oasis of the last check point. I prayed that I would be able to rally for the final section after a short rest. I found Jim near the middle of Madison's Main Street. I told him that my legs were no better but that I would finish one way or another. I drank deeply from the pickle jar. I lay down on the pavement and put my legs up on the tailgate of his car to massage out the lactic acid. Jim meanwhile got my bike lubed for the final section & my bottles switched. He told me after the race that he questioned whether I could finish but he did not show it at the time. I rolled away from the car toward the exit. Spotting a pair of EMT's I called out "do you have any spare legs in the ambulance? These legs are broken! I need a new set!"

Despite my slow pace through the third section somehow I left Madison before 5:30 p.m. With some luck I could still beat the sun. That thought kept me focused for the first few miles of the last section. But those were not easy miles. I gritted my teeth on every rocky incline. I caught Mike Tam, he had suffered a mechanical again. This time he drifted off my wheel as we churned through the hills. I tried to ride in small groups to save some energy. I met a Sunflower Bike racer in one of them, Paul Heimbach. But as the leg cramps came back I dropped out of the rotation & watched his group continue up the road.

As the course approached Olpe the roads got smoother, I was feeling a little better, and my pace picked up. I knew I would beat the sun if I could just ride steady. My legs kept cramping but not as severely. Unfortunately my pickle juice swigs seemed to be less & less effective with each hour. I would have to rely on grit alone to finish the race
.
As Emporia grew closer, I started catching a few others. I could not pedal very hard, but I could keep pedaling. I tried a stronger effort on the rise before Camp Alexander. My legs screamed in pain. I backed down to steady pedaling for the rest of the run into the ESU campus. Exiting the tunnel I caught up to Paul Heimbach. I called out to him to push for the finish, but he was running on fumes. I pressed on to catch the wheel of a younger guy up Highland Hill. As we came down into campus I was on his tail. Somehow I came around him in the finish sprint to the line.

Finish Line: the Beautiful

I made it, despite all the physical & mental anguish of the past 120 miles. I won't deny that I buried my head on LeLan's shoulder and sobbed for a minute. I was completely spent from the struggle of the past 8 hours. But it was done. Slowly, very slowly, the elation of finishing the Dirt Kanza began to wash over me. The continual cheers of the crowd for every Kanza finisher are magical that way. I stumbled out of the finish chute to find Jim waiting for me. He took my bike to the car while I sat for a long stretch in the recovery tent. I saw Kris & Amber Auer who had both finished earlier with top results. As I told the story of my race, complaining of my bad legs, the guy setting up the compression leg sleeves admonished me. He said "stop complaining, you just finished one of the hardest races in the country, that is something to be proud of regardless of your placing" He was right. Hundreds of other DK racers were still trying to make it to the finish. Just as many would not be able to do so that day. Some how I managed to do it again, before sunset even. I had completed the quest.
completely wrung out in the finish chute
I hobbled over to the Free State Brewery tent for my first beer in over a month. Jim returned as I was sipping it. I spotted Dan Hughes on the other side of the alley. He congratulated me on finishing and we swapped stories of our misfortunes on this year's course. We were both crusty & tired, but happy to be at the finish line of another Kanza.
Dan Hughes after the finish
The awards ceremony the next morning was almost as electric as Commercial Street the night before. Both the men's & women's races came down to tight finishes. In fact the women's overall had never before been decided in a sprint. I gave Amanda Nauman a hug as she passed me & told her that she is a true champion. I was all smiles to join the other new 1000 mile club members on stage.

Garth Prosser & I meet again  at awards for the 1000 mile club
What did I gain from this year, besides a new cup too fancy to drink from? I learned that Greg Lemond was correct, it never gets easier. In fact sometimes it gets a whole lot harder. I know that I still need to find the perfect formula to prevent my leg cramps. Was it not enough magnesium or skipping an amino acid supplement on race day? Not enough race miles before the big event or enough deep stretching & massage? I will get this right before my next Kanza. Mostly I learned that I am mentally tougher than I ever knew. I managed to keep pedaling through severe pain to reach my primary goal, simply to finish. I can do harder things than I thought I could. The best part of the Kanza this year was the collective, the many friends old or new I shared smiles & struggles with.

I will be back to race the Dirty Kanza again. I made a promise to my wife to skip next year, but I will return. Honestly I think I need the break. That only means I have 102 weeks to plan, plot, and train for another chance to realize the dream: a perfect run at the Dirty Kanza. Long Live the Quest for the Gravel Grail & good luck in your next adventures, fellow DK disciples.







Wednesday, May 24, 2017

How hard is hard, how cold is cold? All weather cycling

I do not actually ride in all conditions. I like to take the winter off from regular cycling so that I can enjoy skiing & hiking. It is very hard to be a year round cyclist in northern New England, but I am a great admirer of the few who are, the Rowell's most notably.


That said, to ride enough to be ready to race once Spring comes takes a commitment to train through every type of weather. From April until the beginning of June in my corner of New Hampshire we will get rain, wind, snow, 40F days & 85F days. I hate to ride the rollers once the skis are put away, so I must gear up physically & mentally to ride in whatever conditions the day brings. Here is what I've learned about that in the past 12 years.


1) There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing:


The first & key element to cycling in New England spring conditions is having lots of good clothing options. Jackets, tights, thermal jerseys, wind proof base layers, caps, booties, & all sorts of gloves are requisite. Multiples of each for different temperatures, rain conditions, & wind speed (yes there's a difference between riding into a 5 mph wind & a 15+ mph wind). Everyone has different levels of comfort in conditions, so you will have to experiment to find what works best in terms of clothing. I don't want to estimate how much I've invested in having enough clothes to meet the range the conditions. But I wouldn't be able to ride every day without my collection either.


While it is deadly to under dress, once can be overdressed on a cool spring ride too. When you are over heated you will get wet from the inside out. To avoid this adjust your layers when you can. Also, use your zipper, meaning un-zip your jacket or vest going up hill, zip up at the top to avoid getting chilled on the descent.


2) Keep the fire burning, fuel up.
Riding in the cold takes more out of you, literally. I am never more hungry than after several hours of riding in the cold. Fuel up ahead of the ride, i.e. a nice big breakfast. Stay fueled on the ride, make sure to eat something every 30-45 minutes of any ride longer than 3 hours. An old school tip is to take a baked potato right out of the oven for your center back pocket, keeps you warm on the outside & it will keep you warm from the inside if you eat it mid ride.


3) Attitude is everything. "It's a fine day to ride", "WWSKD?, What would Sean Kelly Do?", "Shut Up Legs". What ever phrase or incentive you need to get out & ride, use it. Sometimes I plan a cold hard ride to finish at a favorite bakery so that a good pastry & a double cappuccino is the incentive. Sometimes I promise myself a sauna. Sometimes I plan to make steak & frites for dinner. Any thing that gets you out to ride on the cold wet days is worthwhile.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Instagram Gratification: Cycling in the Social Media Age

Last Saturday I went on my longest training ride of the year, 132 miles solo, about 1/3 of it on dirt roads. Since I've been training for the Dirty Kanza the past few years this sort of ride is familiar. I knew the effort I had put in, it was a good day on the bike.


Yet when I plugged in my Garmin to the computer the device would not read. I tried my son's Chrome Book, no connection from there either. I went from satisfied with my ride to frustrated & dejected in minutes. It was as if my success had been wiped away, I needed social media validation for my ride to be meaningful.

Garmin Envy (get it)
And that is just poor. As I complained on Twitter about my inability to analyze my day's training, my friend Matt Kraus admonished me that I had still done the ride with or without internet feedback. That should be accomplishment enough. I am old enough to remember a time when it was. Before the internet & social media the only people who knew how far or hard your training rides went were the others on the ride. Often that was only you. Even that was sometimes an estimate since until recently bike computers could only save a small amount of data.

the sad truth for some cyclists
But we live in a Brave New World now. Strava has changed the face of competitive cycling. Some folks take achieving KOM's as (or more) seriously than entering actual races. And woe be to the serious cyclist who fails to record a significant ride on Strava so that appropriate Kudo's can be conferred.
But not only on Strava, we cyclists seek affirmation through all sorts of social media: Face Book, blog posts, user groups, Instagram, Ride with GPS, Garmin Connect, & Twitter to name a few. I joke with my wife that 90% of my Twitter activity is bike chat, but the percentage is probably not far off.

That is not all bad. Cycling can be a very lonely business, especially in America where bike racing is & has always been a niche sport. Most of us cyclists spend hours upon hours alone, or with very few others, achieving accomplishments seen by no one else. The recognition by our tribe on line gives a welcome ego boost. I can now quantify & analyze my training in ways unimaginable when I was new to the sport. In this connected age it is much easier than in the past to find information on routes, weather, races, parts, & all the minutia that is "important" to cycling. My life as a cyclist is better for Sheldon Brown's on-line encyclopedia of bike technology alone. (may he rest in peace)
Sheldon Brown, cyclist extraordinaire
But documenting one's life as a cyclist on the internet can become obsessive too. The data is useful, but the data is not the ride. Still, some cyclists have become so fixated on the feedback of their power meter that they watch their computer more than the road ahead. Let's just say that Chris Froome is not the only cyclist who regularly stares at his stem. When I am more concerned with uploading a ride than recovering from a hard training ride, I know we have a problem. Roadies are not alone in this sort of fixation, not when you consider the flood of photos from gravel grinders or the number of Go-Pro edits from the baggy shorts mtb set. We all have different favorite ways to quantify & publicize our rides.
Froome staring at his SRM again
There is one group of cyclists who do not care about putting their rides on the internet, kids. Every child I know under age 12 who loves to ride bikes just loves to ride bikes. None of them have any way to document their time in the saddle, except when Mom or Dad (usually Dad) does it for them. All they want to do is have fun on two wheels. I am an advocate for riding like a kid again, for riding digitally naked once in a while, no devices, no planned agenda, just ride. If that is a bridge too far, put the computer in your jersey pocket and/or wait to up load the ride for a day or three. I do not ride that way often enough. I still like to measure my annual total mileage, but the recording of it can wait until the happiness from my last good ride fades away.
Not a ride on Strava
Until then, look up from your stem, turn off the camera, and enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Endless Cycles: a new bike season begins

This year bike season in northern New England is starting late. When winter decides to go long ,as it sometimes can in these parts, there is no thwarting it. We had a few exceptionally warm weeks in February that allowed the intrepid cyclist a ride or two outside. But March was a return to full on winter with several 12"+ snow storms. Even the first Saturday in April had sideways blowing snow. While I've enjoyed the longest ski season in my time living in New Hampshire, it's well past time to ride.


family ski vacation
But this week Spring has at last sprung. I've been able to ride outside every day, in shorts a few time no less. Our club's Tuesday night time trial series began. A new course and the first threshold effort of the year made for a beautifully painful ride.



Our local Wednesday group ride also began in earnest. We've enjoyed a couple of "pre-season" rides already, when the weather was fair. But this week is when all the usual folks showed up and the ancient schedule resumed. Unlike some other places, our Wednesday night ride does not follow the same course every week. In fact we only repeat a handful of routes during the year, and those only twice each. In our little corner of New England enough quiet back roads exist to make for a few dozen good bike routes to choose amongst. We are blessed. So the Wednesday Rhino Ride (which was the Greasy Gonzo Ride before) follows a schedule of routes that goes back 30 years or more, from shorter to longer and back by the time the leaves change colors.

the regular bunch last summer
I've been attempting this ride for 16+ years now. I say attempting because for the first 2-3 years I was horribly out of shape and some tremendously fast Cat 1 road racers would set the tempo every week. Over the past few years the pace has mellowed as the bulk of the bunch has gotten older. The youngsters still come out to make the ride "spirited", especially on the long hills. It's not a gentlemen's spin, but it isn't always a hammer fest anymore either.
same as it ever was
Still, I wouldn't it miss it. This is the ride that brought me back to cycling. Trying to hold on years ago inspired me to race again. More than that, there is a irreplaceable community in a regular group ride. Some faces come & go, but many are familiar week after week, year after year. The comfort of a good group ride is shared progress & effort on the bike. We contribute to each other's success & strength just we compete for town lines & hill tops. Too much of cycling, too much current American society, is a lonely endeavor. The good group ride is an antidote for that ill.

So here's to the new season, dear reader. Go out and ride. Alone if you must, but with a good group when ever & wherever you can.

 
 
 
 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Hero's: remembering Steve Tilford & the important things

I have not written a blog post in a long time, almost 10 months to be exact. I've had several started, but they all seemed superfluous once I tried to finish them.

Yesterday I got a stunning reminder of how short life is. My first real hero in cycling died in a highway accident. Steve Tilford was killed while driving back from a training camp in California. It doesn't seem possible since Steve survived hundreds of falls & accidents that would have maimed most people. Steve was still recovering from a severe head injury from last November. In fact in this accident it took not one semi-trailer but two to send him to the next world. It is amazing how much he endured in life yet still kept racing. Bill Strickland described that well almost 20 years ago here.


I first met Steve briefly when I was 14 or 15. Then I was aspiring to be a bike racer. I would occasionally try to hang on with the University of Kansas Cycling Team rides. Steve would even less frequently show up to ride along. He would ride his bike from his home in Topeka, 30 miles away, do the 40-50 mile training ride, and ride home. While everyone else had their tongues on the top tube from effort, he would be chatting away not breaking a sweat. The mechanics at my local shop, all amateur racers, pointed out that Steve was a true pro & the only great cyclist among us. They shared countless stories of Steve tearing their legs off in training rides or races. While Greg Lemond was my first bike racing hero, Steve was his team mate, and Steve made the life of a cyclist real to me. By example he taught me what being a "bike racer" meant.

I became reacquainted with Steve after I started racing cyclocross. Once I started racing bikes again in my 30's I had moved to New England. I started racing cyclocross since my road racing team mates did. The 2007 Cyclocross National Championships were in Kansas City, an opportunity for me to both visit my parents & race. Of course Steve was there too, winning his masters age group & placing well in the elite race. I bumped into Steve the night after my race in Lawrence at the Free State Brewery. I went to say hello & tell him how much he inspired me 20+ years before. He greeted me like we were old friends. He shared lots of stories that night with me about those rides & races from years ago.


In the ten years since I've crossed paths with him a few times when I've been back home in Lawrence. Each time he greeted me with his big toothy smile & a new story of some bike adventure or long ago race, I've followed his blog regularly too. That alone is an education in the life of a cyclist much like trying to ride with him was as a teenager.


So what exactly did I learn from Steve? Bike racing is a hard sport, hard physically & hard mentally. You can develop the toughness necessary to be a good bike racer, but only by riding your bike, very far & very very hard, in all types of weather. The training miles of course make for strong legs but they also give you the confidence to ride hard in any conditions. Wind, cold, rain, if you've done intervals in that weather while training then racing in it is no mental challenge. There is no substitute for putting in the miles.


He taught me that the only way have the resources to ride that much & that hard is to be kind. If you waste your energy in bitterness there is not enough left to ride your best. Steve was generous in ways that still astound me. Out of his generosity he built a network of friends that sustained him. From Oregon to Florida, New England to So. California he had multiple friends willing to give him a place to stay. He gave himself away to both friends, competitors, & strangers who could never repay him. My favorite story is when he returned to his house in Topeka from a long trip to find a homeless women had camped in his shed. Rather than kick her out in anger or call the police, he gave her a stack of blankets, bought her food, then helped her get a bed at the local shelter.


He taught me that cycling is a sport of adventure & awareness. He never turned away from an opportunity at a new adventure on the bike. Part of his enthusiasm for cycling was his willingness to try new disciplines & events. If he ever got bored he found a new corner of the sport to dive into for a while. He learned most of what he knew about cycling from simply being completely aware while he was racing. To understand the nuances of cycling one must be both observant & remember the details of a ride. While he was as critical about bike racing as anyone I've ever known, he also understood that one can over think this sport. Knowledge is good, being observant is better, riding every chance you have is best.


In the movie "City Slickers" Jack Palance's character Curly says to Mitch "The secret of life is just one thing", Mitch asks in return "what is that one thing?" and he replies "That's what you have to figure out"
Steve figured out that one thing was cycling for him. His life was built around it. He inspired me to ride more, to race better, to be a more generous person. He was & is my Hero. He was to thousands more. We'll miss him in ten thousand different ways.


P.S. Hundreds of cyclists & friends are sharing their memories of Steve in the last few days. Here a couple of articles that struck a cord with me


https://www.outsideonline.com/2172381/steve-tilford-obituary


https://pvcycling.wordpress.com/2017/04/06/exit-stage-center/


Keith Walburg knew Steve as well as anyone. Here is a bio that he shared: https://vimeo.com/212184428