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

Keith Walburg knew Steve as well as anyone. Here is a bio that he shared:

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