Steve Tilford has sewn up his place in cyclocross history — but he isn't done 

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Instead, he abandons the table strewn with pictures of him. He has a hotel room full of equipment that needs to be checked. He has a room full of expectations to meet the next day. More important, he has a crowd of athletes half his age to outsmart.


On Friday morning, Tiffany Springs Park echoes with the sounds of screaming fans, clanging cowbells and Axl Rose belting out "Welcome to the Jungle." A thin, muddy line traces an undulating path up the grassy hill and snakes through stands of trees. Cyclists from all over the country muscle through the 1.8-mile course, hoisting their bikes to sprint up steep hills or leap over foot-high barriers.

The atmosphere is a hybrid of a rock concert and a college football game. Like mountain biking 10 years ago, cyclocross is the hottest trend in cycling. It's fast and gritty. And because its athletes loop a defined track, it's spectator-friendly. The second weekend in December, plenty show up at the grassy expanse north of Kansas City for the Super Bowl of badass American cycling.

Compared with the brutal weather the year before, this day's conditions are ideal. In 2007, the race at Wyandotte County Park was battered with snow and ice. The bitter temperatures barely held onto double digits. Tilford was on home turf, but even for him, the day turned into a nightmare.

At the start of the 2007 elite men's race, he was in the top five. Then he punctured both tires and had to ride them flat for nearly a full lap. He dropped back to 50th place. Riding a new bike from the pit, he climbed back to 15th place. Then he flatted again and finished 29th.

"It was a disaster," he says.

It took three months of weekly races to get another shot at Tiffany Springs in 2008.

"You've got to fly around and collect these stupid points," Tilford says. Those points, doled out by the International Cycling Union, give a racer access to the elite competition. The higher the standing, the better the starting position. To get a prime spot in the lineup, Tilford dealt with harsh conditions. At a November race in Iowa City, heavy, wet snow made the course a treacherous parade of cyclists flipping and careening out of control. "People were sliding on their backs down the ice and mud, and you're thinking, This is a sport?" he says.

Getting ready at the starting line at Tiffany Springs Park, Tilford doesn't seem fatigued from the season or nervous about the impending conclusion. He's near the head of the pack for the masters race — a field of the sport's best U.S. athletes between the ages of 45 and 49. For Tilford, this is just a warm-up, a chance to preview the course.

When the race starts, he bolts to an immediate lead. The winding course has been kneaded by the cyclists racing earlier in the day. The mud is the consistency of Silly Putty. Tilford exhales hard through pursed lips. At the back end of the course, he dismounts his bike, braces it against the side of his biceps and explodes up earthen steps made jagged from the cleats of previous racers. A crowd has gathered at the top for a view of the straining athletes.

"Seventeen!" Rebsamen shouts at Tilford, leaning from the sideline, letting him know how many seconds he's got on his closest competitor. "Seventeen! You're OK!"

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