Perched on the edge of his couch, Steve Tilford performs minor surgery wearing nothing but a pair of jeans and a silver medal of St. Christopher that rests just below his neck.
The late-December afternoon casts dim light through the window of his single-story Topeka home. A plastic bag with a biohazard symbol stamped on the front spills its contents on the coffee table. The kit is missing a needle, the one that Tilford is gingerly using to thread stitches through the leg of a black-and-white English setter.
Tilford's angular face and the small hoop in his earlobe are partly obscured by his wavy, shoulder-length hair, giving him the tousled look of an Orange County surfer rather than a lifelong Kansan. His eyes hover a few inches above the bloody gash that the dog sustained in a run-in with a barbed-wired fence earlier that day.
The dog bucks slightly as the thread pulls together the edges of the wound, but Tilford's biceps barely flinch as he holds the animal steady. His concentration is steely and silent. As a professional cyclist, he's accustomed to the sight of blood and the practice of mending his own torn flesh.
Chris Tilford stands calmly to the side as his brother plays veterinarian."He's got plenty of experience on himself," Chris says with the amused smile of someone who has watched this scene play out before but still can't get over the oddity.
A track of scars on the back of Tilford's head shows where a crush of mountain bikers, surging with adrenaline at the start of a race, rolled over his head and punctured his skull. By his count, he has busted his clavicle at least three times on each side and fractured a dozen other bones. For the more minor rips and gashes, though, Tilford has his own bag of sutures and anesthetic. He has learned to stitch up his own wounds.
Acting as his own doctor or sewing up a minced dog leg on a Friday afternoon isn't what makes Steve Tilford eccentric, though. He's a Kansan who has spent 30 years at the top of a sport first elevated by Europeans. Next month, he'll turn 49 years old, but he's still pounding away in a profession that spits out even its most dedicated by the time they're in their late 30s.
For Tilford to stop competing, something will have to take him out — something more disabling than broken bones, something more persistent than the constant questions about retirement. Because, after all these years, the only discomfort that spooks him is giving up the hard-knock life.
In the time it takes Tilford to stride across Massachusetts Street, he has downed a banana in a few bites. It's a few weeks before Christmas, and Tilford is swinging through Lawrence for a party at the Sunflower Outdoor and Bike Shop down the street.
To get to Lawrence from his home in Topeka — for Tilford, 30 miles over back roads — there's no need to jump in his Honda Insight hybrid or his boxy 1986 Isuzu Trooper. For such a short jaunt, to fetch a double shot of espresso or join friends for a few beers, he just rides his bike. When he arrives on this frigid afternoon, his face is flushed. He acknowledges the cold with a little sniffle.
Had he followed his family's lead, Tilford would have been a musician. His grandfather was a violinist, his grandmother a pianist. They met working silent movies in the 1920s and landed in Topeka because it was a wide-open market for a piano store. That's where Tilford's father worked; his mother was a homemaker. By age 7, Tilford could play a Bach sonata.
Tilford was athletic but didn't gravitate toward team sports. He broke his leg twice in seventh grade — once falling out of a tree, the second time skiing — and fell behind the curve of other kids trying out for football and basketball. But that was in the mid-1970s. The 10-speed craze had hit. A Schwinn bike shop had opened in Topeka. Cycling was catching on, and Tilford was drawn to the solitary sport. "I was hooked on it early," he says. "I spent every free minute of my day thinking about cycling."
At 14, he started racing with a team sponsored by the University of Kansas. The first year he competed regularly, he won the state's junior championship. He then qualified for the national championship but broke his collarbone a week before the race. He competed anyway. Tilford traveled around the country for Olympic development races. By the time he was 17, famed cycling coach Eddie Borysewicz was scouting him for the U.S. Junior National Team, a small group groomed for international racing.
"I graduated high school a year early just to get out and race bikes," Tilford says with a mischievous grin. "Then I went to KU and thought, OK, this is going to be cool, you know, going to college. After a week, I realized that going to college is just like high school, only you go to class half as much. So I skipped out on the first semester and went to Florida for three weeks to race."
He didn't go back. He moved to Colorado Springs on an invitation to live at the Olympic Training Center and was soon named a member of the U.S. National Team. Instead of attending classes in Lawrence, he started touring Europe, competing in long-distance stage races. "We'd finish a five-day race in southern France, and we'd be in northern Italy for a race that started the next day," Tilford says.
The kid from Topeka earned his keep. He was competing 120 days a year, which left barely enough time to travel from one destination to the next. In 1980, at age 20, he was running second place in the U.S. Olympic trials for road cycling. But he was knocked out by a throat infection that ended in tonsil surgery.
Being on the national team wasn't a full-time gig. Tilford's expenses were paid when he was racing overseas, but to retain amateur status, an American cyclist couldn't take home more than $200 a day in prize money. So Tilford also raced for a small team sponsored by Michael's Cyclery in Ames, Iowa. There, he met Trudi Rebsamen, an athlete from Chicago who attended Iowa State University on a running scholarship.
She fell for Tilford. She took up cycling.
"We had a Honda Civic and traveled in the fall and early spring up and down the East Coast, all our belongings in this little car," Rebsamen says. They both competed on the same set of racing wheels; if one person crashed, the other was out of luck. They shared whatever condo floor or hotel room the race organizers arranged. They ate wherever their meal vouchers offered free food.
Tilford was making a name for himself. He was a strong rider and a talented bike handler, but he also was a tactician who relished the mental challenge of the sport. He had a high tolerance for pain and was game for just about anything that involved a bike, a plane ticket and the chance to compete.
In 1983, that chance was the first U.S. National Mountain Bike Championship. Tilford had never competed in such a race, but a sponsor built him a free bike, and Tilford flew to California. "You climbed three miles up this Jeep road, and then it went to a single track, where you rode beside this stream," he says of the course. "If you missed a corner, you could just, uh, die, I guess."
Instead, he won. Content to get dirty, Tilford started racing cyclocross — a hybrid of track and mountain biking that pits competitors against a muddy course with man-made obstacles — and took home that national title in both 1983 and 1984.
After the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, cycling became a recognizable sport in the United States. Road racers began turning pro and earning lucrative sponsorships. Tilford landed spots on high-caliber squads the rest of that decade, including the Wheaties-Schwinn and Levi's-Raleigh teams. In 1988, in a narrow decision, he was skipped over for the U.S. Olympic team.
That wasn't his only Olympic close call. In 1996, he took second place in the Olympic mountain-bike trials on the same course used for the games in Atlanta. But he wasn't one of the two chosen for the U.S. team. "They put it on paper but they never stick to it," Tilford says of the Olympic selection process. "There's always somebody left out."
After that, Tilford signed with Specialized Bicycle Components to race with its professional mountain-bike squad. Ned Overend, his star teammate, had won six national titles and was pulling in $250,000 a year in salary and prize money. Tilford was banking six figures, too. "I was one of the highest-paid [U.S.] mountain-bike racers," he says.
But in 1998, that deal disintegrated when Specialized ended its sponsorship of the team. Suddenly, Tilford didn't have a comfortable paycheck or a backer for his extensive travel itinerary. The change might have killed another cyclist's career, but Tilford adjusted.
"You can't judge yourself in athletics by how much you're getting paid or who is deciding to pay you or who is flying you around the world to race bikes," he says. "Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time, money never comes into consideration at all. I mean, the amount of pain you suffer — you couldn't pay yourself enough to compensate for that."
By then, Tilford had outlasted many of the athletes with whom he had entered the sport. To keep riding, he had learned to cobble together his own sponsorships, including smaller deals with the bicycle-parts manufacturer Shimano and a Japanese clothing manufacturer. The business side of racing still makes Tilford uncomfortable. "I don't like calling people up, like, 'Hey, here's how great I am, here's how well I keep doing.'"
His name still sells, though. In 2004, he was tapped to anchor a new Midwest team sponsored by the popular bike maker Trek. But this squad hasn't been like the ones he joined for Levi's or Specialized. It's not a professional team. Tilford has a unique setup with the company because of his independent marketing draw. He still has a U.S.A. Cycling license that classifies him as "elite," but his standing is far more precarious.
"Technically, I'm an elite without a contract," he says, laughing at the awkward complexities of sanctioning by his sport's governing body. "But I've not gone out of my way to be on a professional team. It kind of stifles your freedom. I have the luxury to do anything I want."
Overend, who now works for Specialized in Colorado, says a handful of athletes who have passed age 40 still race in a few "masters" events each year. Some of them still have the stamina to train hundreds of miles a week and impress their local baristas when they commute 30 miles on two wheels for a cup of coffee. But there are no full-time elite riders pushing 50, no cyclists still traveling around the country every weekend racing bicycles to make a living.
As dozens of cyclists start to filter in to the Mud and Blood Ball, the kickoff party for the national championship, Tilford isn't sitting behind a table signing autographs. He's perched on top of the folding furniture, smacking his gum and talking about getting four-star hotel rooms for $29. Scattered on the table are shiny, postcard-sized photos of Tilford, the title "4X National Cyclocross Champion" hovering above an image of him grinding down a muddy course, brown chunks of earth flying up from his wheels.
It's December 11, the first night of the Cyclocross National Championships, which is being held in Kansas City for the second consecutive year. The Mission Theatre is lined with cycling companies hawking gear and the best athletes in the sport nursing bottles of beers.
Wandering through the crowd is Mark Thomas, a local race organizer who helped launch the cyclocross scene in Kansas City in the mid-1990s. "Originally, we'd meet out in this mud park in Lenexa; it was a shithole," he says with a laugh. "But Tilford would be there, lapping everyone."
Now the region is turning out dominant athletes, such as 17-year-old Chris Wallace. Many of these guys see Tilford as an icon, a mentor. They approach Tilford with posters to sign. Fellow racers solicit advice. But there's another reason that Tilford draws a crowd. He has 30 years' worth of anecdotes, and he's one hell of a storyteller.
He might talk about a race in Colombia and roaming the streets of Bogota with Rebsamen when someone snatched a gold necklace right from his neck. Naturally, he says with a smirk, he sprinted after the thief through the crowded pedestrian mall and caught him in a small shop. Calling the cops just made the situation more absurd.
"So there's me and this translator guy and the criminal in the backseat of this Toyota Corolla, driving around Bogota with the cops," he says. "And they're stopping at phones and making calls, and one cop will get out and another gets in. Pretty soon it's three new cops, the criminal is crying — sitting on my lap crying, no kidding — and I'm, like, 'What the fuck is going on here?'"
When they finally let Tilford go, it was a four-hour walk from the outskirts of the city back into Bogota — not quite as harrowing as the time in Chile when a military captain shoved a machine gun into his ribs.
But that's another story.
Overend, whom Tilford talked into hiking the base of Mount Fuji in the dead of winter, says the Topeka native may be the sport's most avid tourist. When other cyclists complain about the food, Tilford will keep chewing after he finds out that he's eating horse and laugh about it later. Teammates might bitch about accommodations; Tilford will stay behind and sleep on the floor at a low-end guesthouse just for the chance to spend a little more time checking out Tokyo.
A little past 9 p.m., the lights go down at the Mud and Blood Ball. The crowd quiets as the opening credits roll on Zero Traction, a film produced by a Topeka outfit chronicling the action at the 2007 Cyclocross National Championships. Tilford is featured in the film, but he doesn't stick around to watch.
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!"
"Aw, c'mon, he could deliver newspapers right now," a man at the top of the hill responds. "It's over."
The spectator is right. After three laps, Tilford has no competition. His lead grows to 23 seconds, then 25. "Steve Tilford giving a quick look back," the announcer says as Tilford turns into the final stretch. "He knows he has it. He's going to sit up and enjoy this one."
But Tilford isn't elated. He's relieved.
"Winning his 852nd national championship, he's more than a legend. He's the godfather: Steve Tilford!" the announcer bellows when the cyclist steps up to the podium.
There's nothing to gain from winning the masters category. The only consequence would have been the embarrassment of not taking first place. The next day is the real test: the men's elite race.
That night, Tilford's pessimism follows him to a party at Shawnee's Trek Bicycle Store. The talk around the beer keg is that the course is too easy, that it lacks any technical challenge. That doesn't favor Tilford, who needs to pull out a long-shot performance if he wants to stand on the awards podium.
"I need a little luck," he says. "I'm not the strongest guy anymore. I need some kind of skill, a mental thing to give me an advantage."
The next day, the sun is still shining, and the course is dry. At the edge of the second row, Tilford waits behind the sport's top stars, his gaze focused dead ahead. In front of him are Tim Johnson, 31, from Boston; Ryan Trebon, 27, from Bend, Oregon; and Jeremy Powers, 25, from Niantic, Connecticut.
Tilford knows the start is all that matters. If he doesn't stay with the leading pack and draft the fastest riders, he doesn't have a shot. When the whistle sounds, the cyclists in the front row lurch forward with the pent-up intensity of bulls released into a rodeo. But Tilford falters.
Instead of propelling him forward, his left foot skims the pedal. It's only a split-second mistake. But he knows it's over.
Tilford finishes 18th. Even in a field of the sport's 75 most elite U.S. athletes, Tilford will label the 2008 championship another disaster.
A week after the nationals, Tilford is moping. It's nearly Christmas, and Rebsamen has suited up in Arctic-ready gear for a ride of her own. Tilford stays home, drinking a cup of coffee under the watchful gaze of his one-eyed cat, Wink, whom he found on the side of the road during a training ride and brought home tucked into his jersey.
"I put three months on hold for this," he says of the Cyclocross National Championships. "It's so demoralizing. And I've got so much shit to do."
He looks down from the kitchen table to a handful of bike parts lined up beneath an oversized chalkboard with "Steve" scrawled at the top in capital letters.
"You know you're depressed when you've got a box of forks sitting in the kitchen," he says of the two-pronged metal pieces that hold a bike's front wheel in place.
It's not that the best athlete didn't win the elite race. The top finisher, Trebon, is a 10,000-watt phenom, by Tilford's assessment. What galls Tilford is that he lost by screwing up something so simple. "I haven't missed a pedal at the start of a race all fall," he says. "I can't believe I've been flying around for three months to get these points to line up good, and I missed the pedal."
And it's not that Tilford needs the validation. In the house that he inherited from his grandmother, where he has lived since he was 12, he has more hardware than he can can display in any sort of orderly fashion. He keeps only the most important medals, such as those for his five wins in the Masters Mountain Bike World Championships, in a glass bowl on a bedside table. He has earned so many victory jerseys that he once traded one with Dan Hughes, the owner of Sunflower Bike Shop, for a pair of shoes.
In 2008, Tilford claimed six victories and earned second or third place in a dozen other contests. But winning isn't the point, and not winning isn't what will tell him when to retire. "It's so hard to stop doing something that gives you so much — not even enjoyment, but knowledge, life experience," he says.
Even when he's disappointed with recent events, he shrugs off regret. He never raced in the Tour de France when he had the chance, but he competed in a hundred races just as tough, if not as fashionable. He doesn't flinch at the fact that he and Rebsamen never had kids, never moved out of the modest Topeka home with a basement stacked floor to ceiling with bike gear.
"This is what we are, what we've become," Rebsamen says. "Even if we're here for a reason, after 10 days, I don't know, we just get antsy. We start thinking, What else is out there?"
To Tilford, the nomadic life is no sacrifice.
"I wake up to an alarm clock very rarely, hardly ever," he says. "Sometimes, I'll be driving to the airport at 6:30, looking at all the people driving to work, and think, God, what a drag it would be if this was your life."
But with that privilege comes anxiety. Rebsamen says Tilford still doesn't talk about "the R word" — retirement. But he racked up $3,000 in medical bills in 2008. He has started wearing reading glasses. He's not religious, but superstition has gained a foothold. This past autumn, the chain broke on his St. Christopher medal, and he crashed in four straight races. Now, the silver emblem is secured to his neck with two strands of black leather.
"I see guys take time off, but I might be getting to the precipice," he says with a dark laugh. "If I take off two months, I might fall off. And I might not be able to climb back up."
So he doesn't stop.
"It really does reset and start over," he says. "I can be racing right after Christmas in Australia. I just need to pick a goal. That's the greatest thing about cycling. You get another chance whenever you want it."
It's too cold to train outside on this December evening. There's a light dusting of snow on the dark streets. It's Friday night, and young powerhouses in the sport are probably hitting the bars, taking a break from the rigors of athletics in the cyclocross offseason.
Tilford stays home. He hops on the stationary bike in the living room, right next to his grandmother's old piano. He cranks up the resistance and grinds out another two hours, edging away from the precipice.
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