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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.