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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.