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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.