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"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.