Page 7 of 7
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.
Click here to write a letter to the editor.