The right way

The path of truth is straight, but lined with razors and thorns.

Reading about George Hincapie got me thinking about Steve Tilford. You couldn’t pick two people who are more different. One is quiet, dishonest, and makes his living on the back of ill-gotten gains that he earned through a career of cheating.

The other is garrulous, honest, and makes his living by playing fair and giving it his all. I’ve been meaning to do a write-up of Steve’s visit to the South Bay a few weeks ago, when he flew in from Kansas to give the keynote speech at the 3rd Annual South Bay Cycling Awards.

Copyright Phil Beckman, PB Creative. Used with permission.
Copyright Phil Beckman, PB Creative. Used with permission.

But I haven’t been able to do it because each time I sat down to type, the job seemed too immense. This evening it seems even more impossible, and not just because there’s a pot of Cajun beans and pork bubbling on the stove, infusing the room with a smell that screams “Eat me now!” without pause.

Big job or not, here goes.

Steve flew out and we met him at the Hotel Shade in Manhattan Beach. I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve ridden with lots of pros and cycling icons, and for the most part they are really disappointing in terms of personality. Something about endless miles seems to make the top tier of riders mute, or stupid, or bland, or some tasteless combination of all three.

Not Steve. From the minute we started pedaling, he was talking. Friendly, funny, and more stories than you could ever remember. Riding next to him was like leaping off into a bottomless pool of anecdotes and cycling history. If we had been expecting a bitter old curmudgeon, we would have been sadly surprised. As Steve said, “I’m not anti-doping, I’m pro-cycling. And that means I reject cheating in all its forms.”

Surrounded by us, the clueless clods of the South Bay, Steve never missed a beat, never looked down his nose at anybody, and politely followed the etiquette of the ride–an etiquette that ended with him stomping the collective dicks of some of SoCal’s strongest riders. Smiling, game for a hard ride, happy to cruise, he made us all feel like champions even though the real champion was he.

It’s impressive to watch great athletes do their thing, but the beauty of cycling is that you can sometimes participate, however briefly, in the performance. Finishing a hundred yards back from Steve the first time up to the Domes and right behind him the second time was better than any masters race, even though he was obviously going at quarter-throttle. Later in the ride, when he pulled out the stops going up Via Zumaya, no one could hold his wheel. No one. And where we were all wrecked after the ride, he had coffee and then went out for another “easy” 30 miles.

But his athletic performance was nothing compared to his keynote speech at our award ceremony. He literally graced us with his presence, speaking with conviction, with passion, with honesty, and with hail-fellow-well-met good cheer that turned a special night into an unforgettable one. Sincere, funny, and happy to hang out with the crowd after speaking and knock back a few beers … this is what every champion should be, but hardly any of them are.

The path of truth may be a hard one, but seeing people like Steve Tilford should give everyone hope and inspiration that it’s not simply a path we can take, but one that we should.

20 thoughts on “The right way”

  1. He’s the real deal and consummate pro in every possible sense of those words. It’d be easy for Tilford to be bitter or resentful about the era he came up in, but you can tell his love for the bike and for living override that. You get the sense that Tilford did things his way, by his own code, and is at peace with that because he can look back without regret. And he’s got world class DNA, which helps.

    If I’m ever reincarnated into another higher lifeform, I wanna come back as Tilly.

  2. That’s a great write up, Seth! I’d be honored to have someone speak of me in such a way in my chosen line of excellence.

    Sounds like a terrific ambassador for cycling. Kind of like a blogger I know……

  3. Seth – Nice job writing this up…. Steve is good people. He probably has more racing days than anyone on the planet. He’s always a fun to talk with.

  4. Mark 'Fred profamateur' Holt

    Nice write up. Wish I could have been there for the ride(s) and the awards.

  5. I think the write up was worth the wait, but now I’m going to have Google Mr Tilford as I don’t know anything about him.

  6. Good stuff. It really is crazy how much faster real pros are than even local fast guys. So humbling. Even better when they have admirable personalities. Met/rode with Curtis Keene 1x; this article reminded me of my interaction with him. His 10% pace, was pucker factor x4 but he was all hi-fives at the bottom and generally someone you’d invite over for a BBQ.

  7. I hope this makes it into Peloton, not that your audience isn’t already really wide spread.

    I might be mistaken, but I think that Neil Shirley is another great example of a top rate athlete in cycling who exhibits down to earth humility.

  8. Here’s an awesome Tilford anecdote from a reader:

    Be warned! … This is true shit:

    Spring of ’83 I think…I had broken my wrist again and was getting fatter and looking forward to a year of rehab after the surgery, which was coming up soon.

    I get a call from Michael Fatka, who ran the Levis/Raleigh team who had heard I was going to put together a small posse to ride the Tour of Baja (then a stout early season roadfest 7 or 8 stages). I ended up with Tilford and Mark Frise on my team from Levis/Raleigh, along with Sterling McBride, Michael Farr, and Keith Vierra from our team (Hansen’s). Off we went to San Diego from Tahoe, me driving with Lane Spina as the wrench, and Keith and Sterling listening to the Stones in the back of the van.

    We pick up Tilly and Frise, and shack up for the night, in preparation for the next day’s ‘nightime’ criteium on Avenida Revolucion in downtown Tijuana, with the Federales and their M-16’s every ten feet or so. We felt safe, sort of. Big, fast, dark crit under the streetlamps….started at dusk, finished in a field sprint which Mike Farr won and took the leader’s jersey. Problem was, in the field sprint -Tilly and Sterling crashed, with Sterling taking a huge puncture cut to his quad and Tilly getting a front tooth knocked cleanly out.

    Don’t know how he did it , but he managed to get the tooth from the street, and we got it in a big bottle of pharmaceutical distilled water, and the next day, he had oral surgery and got it put back in….obviously had to abandon, but the coolest thing was…

    He never fucking complained a bit…it had to hurt (big time) and I had a doctor buddy who helped with the process and we found an oral surgeon, and Tilly went on his way, flying back to Kansas with a sore kisser.

    Farr forgot his shoes and had to borrow a pair to start stage two. He quit a quarter of the way through that stage, wearing a borrowed pair. Frise and Vierra finished, and rode well…and I don’t remember much else, except that Tilly was … tough, just really tough and brave, and all of that…a hard man.

  9. I really enjoyed talking to Steve. Super cool guy. I won’t forget that Saturday and the evening that followed any time soon. Thanks for hanging out with us Tilford.

  10. I went hunting for a Cajun Beans and Pork recipe because of this post and ended up with a Slow Cooked Cuban Pork and Black Beans recipe instead that was Friday nights dinner, which in itself was awesome. Thanks for initiating the internet recipe hunt wormhole.

    1. You’re welcome! Whip up a 2-lb.bag of beans and there’s delicious food in the pot for three days–

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