Exit, stage center

Steve Tilford didn’t go quietly into that dark night, and he certainly didn’t exit stage left. He went out from the center in a thrashing, twisting howl of shredded metal, his van hurtling through the body of an overturned semi-tractor trailer in a winter storm on I-70. The last act of Steve’s life, one marked by countless falls, broken bones, and injuries, was a massive freeway crash.

Steve Tilford died the result of a violent collision, something that couldn’t have been predicted or avoided, but that he nonetheless found himself smack in the middle of, going full tilt, no time to brake, swerve, or take evasive action. Incredibly for anyone but Steve, smashing through the first tractor-trailer didn’t kill him, no, he survived that just fine. It was the second 18-wheeler that plowed into the crash scene that left him with injuries from which even Steve Tilford, the man of steel, the phoenix who rose from every injury faster and stronger and tougher than before, the time-defying ageless competitor, could not recover.

This was just like when things go sideways in a tightly packed, high speed crit. It was just like in the uproarious, furious, full-throttle story of Steve Tilford’s incredibly short life. He was 57, and still younger than all of us.

The last time I talked to Steve he had texted and said that he was on his way to California, and could we grab a bite near the airport before he headed on down to San Diego?

There was only one possible answer to that invitation, which was “Absolutely.” We met at The Habit burger grill in El Segundo, and I wasn’t really sure why he’d reached out, but didn’t exactly care. He had fallen on a training ride in October of last year and suffered a catastrophic closed head injury. He had been slated to come and speak at our annual South Bay Cycling Awards again, but of course couldn’t after the fall.

Tilford-like, he’d gone down at 30 on a training ride, unhelmeted, taken out by a dog, such that his skull shattered. When the inevitable victim blaming sprang up, Tilford shrugged. “I didn’t wear a helmet and it didn’t work out for me, but I don’t go around blaming riders with helmets who’ve been injured or killed.”

The first words out of his mouth when we met were an apology. “Really sorry I missed the awards last year,” he said, as if hovering between life and death wasn’t a good enough reason to stay home.

And that summed up one part of Steve Tilford: Decent to a fault. Reflective to an almost painful degree. Keenly aware by orders of magnitude how his life, his actions, and his words affected others. Not by random chance did he end up that way. His parents were alcoholics, and at a young age he was abandoned by his mom and sent to live with his grandmother, who was in her 80s.

“Never really cared for drinking,” he told me. “And living with my grandmother, that added years to her life.” He said it with a laugh as he regaled me with the story, because the other part of Steve was his storytelling. Everything may not have happened for a reason, but it happened, and he recalled the smallest of details to give you the blow-by-blow. His memory was extraordinary, photographic, total recall. “I’ll never forget being down in Austin one winter, I was staying with Fields and the Dicksons. They were always doing stuff.

“One morning I got ready to ride and my bike was super heavy. I couldn’t figure it out. It was like ten pounds heavier. Turns out they had yanked the seat post and filled the seat tube with gravel.”

Behind the smile and the kindness was the hardness of Steve’s early Kansas boyhood, and it was fitting that the town of Topeka gave rise to one of cycling’s greats. If American cycling has a soul, it is in the Midwest and the Great Plains, where the wind, the cold, the wet, the heat, and the wind, the wind, the wind made bestial pain the price of bike racing. Steve was a product of hard scrabble and hard wind, and it showed in everything he did.

And what he did, mostly, was whip ass. His, hers, yours, mine, everyone’s. The first and only time we rode together was on the Donut Ride in 2015. He had come out to be a guest speaker for our annual awards ceremony, and that morning we had our weekly slugfest. Word was out that Tilford was in town, and quite a bit of heavy artillery had been rolled into position. Steve made short work of everyone, “everyone” being at least twenty years younger.

But aside from the national titles, the masters world titles, and the thousands–yes, thousands–of races he competed it, Steve stood for something a lot bigger than ripping your legs off and screaming through corners at 35. Steve stood for what is right, and he stood for it by living it.

A prodigious talent, a tremendous competitor, a disciplined athlete, a meticulous strategist, Steve never made the big time in the sport of bike racing. It’s not because he lacked the legs or the will or the smarts or the drive. It’s because he refused to cheat.

It grated on him to watch the big generation of drug cheats, the Armstrongs, Hincapies, Leipheimers, Vaughters, the entire cheating hall of shame that not only scooped up the money but retired to lucrative clothing lines, profitable grand fondues, and the management/ownership of UCI Pro Tour teams. But rather than dwell on what he might have done, he didn’t dwell at all. You can’t dwell when you’re railing the corners at 35.

He called dopers what they were, shrugged, and raced his fuggin’ bike. It was this relentless honesty and his world-renowned blog that, in the second half of his racing career, kept him on the sidelines yet again. His writing was direct, personal, powerful, and unvarnished. He didn’t whore out to rebadged component makers, didn’t extol the fake virtues of new bike frames or disc brakes, didn’t attribute his success to magical elixirs or power meters, and insisted on speaking The Hard Truth: If you want to be a good bike racer, you have to train hard and race hard. There is no second path, there is no Plan B.

And he lived the corollary to that truth: If you race, you’re going to get hurt. This amazing and beautiful piece written by Bill Strickland twenty years ago captures the cycling side of Tilford’s life in brutal prose. By age 38, Steve had sustained the kind of wounds and injuries and PTSD that we normally only associate with war. And at the time Strickland’s piece was written, Steve had almost twenty more years to go, years into which he would pack the equivalent of a hundred other lives in terms of danger, competition, injury, victory, and excitement. A hundred lives? A thousand.

Strickland calls this piece “Why We Ride,” but in truth, if Tilford’s life is the model, it’s why we don’t. Because we can’t.

Steve’s writing captured the imagination of thousands, and it chapped the asses of cycling journalism because it paid them no homage, paid them no advertising, and spoke only the introspective and reflective thoughts forged from a lifetime of real racing. Steve wrote true things, and those who read them knew them to be true.

Roy Knickman, one of America’s legends during the golden age of cycling, raced with Steve and summed it up like this: “There was only one Steve Tilford, a guy who spoke his mind but never with malice, he simply said what he believed to be true. He lived his life like no one else–I love racing my bike and I’m going to race my bike forever–that was Steve. He found a way to make it work and developed so many relationships along the way, and it’s amazing, the goodwill that he spread and the following that he had. People loved him because he was Steve Tilford who could do anything; at 57 he could do a P12 crit and still get in the money, or be the masters world ‘cross champ, or win an MTB series.

“One of my best memories of Steve is the year at the Coors Classic we were getting ready for the banquet and instead of dressing up we spray-painted t-shirts in my driveway. Hampsten’s shirt read KOM, but Steve’s read KOS, King of Spills (or Stories). He would crash, get up, and tell a story about it … and he could sprint pretty good for all that.

“One of the last times I saw him I had just mentioned off-hand on the phone that I was getting married and we were at the rehearsal down at the beach in PV and suddenly up rode this guy looking like Keith Richards on a bike. It was Steve who had come by to say hello, who for all I knew should have been in Kansas, not California. Classic Steve.”

A friend of mine, Michael Smith, also a Kansan, talked about how watching Tilford at a race in Scottsdale in 1997 had inspired him to race bikes. Fifteen years after that race, “My cycling career was complete when I was able to battle it out with Steve, shoulder to shoulder, racing up a finishing hill in a nothing race in nowhere Kansas. Might as well have been the Alpe D’Huez, that’s how much I cared. After the finish, which of course Steve won, I told him the story of how he inspired me with his performance that night in Scottsdale. As we stood there breathless, he recounted that race from fifteen years ago in vivid detail, move by move. I think he knew how much that meant to me.”

Michael is only one of thousands whose lives were affected for the better by Steve’s kindness and his amazing exploits on the bike. Steve’s life was a big picture, but it was lived and shared and scripted in the details, of which none seemed to escape his keen eye and digital memory.

As tributes poured in from all over the world, another thing became clear. The reward to a virtuous life can only be reaped in death. It is not only what people say about you when you are alive, but when you are not.

As Steve and I sat and talked over hamburgers and fries that night in El Segundo, we didn’t really talk at all. Steve did. He talked about his injury, about the splitting headaches that hurt so bad he couldn’t open his eyes for hours on end, about how long it was taking for his brain to function properly again, about his fear that he might never fully recover, and about how he was going to race anyway. He was in California, after all, to train. He’d set the Belgian Waffle Ride in his sights and was there to recon the course.

We parted company and he headed on down to San Diego. I figured I’d see him again on his way back to Kansas.

I never did.



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91 thoughts on “Exit, stage center”

  1. This is a beautiful explanation of, and tribute to, Steve Tilford. Thank you Seth.

  2. Brought tears to my eyes. Never knew him, but starting following his blog daily after is was linked here as part of a doping diatribe, I think. I’ll miss that daily blog. It was inspiring. All the more so since I broke my back in an MTB race 4 weeks ago. I kept thinking if Tilford can come back……

  3. Michelle landes

    Wow beautiful seth❤ He lived a great full life! Im happy to have met him at the Wanky’s very sweet man. May he Rest In Peace and look over BWR and smile

  4. No words can describe what the loss of his life means to me, someone who never met him, but knew him through his blog. Thanks for capturing many of those with beautiful prose.

  5. Seth, thank You for eulogizing your friend Steve Tilford. Though I did not know him personally, it is evident in his writings that he walked tall in life, and forever carried a big stick called “Integrity”. It seems like Steve Tilford broke the mold that God Broke to make Steve Tilford. Steve Tilford, you were a True Original, RIP.

  6. Thank you Seth – beautifully written. I met Steve back in the early 80’s while at the University of Kansas on the typical training rides and early season training races in Lawrence. Through the decades our paths would cross and we would catch up. I was just your average roadie back in the day and later in life just your typical CXer and MTBer – continuing to ride for the love of it. Steve was the warmest and most humble person I ever met. What you read in his blog is exactly the way he was in life. I will strive to be kinder, warmer and open to others. That is the way Steve lived his life – a lesson for all of us.

  7. No one will write truer, wiser words about Steve than these. Thank you, Seth.

    His was a wheel few could follow. Now, gone up the road for good. I can’t imagine him resting. But, peace, Steve.

  8. Seth,

    Another beautiful thing you have written, a tragedy you had to write it.

    Rest in peace Steve.

  9. As if yesterday wasn’t bad enough, now you’ve gone and made it hurt all over again. But this is a good cleansing kind of hurt, like scrubbing gravel out of a road rash and making it bleed itself clean

    Seems like fate threw some massive haymakers at Tilford throughout his entire life and he managed to dodge most of them. It’s always said that “when your number is up…” but Fate just kept throwing those big old roundhouses and missing. sure makes for an interesting life. And throw in that Integrity (as you (Seth) and Worthy10 absolutely nailed it) you have a legend and a model for a life lived jam-effing-packed with experiences normal people can’t begin to fathom.

    Thanks ST for taking us along for the ride and thank you Seth for a beautiful tribute

  10. Thanks for writing this. Those of us who started racing in the 70s and never stopped, even those like me who didn’t travel much and never got to know Steve personally, could always identify with him. From the beginning, he was always there, always racing, always true to the sport. I can’t think of anyone who can fill the void. It feels like I’ve lost a loved one.

  11. I only knew Steve from his blog and seeing him briefly at the Wanky awards but I am a fan. Steve was true-blue and loved people. You could tell Steve stuck by those he loved and they stuck by him. He was kind without being soft; strong without being arrogant. He was engaging, whether he was talking about bikes, dogs, doctors or travel. I was drawn to his authentic and honest nature. There is far too little of that in the world. Steve Tilford was an American original and I will miss him.

  12. It’s probably not PC to suggest there’s a competition, but your tribute to Steve Tilford is head and shoulders above the rest. It’s the eulogy this great man earned over and over over. So glad your life collided with his in a memorable way and I loved his subsequent blog about you in 2015.
    Beautiful work, Wanky

  13. Thanks Seth, that was beautifully written. We should all strive to be more like Steve, I know I will.

  14. Alfred Christensen

    Thanks for a beautiful piece Seth. I never met Steve but his blog, specifically his description and recovery from a broken hip/pelvis in 2014, helped me get back on the bike after a crash and broken hip 2 years ago. Just an incredible individual who lived with integrity and spirit. RIP

  15. Thanks for taking the time to write this difficult piece Seth…Im sure Tilford would approve.

    1. Thanks, Dan. So glad we got to meet him and hang out in 2015. What a good dude.

  16. Thanks so much Seth for sharing, makes me wish even more that I’d had the chance to meet Steve. Super cool of you to write this amazing piece about one of the super coolest bike racers ever!

  17. When I saw this story in the news, the first thought that came to mind was the story you wrote when he had that crash. Coming to cycling late in life, I was not familiar with him. When people die around my age, it brings my fragile mortality that much closer to home.

  18. Fellow Seth traveler here. This is a beautiful elegy. Thank you Seth. I will forever miss Tilly, although only had brief (but wonderful) interactions with him in person and through email. Us Midwestern folks are especially hurting because he was OUR star, our guy, from a region that is always dismissed on the national scene, and not just in cycling. Thank you for mentioning the importance of this special region. He represented without condescension. But he spread the love. Damn he will be missed.

    1. Thanks, Seth. The original hardmen who initiated me into the ritual misery of cycling were all Midwesterners. “You think this is [cold/wet/hot/windy/awful/miserable/inhuman]? Come to fuggin’ Iowa.”

  19. A great comment from Facebook I’m copying and pasting here from one of the infamous Iowans …

    The winter of 1979 saw scores of cyclists from the Midwest descend upon Austin, Texas for winter training. The bike bums from Illinois (the Doering contingency) stayed at one apartment complex. A few miles away the Kansas bike bums stayed at another apartment complex. Lastly, the Iowa bike bums stayed at El Tropicana located on the NE corner of Enfield Road and Exposition in Austin. Steve Tilford briefly stayed with the Iowa riders including myself, Scott Dickson, Kevin Kliefoth, Jeff Fields, Scott Albrect, Tom Laughead, Steve Borthwick and Dirty Dick Richard Thompson. Steve Tilford was hammering us daily in the hills out west of town on Route 2222. We had to figure a way to slow him down. So, it was decided to add some weight to his bike via some gravel from our parking lot. We would have preferred lead shot but that was expensive and we didn’t have any money anyway. The seat tube was the natural aperture for the essential addition. The deed was done one afternoon when Steve’s bike went unattended during a calorie acquisition mission to the local Safeway. When ridden, it made a lot of noise for over a week and then Steve decided to take his bike apart to see what it was. Well, he found the rocks, and there was going to be hell to pay, and he knew the general clan of the culprits but not the individuals that augmented his ride. So, Steve and some other Kansas riders decided to apply the shotgun approach. Guilt by association was the justification. “We’ll just get everybody”. So, Steve and the other Kansas riders, who shall remain nameless, baked some chocolate chip cookies and packed them with jalapenos and serrano peppers and dropped them off while we were out on a ride. There was no note or anything accompanying the cookies. We came back from a long bonk ride and proceeded to woof the cookies down, assuming that they were dropped off by the Ria sisters that lived below. Well, everybody’s mouths were on fire from the hot peppers and we were all throwing elbows and fighting each other for the kitchen faucet.

  20. Man Seth, that shit was on point.

    Thanks for taking the time to write that.

    Lots of love to Trudi, Tucker and all through this difficult time
    of loss.

  21. “It is not only what people say about you when you are alive, but when you are not.”

    That’s poetry.
    All of it was beautiful.
    Thank you Seth,

  22. Anthony Campbell

    Great tribute. I only met Steve a couple of times, but he made a lasting impression. He was a wonderful ambassador for the sport.

  23. Awesome tribute to a dude that did it his way, which was the right way. I bet Steve would be blushing from all of this attention and praise, which he is worthy of. Pedal on Steve!

    1. So many great moments in this documentary. Kris trying to sum up Steve in few words and saying he is greater than the sum of his parts – “there’s almost a little magic there.” Speculation by someone that once Steve retires from cycling, he’d make a great coach; bet they never imagined he’d still be racing and winning at age 57. Thanks for digging this up. The shock is easing and emptiness is taking over.

      1. He made a great coach all his life–the kind you tried to catch up to, and mostly didn’t.

  24. Seth, the only thing that should be added at the end of your piece:

    “drops the mic”

  25. There’s an old question:
    “How are you going to die?”.

    Thank you, Seth.

  26. Excellent tribute! Some trivia: Around 1976 I came in 3rd place at the Kansas State USCF Junior “Championship” near Manhattan, Kansas. The Tilford brothers finished first and second on their orange Colnagos. The next year I showed up with a new orange Colnago. Didn’t help me at all. I still finished 3rd. (out of three riders total! They slaughtered me again). Anyway, I think it’s so cool how cycling has grown since then, and how Steve Tilford emerged to be such an influential person in cycling and in life. Kudos for the great tribute to an amazing guy.

  27. He did race again. Not too long ago. And of course, the last race he entered he won.

    1. “He did race again. Not too long ago. And of course, the last race he entered he won.”

      Well if that isn’t kismet I don’t know what is.

  28. Wanky: I read two blogs with my 2-3 IPA’s most every night. Tilly’s and yours. Man that dude was one tough motherfucker. So much to learn from him, and so much lost. I always thought I would get a chance to meet him. Thanks for the great tribute – especially the part about his upbringing. I’ve always wondered about that. Sheds a bit of light on how he got to be how he was – as hard as nails but also a thinker who cared about people and things bigger than himself. The highest compliment I can give him is that he had a lot of the same qualities as Ayrton Senna. Always pushing the limits…

      1. He was a giant and can’t be replaced. Plus, who comes up with names like “Dick Doper”?

  29. Comment that came in via email:

    Hi Seth,

    That was a beautiful essay on Steve’s exit from this earth. You nailed it. Thank you for writing it.

    I’m willing to bet that only two things were on his mind at the time. 1) Getting Tucker out of the van (to comfort him), and 2) how he was going to hit AutoZone in Grand Junction and get it fixed up to finish the drive to Denver.

    As Joe Jackson said “He went out in a Blaze of Glory!”

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