Editor’s note: The U.S. cycling scene lost a legend on Thursday. Steve Tilford was tragically killed in a highway crash while driving west of Grand Junction, Colorado. To remember him, we are republishing this profile from the January 2015 issue of VeloNews magazine. We extend our condolences to Tilford’s family, friends, and anyone who was inspired by his amazing longevity and outspoken personality.
If you only know Steve Tilford from the frequent scrawling found on his blog, you might think he’s just an opinionated, cantankerous boor.
And you’d be right — he can be. He admits as much. But you’d also have misjudged one of the most prolific bike racers in the history of the United States.
Tilford is a student of the game, and has been for nearly 40 years. He knows cycling like few others, and he isn’t afraid to tell you about it.
“I love riding my bike; it grounds me. Even with some physical ailments, it allows me to clear my mind and organize my day or week,” the Topeka, Kansas, native said. “I’ve been doing it since I was 14, but even if you take the competitive aspect out, it really remains as my focus.”
For 30 of those years, he’s been a teammate and friend of the legendary Ned Overend, the 1990 mountain bike world champion and long-time Specialized consultant.
They first met in 1983 when Overend found himself on the Raleigh-sponsored road team for the Coors Classic. He had only started road racing the year prior, as a Cat. 4.
“So I was green, especially for that level, with the East Germans, 7-Eleven; it was super competitive,” Overend said. “I was so green, and Steve was a wealth of information and happy to share it. I could learn a ton from him and he was happy to help me out and give me his guidance as I was thrown into the [race].”
The two continued to race together on mountain bikes as part of the Specialized MTB team; they traveled the world together, to Europe and South America, and Japan every year.
“The beauty of traveling with Steve is that the guy loves to learn; he loves to learn about cultures, language, architecture, politics,” Overend said. “It was so great traveling with him because he was fascinated by everything and loved to learn. In between races we might go see the churches in Florence; we climbed Mount Fuji.”
Tilford’s infectious, upbeat appreciation of all things in and beyond cycling make him a sage in the sport, and bring an authority to his simple blog about everything from performance-enhancing drugs to bathroom remodels (he likes to tackle construction projects and help friends with redesigns), and everything in between. Love it or hate it, his blog is a reflection of his tell-it-how-he-sees-it style.
It’s a sport he has been pointedly critical of. He isn’t afraid to post a thought about the hypocrisy he sees, the concerns he has, or the people he either admires or wrings his hands over. Most of the time, no matter what his thoughts, his blog posts create a familiar buzz: “Get a load of what ‘Tilly’ thinks of …” … and fill in the blank.
“I’m opinionated, for sure, in my life and my blog. You know, I hate hypocrisy and you look at doping and once they get caught, everyone knows, but these perpetual lies …,” and he continues on, as he does frequently, at length, about Lance, Levi, and the state of the sport, to anyone who will listen, about something he lives and breathes. He’s a continuous thinker, and tinkerer; he can be conceited and unassuming in consecutive sentences. He can claim to hate subjectivity, then contradict himself by admitting he’s highly judgmental. He can antagonize with his words, but he’s not afraid to admit when he struggles with something, or when he gets it wrong.
“You have to have a very thick skin in cycling, as a result of mean comments or whatever, but one thing I do know a lot about is the sport of cycling,” he said. “I’m almost like a student of the sport, who has been studying it for a while. I’m only an okay athlete; my VO2 was all right, but I learned a lot in races and that’s why I could race cyclocross and mountain bikes and whatever, and do relatively well. That’s the cool thing about the sport, you don’t have to be the best athlete, but you can still win races. So I really have studied the sport for a long time and can see when things become a bit out of range for natural human capabilities.”
Overend, who rivals Tilford for the title of white-haired sage due to his copious accolades and the longevity of his competitive career, described him similarly.
“One of the things about Tilford is that he says what he thinks,” Overend said. “He may not think he has a lack of tact, but he definitely does [laughs]. But I appreciate that about him. The guy says what he thinks and it’s gotten him sideways with different people who he’s maybe rubbed the wrong way — they didn’t want to hear what he thought about them — but I think that’s a great quality. He’s credible because he’s really good.The guy is still winning races. The amount of race volume, the results.”
The results are, indeed, remarkable.
Tilford has amassed four U.S. national cyclocross titles, five masters world mountain-bike titles, two masters world cyclocross titles, was a three-time member of the worlds road team, and was the first U.S. national MTB champion. He was inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in 2000, alongside Tinker Juarez and Dave Wiens, among others, joining his friend, Overend, a man who knows more than anyone what it takes to sustain such a high level of performance.
“He loves to ride, so he loves to train,” Overend said. “Obviously, you don’t race this long if you don’t love to ride, and you have to love to train, you have to love to go hard, and embrace pushing yourself.”
Like teacher, like student. Like student, like teacher.