by Bill Strickland
I used to like this story.
In January, in an unheated garage in Wisconsin, he rides alone. He rides Kreitler rollers, the ones with tiny, shiny three-inch drums hooked to a fan with leg-cracking resistance, but he spins them around so easily he does not think about how hard it is to spin them around so easily.
The garage is frigid. Little splats of snow that might be last week’s boot prints, or last month’s, lie crystallizing on the floor. A long-sleeve shirt drapes over a stack of wood seven feet from the rollers. Long-fingered gloves crumple together where they were tossed beside the shirt, some of the fingers accidentally interwoven.
He rides alone, on rollers, his sweat not so much evaporating as condensing into a fog that combines with his breath to fill the garage with his own atmosphere. He rides alone.
Steve Tilford is the oldest professional mountain bike racer in the world. In terms of age, that’s mostly true. Ned Overend, who retired last year from the full-time race circuit but still jumps into an occasional race at 42, is four years older than Tilford. And somewhere in Europe there must be an ex-road racer half-a-century old who hammers the locals.
In terms of service, however, Tilford’s reign is undeniable. He won the first U.S. mountain biking championship — the first mountain biking championship of anything, really — in 1983. Overend wouldn’t bag one until ‘86. Tomac in ‘88. Tinker: ‘94.
Tilford raced that first championship against people who, in the 15 years since, stopped competing and became brands, like Tom Ritchey and Joe Murray, or legends, like Alexi Grewal, the gold-medal winner in the ‘84 Olympic road race.
But this is not a story about age.
This is a story about the thing you want to ask Tilford after you get through with age, after you know about how he stitches up his own wounds, after you hear about the world championship race he tried to finish by walking backwards, after you find out about the time 40 people rode over his head.
This is a story about why we ride.
A few days after Tilford drives from his hometown of Topeka, Kansas, to Wisconsin for a ski race he wants to do as cross-training, he’s wrestling with his friend’s dog and gets part of his mouth clawed away.
He runs to the bathroom, presumably to wash out his lip but emerges seconds later carrying his toiletries bag. As he digs through it he swallows blood and says, “Great. I used all my sutures on my forearm.”
Tilford began sewing himself together after gashing open an elbow at the ‘93 World Cup race at Hunter Mountain, New York. He didn’t have time to go to the hospital because he had to drive to Philadelphia to race in the CoreStates U.S. professional road championship the next day.
“I stopped at an emergency room on the way down,” he says, “but it was, like, gunshot pregnant women — people who really need help. Way out of my league. And I was in a hurry.”
He called to ask if the race doctor could meet him at the hotel when he got in, at midnight. The doc showed, repaired the elbow and, tired, inadvertently left behind his sutures and anesthetic.
“So I had that in my bag,” says Tilford, “and the next year at Mount Snow when I wrecked I scrubbed the wound out really good, poured hydrogen peroxide over it, injected the anesthetic and stitched myself up. It just seemed really convenient. And I had some experience — I’d sewed up one of my dogs once with dental floss and needle-nose pliers.”
He’s offered to patch other riders. No takers yet. “I almost had Bob Roll once,” he muses.
Roll had opened his knuckles on a chainring while trying to remove pedals. “Steve said he could fix it,” says Roll’s wife, Chiara. “And we said maybe. He pulled out this huge needle, like some kind of horsehide, leatherworking needle. We said no thanks.”
Tilford looks in the mirror at the half-inch slit in his lower lip. Blood burbles from it, and little globules of white fatty tissue have poked through. There’s no hospital in this small, northern town. “Is the vet open?” he asks.
His friend, Dennis, says no, but there is a doctor who vacations in town and is here for the ski race. They go to the guy’s home. Tilford sits in a kitchen chair by a window for light. The doc’s wife watches from the couch. His two kids sit on the steps. They look like it’s Christmas.
“Thut needelth really coo,” Tilford says, lisping as he holds his lip steady for the no-anesthetic operation. “Ith gone in like buttuh compahed to uh sewing needuh.” The doc ties off the stitch, cuts off the protruding fat nodules and recommends an antibiotic. Tilford recognizes the name of the drug and finishes saying the prescription with the doctor: “Five hundred milligrams three times a day.” Then he examines his lip and says, “Nice job.”
It’s 1972, and Tilford is already accident prone. “When I was a kid I used to get hit by cars and stuff a lot,” he says. Two weeks into seventh grade he falls out of a tree and shatters his heel, then breaks his leg skiing after that cast comes off — consecutive injuries that keep him out of organized sports for almost two full school years — and lead him to cycling.
In 1975 he raced seriously for the first time and won the Kansas state championship. The week before nationals he skipped a pedal in a corner and broke his collarbone for the first time — and competed anyway. He’s busted his collarbone at least seven other times (“I’m not sure after that and I don’t want it to seem like I’m bragging.”), his ribs twice in the past two years, his hip last year, and at least 14 other bones. There have been dozens of concussions, hundreds of wounds and scars. Hundreds of stories.
The Gant Challenge, Denver: “In the early ‘80s there was this series of mountain bike races in little urban parks. The one in Denver was like a bulldozed BMX course. It was me, Ned, Andy Hampsten and a bunch of guys behind us without shirts and drinking beer. I jumped the gun and got like a hundred-foot lead and the announcer got mad and told everyone to come back. We did, but I was still clipping out at the start when the guy said go, so everyone left without me. I put it in 52×13 and jammed a sprint to about tenth place and hit a double at full speed, just flying out of control. I plowed into the second jump like hitting a wall and slid down it like a cartoon character and everyone I’d passed ran over me. At the hospital, they kept X-raying my ribs and stuff and I kept telling them the back of my head felt squishy. Then this PCP guy came in all wild and they kept moving me away from him and every time I switched beds I noticed the pillow was filled up with blood. Finally I got a doctor to look back there and he found chainring punctures from my hairline up to my crown where 40 people had run over my head.”
The British Milk Race: “The hardest I ever crashed. I was going like 60 and hit a car that pulled on the course and broke my collarbone and my leg and my wrists. And my hands. That was the worst crash I ever had. Oh yeah, I had a concussion, too. But it could have been really bad.”
Mount Snow: “I was doing a practice lap and Shari Kain was off her bike looking for her glasses. When I rode by she said, ‘Steve, you animal,’ and I turned around to say something to her and hit a tree and broke my collarbone. Johnny O’Mara taped my shoulder up for me some way that motocross guys do all the time and said I could race. I just couldn’t stand up and pull on the handlebar. So I’m riding the whole race sitting down and with a lap and a half to go I hear this pop. The titanium bolt in my seat binder snapped and my seatpost dropped right to the bottom. So I can’t stand and I can’t sit and my seat is spinning around backward down that crazy descent. I finished, though. I think I got like 28th.”
When Tilford tells a story, he does voices for the other characters and his changing moods. He does little flips and skids with his hands, widens his eyes and shakes his head but that’s about it. He’s not a showman, and there’s no boast in what he says. There’s mostly bemusement — if the stuff had to happen he might as well see it as funny — and something else you can’t identify at first.
You can see it working in his eyes, set deep in his face, these big, round eyes of sharp blue that in memory show mostly white. And with a subliminal, barest hint of a shake his head gives somewhere in every story. And it comes to you. He’s trying to figure it all out.
Tilford has extraordinary talent on a bike. He’s a four-time national cyclocross champion. He once held the U.S. hour record. He rode alongside that great generation of American road pros that included Davis Phinney, Ron Keifel, Mike Engleman. Greg LeMond personally picked him to ride domestique at the world championships one year. Andy Hampsten relied on him for support in stage races. In ‘96 he finished second in the U.S. Olympic mountain bike trials.
Parts of his riding ability are as good as anyone in the world. For instance, side by side he dismounts, runs with his bike and remounts faster than Thomas Frischknecht. He’s the fastest tight-corner rider in mountain biking — a skill that’s given him a string of victories in the Fat Boy Criterium stages of Cactus Cup races.
Even at 38 he has the fit cyclist’s body that would be called emaciated if it weren’t stretched over so much muscle. He’s 6-foot-3 and weighs less than 160 in racing season but with deep shoulders.
He’s built a career no one might ever match in scope. But he never made the jump from top fifteen to top three. Whenever he had the chance, something happened.
Now it’s 1993, in Metabief, France. Tilford is under the start banner for the qualifying race for the world championships. “A perfect course,” he thinks.
“It was sloppy mud and you had to run a ton and it was epic and hard and perfect,” he remembers. “Plus, I’d been racing the road over in Switzerland and I’d done the Killington Stage Race and I was superfit. I get over there and I’m doing the qualifier and I feel like I can’t ride any slower and I’m in second place. The guy in first was like 20 seconds ahead and I remember backing off because I didn’t want to win a qualifier, which is stupid. It’s kind of embarrassing that you waste that much energy right before a race. That’s how good I felt.
“So right at the top of the hill there’s a cattle grate with like a three-inch steel lip on it. The race has been all mucky and when I pull up my front wheel to go over the lip my hands slip off the bar and I peg the grate and my front tire flats immediately. I jump off the bike and pull out my tube and there’s mud everywhere so it’s going real slow and I’m counting guys as they go by.
“They’re only letting 12 guys from the qualifier into the World Championships. Normally they let in like 60. Ninety in some races. But only 12. So I’m counting guys because all I have to do is this two-and-a-half, three-mile descent and then a little bit on the flats. I’m in 14th when I get my tire changed and I get on my bike and start down the descent and my rear wheel’s flat. So I jumped off my bike and ran.
“The descent was sloppy, muddy, off-camber, rooty, and I ran by like seven guys on their bikes, jumped onto my bike at the bottom and rode the flat to the finish line to qualify ninth or eleventh or something. I was just thinking, god, god, god that hurt but thank god I qualified.
“Then they tell us they’re letting 38 guys in. But I’d already hurt myself. The next day I couldn’t walk, literally could not physically walk down stairs. The worst thing for your thighs is running downhill and I’d carried a 70-pound, mud-coated bike on my shoulder through mud calf-deep and I never came around for the Worlds two days later.
“I just kept thinking, man, that was your chance. If you were ever going to win a Worlds that was it. The course was made for you and you had perfect form and you blew it. And I did. I was shit in those Worlds. I ended up quitting. There was a chute of roots and stuff nobody was riding and I physically could not stop myself when I went down it. My thighs had no ability to slow me. I’d try to hold onto trees and just tumble down the hill. I was killing myself. I walked backwards down it once and I thought, okay, this is out of control. I quit.”
He sits there quiet after he tells this story and gives the little shake of his head. Then he smiles. “I’ll remember that. I’ll always remember that.” The story is not an excuse. The things that have happened to him are not barriers to what might have been. They’re not the things that kept him from racing. To Tilford, they are racing.
The things that go wrong in mountain biking are mountain biking. This is an amazing, shockingly pure attitude. He loves it all.
Now it’s now. Today Tilford is 38 and he doesn’t have a full-time sponsor anymore. He’s paying his way around the circuit, riding last year’s Specialized, traveling in the Isuzu Trooper he got brand new when he turned pro for Levi’s in ‘86, scratching up partial sponsorship from Grip Shift and a few small companies. When he clicks into last year’s pedals at the start line this year, he admits that most of the time he’ll look around and think, “No way in hell am I winning this one.”
If you think that’s a bad thing, go back. Go back to that garage in January and watch him ride without a shirt, showing scars from more than 1,000 races. Watch him riding alone in January, looking at a garage wall. He is 38 and unsponsored and in the winter of his career and riding alone and loving it, and Steve Tilford is why we ride.
Originally published in Mountain Bike, July 1998