Sunday, April 16, 2017

Steve Tilford


I miss Steve Tilford. The internet sucks without him.

For those who don’t know, Steve Tilford was a legend of American bike racing and, in recent years, also a successful, if eccentric, blogger, who was killed in a car accident in Utah on April 5. Tilford, who was from Topeka, Kansas, won the first US mountain biking championship in 1983, was a four-time national cyclocross champion, and road-raced professionally in the US and Europe with and against a who’s who of cycling greats from the 80s, from Lemond to Phinney to Hampsten.

His palmares are impressive, but even more remarkable was the longevity of his racing career. He continued to race his bike regularly and successfully up to the end of his life at age 57. Every weekend, for three seasons of the year, he’d load up his truck and drive hundreds of miles to get to some dinky Midwestern race, ride it balls out, and then drive home and write about it on his blog. That, somehow, was the life he loved.

A big part of the appeal of Tilford was his old-school, blue-collar attitude. In 1998, Bill Strickland wrote a now-famous short profile for Bicycling called “Steve Tilford is Why We Ride,” which described Tilford cheerfully stitching up his own stitches after a wipeout and training, alone, on rollers in his unheated garage in the middle of winter. Steve was that kind of old school.



For some of us, though, it was only through his quirky blog that we came to know of Steve Tilford at all.  Val put me onto the blog about a year ago, and at first I couldn’t figure out what to make of this 50-something-year-old bike-racing dude in Topeka. The blog, which you can read here, struck me as bizarre and fascinating, a curious mix of the mundane and the profound, the poorly written and the poetic.

Not to sound mean, but there is a certain Forrest Gumpish quality to Steve’s prose; it’s got an almost artful artlessness about it. You’d be hard-pressed to find a complex sentence in any of his posts. Subordinate clauses aren’t his thing. His writing style is simple, unpretentious, and unpolished; you’ll see a couple of typos or spelling mistakes in most entries. Sometimes—like when he began posts with “Hi”—you wondered if he even knew how blogs work.

The racing focus of the blog didn’t interest me at all, at first. But Steve’s insights about bike racing were shrewd, based on a pile of lived experience, and delivered in such a low-key manner, that I grew to appreciate them. Plus he had been around so long, been in so many races, that he had some wild stories, which he unfurled at surprising moments and without sounding like a shameless name-dropper.  

One thing that makes the blog both weird and wonderful is how Steve would occasionally write about non-cycling topics, which he categorized as “Just Life.” Some of my fave pieces are in this category, such as this gem about mowing his lawn or this strangely affecting post about finding a homeless person in his garage in Topeka last Thanksgiving.

He took blogging seriously, applying the same relentless work ethic to writing as he did to training and racing. He posted something pretty much every day, even if it was just random thoughts about bald eagles or credit-card fraud and pictures of his dog, Tucker. And it was almost always worth reading. What I first considered an amusing oddity I gradually came to think of with genuine fondness. Steve Tilford is the only blog I’ve followed regularly for the last six months.

Last fall, Tilford crashed his bike, while not wearing a helmet, and nearly died. He fractured his skull and suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI). The outpouring of support on the blog and in the cycling media, in general, was remarkable. I didn’t realize just how widely respected and loved the guy was. He documented his long recovery on the blog in his usual unabashed, candid, no-regrets fashion.

Post-crash-Steve was different— slower, more reflective, and, of course, more vulnerable, attuned to mortality in general. (In his final months, he wrote several posts about going to funerals.) His writing, I think, got better. During his recovery from this life-threatening injury, he rode his bike more than you would think even humanly possible. He wrote about the pain, but not in a pathetic way. His explanation that somehow he just felt better when riding his bike than not may have been scientifically unaccountable but it was utterly believable. And his account of what turned out to be his comeback—and also his last—race is brilliant.

Like a lot of people, I’ve been trying to process the news of Steve’s death. When dealing with the death of anyone you know well—or, in the case of a blogger, feel like you do—one of the things that’s hardest to get used to is not hearing that person’s voice anymore. It wouldn’t much matter what he or she even says. It’s just hearing that voice at all that matters. I miss Steve’s voice. I can go to the blog and re-read old posts, sure, but a big part of the pleasure of a blog is the incremental newness of the voice—and that’s gone.

Steve rode to race. It wasn’t just about the trophies. Bike racing gave him so much more. I’m not sure why Steve blogged, what he got out of that. But I’m guessing that just as with riding his bike after his accident, he probably felt better when blogging than not. Whatever the reason, I’m glad he did.

I miss Steve Tilford. His blog reminded us of so many of the reasons why we read.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful tribute to a fascinating person. Sounds like lots of people will miss Steve Tilford.

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