I was shocked to learn this morning that my first mountain bike instructor, and later, cycling hero and mentor, Steve Tilford, was killed overnight in a wreck outside of Grand Junction, CO. Apparently he and his friend were driving east-bound, when they were involved in a multi-vehicle wreck that left a semi tractor-trailer on its’ side, contents all over the road, perpendicular to the direction of traffic. As they were outside of the vehicle, assessing damage, and I assume figuring out if anyone else needed help, another Semi came upon the wreck and plowed in to everyone. Steve and the driver of the second Semi were killed. Tucker, his most recent beloved dog, disappeared in to the night, but I’ve learned recently that he was rescued. Thank God for small miracles in the face of such incredible tragedies.
My story regarding Steve began in the spring of 1993, when, after transferring to Montana State from Davidson, I was already tired of winter, and I attended the Specialized SuperCamp down in Tempe, Arizona. The camp involved 7 days of training in and around South Mountain Park. I was there with maybe 19 other people, 12 professional mountain bikers, and service personnel. I also got to meet Sally Edwards, the Heart Rate Guru, and we’ve remained friends ever since.
I followed the lines and corners and gear shifts and out-of-the-saddle moments and behind-the-saddle descents of all of the athletes, including Todd Wells, Ned Overend, and several others, learning how to use my body better, maintain traction, pedal for torque, keep my head elevated and observant of the event-horizon, read the trail, hydrate, and just improve. I loved every moment of it, but it was Steve that I gravitated to, for some reason. He was kind, quiet, incredibly talented, and he put up with me like a kid brother.
I had so much fun that I went back for the two more years that the Specialized SuperCamp was being held, and brought along my best friend in Bozeman, Jeremy Martin. Steve was just magical. Sure, he didn’t have the same Palmares that Ned had (he actually had more, from a broader range of racing), but he was 100% badass on a bike, won every single Fat Boy Crit that was held, and his wife, Trudi, was the essence of kindness and support.
In particular, I remember one event that was just typical of Steve. I showed up in 1995 with a Trek Y-Bike, that I had borrowed an obscene amount of money for and had tricked up with 1st generation Magura hydraulic brakes, and it actually had hydraulic shifters. I’ll never forget – it was a COLOSSAL disaster. About four days in, I was riding like I had mounted a wild, bucking donkey, with all the compressing and rebound and just poor form that the bike only exaggerated. I went around a corner on some singletrack, following Steve’s line, and ‘WHAM’, I whacked the hydraulic derailleur attachment, and the fluid sprayed out like the moment when a cowboy cuts off the horns of a bull; squirt, squirt, until it quits bleeding. So I’m stuck in one gear. Then, minutes later, as we’re heading back, the brake levers, which were Graftons, failed; first one pivot pin, then the next pivot pin, fell out in to the dusty singletrack, never to be found again, and here I was, with a dysfunctional bike, and we were still out on some of the toughest singletrack in the state.
With the utmost grace I’ve ever seen, Steve calmly assessed everything, and said “I’ll ride it back for you.” Hell, he didn’t even have Speedplay frog cleats! We swapped bikes (wayyyy too tall and long a Stumpjumper hardtail for me), and he then proceeded to KICK MY ASS YET AGAIN on this damaged, too-small, brakeless, slippery-pedal, bike that donkey-kicked even more because of our weight differences. The ONLY time he asked for help was out on the road, when he would use my shoulder and ask me to help him brake and slow down as we approached the hotel. With utmost humility, in front of probably $250,000 of SPECIALIZED employees and sponsors, he rolled up on this broken Trek, dismounted, explained what had occurred, and told me the exact location of a bike shop that could help fix this dilemma before nightfall. This event only cemented my belief that Steve Tilford was the most incredible cyclist I would ever meet.
Over the years, as I played my own version of “Bike Gypsy”, and raced regional and national events, trying to gain the skills and fitness to increase my ability and results, we would meet and cross paths, and he was always friendly. Later, in the early and mid 00’s, after I’d moved back to Dallas and started road cycling, I met he and Trudi at the Joe Martin Stage Race (just held this past weekend, btw). They immediately remembered me as “The Y Bike Guy!”, and we laughed and reminisced. They drove a beat up Isuzu, but that was SO STEVE. Privateer, Bike Gypsy (and I mean that endearingly), never held back on an opinion about bikes or parts or races or tactics, etc. Furthermore, he just rode. He rode and rode and rode. He analyzed some of his data, and wrote regularly for his blog, www.stevetilford.com, but mostly, he just rode.
As time wore on, so did he; he suffered shoulder injuries, a broken hip, and his most serious and life-threatening injury, was a TBI that occurred late last summer/early fall. Many of us thought he’d never ride competitively again, if at all, but I think within about 90 days, the fog had cleared enough and he was back on his bike, and was also traveling. He and Trudi had first Bromont, and most recently, Tucker, both of whom traveled with them whenever possible.
I have one other direct tale to tell about Steve.
In 2013, not long after I opened my largest training studio in Dallas, I was in my office with another coach, and we were working on policy or promotion or pricing or something, and I look over my left shoulder to see this TALL, LANKY, Wild-haired silhouette peeking through my glass. I recognized him immediately, and before he could leave, ran out and opened the door to let him in.
I was exuberant! It was my hero, STEVE TILFORD! I was jumping up and down and trying to explain his significance to this other coach who’d never heard of him, and I started crying and telling him THANK YOU, and I squeezed him with this big freaking hug, and I get this “OOOF!” and he says with the last of his breath that I’d squeezed out of him, “My Shoulder!” – and I remembered that he’d been recovering from a shoulder injury.
I immediately let go, apologized, and we all just laughed it off. I showed him my Wheaties poster of him, and asked if he’d sign it, though somehow, we didn’t get around to it that day and it's something I’ll regret forever. He left after a few minutes, and we all agreed to reconnect soon, but it never happened. I focused on the business and generally quit racing, while he traveled all over the west and rode and raced and returned home and blogged it all.
Losing this man is like losing my innocence. Steve lived the dream; he focused so much on THE RIDE. Sure, he loved the results, but more than anything, it was about the Act of Cycling. He wasn’t political, he didn’t make waves about what races should or shouldn’t be, how events or selections should or shouldn’t be made, he never commented about helmets or hand signals or harassment. He just, rode. He lived for the act of cycling movement. He could NEVER be still; recovering from his head injury was, he told us via his blog, the most difficult thing he’d ever had to endure, because IT WAS SO SLOW and he HAD TO STAY STILL.
I never had his endurance, I never had his skill, I never had his grit, I never had his talent, and heck, we barely knew each other. But DAMN, this guy was the epitome of cycling for me. Grass-roots, focused on the event, demure with his sponsors, never asking too much, but never working for free, either. It was obvious that he loved his wife, his pets, his family, and his life. He was actually pretty humble. Some people hated his moves in crits and circuit races, but that was just him – he was a privateer, had few teammates, and made things happen on his own. That said – he LOVED to activate the race; he was always a pace-pusher. He took inside lines. He would attack off the front. It wasn’t so much that he was in it to win it, it was like he wouldn’t leave well-enough alone, and was a supreme agitator. I never got to race with him, and I dreamed of being able to afford hosting him for a meet-and-greet at the studio, but that was a money hole I was never able to overcome, which is a different story and is irrelevant to this post.
I ache over this loss.
I ache for Trudi and Vincent and his family and his dog and everyone who knew him and admired him.
He was a prolific blogger; I hope the page stays up eternally.
I’ve thought about prayer and God and Acts for decades now, and while it seems more and more pointless, that bad things happen to good people, I’m going to pray for everyone involved, for cycling, for health and age and wisdom and peace.
I’m going to love the members of the “Team Dazed and Confused” gang even more, thank them for their contributions to MY life, and I’ll never forget the short amount of time I got to spend with Steve Tilford and Trudi directly, and later, vicariously, through his adventures and musings on life.
The life of the other motorist who passed away, who seems to have been an accidental victim as well, is equally tragic.
Hug your friends and family, treasure each day, and think about the life best-lived as a cyclist. In my opinion, that was, and will always be, Steve Tilford.
Steve, if you can read this, THANK YOU and NEVER be at rest, because that innate restlessness was what was most appealing and intriguing about your life. You chose to move, and your motion was beautiful.
4/6/2017 - Here are a few links to fill in the gaps. I'm still in shock; this man was my first cycling hero. He made me a better cyclist. His wife was a pillar of support. He lived simply. I was so impressionable, and he left that imprint in my soul and spirit. I feel like cycling has lost more than a man. It's lost a voice, and an act, and a past, and a future. The whole thing just hurts.
April 6 post from Steve's friend and driving buddy, Vincent.
CBS Salt Lake City coverage of the wreck. Caution: Photos are graphic.
I'll try to find photos from those days, but my pics are all in boxes, and those are all in storage, so it may take a while. I'm just so, so sorry that this guy is gone.