In memoriam: Friends, colleagues pay tribute to Steve Tilford

by Neal Rogers


An outpouring of grief followed the news Wednesday that American Steve Tilford, a mainstay of the U.S. bike-racing circuit for five decades, had died following a pileup on Interstate 70. He was 57 years old.

Tilford, who lived in Topeka, Kansas, began racing in the early 1970s, won the first U.S. mountain-bike championship in 1983, and is a four-time U.S. national cyclocross champion.

During the 1980s he rode alongside a generation of American road pros that included Davis Phinney, Ron Keifel, and Andy Hampsten, with Greg LeMond personally picking him to ride as a domestique at the world road championships. He won five world masters championships on the mountain bike, and two in cyclocross. He was inducted into the U.S. Mountain-Bike Hall of Fame in 2000.

Vincent Davis, Tilford’s friend who was with him Wednesday morning when the highway accident took place, posted Thursday that Tilford died while helping his dog, Tucker, who had been injured in the first of two collisions. “I can’t think of an ending he would be more happy with,” Davis wrote. “Going quickly while helping a loved pet.”

Tilford’s partner, Trudi Rebsamen, is a staff member with BMC Racing, and was with the team in Europe at the time of the accident.

In 1998, Bicycling editor in chief Bill Strickland wrote an essay about Tilford, titled “Steve Tilford is why we ride.” Tilford was 38 at the time.

“When Tilford tells a story, he does voices for the other characters and his changing moods,” Strickland wrote. “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.”

CyclingTips reached out to some of Tilford’s colleagues and friends in the cycling community, requesting a favorite memory of the man they called “Tilly.”

A few are shared below, along with photos and videos from his career, and selected messages from Twitter.

CyclingTips offers its sincere condolences to Steve Tilford’s family and friends.

Vincent Davis: There’s a guy, one of founders of Netscape, who wrote a book called something like ‘Twenty things to do to be successful,’ and one of the things on list is that he refuses to put things on a calendar — he wants to do what is most important at that given time. Wow, was that Steve. You couldn’t get him to commit to anything in the future, really. He always wanted to keep his options open. He wanted to live his life day to day, and do what he wanted to do on that day. There are not many people out there like that. He lived his whole life like that. He wanted to do what’s most important at any given time, to be that friend, whatever it was. Last December, I was struggling with some personal issues, and this was like eight weeks after his head injury, and I was driving to Phoenix and I called him and said ‘I’ll buy you plane ticket ride, you can fly out to Phoenix and we can ride around slowly together. I could use a friend.’ He hopped on the plane, flew out there, and rode around with me for a week. There are not many people that will do that. In some ways, we had very different opinions on things, but we thought a lot alike, and we really connected in the 25 years we were friends. It’s hard to describe that. He was obviously an incredible cyclist, and well respected in the cycling community for his long and diverse career. He had a million stories he would tell, going back over the years. If you hadn’t known him enough to see it, in Topeka he was the center of a group of friends — a mix between acquaintances and friends — and somehow Steve inspired these people to stay connected, and to be great people. There are people I know in Topeka, and throughout the country, and just through that connection with Steve, if you reach out to them, they will help you out. It’s incredible what he inspired in these friendships and relationships.”

Thomas Frischknecht: “In 1990, when I arrived at Team Ritchey at the age of 20, it was Tilly — my teammate — who took me under his wing to show me not what cycling is all about, but far more, what life is all about. He was one of the greatest personalities I met in cycling in over more than 30 years. He was my brother, and now he is gone. I can’t explain how sad I am. Rest in peace, Tilly.”

Gary Fisher: “Over the last few months, I’ve been saying, ‘why hasn’t anyone done anyone a book or movie about this guy?’ I’ve been watching him since he was a competitor, on the Raleigh team. He was a badass worker. He wasn’t outstanding at the time, in the 1970s and 80s, but he was one of the team, on one of the most powerful teams in the U.S. He showed up in 1983 at the first NORBA national championships, and won. I had actually put together a real team, with Eric Heiden, Tom Ritchey, Dale Stetina, and Joe Murray, and Steve showed up, and he won. He beat them all. I’d been following him over the last six months, after his head injury, and I told him, ‘the brain is plastic, you can do whatever you set your mind to.’ It’s so disappointing, what’s happened.”

Steve Tilford, the first NORBA national mountain-bike champion, in 1983 outside of Santa Barbara, California. It was Tilford’s first mountain-bike race. Weather was bad on race day — cold and raining. Tilford wore two jerseys, for warmth and also so that he could stuff six pockets with peanut-butter sandwiches, tools, and tubes.

Michael Aisner: “Every sport has their icons, their legends, lightning rods. Steve was all of those. Our resident character, our smartypants, our livewire who somehow we never questioned racing still at 57. Our blogging voice sitting on our collective shoulders who was still in the trenches, reflected on hypocrisies and victories, twists and turns with a fresh voice — his voice. A delight, a beacon, an inspiration. A friend. Loyal and caring. Truly strange — hardly a conventional bone in his body. I offer he will not rest in peace. He knows nothing about resting, or doing so in simple peace. No, the dreamy afterworld just got a Kansas tornado.”

Roy Knickman: “Tilly and I go back to when I was a junior, and I was invited to ride with the SRC team that Andy Hampsten was part of. Thurlow Rogers was there, too. We had an interesting group. Tilly was one of a kind. There was no one like him in the history of cycling in the United States, someone who raced from his teens, raced as a professional, and lived that lifestyle well into their fifties. He kept himself relevant, he wrote his blog, and he lived a lifestyle that no one on the planet lives. Some people are just kind of hanging onto cycling, and then there is Steve Tilford. He is cycling. He was a guy who, you knew was real and honest, he did his blog, he had his opinions, but it was straight-up, ‘Come on, for real?’ type of stuff. No matter where the guy went, there goes gypsy Steve Tilford, he would make friends. People would respect him and embrace him, and just dig on him. There are people who are part of your life, who you know you could always reconnect with, no matter how long it’s been, and when they are gone, it hurts. It’s the wake-up call. It’s the reminder that the days are limited.”

Steve Tilford with John Tomac, in Durango, Colorado, September 2015. Photo: Tom Moran.

Jim Ochowicz: “Steve Tilford was a part of cycling for as long as I can remember. As a competitor he was a phenomenal rider and an active cyclist his entire life. In more recent times he also became almost an analyst in the sport of cycling and gave his own personal perspective of what the sport was about, what we all do for a living. It was always interesting to read his pieces. What I know of Steve is that he was always very upbeat and happy and I think that’s a result of him being a bike rider. That’s what he started doing at a young age and loved to do his whole life. We’re very sad to see Steve gone and we only wish the best for Steve’s partner Trudi and their family and friends. Our friend Trudi has been part of this organization for many years and we’ll be here to support her at this tough time.”

Pete Webber: “Steve always travelled with a suture kit. If you raced with Steve enough, there’s a good chance he or Trudi offered to stitch you up. It happened to me at a NORBA National in Helen, Georgia, in the mid-90s. A cloud burst had soaked the course mid-race and I drilled a tree with my knee on a muddy corner. After the race Steve and Trudi saw me limping around. Steve pronounced that I needed some stitches. Nearest ER was a few towns away, and he knew well how slow getting a few stitches at a hospital can be. I was 24 or 25 and a neo-pro and though I knew Steve pretty well, I was a pretty nervous about getting stitches from anyone but a doctor — especially fellow bike racer. I headed to the ER. Many hours later, sitting in a hospital waiting room, having missed dinner and still muddy, I was kicking myself for not accepting his offer.”

Steve Tilford, criterium in Las Vegas during the 2008 Interbike trade show. Photo: Tom Moran.

Todd Wells: “I first met Tilly at team camp in San Diego, January 1996. I was a first year semi-pro and had never been to California before, he was one of the top riders in the world. He instantly made me feel welcome and treated me like an equal which to him we were — both bike racers. I had never really traveled before and I was lucky enough to spend the season traveling with him, Trudi, and the rest of the team. I still remember dinner the first night, I ordered fried cheese sticks, he told me I was bike racer and shouldn’t eat fried cheese. I don’t think I’ve had it since. I rode Redlands with Team Dirt and Tilford a few months later. We finished Oak Glen and Tilly was riding back to the house so I rode with him, probably the longest ride of my career at that point but he invited me so of course I was going to go. I was a 19-year old and hadn’t traveled or raced much, and he was always happy to help me along the way. Other then telling me not to eat fried cheese, some of the first things he told me was to get frequent flyer card, open an IRA, and not spend all my money on a new car. Two out of three isn’t bad. I remember picking up his Isuzu Trooper at the Denver airport and driving it up to Vail for the World Cup that year. It had almost 200,000 miles on it, and pulled to the right the whole way. He had gotten it when the Levi’s team folded and they couldn’t pay his contract. He kept it for a long time after that, he didn’t care about stuff, only things that made him happy, racing his bike. I stayed at his house that year in Topeka on my way to the east coast where he lived with Trudi and his brother. The place was like a cycling museum with so many bikes and parts, I think his brother was rebuilding a bike in the kitchen when I arrived, there were parts everywhere. I had never seen a kitchen filled with bike parts, for him it was just a normal day, cycling was his life. I learned so much that year traveling with Tilly, but thing that strikes me the most about it was how genuine he was and his love for the bike. He was happy to help me in any way he could because I was a bike racer and we helped each other out. I can’t think of a better introduction to the sport then I got from Tilly that year and I will always be thankful for that. He will be missed.”

Steve Tilford won the Men’s 50-54 event at the 2012 UCI Cyclocross Masters World Championships in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo: Tom Moran.

Adam Myerson: “Everyone butted heads with Tilly at some point, but I’m also someone who everyone has butted heads with at some point, and when those types of people encounter one another, you can imagine what that’s like — who will back down first? We both had the energy for the fight. We didn’t like each other at first. We were both loudmouths, super analytical, always evaluating what is happening in a race, why people are making the decisions they are making. But we both loved the tactical part of racing, spending energy wisely — and that’s the thing about angry loudmouths, they care a lot, they just don’t want to see people underperform, or act against their best interests. When you care that much, it upsets you, and you might express that in a form that sounds like criticism or anger. That’s what I thought of Steve when I first encountered him. I’m sure I was making mistakes when he was yelling at me, and later on I was glad that he was yelling at me. I learned from it. I was lucky enough to come up behind a generation of guys like that, and Steve reflects that era of bike racing, when guys slept in their cars, and lived off prize money. When I first encountered him, he was done with his professional career, he’d raced on the road with Raleigh, and Wheaties-Schwinn, and as a junior I looked up to him. I was on the way up, trying to make it, and he was out there, a journeyman, just pissing people off. He was such a good bike racer, even in his thirties. People used to retire at that age, that was considered old in the generation before ours. He was one of the first people to race at a high level into their forties. When I was in my twenties, he was in his thirties, and we felt like he was kind of getting in our way, but he was so good you couldn’t do anything about it. He’d beat you to the last corner, or take you to the fence, all for $50. He was the kind of guy, you might hate him when he’s not on your team, but you’d put him on your team in a heartbeat if you could. Over the years, as we got older, we chilled out a bit, and we realized our problem with each other was that we had a lot in common. And it turned into genuine warmth when we’d see each other at the races, like we’d been through something together — like we understood each other.”

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