Steve Tilford, master of cycling disciplines, dies at 57 after highway accident

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American Steve Tilford, a mainstay of the U.S. bike-racing circuit for five decades, died Wednesday morning in Utah following a pileup on Interstate 70. He was 57 years old.

A five-time masters world mountain-bike champion and two-time masters world cyclocross champion, Tilford was traveling with his friend, Vincent Davis, when their van struck an overturned truck that had turned over. Both men survived the initial collision and exited their vehicle.

Shortly after, Tilford, who had been driving, was standing next to the van and was killed when a semi struck the van from behind.

The driver of the second truck, which crashed into Tilford’s van, also died.

Davis, who has since posted photos of Tilford after the first accident (see below), suffered a fractured sternum from the initial collision, but was not involved in the second collision.

Davis first reported the news Wednesday morning on Tilford’s blog, which, over the years, had developed a following, reflecting Tilford’s candid, unfiltered opinions on all things cycling related.

“We were both hurt but fine from the initial accident,” Davis wrote. “I have a photo with Steve in it. He was alive when another semi came crashing through.”

Details of the accident were also reported by the Salt Lake City Tribune.

“Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Todd Royce said the tragic events began with the first semi drifting off the road and then overcorrecting,” the Tribune reported. “It overturned, coming to rest on its side and blocking all eastbound lanes of the highway at mile marker 214. Moments later, a Mercedes-Benz van plowed into and through the big rig’s trailer. Tilford, 57, of Topeka, Kansas, got out and was standing next his vehicle when a second semi crashed into the wreckage, striking and killing him.”

Tilford’s partner, Trudi Rebsamen, a staff member with BMC Racing, was with the team in Europe when the accident occurred.

BMC Racing’s Brent Bookwalter was one of many American cyclists to post about Tilford on Twitter Wednesday, writing, “So so sad to hear of the untimely passing of Steve Tilford. A childhood inspiration and true example of living life to the fullest. RIP Steve.”

On behalf of BMC Racing, team manager Jim Ochowicz extended his condolences to Rebsamen and her family. “Steve Tilford was a part of cycling for as long as I can remember,” Ochowicz wrote. “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.”

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.

The six-foot-three Tilford was easily identified at cycling events by his long, reddish-blond locks and wiry, muscular frame.

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.”

A veteran of several eras in bike racing, Tilford was particularly outspoken on his blog about matters related to doping in cycling. His blog posts often solicited dozens, if not hundreds, of comments, and became a forum for discussion and debate. As recently as April 1, he’d posted an April Fool’s Day spoof, titled “Switching Disciplines,” claiming that riding outdoors had become too dangerous, and that he would only ride on a velodrome, or on Zwift, until October.

Last fall, Tilford suffered a brain injury when he and several others on a Topeka training ride tangled with a loose dog during the ride’s traditional finish sprint, and crashed. Tilford struck the dog and flew over his handlebar, landing on his head. He was not wearing a helmet, and was rendered unconscious for “at least 10 minutes.” He suffered a starburst fracture to the back of his skull, as well as frontal-lobe bruising. It took several months for Tilford to recover.

For a time, Davis posted updates on Tilford’s condition from Tilford’s blog, until he was well enough to return. Sadly, on Wednesday, Davis again posted from Tilford’s blog, with the tragic news of his death.

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

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