The following eulogy was delivered April 23rd at the Celebration of Steve Tilford’s Life in Lawrence, KS by cyclist and blogger Seth Davidson.
The day that Steve died, I checked my phone when I got up at 5:00 AM West Coast time. There was a message from my Illinois buddy Jack Daugherty with a single word: Tilford.
I didn’t know what had happened but I knew it wasn’t going to be good news. I went to Steve’s blog, and to put it mildly, it wasn’t.
On April 9, I got a phone call from Trudi. We’d never met. “Would you come to Steve’s memorial?” she asked.
“Of course,” I said.
“Would you speak?”
“Yes. Steve thought a lot of you.”
So here I am. Because no matter how much he thought of me, I thought a million times more of him.
I started blogging about seven years ago—or writing, as I like to call it – and Steve was already the leader of that Internet pack.
Steve’s words affected me, and apparently mine affected him, such that I’m standing here in front of you today. No higher mark of honor and respect has ever been paid to me, and I expect it never will, than to talk about someone who has done so much good, who has affected so many people through good words matched with such extraordinary good deeds.
I’m not surprised that Steve is dead. What I am, is amazed that he ever lived. Steve Tilford blitzed through life seeing, feeling, observing, thinking, and most of all, doing. He was all nerve endings, always firing, always on.
I’m not exactly here tonight to admire Steve as a cyclist. For starters, I’m the wrong man for that job. I’m a mediocre Cat 2 masters grandfather racer. An of the people here tonight that I’ve raced with might call me pack fill if they were feeling especially charitable. My only remotely plausible connection to Steve’s cycling career was watching the Levi’s Raleigh squad in Austin, where I was a student, in the 1983 and 1984 Tour of Texas. I trained with the Dicksons and Jeff Fields, contemporaries of Steve’s, but never raced in Steve’s circles. From a cycling perspective, me standing up here to talk about Steve the cyclist is kind of like the guy who was a placekicker on the JV squad giving a speech about Vince Lombardi to a room full of Super Bowl champions.
But I am here to admire Steve as a writer. We met for the first time in 2015, when he graciously agreed to fly to LA to be the guest of honor at our annual South Bay Cycling Awards. We were honored to have Steve as a guest for his accomplishments on the bike and for his unwavering support of clean sport, and, we were to find out a minute into his speech, for his phenomenal storytelling.
It was that evening I learned to admire Steve as not just a cyclist and writer and advocate of clean sport, but as one of the rarest things we’ll ever find on this earth, a genuinely good human being.
So in order to talk about Steve tonight as a writer, I decided to read his blog from the beginning, the date of the first post on September 14, 2003, by his good friend Vincent, and see where it led. Entries were few and far between until October 17, 2006, when Steve took over all the writing. In 2007 he averaged about six posts a month. In 2008, about ten. In 2009, about fifteen. From 2010 on, he posted pretty much every day. Steve was was to do this the rest of his life, on top of the gear, driving it relentlessly to the very end.
As I read I marked the lines he wrote that seemed quintessentially Steve. Things that only he could have said, or things that he said better than anyone else, or things that were truisms because he had done them. Things that if repeated tonight would bring a smile to your face. Things that would bring honor to an already beloved and honored name.
Here are a few:
Steve said: I don’t quit races unless I’m hurt or sick.
Steve said: The main field got much smaller, but on the descent on the 4th lap, I hit a dip and my handlebars snapped off by the stem. I was going through a downhill corner going somewhere near 40mph I guess. It was pretty lucky I didn’t fall.
Steve said: About 3 km out, going about 40mph I got crossed up, overlapping a wheel, and high sided. Needless to say it didn’t turn out too good. My frame is in more than one piece.
Steve said: $100 prize money. That works out to about .0001 cents for every brain cell I lost in the past 3 days.
Steve said: I was pretty wasted after Tulsa, so I decided to drive 1500 miles during the week to rest up.
Steve said: Brian broke two Zip 404’s at the end of the same race. I flatted two sewups, ruined a rear Shimano Carbon wheel and jacked up my frame. But, it could of been worse.
Steve said: OK. I’ll write my race review later, once I’ve had a chance to mope a little longer. [He had won masters nationals the day before.]
Steve said: One of the best things about the sport is the cool people you meet all over the country/world. Friends you have for a lifetime.
Steve said: I got an email from a guy in St. Louis. He had some questions about training. I tried to give him some answers. Anyway, he gave me his schedule and it involved riding three days a week on a trainer. Three hours on Wednesday. I told him that I thought that was completely nuts.
Steve said: I don’t regret not bringing a time trial bike to the race. For one, I don’t have a time trial bike.
Steve said: But, if you’re a cyclist from Kansas and you don’t embrace the wind, your life isn’t going to be very enjoyable.
Steve said: I have always appreciated/loved most every aspect of the sport of bicycling racing. I think that racing bicycles full time is the equivalent of having a dog’s life. If there is an after life, I want to come back as a dog.
Steve said: Time to put in some base miles. I’m not sure what that is really.
Steve said: My favorite clothing are things that I’ve worn until it is nearly threadless. So, don’t be anal about your stuff. There is too much fun to be had using it.
There are hundreds and hundreds of lines like these. I’ve copied and pasted over 300 so far, but there are countless paragraphs that are gems in their entirety. In deciding to read the entirety of Steve’s blog I had no idea how big a chunk I’d bitten off. Steve’s blog contains roughly 360,000 words. If you throw in the comments, it’s double that number, easily. As a comparison, War and Peace has about 589,000. I’m a fast reader, but had to throw in the towel sometime around the entries from July, 2012. I had a plane to catch. Having sat down and chronologically read a massive portion of Steve’s writing over the last two weeks, some very important things became clear. Things I want to share with you tonight. Things of which I think Steve would approve.
First and foremost was the thing I started off saying. It’s amazing that he ever lived. That’s how incredible, un-repeatable, truly inimitable his life was. Steve’s life wasn’t one in a billion. It was one in infinity.
Steve’s life was unique because he started bike racing at age fourteen and didn’t quit until a few days ago, at age 57. Who else can come anywhere close to making that claim when you consider the level he raced and the variety of disciplines he conquered? He stands with only one or two others in the history of the sport. But what Steve did that mattered most to those who never met him, those who never had the chance to ride with him, those who could never have dreamed about being good enough to race with him, is that he wrote about it.
No one in the history of cycling has ridden so much, and ridden so well, and documented it in such copious detail.
Bike racing is human powered motion under adversity, and no one captured the motion or the adversity like Steve. His words were raw and his grammar was blunt. He tied the page together with action, suspense, humanity, irony, honesty, and most of all with truth.
We loved Steve’s writing because he let us train with him, get ready with him, drive to the race with him, and of course race with him. Vulnerable, he let us get disappointed, exalted, angry, happy, and of course he made us laugh. He flexed his powerful muscles and held them up for us to inspect. The skin of course was covered with scars, and most of the scars had a hell of a story behind them. Which, by the way, he’d love to tell you about over a beer, because he knew the exact details of how he’d acquired each and every one.
Steve started out just writing, but he became a writer. He conveyed a subject that is simply stated but that proved impossibly complex: How Steve spent his life racing bicycles. And the emphasis was always on the word life, not on the word bicycles.
The Internet overfloweth with people who talk about bike racing from the outside looking in. Steve and Steve alone told the story for fourteen straight years from the inside looking out, when inside meant international stage races, national and world championships, cyclocross, road races, crits, and MTB. Whether they were international stage races in New Zealand or neighborhood ‘cross races in Lawrence, none of it made any difference to him. A race was a race and therefore something interesting happened and therefore he was going to write about it. As Steve said, “I’ve learned something from every race I ever did.” After thousands of races, he was the thickest racing encyclopedia in history.
What’s more incredible is that his unbelievable span of almost daily writing left a historical record that covered the things he’d done during America’s second golden age of cycling in the 80’s and touched on most of its major, and countless of its most colorful players. He wrote contemporaneously about the past, injecting an opinion about racing with Lemond and Hampsten in between race reports from Burlington, Iowa or Lawrence, Kansas.
The effort that it takes to write daily is prodigious. To do it in a way that benefits the lives of others over the span of years is incomprehensible. What Steve left us is the world’s most complete bike racing and how-to-live manual ever written. I know because I’ve read a couple of hundred thousand words of it. There is no aspect of cycling he leaves unexamined, from the importance of small mistakes to brakes to tires to rain to cornering to dumb luck to strategy to course knowledge to health to tactics to teamwork to weather to hypochondria to travel to risk to chaos theory to recovery to injury … it is comprehensive such that there is only one word that could possibly sum it up: Genius.
And please take me seriously when I say that.
I lived in Japan for ten years and while there learned that the world doesn’t necessarily agree with us about genius. In the West we give great credit to natural talent and ability. In schools and in sports we spend so much time trying to spot the talented youngster early on. And when the champion stands on the top step we pay tribute to her natural talent, that thing with which she was born that drove her to greatness. Fate. Destiny.
But in Japan, genius is vastly subordinate to success that comes as a byproduct of hard work, something that every athlete knows, something that Thomas Edison knew when he said that genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration. What is rewarded in Japan is not the genetic lottery, or victory the first time, but failure, work, failure, work, and eventually, hopefully, success. Perseverance is the revered concept of not giving up, of “ganbare.” In cycling terms, it’s Raymond Poulidor. And in the world of writing, no one epitomized ganbare like Steve Tilford.
I say this because few people I’ve ever come across had a more blue collar approach to writing. Steve would love to be called a blue collar writer, by the way. More so, he’d love to have his writing described as manual labor. Why? Because he loved building fences, shoveling snow, roofing, laying tile … as long as he didn’t have to do for a living. He loved, in his words, “seeing the progression.” And of course, trying to predict his finishing time.
Steve took up writing for several reasons, I suppose, but the only one he ever really articulated was his simple desire to write better, which dovetailed with his approach to being good at things like racing in the rain. If you wanted to get better at it, you had to do it. A lot. He didn’t use spell check, and it showed. He misused some of the most basic grammatical constructions, “would of” instead of “would have,” “could of” instead of “could have. He created words like “abit,” “participate” for “participant,” and couldn’t ever seem to find the preposition “of” to go along with the word “couple.” It was always “a couple bikes,” “a couple places,” “a couple bucks.”
And of course the occasional reader would take him to task for his lack of polish. One day a reader bashed him for his mistakes and commanded him to edit better and to write simpler. Steve got kind of insulted, and said so, but then added that insults laced with the truth are the very best kind. How about that? What would the world be like if we all heard criticism that way? Here was Steve’s reply. I hope you hear these words, each one. They are powerful and awe inspiring as he stakes out his ground as a writer, with apology to no one. The title of the post was perfect: “Sanitized Shit”:
Here’s the deal, once again. I don’t profess to be a writer. Not even close. I do have a bunch of errors in each and every post. But, I’m pretty sure I can’t write this in any more simple English than I already do. I pretty much write like I talk. I am a bike racer, not a writer … I don’t really like reading anything I write. That is one of the reasons that there are so many editorial issues. Another is that I have no patience for it … And third, I probably couldn’t correct the posts to be grammatically correct even if I wanted to. I think the purpose of writing is to convey information and thoughts from one person to another … If you want sanitized observations about cycling, you should go down to your newsstand and pickup a Bicycling Magazine, because that isn’t what you’re going to get here.
He was right. That’s not what we got and he also knew it’s not what we wanted. Most of Steve’s writing did sound like he was speaking, none of it ever sounded sanitized, and the two million people who read his blog in 2016 knew that Steve was not only speaking, he was speaking to them. It’s why strangers would pull up to the Flying Monkey in Topeka and recognize him. “Are you Tilford?” one guy asked.
“Yes,” Steve said.
“I’m just here because I read about this place in your blog.”
Or the reader who sold him a new-in-box, 50-gallon water heater for $100. All Steve had to do was drive 600 miles to Chicago to get it. For Steve the manual laborer, 600 miles to pick up a water heater was nothing. There was probably a race nearby he was itching to do anyway. In December. Did I mention it was in Chicago? Best of all, he had made a new connection, a new friend. It was these encounters and experiences for which Steve lived and that gave meaning to his life.
And that gave meaning to ours.
Steve’s blue collar writing never became slick. No amount of copy editing could ever take away from the intensity and sincerity with which he tackled a subject. His writing about Cable, Wisconsin, about Tulsa, about Austin, about Bromont, about helping turtles cross the road, about buying breakfast for a guy who was down and out, about not charging rent to a man raising three stepchildren, about athletes who cheat, about the panic of a lost dog, about his disgust for Ricardo Ricco, about the love of a kitten, about the unfairness of a stupid call-up rule for master’s cyclocross worlds, endlessly about the silliness of leadout trains in USAC criteriums … these things were all constructed, unshakably, unassailably, with the building blocks of great writing: Knowledge, experience, observation, consideration, compassion, fearlessness, and vulnerability, all bound together with the only thing that can ever hold together anything that is great, which is truth.
And the truth, well, Steve blasted it out with a nail gun. And heaven forbid you were the board.
He was an advocate for real racing—Steve hated leadout trains in crits, radios, tt bikes, physical contact, taking your hands off the bars, excessive rules, crappy officiating, cheap shots, needless risk taking, macho talk, double echelons with only four riders, high entry fees, lousy prize lists, doping, dopers, dope peddlers, dopes … He wanted people to test themselves like he tested himself—on the strength of their luck, legs, lungs, bike handling, and brains, and when racers needed correction, he corrected them publicly and shared it with about five thousand people a day. The recipients often considered this negative or curmudgeonly. About two million people a year considered it honest, accurate, great writing.
Steve’s writing was this way because he was beholden to very few people. When he talked about being lucky or having freedom or having made sacrifices, what he meant was that he didn’t have to carefully consider which segment of people would be butthurt by the truth. No man is an island, but Steve was certainly an archipelago.
Steve’s writing was unique in another aspect. It was collaborative. He attentively read the comments, and let himself be informed by them. Incredibly, when people wrote nasty, vituperative comments and trolled the shit out of him, he never deleted it. “I don’t take it personally,” he would say. “But could they please wait until I’ve finished breakfast?”
Cruel words hurt, and Steve felt it, but he believed in free speech and saw trolling as the price of taking a stand, as a consequence of being a writer.
Unquestionably, Steve’s blog is the world’s best racing manual ever imagined, strategy by strategy, approach by approach, with hundreds of concrete examples and results in actual races of what works and what doesn’t. It was written in real time for eleven years covering five decades of racing at the highest levels of human endeavor alongside names like Heiden, Fignon, Carpenter, Grewal, Rogers, Knickman, Hampsten, Lemond, Hinault, Overend, Phinney, Pierce, Schuler, Bradley, Gorski, Kiefel, and countless more. These weren’t lessons churned out in a lab or on Strava. They were lessons learned in the blast furnace of bike racing.
So this much I can assure you. If you read through the roughly 360,000 words he has penned you will have a masters degree in bike racing, but far more importantly, you’ll have a Ph.D. in life.
Steve’s writing made heroes of his family and friends. Trudi, Kris, Vincent, Catherine Walberg, Brian Jensen, Bill Stolte, Michael Aisner, Bromont, Tucker, and of course Ella Schuler, you live in Steve’s writing with incredible boldness, as large as life itself. We may have never met you, but we admire and love you all the same simply because you were loved by Steve.
But for all that, Steve’s writing was also a challenge to us. What did you do today to make someone’s life better? Who did you nurture? Did you turn the other cheek? Who did you encourage, give a wheel to, shelter from the wind, impart a bit of useful advice to, or better yet, wisdom? What wounded, frightened animal did you feed, succor, and nurse back to health? What turtle did you lift out of harm’s way and set safely in the grass? After you die, will there be a room filled with people, standing in awe and humbled at what you have left behind? Will those who follow marvel at the lives you have touched, the people you have loved, the lives you have inspired, the humility and graciousness and excellence and happiness that you have spread?
Steve took the common tools of a keyboard and the Internet and, unschooled and untutored, he left a record that will stand the test of time. He invited us to join him, line by rough-hewn line, even as, in his gentle and good natured way, he also challenged us to do better. Ever the student, Steve said: So, for my New Year’s Resolution, I’m going to state that I’m going to take more risks.
Steve said: Everyone has a low point of each race.
Steve said: I have very few regrets in my years in the sport of cycling.
Steve said: But I kept pulling, knowing I wasn’t going to win.
Steve said: I am surprised how taken back I was with how fragile life is. It is there and then, poof, gone.
Steve has been talking to us for fourteen years now. I know you miss him. We all do. But if you take the time to go back to his words, you’ll find that he’s talking to us still. And will be. Forever.