The path of truth is straight, but lined with razors and thorns.
Reading about George Hincapie got me thinking about Steve Tilford. You couldn’t pick two people who are more different. One is quiet, dishonest, and makes his living on the back of ill-gotten gains that he earned through a career of cheating.
The other is garrulous, honest, and makes his living by playing fair and giving it his all. I’ve been meaning to do a write-up of Steve’s visit to the South Bay a few weeks ago, when he flew in from Kansas to give the keynote speech at the 3rd Annual South Bay Cycling Awards.
But I haven’t been able to do it because each time I sat down to type, the job seemed too immense. This evening it seems even more impossible, and not just because there’s a pot of Cajun beans and pork bubbling on the stove, infusing the room with a smell that screams “Eat me now!” without pause.
Big job or not, here goes.
Steve flew out and we met him at the Hotel Shade in Manhattan Beach. I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve ridden with lots of pros and cycling icons, and for the most part they are really disappointing in terms of personality. Something about endless miles seems to make the top tier of riders mute, or stupid, or bland, or some tasteless combination of all three.
Not Steve. From the minute we started pedaling, he was talking. Friendly, funny, and more stories than you could ever remember. Riding next to him was like leaping off into a bottomless pool of anecdotes and cycling history. If we had been expecting a bitter old curmudgeon, we would have been sadly surprised. As Steve said, “I’m not anti-doping, I’m pro-cycling. And that means I reject cheating in all its forms.”
Surrounded by us, the clueless clods of the South Bay, Steve never missed a beat, never looked down his nose at anybody, and politely followed the etiquette of the ride–an etiquette that ended with him stomping the collective dicks of some of SoCal’s strongest riders. Smiling, game for a hard ride, happy to cruise, he made us all feel like champions even though the real champion was he.
It’s impressive to watch great athletes do their thing, but the beauty of cycling is that you can sometimes participate, however briefly, in the performance. Finishing a hundred yards back from Steve the first time up to the Domes and right behind him the second time was better than any masters race, even though he was obviously going at quarter-throttle. Later in the ride, when he pulled out the stops going up Via Zumaya, no one could hold his wheel. No one. And where we were all wrecked after the ride, he had coffee and then went out for another “easy” 30 miles.
But his athletic performance was nothing compared to his keynote speech at our award ceremony. He literally graced us with his presence, speaking with conviction, with passion, with honesty, and with hail-fellow-well-met good cheer that turned a special night into an unforgettable one. Sincere, funny, and happy to hang out with the crowd after speaking and knock back a few beers … this is what every champion should be, but hardly any of them are.
The path of truth may be a hard one, but seeing people like Steve Tilford should give everyone hope and inspiration that it’s not simply a path we can take, but one that we should.