Tour de Steamboat brings together two cycling greats
Steamboat Springs — Beer in hand, Steamboat Springs bike legend Kent Eriksen sat just inside the open side door of the Shimano van Saturday afternoon, telling stories from the early years of the Tour de Steamboat. Among his favorites was how he once raced 1984 gold medalist Alexi Grewal, then just 19, losing narrowly to the Aspen native and future Olympian.
At the same time Saturday, on the other side of Little Toots Park in Steamboat, Steve Tilford napped in the shade, allowing his toned 55-year-old body the chance to recover from the day’s 110-mile bike ride. If you listened to Eriksen — who started the Tour de Steamboat in 1975 — long enough, you would hear him mention Tilford’s name from time to time.
“I’ve known Kent for decades now. He’s just one of the mainstays,” Tilford said. “We have this long path. But I started coming to Steamboat maybe six years ago just to hang out with Kent … I won the first mountain bike national championships on one of his bikes. So I’ve had this relationship with Kent on and on.”
Eriksen founded Moots Cycles and later, Kent Eriksen Cycles, and is one of the world’s cycling innovators. Both he and Tilford are in the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame, with the two enjoying a few buffalo burgers the night before Saturday’s Tour de Steamboat at Eriksen’s home near the Strawberry Park Hot Springs.
Tilford, a native and current resident of Topeka, Kansas, has lived all over the country during his days as a professional cyclist. He was the first to win the U.S. National Mountain Bike Championship, and has won both national and world championships in road, mountain and cyclocross racing.
“He’s a really easy guy to please. We just stay in touch,” Eriksen said. “He just loves the lifestyle. That’s all he knows. He’s a blue collar kind of guy.”
Even though the Tour de Steamboat originated in the 70s, it’s only been a little more than a decade since it was revived in its current format, which is largely as a non-competitive charity ride. With more than 800 participants, and another 100-plus volunteers in 2015, the event raised money for four local organizations: Routt County Riders, Partners of Routt County, Reaching Everyone Preventing Suicide and the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council.
Saturday’s ride came with three options: Two shorter jaunts taking cyclists down Highway 131 toward Stagecoach State Park and back,and the mainstay route, the 110-mile grinder, known as the “Gore Gruel,” which goes through both Rabbit Ears pass and Gore Pass before returning to Steamboat via Routt County Road 14.
Eriksen rode the 110-mile circuit on a tandem bike with Tilford going solo, the first time he’s taken part in the Tour de Steamboat.
“I’m kind of the best old guy, I guess. I don’t know what you’d call it. I don’t really seem to be slowing down that much,” Tilford said. “It’s fun. And I think people just forget. They put these imaginary limitations on themselves, and they just think, ‘Oh, I outgrew that … I think that’s what these participatory races are starting to do. They allow people to get out there and have fun, and that’s pretty much what life is all about — happiness.”
Tilford’s passion for cycling is as noticeable as his long, blonde hair. Friday night, Tilford recalled a recent bike ride he took from Topeka to Lawrence, Kansas, which are separated by about 30 miles. While stopping for a Gatorade 10 miles from his destination, he met a man who appeared to be in his 40s who was interested in Tilford’s long ride.
The man was not a biker himself, and thought Tilford was the younger of the two, despite actually being a decade older, telling Tilford he’d rather leave biking “to the young guys.” Tilford’s love and dedication for the sport came out in that moment, where he did his best to get another person on a bike.
“Go to a garage sale, buy a bike, put some air in the tires and go riding,” Tilford told the man. “I said, ‘You should get on a bike and try it because it’s really fun. I think you’ll be surprised how fun it is.’”
As impressive as Tilford’s resume is, missing is the sport’s most iconic event, the Tour de France. Tilford was an alternate for the U.S. Olympic mountain bike team and had chances to compete in the Tour de France, but this was before the event was mainstream, prior to the days of Lance Armstrong and Greg LeMond.
“Back when I had opportunities, nobody wanted to do it. It wasn’t the Tour de France like it is now,” Tilford said. “Since Lance started winning the Tour and started bringing in all this money, and especially with television, all of a sudden that’s my biggest failure in cycling is I never rode the Tour.”
But Saturday’s Tour de Steamboat wasn’t about success or failure for Tilford. It was about catching up with his friend, Eriksen, who said Tilford is “pretty phenomenal.” It was about escaping the heat of Kansas and enjoying the cool, mountain air. It was about proving that, at 55, he could still hang with the young guys. And mostly it was about donating to a good cause and helping promote the sport he so obviously loves.
“Cycling is becoming way more mainstream now, and that’s the cool thing about the Tour de Steamboat,” Tilford said. “It’s getting people out riding their bikes. It’s fun.”
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