THE FUTURE OF AMERICAN DIRTTHE FUTURE OF AMERICAN DIRT

THE FUTURE OF AMERICAN DIRT

Steve Tilford Racing is no normal cyclocross team, it’s an organisation with a purpose. The roster is small, with three elite racers: former US champion, Stephen Hyde; comparative newbie, Raylyn Nuss, who despite recently taking up the sport was ranked third in the pro rankings in early October, not to mention top among her countrywomen; and Joe Schmalz, a rider who – after a pro career on the road – is rediscovering dirt again. 

As the 21/22 season begins to heat up, the team has already been enjoying success in races, with Nuss placing third overall in the new USCX series and Hyde delivering three podiums. But it’s not all about the race results with this team…

By competing, they are helping the Steve Tilford Foundation – set up in memory of the late bike racer – to deliver on its promise of aiding “young people of all backgrounds to find and chase their passion through the sport of cycling”.

And of course, with a mission statement like that, there are plenty of development riders coming through who benefit from the senior elites’ experience.

For Stephen Hyde, the question of what it means to race for STF is tricky to answer.

“Some days it feels like another chance at racing at the level I want to be at. Some days it feels like the beginning of a new chapter; of giving what knowledge and experience I’ve gained over the years. Then there’s this whole other level of what it means to ride in the name of someone as great as Steve really was. It goes beyond his racing legacy.”

Tilford, for those who don’t know, was an American bike racing legend, a stalwart of the scene, who knew and was known by thousands of people. Of the three, Schmalz was the only one to have known Tilford personally – and indeed, to have competed alongside him.

“He was honestly my first mentor that really showed me the ropes, especially in road racing.”

Schmalz and Tilford were teammates in 2007, when the former was moving into his first year as an under-23.

“I learnt an absolutely tremendous amount from him and it’s really what I give credit to, giving me that hunger to actually make it my career and what I wanted to do.”

Schmalz raced pro on the road for a decade.

Even among those who never met Tilford, the man still casts a long enough shadow that he is never far from the conversation, as Raylyn Nuss explains.

“What’s cool is that you show up at ‘cross races and everybody knows who he was because not only was he an absolute legend, but he was also really engaging to everybody. We have this thing rolling now called ‘Steve stories’ so people show up to events and they’ll tell us stories of their interactions with Steve. Even if they weren’t a pro racer, they’ve had an interaction with Steve.”

There are all kinds of Steve stories, including a Fausto Coppi-esque tale of him stopping mid-race (while in the lead) to help a competitor in the equivalent women’s event who was suffering from cramp, only to remount his MTB and still take victory in the men’s contest.

If there is one common thing in all the tales, it’s that Tilford’s love of racing his bike shone through like a lighthouse lamp through ocean fog. He was a beacon, an exemplar of what bike racing can do and be for a person – and so it’s no surprise Nuss, Hyde and Schmalz are all proud to compete with his name on their jerseys.

If a love of racing was one thing that made Steve Tilford who he was, his desire to pass on his enthusiasm and experience was another. The Foundation exists to offer opportunities, and to pass expertise from one generation to the next. Stephen Hyde has done a huge amount on the bike, including three national titles and two Pan-American Games wins – but he’s still driven to perform, as an example for the younger riders he now coaches. 

“In order for me to be an effective model of an athlete it’s important to follow the same rules. My athletes push me in my coaching, but also in my own athletic pursuit. Why would I ask anyone to listen to what I have to say if I can’t live it myself?”

And his philosophy as a coach?

“I want to be the word of calm wisdom. The one who has the clear memory of the steps taken and that still need to be stepped. A young athlete can, for the most part, only live in that one moment. It’s the way these athletes are wired. It takes work to break that and see a long-term view.”

The learning isn’t limited just to the development team members, either. Nuss, who began racing her bike only a couple of years ago, says she learns from Hyde constantly.

“There’s a lot of mentorship going on in the team right now with Stephen and I. I spent two-and-a-half weeks out in Massachusetts where he lives, and we did like a ‘cross bootcamp. He just threw every ounce of knowledge that he had at me, and even now during pre-rides and when we’re in an Airbnb for race weekends, he’s like ‘you need this, you’ve got to time your food here’. I’m just soaking in everything he says – and it’s working!”

Nuss is anticipating paying those lessons forward when the development program of STFR expands to include some young women riders. However, she’s already building some links and taking a mentorship role. 

“I’m still able to interact with and mentor young female riders even though there’s no one on the team yet, but I would love to have another female presence on the team. Especially coming from my history of playing basketball and being in a team environment, I really love to be able to feed off one another and uplift one another – so it’s coming but not yet.”

As Americans, all three are looking forward to the World Championships which will be hosted on their home soil next year. Hyde has seen the Worlds in the USA before, although he wasn’t competing then.

“When Worlds were in Louisville, I was on my first year as an elite CX racer. I had gotten enough points to do my first nationals. I was still earning my keep as a mechanic for the JAM Fund development team and racing for them as well. So of course, I was more than excited to go see it. I drove down from my new home in Massachusetts with some friends. I had no idea at the time that in two seasons I would line up for my first Worlds in Tabor.”

He is excited about the Worlds, and what it might do for American ‘cross.

“The course is crazy (we just raced it yesterday in the WC) in Fayetteville. It’s gonna be one for the books for sure. I’m curious and excited to see what will come of all this attention. What will come of the new USCX series? How all the international coverage will change how we view our own scene and of course how it pushes us as a country.”

Nuss, too, is anticipating the Arkansas Worlds.

“My number one target for the year is to make the Worlds team and I also have nationals as a target, and I really feel that I could shake it up a bit at nationals.”

Nuss and the other elite riders will be returning to Europe soon, which might serve as the perfect preparation for Fayetteville.

“I’ll be doing a six-week block over in Europe and I would like to be able to get some solid results in European World Cups. I’ve had a top 20 in US World Cup, but I want to be able to match that and do that over in Europe.”

Schmalz sounds a note of caution about the after-effects of hosting a massive event like Worlds.

“Cyclocross is doing well, particularly this year because we have all the World Cups and the World Championships. I do worry a little bit about a post-worlds hangover, like we did the last time we hosted worlds in 2013.

“The sport took a hit after that, sponsors went elsewhere and there was a bit of a lull in racing and some of the big races went away. I don’t think that’s going to happen this time, just because we have the World Cup’s now, we didn’t have those back then.”

And Hyde offers a final, optimistic last word about the role this small team of dedicated racers and mentors can play in the future of American dirt.

“I want to see a pipeline of young athletes who want to make this sport their career. I’m thinking about how the Steve Tilford Foundation impacts our community, I feel like that’s in our future.”

The team has been right in the thick of it in North America so far this season but will head to Europe soon for some of the most prestigious events in ‘cross.

Words: Tom Owen
Photography: Kenza Barton Schlee