If you were at the Giro d’Italia last month and spied a bike racer strolling out of the woods one morning without any shoes on, yes, you were right: You saw Svein Tuft.
Every racer has their way of dealing with the day-in, day-out stresses and intensity of bike racing. The veteran Canadian walks his own path, quite literally. For Tuft, it’s finding a quiet moment in the woods and disconnecting from the craziness, tension, and dangers of the elite peloton.
“It’s a nice way to start the day, with some meditation and yoga,” Tuft said. “With the circus that we are in, you need those moments to find a balance.”
Ride, eat, and recover: Those are the three tenets of a professional racer. For Tuft, that equation also includes quality time with Mother Nature.
The 39-year-old carves out calm moments before and after each day that presents a sharp contrast to the intensity of racing. It’s not always possible, and sometimes the team hotels are lost in an industrial park, but if there are some nearby woods, Tuft will instinctively seek them out.
“I like to be grounded and be close to nature,” Tuft said. “I’ll take 30 minutes, sometimes an hour, whatever I think it needs. It’s my meditation.”
As far as iconoclasts in the peloton go, few can match Tuft. His exploits before he became a professional bike racer are legendary, including long-distance cycling trips across the Canadian outback and once fending off a wolf that was trying to attack his dog on a winter camping trip. When he joined Symmetrics, he and Christian Meier lived in trailers behind the team manager’s house. He didn’t turn pro until he was 23, and hit the WorldTour in 2009 after riding to bronze in the 2008 world time trial championship. Tuft has found a comfortable niche at Orica – GreenEdge, where he’s called “Tufty” and “Swein-o” by his teammates. Esteban Chaves started calling him “grizzly,” an apt name for the grandson of a Norwegian Olympic Nordic skier raised in British Columbia.
A strong time trialist and loyal team worker, Tuft has seen it all. He wore the pink jersey for a day after Orica won the team time trial to open the 2014 Giro, and three weeks later, he was only one of two Orica riders who finished the race. Last year, a jersey full of water bottles saved him from serious injury in a bad crash, and he bounced back to race the Tour de France.
Under contract through 2017, Tuft said his future “will sort itself out next season … I’m still enjoying it. I’m happy, I’m healthy, and I’m still learning new things. You can’t ask much more from a job.”
This year’s Giro was especially intense for Tuft, who helped guide Chaves to second place overall — a milestone in the Orica franchise. It’s the first time the team has seriously fought for the GC in a grand tour, so those morning meditation sessions helped take the edge off the weight of the added responsibilities.
“I’ve never done a grand tour with a guy who can win the race,” he said. “It’s different than riding for sprints or breakaways. Every day you’re switched on, right from kilometer zero.”
After wrapping up the Giro, he’ll race the Canadian national championships, and has an outside chance of making the Canadian Olympic team.
“I only want to go [to the Olympics] if I am in very top form … I don’t want to get a T-shirt and hang out in the Olympic village,” Tuft said. “If I go, I want to do something in the race.”
Through it all, Tuft tries to keep everything in perspective, and returns to his backcountry roots as frequently as he can.
“I’ve done quite a bit of yoga over the years, and I just take what works for me, certain positions and movements, and I stick to my own hybrid,” Tuft explained. “I’m a big fan of breathing. For so much of the day, you’re breathing quite hard from the racing, so I like to do some exercises, and that keeps the diaphragm working.”
Yoga and cycling seem like a natural fit, but it’s unclear how many professional racers practice it regularly. Teams are starting to incorporate stretching and yoga-like exercises into their training programs, but it’s unlikely that many head into the woods for a morning session before the start of a stage in a grand tour.
After finishing out the Giro — where Tuft helped Chaves reach second overall (he called the Colombian a “real scrapper”) — he returned to his European base in Andorra. Rather than settle in Girona, Spain, where up to 100 elite pro cyclists, marathoners, and triathletes now live and train, Tuft prefers the high mountains that the Pyrenean principality offers.
“I’ve got some great hikes right out the door,” he said. “There’s some amazing backcountry skiing in the winter. I just love being in the mountains.”
Lately he’s taken his connection to nature to an entirely different level. Once he’s away from the race, he loses those shoes for good.
“I do a lot of my hiking barefoot now,” he said. “You really pay a lot more attention when you’re walking, and you’re more aware of your surroundings. When you’re in those big ol’ boots, you’re just plodding along, smashing your body. Without shoes, you’re light-footed, and you cannot afford to step on any sharp rocks. I’ve found it’s the safest way of walking.”
Unfortunately for Tuft, he cannot race without cycling shoes.