Long before Svein Tuft was a pro bike racer known for his toughness and grit, he was honing a unique skillset in the outback of Canada.
Nearly a decade before he became an elite international cyclist, Tuft was living a self-described “hobo lifestyle.” The free-wheeling Tuft spent as much time as he could camping, climbing, skiing, snowboarding, and exploring the mountains of western Canada.
Tuft would roam the Canadian backcountry, taking months-long bike trips on the lonely roads across the Yukon and British Columbia on an old, beat-up mountain bike. He’d pick up odd jobs, like mowing lawns or bailing hay, to save up enough money before the next adventure. He twice rode from Alaska to the Lower 48, bivouacking under the stars and hauling around an 80-pound dog on a makeshift trailer.
Along the way, he had enough adventures to fill a Jack London book. Some of those stories have shown up in The New York Times and other news outlets. And like a legend of the Old West, it’s sometimes been difficult to separate truth from fiction.
We recently caught up with Tuft at his European home base in Andorra — where he and his wife recently celebrated the birth of their first son Gunnar — to get the real story from some of Tuft’s more exuberant adventures in his pre-racing days.
VeloNews: OK, Svein, there are many interesting “origin stories” behind some of your adventures before you became a professional cyclist, so we’d like to go through a few of them. To parse fact from fiction, sound good?
Svein Tuft: OK, this could be fun.
VN: First off, was it true that you once beat back a wolf with a knife when you were camping alone in the woods out in the middle of the Yukon?
ST: Well, I didn’t have a knife. It was an aluminum hockey stick.
VN: Oh, even better! Do tell …
ST: Yeah, it was an aluminum hockey stick without a blade. I had picked it up on the side of the road, and it came in handy to use as a kickstand for my bike. I had a big trailer on the back of my old touring bike and I couldn’t lay it down. So I would use the hockey stick to prop up the bike.
VN: So you were doing these epic, months-long bike touring rides solo across Canada. And that hockey stick came in handy in more ways than one?
ST: It also made for a good whacking stick. Or to beat back a wolf. I was camping up near the Yukon close to a place called Jade City. They say they have the world’s biggest wolves up there, but this one that attacked us was sick and on its own. Wolves would never confront a human, and if a wolf pack did attack us, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now.
VN: Who was “us?”
ST: I had a big ol’ mutt, a mix of chow, German Shepherd, and Rottweiler. I’d tow that 80-pound dog around in a trailer I had on the back of my bike. He was named Bear. Sometimes he’d just jump off the trailer and chase a moose. Sometimes he’d be gone an hour, but he’d always come back, all wet and sometimes a little bit bloodied up. He was a real nutcase of a dog, but he could come in handy up there in the woods.
VN: So how did the wolf attack your camp?
ST: Up there in the north — this was late May going into June — the days are getting pretty long, so it stays light late. My dog just started growling. Then there was a rustling in the bush, and the dog just darts into the woods. Then it was this horrible sound of dogs fighting. If it was a normal wolf, my dog wouldn’t have made it. But the thing was emaciated, and that’s why it came at us. I jumped out of my bivy sack and I was yelling at my dog to come back. Then they came into the opening, and they were really going at it. I grabbed my aluminum hockey stick, and beat this thing to get it to go away. I started to connect some good blows, and it freaked out and just ran away. It was so intense. It was not a good night. You’re up there on your own. There’s nothing around you. The nearest town was 300km away, and that’s really nothing more than a gas station and a few shacks.
VN: Whoa, what a story. OK, so moving on to “Svein myth” No. 2: you spent a night trapped on the side of a cliff?
ST: Ha, where do you get these stories? Well, a buddy and I were climbing a peak called Yak Peak up in [British Columbia]. We were hitting this nice, new route on a granite wall. We started out super early in the morning and it was August and [there were] no signs of bad weather, so we were just wearing T-shirts to keep things as minimal as possible. We were up there and got caught out under this overhanging roof at the final bit of the climb. You’re pretty tired, and then the winds started picking up, the clouds are pushing in, and what was a beautiful day turned into a bit of a disaster.
VN: So what happened next?
ST: It got windier and colder, and we got a bit of precipitation. Granite in the wet is OK, because you can still get a grip. We were on these 5.10 pitches, trying to rappel the hell out of there. We were coming down, but being the poor bastards that we were, part of our rope got stuck. And we were not about to leave it up there on the face. One of those anchors cost $40, and when you’re a hobo like I was then, $40 was two weeks of good living. It was pouring down rain at this point, and only one of us had a headlamp. It was one of those worst-case scenarios. It was 3 a.m., and we were both just f—ed. We had been up on the face for nearly 24 hours. We had been out in the hot sun, with all the exposure, not a lot of food, and now were near hypothermic. You’re so over it, but you have to keep on going. We were pulling down the rope, and it gets jammed up there. So there was nothing you could do but free-climb up there, and pull it out of the jam. I will never forget that feeling when we got back down to solid ground. We were kissing the earth. I was never so happy in my life to be back on flat earth.
VN: I can imagine after having survived some of these misadventures that professional bike racing might seem easy?
ST: When I got to Europe and I heard these pros complain about a shitty bus or some dumpy hotel, I would just laugh. I never complain about the weather in a bike race. That’s just life. Weather is life. OK, there is nothing easy about pro bike racing, but experiencing some of this other stuff sure helped me when I came to Europe.
VN: OK, urban legend number three: you were once a cage-fighter?
ST: Ha! OK, that one is not true. That one gets blown way out of proportion. It’s true that I enjoy martial arts, and I practice Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. But as far as being a cage-fighter, that one is a legend.
VN: So what is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for the uninitiated?
ST: If you’re going to spar, you need to take care of your brain. You need to wear headgear and gloves. There’s no way I would ever do extreme fighting. That’s why I love Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. It’s more about grappling and wrestling down your opponent. It’s a great way to train 100 percent of your body. It’s one of the most complete martial arts.
VN: When you were doing all these crazy things, did you ever imagine being a Tour de France racer?
ST: Not at all. My dad would watch the Tour, but I didn’t understand what was going on. To me, it was just a bunch of guys in tight outfits rolling around. It didn’t really interest me. It wasn’t until I started racing locally that I thought about turning pro.
VN: Now that you are a professional, we hear you like to walk barefoot in the woods to do some meditation and yoga before the start of a race. True or false?
ST: Yep, that’s true. It’s about being grounded on the Earth. About being in the sunshine, feeling the air fill your lungs, the movement of the sky. Sometimes it might by for 20 minutes, or maybe up to an hour. It’s about taking a small part of your day and doing something that’s beneficial to your body and your soul. For me, being out in the mountains has been my obsession for a long time.
VN: Svein, these are great stories, you should write a book …
ST: I’ve thought about that. Maybe someday after I finish racing. I already have a title: “How the F—k Did I End Up Here?”
To read the rest of the interview with Tuft, pick up the next print issue of VeloNews at your local newsstands. Or click here to subscribe.