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MONTPELLIER, France (VN) — Canadian Svein Tuft (Orica-GreenEdge) has seen a lot in a pro cycling career that has spanned over a decade. He’s been the Canadian national time trial champion a staggering eight times, and the overall winner of the UCI America Tour. He took a silver medal at the 2008 world time trial championship, even after flatting 6km from the finish line and finishing on a spare road bike.
But up until a week ago, he’d never been to the Tour de France.
At age 36, Tuft is the oldest Tour rookie of the modern era. And just six stages into his Tour debut, he’s stood on the podium, celebrating a team time trial stage win; after Friday’s stage 7, he will have ridden in defense of the hallowed yellow jersey for two different riders, Simon Gerrans and Daryl Impey.
Renowned for his laid-back personality, as well as ability to sustain massive power over extended periods of time — be it on his time trial bike, or at the front of the peloton — Tuft showed a fair bit of emotion in the moments before and after the TTT podium celebration in Nice.
“I had a dream day. I felt that good,” he said. “I knew, coming home, I was just going to bury it, and if I got dropped, I got dropped, but I had to get the guys going as fast as they can. I tend to accelerate slowly, so it can save the guys, getting up to speed. I knew my job, and I just had a great day.”
The tales of ruggedness that follow the rider from British Columbia are as numerous as they are legendary: his winters spent living in a tent in the Canadian backcountry; his thousand-mile bike trek to a team camp in Southern California, 80-pound dog in tow; his entire day stuck upon a cliff face after a mountaineering rope had snagged; his forays into motocross and mixed martial arts.
And though the first week of his first Tour de France has been the stuff of dreams, Tuft admits that riding the Tour has not been a lifelong goal.
Asked about missing Tour selection, both at Garmin (in 2009-2010) and Orica last year, Tuft said he had long been at peace over the prospect of missing out on the sport’s biggest event.
“Actually, it’s funny, I’ve always enjoyed that time home in July, back in B.C.” he said. “I always went on mountain biking trips, so it’s a mixed thing. I never grew up with cycling being my number-one thing; going to the Tour de France was never a childhood dream or anything. Now, I’m realizing, when you come here, and see the difference of this race, and the numbers of people, and how big of a deal it is … Oh yeah, I get it now. I enjoy my time at home, but I couldn’t ask for anything better than being here, now.”
Growing up as the son a Norwegian lumberjack turned general contractor in Vancouver, Tuft guesses he’s spent as much of his life skiing as he has on a bicycle.
In fact it was his love for mountaineering that brought him to cycling — with no car and limited money, a teenaged Tuft dropped out of high school, bought a $40 mountain bike, welded together a homemade trailer, and began riding vast distances, including from Vancouver to Alaska, to go climb mountains, taking little more than a tarp, an axe, a wool blanket and his dog, Bear. During that trip, soaking wet and cough-ridden, Tuft spied an abandoned cabin, where found a stove, food and a bed; he slept there for four days.
Tuft built winter camps in the Canadian backcountry and spent months at a time living in the snow, skiing and snowboarding. “I would go out in the fall and cut firewood for the winter,” Tuft said. “I always made sure I was near a water source. It was so much fun.” (An appreciation of winter sports is part of Tuft’s DNA — his grandfather, Arne Tuft, raced for Norway at the 1936 Winter Olympics, finishing sixth in the demanding 50km Nordic skiing event.)
Tuft later got a job at a bike shop, which brought access to road bikes. After dragging a heavy trailer on a mountain bike, pedaling a road bike felt effortless, and Tuft was hooked. In 2001, within two years of his first bike race, Tuft had earned a spot on the Canadian national team. A stint with Broadmark Capital led to a stagaire spot with Mercury, and later a contract with Prime Alliance.
One winter Tuft spent so much of his off-season skiing and snowboarding that when the time came around for training camp, he was short on base miles. So he simply rode down Highway 101 from Vancouver to team camp in Southern California, packing camping gear, a sack of potatoes, and Bear, drinking from streams and cooking by campfire. Because it was February, he faced wind and rains almost the entire trip.
Among those riders on Prime Alliance was Jonathan Vaughters, racing his final season as a pro. Vaughters, who would later hire Tuft to race for Garmin, told The New York Times that when Tuft arrived, “He had this really long beard, and he smelled very bad. I remember thinking, okay, this guy is completely different than the image of the typical European money-driven cyclist who buys Porsches in his spare time.”
After the Prime Alliance team dissolved following the 2003 season, Tuft took a hiatus from the sport. Part of what had worn him down was the constant training, travel and racing, but another aspect was cycling’s doping problems. He admits it nearly drove him from the sport, but after some time away in 2004, he began to appreciate what bike racing meant to him.
“It’s like anything in life, there are lot of negatives, but if you just sit and fester you can find a billion things to complain about,” Tuft said. “Whether or not guys are doing [drugs], I don’t even care any more. At the end of their lives they will have to look back on their choices, and if they feel good about it, then that’s up to them. I hit a point where I realized unless you can do something and change a situation, you have to either accept it or walk away. It was a big epiphany for me to just come back and enjoy racing. Ever since I made that decision, biking has been so good to me.”
Beginning in 2004, Tuft won the first of eight Canadian national time trial championships. From 2005 through 2008 he was a franchise rider for the Canadian Symmetrics squad. For a while, Tuft lived in a trailer on acreage belonging to Symmetrics team owner Kevin Cunningham, providing anti-doping testers directions such as, “end of the logging road, near the trail head, top of the ridge.”
Tuft’s hobbies also include motocross and mixed martial arts, a combat sport in which a variety of fighting techniques are used, including Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Some of Tuft’s friends from high school fight professionally, and Tuft said that while he enjoys submission wrestling, he had to stop — he was adding to much upper-body mass.
“If you’re evenly matched, it’s more like a chess match than a fight,” he said. “It was a good way to pass the time during the season, a good way to stay balanced. But I stopped doing because I put too much weight on my upper body.”
Soft-spoken and unassuming — Orica-GreenEdge director Matt White describes him as a “very calming influence on everybody” — Tuft’s forearm tattoos shed some light into his rugged, free-spirited character.
On his right forearm are the words “We will never be here again.” It’s a constant reminder, Tuft said, to cherish every moment. “There so many places we go, and I find that a lot of times it’s easy to get wrapped up in what you are doing and not pay attention to all these cool things surrounding you. It’s a reminder to take the time to enjoy things.”
On Tuft’s left forearm is an upside-down number 13, the symbol former Prime Alliance teammate Matt Decanio used in his renegade fight against doping in cycling. Number 13 was the race number Decanio wore the day he decided to come clean about using EPO during the 2003 season. “No one had really done that before, gone through the whole situation and come clean about what they’d done,” Tuft said. “I was proud of what he did, and the tattoo is a symbol of me being proud of never going down that path, never taking any part of that. I get a lot of motivation out of that.”
Though he’s never been a big star of the sport, Tuft’s career trajectory has progressively climbed higher. He was the overall winner of the UCI America Tour in 2007; in 2008 he took seventh in the Olympic time trial at Beijing and won the overall at the Tour de Beauce en route to the silver medal at worlds.
After two years at Garmin, Tuft spent the 2011 season with the Canadian squad SpiderTech when the Australian Pegasus team he’d signed with collapsed. In his first season with Orica, wearing the Canadian national road champion’s jersey, Tuft made an early impression on the pro peloton at Tirreno-Adriatico, riding on the front of the peloton for nearly the entire second stage to defend the team’s first overall leader’s jersey in Europe. Sprint ace Mark Cavendish later tweeted: “Ride of the day … No, make that ride of the millennium, goes to GreenEdge’s Svein Tuft. 200km alone, controlling the peloton! Respect.”
Other top results in 2012 included fourth overall at Three Days of De Panne, fourth overall at Tour de Beauce and a pair of TT stage wins at Eneco Tour of Benelux.
Tuft returned to the Orica team this year as a veteran who can target stage races while also capable of toiling on the front for hours on end, one of the few riders in the peloton who can single-handedly set tempo, control the field and chase down a breakaway.
As White explained, Tuft wasn’t originally slated to make his Tour debut this year. After winning a time trial at the Tour de San Luis in Argentina, he was set to race the spring classics and the Giro d’Italia, however illness forced him out of much of the classics, allowing him to recover after completing the Giro and be eligible to make the Tour team selection.
“Svein is very, very versatile,” White said. “I’ve taken him to the Giro, and the Vuelta, and it’s great to see him making his Tour debut at this age. You pick a team for the team’s goals, and we didn’t come here to specialize in the team time trial. What we want to use him for, specifically, is to move the train up in the closing kilometers. He does a great job of that. He can ride at the front, for a long time, at 55 kph. He’s not part of the leadout, but he’s a crucial member in positioning Brett (Lancaster), Daryl (Impey) and (Matt) Goss in the final.”
Tuft has also proven to be a dependable workhorse, valuable in defending the team’s overall race lead by setting tempo on the front, keeping breakaways in check. It’s something Tuft says he enjoys.
“I’m fine with that,” he said. “There’s stress in the first part of the stage, but at the end of the day you’re just riding on the front, ticking away the kilometers. That’s enjoyable for me.”
In fact, in many ways, Tuft is, as the saying goes, just happy to be here, at this 100th Tour de France, as the oldest rookie of the modern era.
“Ever since I started racing at the ProTour level, riding the Tour has been something I’ve wanted to do,” he said. “You want to do all the big races. You don’t want to finish your career and not have had that experience. And I’m super happy to have had that chance.”
Adapted from “Mountain Man”, from the March 2013 issue of Velo magazine.