Svein Tuft: living on cycling’s wild side
The mountains huddle around Svein Tuft’s house deep in the back country of Andorra. Mere minutes from the front door we are scrambling around rock ledges and up through forest, trampling on leaf litter and scraping past burly lichens and breathing the sharp cool air: thin with oxygen but thick with the scent of gorse and wild herbs.
Tuft leads up the narrow goat track with all the vim of a professional endurance athlete. He deftly strides and skips his way up with his little pug dog, Stella, scampering behind. As we pierce the tree line and our boots start to frost up with the season’s first snow, he stops to point out a distant peak reaching almost three kilometres into the sky. A narrow ridge drapes down its shoulder and connects it to our path.
“I spent 12 days up there,” he says.
One thing you quickly learn about Svein – pronounced Swayne – Tuft is that he will have a tale to trump any outdoor adventure you have ever done, and probably will ever do. Hands down. Here is just one: in April 2015 he crashed at the Tour of Romandy and broke his sternum and wrist. He hit a guardrail and was spared worse injuries by having his jersey stuffed full of bottles. Tuft’s plan to recover for the Tour de France was to camp at altitude that May, hiking down from that peak each day to spend time with his wife and catch up on chores, and hiking back up each evening.
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“The long story short, I was down in town and it was blowing a gale, a big storm, and as soon as you see where I had the tent, you’ll realise why this was a disaster for a tent.
“I came up that night, 100kph winds on the ridge, some places where it’s a bit tricky, and I’m hugging the ground, and I’m like, ‘what am I doing?’ I’d built a rock wall to protect the tent but when it’s blowing that hard you get turbulence in there, and it totally detonated the tent.
“So I packed everything else up and came down that night in the dark. It was so sketchy because you’ve got a heavy pack with all your stuff, and you’ve got to balance. And the wind is blowing 100kph.”
Welcome to the alternative life of the professional cyclist. Because this is Svein Tuft, and he is the complete opposite of what you expect a professional cyclist to be. When he’s not eschewing the modern pro cyclist’s god-forsaken hotel on a volcano for a sumptuous mountain-top sunrise, Tuft’s home routine reads like a week-long outdoor activity camp: hiking, cycle touring, backcountry skiing, climbing and yoga. He also likes to hike barefoot (more on that later) and practises Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He’s tall, broad, barrel-chested and muscular; if he doesn’t really look like a cyclist it’s because, a lot of the time, he isn’t.
However his steel bike, handmade by Legor Cycles in Barcelona, can accommodate anything from 23mm road tyres to 26c mountain bike wheels, making it not so much a gravel bike as an all-terrain tank in camouflage colours that Tuft happily rides at either extreme.
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Somehow he still finds time to train on his road bike and race for Mitchelton-Scott. A team member since 2012, he has been a selfless domestique and the foundation of their team time trial machine. They won stages in the 2014 Giro d’Italia and 2013 Tour de France where he made his Tour debut at the age of 36 and went on to finish as the lanterne rouge, plus two silvers and two bronzes at the World Championships.
Tuft is different. But that doesn’t mean he’s not important. In the 2014 Giro the team took the rare decision to deliberately let Tuft lead the squad over the line. It put him in the pink jersey. His close friend Luke Durbridge, who has roomed with Tuft since his neo-pro year in 2012, remembers the day.
“When we gave him the pink jersey it said ‘we respect you for what you do, thank you,’ and he took it as a great honour. It was recognition that he was a strong, selfless guy and reflected the values of the team.
“I remember he had this massive grin, from ear to ear, though he was a little bit uncomfortable. Winning is not something he normally does but because he’s such a strong bastard – he’s always the strongest in the team time trial – it was a nice reward, what he deserved.
“He very quickly didn’t like it the next day. It rained all day so we didn’t even get to see the pink jersey under his raincoat and he was riding in the bunch trying to fight for position. I remember him coming up to me and saying, ‘I’m just gonna ride on the front.’ I said, ‘Svein, you can’t ride, you’re in the pink jersey and you have to stay in the wheel. Tomorrow you can ride.’ He’s like, ‘oh I just don’t want to be in the bunch, can I just ride? Please?’”
The ravines can be steep in this part of the Pyrenees. Scourged by avalanches and torrents of meltwater, they convey uprooted pines and silver birch into deep gullies where they form jumbled walkways as they slowly decompose. Nettles spring up from the mulch.
Downstream, the valleys open up onto shaded meadows where cows, as grey as the Andorran slate that encircles them, drift around, ruminate, and drink from the trickling waters. In one clearing, herders have been damming a natural hollow in the rock for generations.
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Not long ago a Canadian came along and set down some boulders of his own. Today, beside this pool is where we unpack a kettle, admire Tuft’s handiwork (his father was a contractor, his older brother still is) and get a brew going. Tuft knows how to keep two Brits happy. But rather than English Breakfast tea, it is fresh nettle, reputedly good for naturally fortifying testosterone and iron levels. Turns out we need it.
“Well fellas, who’s up for a dip?”
We try not to think about the water temperature. Tuft guesses it is no more than six degrees, which apparently was rather nice during last summer’s heatwave. We try to visualise that instead but we end up remembering the herd upstream; there’s “friendly bacteria” and then there’s whatever lives in dissolved cow pat.
‘We will never be here again,’ reads Tuft’s right forearm, a tattoo he got during his twenties. It is the sort of motto that advocates stripping off and slipping into freezing cold water to soak up the Tuft philosophy, an alluring, exhilarating and addictive, if frequently uncomfortable, way of experiencing the world. Small flakes of snow, whipped up off the mountain peaks, begin to fall.
Team-mates and friends talk about Tuft’s “holistic worldview”. It means mountains. It means long hikes. It means nettle tea and plunge pools. It means candles and infra-red lights: “As soon as you start throwing out a hormone like melatonin, you go into this whole cycle and your thyroid and testosterone gets fucked up.”
It means a rejection of today’s culture of the battery-human in favour of living free range. It means tales of adventure. It means stubbornness, and enthusiasm. It means taking an eight-week off-season that includes fasting, abstaining from caffeine and pursuing other activities to reset the body. It means what the tattoo says. It means a sort of environmentalist caveman hedonism, searching for a more primeval and natural existence while going with what feels right and makes you happy.
Tuft is certainly a happy man. Yet he is acutely aware of modern life, from LED lights and smartphones – “our monkey brains are still trying to catch up with the shit that we’ve created” – to consumer capitalism. A painful reminder of this lies just down the road in Andorra la Vella, which feels like a mountainous airport departure lounge but without the planes, packed full of duty free fags, booze and guns while masquerading as a capital city.
“I feel like people there are just rotting away,” he says. “They’re not paying attention to the cues their bodies and their lifestyles are giving them, and I think that’s an unfortunate way to go through life.
“A lot of people, I see them, it’s about consumption, more consumption, and not thinking about the long-term picture. You can’t keep treating your body like a garbage dump. I don’t know where that’s considered to be OK in society… but when I look around – billboards flashing, buying shit – it blows my mind that people choose that.”
Tuftism also means barefoot hiking, an activity he began when he moved to Andorra from Girona five years ago. He explains that he subscribes to the theory of the grounding effect, which proposes that electromagnetic fields from power lines, WiFi, electrical devices and so on can negatively affect the human body. The scientific basis for it is questionable, but proponents believe that re-connecting with the earth – such as through barefoot hiking – has a positive anti-inflammatory effect.
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“But also, I’ve always just liked the way it feels. It’s like when you see kids at the beach, they just start sprinting when they get into bare feet and it’s the sweetest feeling ever.
“I do a lot of climbing on the cliffs over here and the grip you have with your feet is so much better. When you walk barefoot you walk on the balls of your feet, you pay attention to every step and you can feel the contours.”
With that, we dry ourselves off and set out again. Tuft chooses not to put his shoes back on.
“Your wife must think you’re a little crazy,” our photographer Michael Blann suggests.
“Oh, she knows,” Tuft replies. “She is well aware. She accepted that a long time ago.”
Tuft’s team are well aware; they too have embraced him for who he is. And of course he’s not quite as extreme as we like to make it seem. Tuft is only a caveman insofar as he owns the ultimate cyclist’s man cave: a collection of bikes, weights, shoes, outdoor equipment, a smattering of prizes, a 4×4, a motor-scooter and a small sauna spread out over the ground floor garage of his smart, modern home. He’s kitted out like an outdoor clothing store. He’s on WhatsApp.
The management at Mitchelton-Scott appreciate that he is a huge engine and a world-class time triallist capable of turning his hand to domesticity in the Classics and Grand tours. But principally Tuft is a team member with a radically different weltanschauung that benefits the whole outfit. Durbridge, a rookie fast-tracked to the WorldTour, recalls rooming with Tuft during his first Grand Tour. The Canadian kitted their hotel rooms out with candles and wandered around with giant yellow-lensed blue-blocker glasses.
“Initially I didn’t quite understand; I thought every professional did the fast track, as quick as you can, dedicate your life to cycling from 14 until you sign a pro contract. So I didn’t really have a hell of a lot else going on, I had a lot of great experiences through cycling but they all came from cycling. Svein had all these experiences through other avenues in life.
“When you get Sveino talking, one story rolls to the next and you start to realise that this guy had a whole other life before he started cycling. Pretty much every night was story time and I was mesmerised.
“I was willing to listen and learn about this holistic approach to cycling, to make sure there were other things going on in my life and just look after myself. It has helped me. Because I roomed with Svein straight up, I guess I became a bit of an alternative weirdo because I thought that was the way you do it. Then I started rooming with other people and I realised, ah, actually this is just Sveino.”
Tuft is all about sustainability in professional cycling. He expresses dismay with riders he feels take disproportionate risks, in particular in the biggest races. He gets frustrated with cycling’s jumped up young prima donnas and their begrudging attitude towards hard work or minor grievances. He aims to mitigate the season-on, season-off burnout cycles experienced by many riders and at 40 – turning 41 in May – he is still going strong. It took time but his ideas are now catching on at Mitchelton.
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“I believe the human body, if you take good care of it and give it a balanced approach to what it needs, always finds a way to give back,” he explains.
Tuft is the ultimate outlier, a self-confessed “guy from a different planet with a different outlook on everything.” Yet it’s no mystery how this extra-terrestrial can thrive in the world’s toughest sport. The world he came from was a lot tougher.
THE ROAD NOT TAKEN
The call of the wild. Tuft first heard it growing up in the suburbs of Vancouver with his parents and his older brother. His father, Arne, had emigrated from Norway aged 24 in search of adventure and there met his future wife Lesly, a fitness instructor. Svein enjoyed an outdoorsy childhood, but his first true two-wheeled reply to that call came when he picked up an old mountain bike for a fistful of dollars, welded up a steel trailer with a 45-gallon steel drum dissected to hold luggage and set off for Bella Coola, a remote village 1000km away in the mountains of British Columbia.
“We could go on and on about that trip, but basically the general theme was that I learned a lot of things the hard way,” he reflects. Tricked by an Indian summer, he set off far too late in the year. A skinny teenager, he would ride out the days and nearly freeze to death during nights where the temperature dropped down to -20 degrees.
Cycle tourists can be a disparate bunch but they generally have one thing in common: all have something in their lives they are either trying to get away from or go looking for. Sometimes both. Either way, it takes some incentive to pack up one’s life and disappear.
In Tuft’s case, it was an obsession with exploration mixed with a growing resentment of school and the path it was leading him down. At 15 he quit, bouncing between his recently separated parents’ houses while “bumming around”, getting out into the mountains and dallying with Vancouver punks and the burgeoning grunge scene just over the border in Seattle. All the while, that call of the wild was growing ever louder.
“I was happy working and climbing and snowboarding, and that’s the time I started hitch-hiking and hopping freight trains,” he remembers. “It was a time of freedom and exploring. I didn’t really listen to anyone. I wanted to find my own way.”
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Many would have settled for the fast-track school of hard knocks of that first trip and left it there. But Tuft wanted more. The Mk.II Tuftmobile was fashioned in aluminium, not steel. His trips got bigger. And so did his luggage; he picked up a German Shepherd-Chow-Rottweiler puppy that grew to weigh 80 pounds. He named it Bear. Bear came with him; when the going got tough, he would jump out of the trailer and run alongside on the road.
There are thousands of books about the romantic allure of the wilderness; Tuft has accrued enough stories to fill his own many times over. He followed the ebb and flow of life on the road, working odd jobs painting fences here, or building log cabins there. He enjoyed getting his hands on books by George Orwell.
“I loved how he would immerse himself and share a life in order to write about it… join a civil war to write about it.” He rode to Alaska using only old-fashioned camping equipment and woollen clothing, recalling clammy nights sweating and shivering with a fever and lying between two fires under a fir tree to shelter from the snow. He rode 20 hours on one can of beans after his jacket, with his money stuffed in the pocket, fell off his trailer. He has survived two avalanches. Whatever the crisis, Tuft toughed it out. He was “stubborn, hard-headed, and had things to prove to the world”.
He once saw Bear tossed 20ft by a moose. Somewhere in the Yukon, he chased away a lone wolf with a hockey stick in the dead of night after it picked a fight with his dog. He toured from Mexico right up to Prudhoe Bay, a rough Alaskan frontier town filled with transient oil-field workers that is the northernmost point of the Pan-American Highway.
On his return down south, he ran right down to starvation rations before a Texan in a white Cadillac miraculously appeared on the gravel road. He was so overstocked with groceries and so shocked to see a cycle tourist that he let Tuft help himself. Tuft opened the boot, reached for a gallon of Welch’s grape juice and downed the lot. At the end of every trip he would ride home and work odd jobs to earn enough money to set off again. Tuft’s walkabout has become the stuff of legend. Undoubtedly there are some stories that will forever remain secret.
“There were a lot of things you could say were going on with my character or my psychology,” he says. “But for me, those trips were all about finding out who I was, testing myself. That’s so important for young people to do.”
Tuft calls it bushwhacking. We might call it off-piste scrambling down a hillside with loose clumps of grass, dead plants and rocky outcrops. It’s where we make our own adventure, he says with a smile. He loves it. He relishes the thrill of taking his own route, unorthodox and untrodden. But then he won’t be doubled up with delayed onset muscle soreness for days afterwards.
“This is life, man. Cycling is just this weird thing that I do.”
Almost 20 years ago, Tuft began the ultimate bushwhack. Between expeditions he was working in a bike shop in exchange for a place to sleep – in the stairwell – and a bit of money in his pocket. A friend had been urging him to have a go on his Cannondale road bike with clipless pedals and Spinergy wheels. Eventually, Tuft hopped on. Coming straight from a touring setup with an 80lb dog, the speed was intoxicating. “Right from that day I was hooked, hooked like you wouldn’t believe.”
He found his touring strength stood him in good stead in his first competitions, even if the races tended to follow a certain theme: take off from the gun and either win alone by ten minutes or “completely detonate”. He slowly learned his craft and continued to win, landing himself spots on local Canadian teams.
Often he would ride out to races, or he and his father would travel overseas together and camp out before lining up on the start. It led to spots with leading US teams Mercury and Prime Alliance at the turn of the millennium. However, Tuft, who had been blessed with extraordinary talent (his grandfather was an Olympic cross-country skier) but had essentially been riding for fun, became disenchanted with the sport he had stumbled into. In 2003, at the age of 25, he quit.
But Tuft discovered that he needed cycling. In 2004, he won the first of ten national time-trial titles and a newly formed Canadian team, Symmetrics, signed him up for the next season. Within two years he was winning small stage races and the overall UCI America Tour.
A year later, he placed second at the World Championships time-trial and seventh in the Olympic Games. It secured him a ride with Garmin; he knew team manager Jonathan Vaughters from rooming with him on the Prime Alliance team training camp in San Diego. Tuft had ridden over 1500 miles down from Canada to get there. He subsequently moved to Europe, spent a season on Spidertech and in 2012 rejoined Matt White, who he knew from his Garmin days, at GreenEdge.
“I always ask how I ended up here. I’ve had some big moments in cycling that I never planned, I wasn’t pushing for it to happen but it happened and I’m like, ‘here I am now, I guess I gotta run with this.’
“Yes I was stubborn and I always wanted to push myself, but I never felt I had to be a professional and make it to the WorldTour and make it to Europe.”
In a way, just like painting fences or sweeping up bike shop floors, professional cycling simply allowed Tuft to keep on living the life he wanted to live. Yes, he found winning addictive, but Tuft’s career has been relatively free of the job-related angst that often dogs ambitious young men.
“For me it was like: if it works out, it works out, super,” he says. “If not, I’ll find something else to do.”
Of course, life is still a balance. He is a begrudging flyer and regards every trip away from home as a sacrifice. After 2015 he asked never to be selected for the Tour de France again because he didn’t like the stress and the way that “all of a sudden, everyone turned into an idiot”. He has accepted that certain sacrifices are necessary to maintain his balance and has learned to mitigate certain stressors with things like blue blockers and candles, or by nipping off to a beach or some woodland near the team hotel.
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“In the Tour a couple of years ago, we were going out in the mornings, finding a nice patch of grass, taking our shoes off and doing stretches. But one day the only patch we could find in the city was in the middle of this huge roundabout,” remembers his team-mate Luke Durbridge.
“That didn’t bother Sveino, so he’s off onto this roundabout with his shoes off, he’s doing his yoga poses in the middle of the city traffic before a Tour de France stage.”
Overcoming hardship is second nature to a serial adventurer but there is a disconnect between Tuft and professional cycling and there always will be. He identifies with his life at home – his wife and his newborn son, Gunnar – rather than his job. Bluntly, cycling may have offered so many positive experiences but it will never replace what sits closest to Tuft’s heart and soul.
“I don’t see myself as a cyclist. I don’t connect with it,” he says. “I’m just a person who is fortunate that he got to do what he wanted to do for all these years.”
The obvious question to ask is whether he ever doubts that he is doing the right thing, ever pins a number to his jersey and questions why he’s still doing it.
“Always, man. But I always fall back on my rule of positivity which is that it always gets better. Life always gets better.”
Yet racing in the WorldTour has become an integral part of one man’s very unorthodox way of living, the latest serendipitous encounter on Tuft’s journey through life. So he will miss cycling when he retires at the end of 2018. He still loves the teamwork and camaraderie, he loves racing his heart out, he loves smashing time-trials and he loves that his role at Mitchelton-Scott allows him to pursue his lifestyle beyond the finish line.
He is addicted to pushing himself and pro cycling lets him explore the absolute limits of his physical capability like nothing else. He believes his body could carry on doing so beyond the upcoming season but spending so much time away is now incompatible with providing the good life he wants for his family. It is a sacrifice too big.
Like all journeys, Tuft’s time in the professional ranks will come to an end and one of the peloton’s most remarkable characters will move on. But just as one tale reaches its conclusion, Svein Tuft will step out back into the woods like he always has done. Another one will just be beginning.
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