• Rally
  • Svein Tuft’s Final Ride

Svein Tuft’s Final Ride

By Molly Hurford | July 15, 2019 | Rally Health

It’s 6:30 in the morning at the beach in Oxnard, CA, and the winter sun is just starting to peek over the palm trees. The shoreline is quiet, almost empty, except for a man jogging barefoot along the water. Lean and muscular, sporting a two-day beard, shorts and a T-shirt, Canadian cyclist Svein Tuft finishes his mile-long run, works through a series of yoga stretches, then plunges into the breakers for a quick swim. 

It’s January. The Pacific is frigid. But Tuft isn’t bothered. He emerges, then lightly jogs back to the house where the rest of his Rally UHC cycling teammates are still sleeping. In three hours, he’ll join them for several hours of riding, climbing hundreds of meters up and down the Santa Monica Mountains. This little routine? Just a warm-up. 

“I like to face the cold,” Tuft says later, when the training for the day is finally done and he’s relaxing, staring out at the ocean and sipping from a steaming cup of tea. “When you get up at 6:30 and think about going out in those waves, it’s not always super appealing. But after the fact, you’re always glad you did it.”

For most pro athletes, one grueling workout a day is enough. For Tuft, a lion among men on the pro continental circuit famous for his extraordinary stamina and eccentrically rugged lifestyle, constant motion is a way of life. At 42, the oldest North American rider on the international pro circuit can still outpace riders half his age. He’s ridden in three Tours de France, holding his own against cycling greats like Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel. Last year, the 11-time Canadian time-trial champion was the elder on the course at the famed Giro D’Italia, one of the premier stops on the pro continental tour.  

Anyone who’s ever crossed paths with Svein Tuft has a favorite story about him. He fought off a pack of wolves once, one oft-told yarn goes. On another occasion, he rode 2,000 miles to training camp, bivouacking in the woods in pouring rain for a full week to make it there on time. He’s been known to sneak out for long, solo hikes in the middle of racing season, sometimes barefoot. On rest days, while other riders are putting their feet up, he rock-climbs. Tuft rarely carries a cell phone, and you won’t find him on social media. When he’s home in Andorra, the tiny country bordering Spain, he has to hike around to pick up a signal, and can only talk via What’s App. 

Most racers exit the sport before they hit 40, as their bodies begin to show signs of wear and tear. But Tuft is still churning, powered by an alien work ethic and unparalleled drive. “Svein is special,” says Jacob Erker, Rally UHC’s general manager. “Obviously he has a really big engine, but at the end of the day, he works tremendously hard. He put in the time to become a World Tour rider. He earned it all on his own.”

Now Tuft is imparting the wisdom he’s learned over the past 20 years to the young racers on the Rally UHC Cycling team. He started a one-year contract in January. When pressed, he says that this will be his last year of professional racing. 

Tuft chatting with his teammates at training camp in January.

What the future holds for him after his contract runs out, Tuft isn’t yet sure. But he’s ready for his next adventure. “I’m slowing down,” he says. “This is the last year I’ll be training like this. I’m doing everything I can to have a great end. This is a great opportunity, and I’m going to make the most of it.”

An unlikely start 

It’s hard to believe now. But 20 years ago, a career in pro racing wasn’t even on Tuft’s radar.

Most cyclists at the continental level start racing competitively in their teen years. In Europe, where bike racing is as big as NASCAR is in the US, young cyclists are groomed from childhood. By 17, riders need to be on track if they’re going to make it to the pros.

But Tuft had never raced in his life, not once, when he casually signed up for his first race at the age of 23. At the time, he was doing long bike-packing trips to rock-climbing locations, hopping freight trains when necessary to get places farther and faster, with no firm plans for his future. He only started cycling at age 17, on a mountain bike he picked up at a thrift store for $40, purely as a way to get around.

"I was obsessed with rock climbing, and a bike was a way to travel for cheap to get to the mountains,” he says. “My first bike trip, I was hooked. I rode to the coast in British Columbia and got a taste for life on the road. I spent years just touring the West Coast, traveling by bike with my dog and my trailer.”

Tuft comes from a family of athletes: His grandfather was a Norwegian cross-country skier who competed in the 1936 Olympics, and his mother was a fitness instructor. In 1999, his father urged him to sign up for a local cycling contest to take advantage of the base miles he’d built up on a recent ride home from Alaska. He started out strong, only to bonk spectacularly in the final miles, getting passed by most of the peloton before crawling to the finish. 

But his next competition turned out differently. “A while later, I tried a race in Washington and rode solo from the gun. I think I won by five minutes,” he says. “I didn’t know how to do anything but ride hard.” From that moment on, Tuft was hooked. That same season, he worked his way onto the high-level Canadian team Broadmark Capital. 

“I don’t think I would have made it in cycling if I’d started earlier,” he says. “All of the structure would have been hard for me. And if you don’t absolutely love it, forget it.” As it was, he almost gave it up. Cycling’s early 2000s doping scandals disillusioned him, and he chafed at the structure of team life — the schedules, the hotel rooms, the endless string of bus rides from course to course. He missed doing his own thing, sleeping under the stars with his German shepherd mix, Bear. 

“When I met him, he was this quiet guy who was still new to road racing and the structure and teamwork around it,” says Erker, who first encountered Tuft in 2000, as an opponent. “It was a huge difference from his lifestyle before then.”

Tuft admits it wasn’t a natural fit. “I don’t know why the road racing appealed to me,” he says. “I’m a mixed character: That type A, smashing yourself, pushing yourself all the time thing attracts me, but at the same time, it’s something I’m against,” he says. “I did those long trips as a young person just trying to figure out who the hell I am.”

Tuft made the sport work for him. He’d spend the offseason satisfying his thirst for the outdoors, and solitude, and then accelerate his training for the racing season by riding his bike to team camp in January. One year, while he was riding for Prime Alliance, that involved a 2,000-mile trek from British Columbia to Arizona. Tuft showed up on time, albeit sweatier and grimier than the other racers who’d flown in the same day.

In 2016, rather than staying in a hotel or traveling via team bus to prep for La Vuelta a España, one of the other major races on the international pro calendar, he bike-packed and camped his way over the route.  

“He didn’t want to do the regular program. He wanted to go on adventures,” says Erker. Those adventures kept him in freakishly excellent physical shape. “A lot of other cyclists who only ride, lay down, ride — they can be susceptible to injuries because they’re so static. Svein has been so adaptable and I think that’s helped him stay healthy and fresh.”

Looking to the future

Being a World Tour rider from North America isn’t easy. Most pro cyclists aren’t willing to fully commit to spending six months a year traveling between the US or Canada and Europe. “It’s hard for the North American guys, making these month-long trips and living on the road. It takes a huge toll,” Tuft says. “When you live over in Europe, it’s much easier to race and recover and keep building throughout the season. Travel all the time just wreaks havoc on your circadian rhythms.”  

That’s why, in 2009, Tuft moved to the mountains of Andorra, a small country bordering Spain nestled in the Pyrenees mountains, 2,400 feet above sea level.

Stretching in the morning before a workout near his home in Andorra.

Living in Europe made Tuft’s lifestyle easier. But as the years passed, Tuft found himself thinking about life after racing. In 2013, he married his wife Justine, a personal trainer and former mountain biker from Quebec. Just over a year and a half ago they welcomed a son, Gunnar. The pull of his family life was strong, and he began to think about moving on, considering options like running cycling tours and camps. 

By 2018, he was prepared to walk away. When his former team, Mitchelton-Scott, didn’t renew his contract, he didn’t shop for new contracts. But then Jonas Carney, Rally UHC’s performance manager and a former competitor of Tuft’s from the early 2000s, called him with a proposition. With former captain Danny Pate retiring, Carney needed a new mentor to guide the team through the European season. Tuft seemed like just the person for the job.

Tuft was taken aback. But then he talked about it with his wife, and decided to go for it.

“I think in life, when you think it’s the end for you, or that you can’t do this or that anymore, that’s not a good outlook,” he says, during a conversation by phone from his home in Andorra in June, on a break from the season. “My wife was keen on the idea, and she’s always been a huge supporter. You have to have that family support. It’s not always easy when you’re away, traveling for so long.”

Compared with past years, when July was occupied by races like the Tour de France, Tuft’s calendar this season is relaxed. On his breaks from the team’s racing schedule, he joins Justine and Gunnar back at home. 

“It’s far more important to be a dad than a racer — there’s a big emphasis on that for me,” he says. “Even now, I try to be around as much as I can. There are some days when I have to ride six hours, but I make sure I’m home to help with dinner, dishes, and putting the little guy to bed.

“Our best moments together are those times when we’re just out walking and talking,” he says. “Today, I normally would train for four hours, but I broke it up. I woke up and went hiking for 45 minutes with my wife and the little guy in my pack. Then I drove down and did a short trainer session at the gym. Then we went on another hike, came home, and ate lunch. While the little guy napped, I went on a gravel ride over the pass.” 

Tuft and his family at home last year.

And then what?

He laughs. “And then I did one last hike.”  

Knowing his days on the peloton are coming to an end is bittersweet. “Cycling is what I’ve been doing for 20 years,” says Tuft. “I don’t know another job like I know this one. I like work, I like to always be doing something. But I’d also like a period where there’s no schedule where I need to be in a certain place for a month or week or whatever.” 

But Tuft will find a way to fill the time. Of this, there’s no doubt.

“The one thing I believe,” he says, “is that humans are made to keep moving.” 

Molly Hurford
Rally Health