This guy used to kill us at Padden Lake MTB race every year.
Svein Tuft, 31, was seventh in the time trial at Beijing.
Those who have heard the tale of Svein Tuft have wondered, could it possibly be true?
Tuft, above, is now a member of the Garmin-Slipstream team. At 18, he spent $40 on a thrift-shop bike and built a trailer to haul supplies and his 80-pound dog, Bear, and rode into the Canadian wilderness.
How he dropped out of school in the 10th grade, lured by the freedom of the outdoors. How he evolved into a barrel-chested woodsman with Paul Bunyan biceps. How he ventured, at 18, from his home in Canada into the wilderness on a $40 thrift-shop bike hooked to a homemade trailer.
They have learned of the way he traveled sparingly, towing only his camping gear, a sack of potatoes and his 80-pound dog, Bear. The way he drank from streams and ate beside an open fire. Or hopped trains across Canada, resting as the land flickered by.
Now 31, Tuft is out to prove that all the raw travel and personal drive can translate into something beyond his survival. Recruited by one of the world’s top cycling teams, he is about to begin a more disciplined journey. It starts next weekend with the Tour of California, where he will race with the Garmin-Slipstream squad, and is likely to continue this summer at the Tour de France.
“He’s a late, late bloomer who lived a lifestyle that has been completely incongruent with any professional cyclist out there,” Jonathan Vaughters, the team’s director, said. “In Europe, you are pressured to succeed by the time you are 18, and if you don’t do it by the time you are 21, then you’re done. But Svein? He’s somebody who has lived life according to how he wanted to live it.”
Tuft figured out he was a natural racer at 23. He was home from a cycling trip to Alaska when his father suggested he try racing. In his first event, a local road race, he was in the lead when he dropped out with a flat tire. Two races later, he won for the first time.
From there, he blossomed. But Tuft also felt trapped between a life in the outdoors and one in the structured world of professional competition.
Kevin and Mark Cunningham, owners of the Symmetrics Cycling team in Canada, found Tuft in 2004. He was mowing lawns. After racing in virtual anonymity for three professional teams, he had quit the sport because he said he did not want to be associated with its doping problems.
But the Cunninghams wanted him. They knew he had the potential to be one of the fastest cyclists in the world.
“At first, you have this idea that this guy’s a nut case,” Mark Cunningham said. “But he’s not. He’s super down to earth, kind and a straight shooter. I thought he was going to be this extreme sports, in-your-face guy. But he was the opposite.”
They coaxed Tuft onto their team with a promise that it would be clean and that he would be free to vanish into the mountains during the winter.
“We had to get used to saying, ‘Svein is missing,’ ” Kevin Cunningham said. “ ‘He’s AWOL again.’ ”
Last year, riding for Canada, Tuft surprised many by winning a silver medal at the world cycling championships in the time trial and also finishing seventh in that event at the Beijing Olympics. He won four gold medals at the Pan American Road and Track Championships.
Some say that was just a start.
A Long-Distance Pedigree
As a boy, Svein Tuft (pronounced Swayne) was known as Svein the Strong. He always knew he would not grow up to be a wimp.
His grandfather Arne Tuft, racing for Norway at the 1936 Winter Olympics, finished sixth in the grueling 50-kilometer cross-country skiing event.
His father, also named Arne, was drawn to Canada from Norway after reading Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild.” He started out in logging, then became a general contractor. Now, he camps in the Arizona desert for weeks without electricity or a phone.
Svein Tuft’s mother, Lesly Holness, is a fitness instructor. In Svein, she saw one determined boy. To her dismay, she said, he always enjoyed testing himself, with each challenge more extreme than the previous.
One Christmas, her son asked for an Army tent, which he pitched next to their house outside Langley, British Columbia. He spent the winter in it.
By 15, he had grown restless. His parents had separated, and he hated studying. He quit school.
“It wasn’t like I was into drugs or alcohol or anything,” Tuft said softly. “I wanted to explore, and I was searching for so many things. I just never felt right anywhere. At that age, you don’t know anything about yourself, and I was trying to find out who I was.”
For a few years, he was obsessed with mountain climbing. He rode a bike more than 50 miles from home into the mountains and stayed for weeks at a time, leaving his parents behind to worry. He said he and a friend once spent more than 24 hours hanging from a cliff face after their climbing rope snagged.
“He decided he was not going to do anything like the establishment,” Holness said. “It was very unsettling to all of us, but there was no stopping him.”
At 17, Tuft bought a used 10-speed. He welded together a trailer, using the frame of a heavy old BMX bike and the bottom of a plastic barrel.
And on one September day, after he had turned 18, he left with Bear, his German shepherd mix, and headed nearly 600 miles to the remote Bella Coola Valley in British Columbia. He said he rode 12 hours some days, pulling the trailer packed with about 200 pounds of gear and food — and his dog. When Tuft struggled to climb hills, Bear jumped out and sprinted along the roadside grass.
Tuft ate corn, beans or bannock, a flat bread. When there was a store around, he splurged on chocolate milk, which remains his favorite drink. He camped beneath spruce trees or open sky.
“A lot of people said, ‘Are you crazy, what are you doing?’ ” Tuft recalled. “But for me, it was all about being alive and learning how to get through a difficult situation. There were days that it was snowing and cold and you haven’t eaten enough that day to get the internal fire going. I really wanted to see how I’d react to that.”
But on that trip, he was ill equipped for the winter weather, which grew harsher as he climbed north. He wore only wool and brought no tent, just a bivouac sack and a blanket.
“When I was that age, I never thought I could die, but I thought, uh-oh, this is it,” he recalled. “I thought, how did you get yourself into this situation — what have you done?”
On a trip to Alaska in the spring, during which he covered more than 4,000 miles, he shared gravel roads with mining and oil trucks. People along the way asked about his journey and invited him to dinner, though he was obviously in need of a shower.
On one stretch of highway, his clothes were soaked, and he had a painful cough. In the distance, he spied an abandoned cabin. Inside, as if in a dream, he found kindling and a stove, jars of pasta and a bed. He slept there for four days.
Over time, bike touring became second nature. He worked odd jobs, like splitting wood, baling hay and painting fences. His hands grew rough.
“All of those wonderful adventurous stories of riding his bike to Alaska, the railroad-car jumping, yes, those are all true,” his mother said.
“But I want everybody to know that, no, Svein was not an orphan. He was raised by two loving parents. He had his own room, a trampoline, a motor scooter. But he was just looking for something else.”
A Racer Reborn
In 2001, within two years of his first bike race, Tuft was on the Canadian national team.
“I guess I really wanted to prove to people that I could do it,” he said. “You always don’t have to fit into one kind of mold.”
In 2003, he showed up for the Prime Alliance pro team’s training camp near Los Angeles. He had ridden there from Canada.
“He had this really long beard, and he smelled very bad,” said Vaughters, who was in his last season as a rider. “I remember thinking, O.K., this guy is completely different than the image of the typical European money-driven cyclist who buys Porsches in his spare time.”
But Tuft was not pleased with the lifestyle. During his career, he had seen performance-enhancing drugs ruin lives. He decided there was no future for him in the sport, so he quit.
But the Cunninghams soon came calling, convinced that this mountain man was worth the trouble. Eventually, Tuft the bike racer was reborn, though he still considered himself an outsider.
In 2006, after winning his third consecutive Canadian road time trial championship, he moved into a trailer on Kevin Cunningham’s property. It was the perfect combination of old life and new.
If the sport’s drug testers needed to find him, he would sometimes provide only vague directions, like “end of the logging road, up the trail head at the top of the ridge.”
Though upper-body weight is taboo for bike racers, he worked out so hard in the off-season that he would thicken to 190 pounds, from 170.
Kevin Cunningham warned him: “Do not do another push-up. You gain muscle so quickly, you will look as big as a grizzly.”
Teams offered him more money to leave Symmetrics, but he stayed out of loyalty.
Yet when his team folded last year under financial strain, Tuft spoke with Vaughters once again. They focused on the Garmin team’s antidoping stance and its relatively laid-back approach. They agreed that Tuft’s talents were well suited to certain parts of stage races like the Tour de France and to relatively flat races like Paris-Roubaix.
Kevin Cunningham reassured him: “Just be yourself. It will be more corporate, but you will be fine.”
At a training camp in December in Boulder, Colo., Tuft stopped to see a reflection of himself in a store window. He saw a cleanshaven face and cleanshaven head, a dress shirt tucked into dark pants and a gleaming BlackBerry in his hand.
“I said to myself, ‘Whoa, who is that guy?’ ” he recalled. “No way is that me. No way.”
Most of his teammates were used to a transient life in hotel rooms, not on forest floors. They lived in Europe and liked designer clothing and French wine. Tuft knows he will soon move with his girlfriend to Girona, Spain, the team’s training base.
When this new life unnerves him, he said, he looks at a tattoo on his right forearm: We will never be here again. It was his mantra while on trips with Bear, who died seven years ago.
“It was by far the most content I’ve ever been,” he said. “My bike was a piece of junk. I had nowhere to go, no place to be. Didn’t have anyone telling me what to do. If I felt like lying on the side of the road, I did.”
At that moment, Tuft’s BlackBerry buzzed. It was someone from his new team.
He had to take the call.