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Once a cycling champion, B.C.’s Svein Tuft has learned how to slow down

Tuft lives near Nelson where he’s swapped roads for gravel
Svein Tuft, one of Canada’s greatest cyclists, retired in 2019 after a 20-year career. He’s now living outside Nelson where he runs a touring business. Photo: Tyler Harper

When Svein Tuft began squeezing his brakes early, he knew his career was over.

Prior to the start of the 2019 season, Tuft thought he’d retire on a high. He had just put on a noteworthy performance at the prestigious Giro d’Italia and also won a national championship. That, it seemed to him, was the right time to cross the finish line for good.

But an American team, Rally UHC Cycling, needed a veteran and wanted Tuft. He was 41 years old with a young family waiting at home, but part of him wondered if he had more to give the sport.

Tuft agreed to one more season, during which he would finish with the second-most points as the team’s oldest athlete. But he also realized he’d lost his competitiveness. He felt himself deliberately slowing down to avoid injuries.

“There were a lot of moments where it just became more and more clear that it’s a young man’s game. They haven’t experienced enough to know what all of those risks entail. You know what it is, so you’re not playing the game anymore. You put the brakes on first.”

For two decades, Tuft was arguably Canada’s greatest road cyclist.

The Langley native is a 13-time national champion, winning the time trial event 11 times in 15 years. He represented Canada at the 2008 Olympics, has appeared in cycling’s three Grand Tours including the Tour de France, and in 2014 became only the second Canadian to ever wear the pink jersey as the race leader at the Giro d’Italia.

Five years since he retired and far from the hyper-competitive world of European cycling, Tuft and his family live on a rural property south of Nelson. After years of competing with the world’s best athletes, he’s now training himself to slow down.

Svein Tuft is seen here competing in the men’s individual time trial event at the Road Cycling World Championships in Ponferrada, north-western Spain, on Sept. 24, 2014. Photo: Daniel Ochoa de Olza/AP Photo

Hanging on for dear life

Wanderlust inadvertently trained Tuft for a career in cycling.

As a teenager, Tuft never thought about riding professionally. Instead he bought a mountain bike and towed his dog around the province, working odd jobs and finding places to mountain climb.

When his father noticed his passion for cycling and suggested competitions, Tuft borrowed a race bike and realized years of touring B.C. had given him an engine that could be used to win races.

In 1999 Tuft made his debut at the provincial championships, which led to a contract with his first team in 2001. Tuft moved to Spain in 2009 where he made his pro debut.

Europe is the centre of the cycling world, but Tuft didn’t expect to be there for very long. His plan was for two years, and in the first season he struggled to keep pace.

“In Europe, you are hanging on for dear life. Everyone’s here for a race with 200 guys on roads the size of a sidewalk, and they’re all as strong as you.”

Tuft committed to a better second season so that if he returned home it would be without regrets. During that time, he found there was more personal satisfaction in helping his team than in chasing personal glory. Whereas his teammates aspired to winning the Tour de France, Tuft was just happy to go along for the ride.

He soon became known for his performances in time trials, during which cyclists compete one after another to set the quickest time.

But he was also dependable. Only one person can win a race, but cycling is a team sport and requires a number of different roles. Tuft could be used to lead the peloton — giving his teammates a break from the most difficult position — or to put pressure on rival cyclists. During a 2012 race he earned praise from world champion Mark Cavendish for leading a peloton nearly an entire stage over 200 kilometres.

Tuft knew he could win races, but a supporting role was less stressful than trying to finish in first.

“I’m glad with the choices I made because it allowed me a lot of freedom. I saw too many guys stressing about [winning] and then the stress was killing them. They couldn’t sleep, couldn’t do anything. Eventually they just got washed out of the sport because they were focusing on too many things that they just couldn’t control.”

Tuft made his Tour de France debut in 2013. At 36, he was the oldest rookie in the peloton and helped his team Orica-GreenEdge win a time trial stage. He also earned the title lanterne rouge, an unofficial term of respect to cyclists who finish the race in last rather than drop out.

The next year at the Giro d’Italia, Tuft earned the pink leader’s jersey as the race leader on the first stage, which was a time trial. He won it on his birthday and considered it a gift from his team to have been put in first place. There was value in being a good teammate.

Svein Tuft, wearing the pink jersey of leader of the race, at the start of the second stage of the Giro d’Italia on May 10, 2014. Photo: Gian Mattia D’Alberto/AP Photo

Roads less travelled

Tuft began to consider retirement in 2018.

He was coming off another strong year highlighted by a support ride that helped put his teammate Simon Yates into the lead over 13 stages. It was, he says, some of the hardest riding he’d ever done.

But he was also the oldest cyclist at the event. His wife had given birth to their first child, and he no longer wanted be away from home for long training sessions.

He was also relatively healthy. Aside from a few concussions, Tuft would be leaving the sport without any health issues. Staying in the race would risk that.

Tuft did one more year then called it a career. The family had been living in the tiny country of Andorra, which borders Spain and France. It was the perfect place to start a private touring company where he could guide riders on trips between all three countries.

That plan was ruined by COVID-19, which in the spring of 2020 shut down international borders.

He says now it was for the best. He hadn’t put any time into taking care of his mental health after retiring, and was lost without the structure that his career had provided.

“When I look back, it’s the most simplistic way of living. As long as you didn’t let the stressors get to you … my job was to just try to be better and faster. It’s the clearest objective. None of the other things matter, it’s all peripheral, and you just have this tunnel vision.”

In 2021, the family moved back to Canada. While in Langley, Tuft remembered a trip he’d made to the Kootenays as a teenager. He longed to be in a place a little more remote where he and his family could bike and ski.

Svein Tuft won 13 national championships and represented Canada at the Olympics. He now lives on a rural property south of Nelson with his family. Photo: Tyler Harper

The Tufts settled down in an area south of Nelson in 2022, and since then he’s come to a few conclusions.

Firstly, he has no regrets about his career, unlike other cyclists he says retired bitter for what they failed to accomplish.

“I feel super lucky that I still love it. I feel sorry for the guys who spent all those years on a bike but are miserable by it. They can’t do it anymore and they’re out of shape. A whole part of their life, it’s like they can’t enjoy it.”

Tuft also has rediscovered a new joy of riding. He still has his road bikes, but his passion now is for gravel cycling. After years of speeding up and down highways, Tuft is more likely found these days on a backcountry trail.

He’s also returned to his greatest strength — supporting other cyclists.

Tuft works with Bridge The Gap, a Vancouver-based nonprofit that supports young riders with funding and mentorship. At home he’s set up Tuft Camps with former pro cyclist Ryan Anderson, which guides riders on backcountry trips through the Kootenays, Okanagan and along the coast.

When he guides cyclists, he wants to help but also see them struggle a bit too. It makes them appreciate reaching the finish line, real or imagined, just a little bit more.

“To see people grow in that kind of direction, for me that’s a really great process to be part of.”

That is, after all, what he’s always done best.

Tyler Harper

About the Author: Tyler Harper

I’m editor-reporter at the Nelson Star, where I’ve worked since 2015.
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