Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Hard Road To The Olympics: The Svein Tuft Story

By: Happy Kreter

Given that he is one of only a small handful of Canadian cyclists competing in this summer’s Beijing Olympics, his uniqueness may seem to go without saying. After all, how many people get to compete in their favorite sport for a living? And of those, how many ever get to represent their country on the sporting world’s largest stage?

But it’s not just these extraordinary accomplishments that set Svein apart. Among professional athletes and Olympians alike, the 31-year-old native of Langley, B.C. is one of a kind.

Svein began racing formally at the age of 23, considerably later than most competitive cyclists, who take up the sport seriously in their teens. But the cycling odyssey that has led Svein (pronounced Swayne) to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing began before his first race. And it began in an unusual way.

In 1996, at the age of 18, Svein decided to go for a bike ride to Bella Coola, over 1,000 kilometres from his home in Langley.

There were a couple of things to take care of before he could set out. First, he didn’t have a bike. Second, he had a dog, named Bear, an 80-pound Malamute cross, to take care of. So Svein went to the local Value Village and bought a second hand bike, which was all he could afford at the time.

Next, using some spare parts and BMX tires, he welded together a small trailer to haul some supplies and his dog. Svein set out north for the remote British Columbia coast on a thrift store bike, towing about 200-pounds of jury-rigged trailer, supplies, and the dog who would serve as his only companion.

That first bike trip was an intense learning experience. Svein had begun his journey at the tail end of an Indian summer. The Lower Mainland had seemed warm enough when he left in late September, but conditions quickly changed the further north he traveled.

Without a tent or shelter of any kind, he was forced to spend some freezing nights in his bivouac sack curled up next to his dog, with only a woolen blanket and a campfire on either side of him for warmth. It was in Alexis Creek, 340 km from Bella Coola, one night when the temperature dropped to twenty degrees below freezing.

“I’ve never been so cold in my life,” says Svein describing that night.

The trip had been grueling, with him setting himself a pace of ten hours a day. But he felt as though he’d learned too much about bicycle touring and maintenance to not apply the knowledge on another trip.

When he returned home a little later in the fall of 1996, Svein got himself a job in a used sporting goods store near Cloverdale, B.C., where he worked full-time through the winter and spring. He slept over night in a room above the shop. It was there that he learned about road bikes, the vehicle on which he would eventually earn his livelihood.

Svein fondly recalls that time of his life.

“That was the most free I’ve ever felt… I honestly owned nothing and I had absolutely no plan about anything.”

His next trip took him and his dog, Bear, to Alaska. As he approached home from that trip, things seemed to be going well. Not anxious to spend a rainy winter in B.C. where he would be unable to keep riding, he extended his bike tour south through the United States and into Mexico.

With funds running low, Svein was able to pick up work doing odd jobs along the way.

“Up in the Yukon I was building log cabins … or you paint someone’s fence. You would run into people because I had the craziest get-up with the dog and the trailer. Plus, I looked weather-torn and I was still just a kid. So people wanted to hear my story.”

The trips were fun and often difficult, but also sometimes dangerous. He recalls one time in the Yukon somewhere between Whitehorse and Watson Lake. It was June, late at night, but still fairly light out because of the midnight sun at that time of year.

It had been a long day of cycling and he was ready to make camp. A big climb lay ahead and he made up his mind to reach the crest of the hill before sleeping so that he could start the next day with an easy roll downhill. That hill turned out to be the Continental Divide.

He finally reached his spot and lay down to sleep for the night when he heard a rustling in the bushes. Bear started growling, so Svein got up to investigate the sound.

“In that part of the world there are massive wolves. And something was wrong with this one. It was massive, but it was sickly, really skinny. Something was [wrong] because generally they only work in packs,” he recalls.

“So [my dog and the wolf] went at it. The middle of the night and that terrible dog fighting sound. I remember grabbing a stick and I go over and [they’re] just tearing at each other. I’m trying to take a whack at this massive wolf and finally they separate and the wolf takes off. My dogs starts chasing him, so I’m running behind screaming and yelling.”

Svein finally wrangled his dog and returned to his bivy sack and blanket, exhausted after a taxing day.

The day after the encounter with the wolf, Svein continued his ride across the Yukon. His cash situation having long since become desperate, he was also low on food. Ten days before, Svein scraped up enough money to purchase a sack of potatoes and a sack of flour, which he used to make bannock, a type of fried bread. He carried no water, but drank from streams he found along his route.

After almost two weeks on a diet consisting only of potatoes, bannock, and water, Svein was in rough shape.

“I was the lightest [in terms of weight] that I’d ever been in my life,” he said.

Riding ten or more hours a day, climbing steep ridges with such a heavy load and so little nourishment was taking its toll.

“Your body just starts to crap out. You can operate, but it’s very limited.”

At this point on the journey, Svein was reaching the limits of his sanity. Then, on a nearly barren stretch of highway, a Boss Hogg style Cadillac pulling a U-Haul trailer with Texas license plates sped by.

“Over the next hill I see him parked up there,” says Svein. “It’s this huge Texas dude, and I ride up to him. And he’s like, ‘What the hell are you doing out here?’”

Svein proceeded to tell his story, explaining that he was trying to get back to Vancouver and was desperately hungry. The Texan was in utter disbelief at the sight of this emancipated teenager and his dog traveling through the middle of nowhere.

The Texan led Svein around to his U-Haul and opened the trailer door. Inside was a large amount of food of every description. It turned out that this man had thought there would be no restaurants or supermarkets in this part of the world, and stocked up for his trip.

“The first thing I saw was this gallon jug of Welch’s grape juice. I reached for that and boom! It was the craziest feeling of coming alive again,” says Svein.

For five years, Svein made his way up and down the Pacific coast wandering from Mexico to Alaska. He never had a destination, time frame, or a goal in mind. He traveled for the sake of traveling, sleeping under the stars and sharing an occasional meal with a friendly stranger.

Between trips, he would return to the sporting goods store to work and save money. There he would check out the various types of bikes that came in on consignment. Soon, he was struck by a new desire.

“When I tried out a road bike compared to a trailer with a dog in it, a road bike being about 18 pounds and everything so efficient, I thought [cycling like] this would be awesome.”

Svein’s dad was supportive of his son’s new found interest in competitive cycling that he told Svein about a race taking place on Vancouver Island.

With barely enough money to get on the ferry, Svein rode his bike to the location of the race the night before it was to take place. He slept in a field nearby and in the morning was ready to go.

His appearance at the race stunned many of the other riders. They had come with professional equipment and clothing, and here was Svein, with his second hand bike pieced together and ordinary street clothes.

Svein had no understanding of technique or strategy. He brought no food and only one bottle of water for a 120 km race.

“I didn’t think there was any kind of tactic. I thought the strongest guy should just go out there and ride as hard as he can from the start,” says Svein.

And he did, he broke away from the pack immediately, but with his competitors piggy backing off of him it was only a matter of time before they passed and fell behind.

Eventually, Svein picked up on some tricks of the trade, developed a strategy, and brought food and water to the events. Within that year, Svein was racing in Category 1 events.

He had spent the fall at his aunt’s place in California, training eight hours a day and sleeping on the floor. He turned up at his first Category 1 race having only ever raced in a Category 5.

“Category 5 is where you start out. You have to win maybe ten races before you move up to Category 4, and so on. It’s a long process and I just thought that was ridiculous. I didn’t think those things applied to me,” he said.

In California, in that first Category 1 professional race, Svein finished fifth. It was then that he realized he could do something in the sport.

He came back to Langley and pleaded with Cycling B.C. to give him his license so that he could continue to race against the sport’s top cyclists.

“I was like, ‘Hey, I finished fifth in this race.’ And they were like, ‘Well how did you get in that race?’ And I [told them], ‘I signed this waiver and I kinda lied. I told the organizer that I didn’t have my license on me,’” recalls Svein.

After a couple of races back in B.C., Svein was immediately moved up to Category 1. He soon joined his first professional team and started racing and training full time.

But Svein still couldn’t shake his humble beginnings entirely. At some pro races around the U.S. in places like New Mexico, Svein would drive down with his dad. While other riders were eating in restaurants and staying in hotels, Svein and his dad cooked spaghetti over an open camp fire in the desert, and slept in the canopy of their truck.

Svein continued to find success in the world of cycling. He soon joined a new team and competed for Canada’s national team in far off places like Colombia and Guadalupe.

He continued to make his mark and turn heads.

Soon, Team Mercury, a Division 1 team from Europe representing the highest level of competitive cycling came calling. They flew Svein to France where he was outfitted with new clothes and bikes.

In his last race of the overseas trip, Svein suffered a debilitating crash. He was sent home barely able to walk and in considerable pain. He boarded an United Airlines flight from France on the morning of September 11, 2001.

“I’ll never forget… I was so happy… I was coming over the Atlantic and saw land. I couldn’t wait to get home,” says Svein.

But as he looked out the window, Svein noticed that the plane was circling the same piece of land over and over. The plane was also dumping fuel. Then the announcement came over the public address system that U.S. airspace was closed.

The plane was grounded in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The passengers were kept on the runway for ten hours before being allowed to disembark. They were told about the terrorist attacks of that day and shown the footage of the tragedy.

For ten days, Svein slept on the floor of a church with hundreds of other displaced travelers. His mobility decreased as the pain from his back injury grew worse.

When Svein finally got home, he spent the next several months rehabilitating his back. It would be nearly half a year before he was back on a bike.

Once he was healthy again, Svein turned down a contract with Mercury to ride for a smaller, U.S. based team called Prime Alliance.

“For me it’s not about winning races, it’s being part of a group that is of the same mentality,” he said explaining his position. “It’s really cool to be a part of something where everyone is committed to the group as a whole. They do everything they can physically and mentally to make it happen for that group.”

At the age of 26, he was riding for Prime Alliance, living in hotels, and had successfully made cycling his career. But there was still another corner to turn.

Svein was driven to despair by the number of cyclists he discovered using performance enhancing drugs. When asked if he was ever tempted to go down the doping road, Svein’s answer is a terse “No.”

Suppliers who provide drugs to riders get a percentage of that rider’s salary and winnings, so it’s almost impossible to cycle competitively without being offered drugs. Cycling has recently come under heavy fire after a significant doping scandal at the Tour de France. But the problem has existed for a long time according to Svein, who explains why he won’t cheat.

“Using drugs to get performance enhancing results will kill you. You’re going to die early... I feel like I can push beyond the boundaries being clean.” He continues, “more than anything it’s out of a respect to your own body and everyone around you.”

At one point, the situation seemed so bad that Svein was convinced clean competitors were a hopeless minority. He left the sport for nearly a year.

“So I went and did all the things I thought I was missing out on,” says Svein. “But you have all this energy that has to be put somewhere. [I had to] continue doing my sport.”

Svein was soon back into training mode. He was working long days building a resort on Galiano Island off the B.C. coast, lifting weights, and running.

“I was sticking to a regiment because that’s what I had to do,” says Svein. “You can’t change that about yourself.”

Realizing that his time to make a living doing something he loved might pass him by, he didn’t want to lose the opportunity, only to face regrets later in life.

He joined a newly formed team, Symmetrics Cycling, with whom he still rides for. He continues to turn down offers from bigger teams, ignoring the advice of many of his peers who would leap at similar opportunities that he consistently turns down.

“The freedom I have on my team is crazy,” explains Svein. “In the winter, I disappear to go back-country skiing for a few months. I just say, ‘Well I’m going to do my thing.’ If I was on any other team, that would be grounds for being fired immediately.”

But Svein’s extra-curricular interests have not detracted from his training. His victories at the Americas Tour and the Pan-Am Games opened Olympic spots for Canada and earned him the trip to Beijing. Nevertheless, he is humble about his accomplishments.

“For me, it’s not about results or being the greatest [cyclist]…it’s a simple matter of being prepared. Make sure you’re prepared. That way you can do everything possible,” he says.

“I never like to say, ‘if I’d just done this or just done that.’ I like to just leave everything out there. If I do that and I’m dead last, I’m still psyched… It’s not if you win, it’s how you went about it.”

That said, he is excited to compete on the world stage at the Olympics, where he is following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who represented Norway in cross-country skiing at the 1936 Olympics.

“The Olympics, everyone is into it. You can all feel it, that moment, there’s a crazy energy going on,” he says.

He remains philosophical about all aspects of his sport and his life. His status as an Olympian is unlikely to change that. At his core, Svein Tuft retains the spirit of his adventurous youth.

“As humans we’ve gotten so far from what we were supposed to do that we’re always searching for something that makes us real again, that gives us that feeling of doing what we’re meant to do. For me, bike racing is that.”

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