The tattoo on Svein Tuft’s right forearm reads, "We will never be here again," a constant reminder, he says, to appreciate the here and now, and surely no moment in the Canadian’s career has been as precious taking the pink jersey on the opening stage of the Giro d’Italia.
The Orica-GreenEdge team were the overwhelming pre-race favourites, and before they set off, directeur sportif Matt White decreed that Tuft would lead his companions across the finish line in front of Belfast’s City Hall. Tuft turned 37 on Friday, but the honour was not so much a birthday gift as a nod of appreciation for his important role in GreenEdge’s team time trialling progress over the past two and a half seasons.
"It’s a dream come true for a guy like me. It’s a once in a lifetime experience and I’m really thankful to my team for that gift," Tuft said afterwards. "I think it was really a gift. Team time trialling is something I focus on and take a lot of pride in. I think it’s something they gave to me over the last few years of real dedication to that event and it’s really a gift."
Tuft was part of the Orica-GreenEdge squad that won the team time trial at last year’s Tour de France, and their line-up in Belfast arguably boasted an even stronger arsenal of talent in the discipline, with so many graduates of the Australian team pursuit programme in their ranks.
"We came in with big expectations. Our team is designed around the team time trial with Luke Durbridge, Michael Hepburn, Cameron Meyer, Brett Lancaster – the list goes on, all those guys from the team pursuit in Australia," said Tuft.
Orica-GreenEdge were the third team to set off down the start ramp, and while raindrops were beginning to fall as they entered the closing kilometres, they tackled the majority of the course on dry roads. For Tuft’s money, however, gauging the swirling wind on the 21.7 kilometre course, which took the riders out to Stormont Castle and back into town, was the most difficult challenge on the night.
"The real trick to the course today was that the wind was never coming directly from one area. It was always blustery and it made it quite difficult for a nine-man team on corners and narrow roads and what not," Tuft said. "It makes for quite a dangerous parcours. You can never overlap any wheels out there.
"As you saw with Garmin, if you have one little mistake like that you really pay for it. I think anyone who’s on a really good time today had a bit of luck, but a team like us has been really well drilled, too."
A native of Langley, near Vancouver, Tuft’s career has followed an atypical path. His surprise silver medal in the 2008 world time trial championships was enough to earn him a ProTour contract with Garmin, but he dropped back down to Pro Continental level again with Spidertech in 2011. Tuft seemed to find something of a spiritual home on moving to Orica-GreenEdge the following year, however, and went on to make his Tour de France debut last summer at the age of 36.
"It’s an amazing team, every one of those guys is a brother. I can’t imagine too many other teams have the cohesiveness and camaraderie we have," said Tuft, who modestly downplayed his own chances of holding on to the pink jersey in the days to come, pointing instead to his teammate Michael Matthews, who lies 5th overall in the same time.
"There are some difficult days to coming with the wind on the coast. We’ve got a super fast guy in Michael Matthews and hopefully we can look after him and continue the success we’ve been having in the last few weeks," Tuft said.
The new maglia rosa had a word, too, for his former Garmin teammate Dan Martin, whose Giro ended prematurely when he sustained a suspected broken collarbone in a crash just over ten miles into the race.
"I just saw some footage and it looked pretty rough. Dan’s a great kid. I rode with him on Garmin for two years. He’s a really great bloke," Tuft said. "I feel bad that it’s happened in his homeland and in a race where he could really do something. I hope he’s OK."