This story forms part of our North American week on Cyclingnews.
Svein Tuft assures that there are no bears awake in the dead of winter where he is currently backcountry ski and bike touring near Chilliwack, the mountainous wilderness that forms part of the Canadian Cascades in British Columbia. "The big guys are hibernating," he says. "It’s just me, the foxes and the rabbits."
Speaking to Cyclingnews from his trip through the backcountry, Tuft, now 43, says he’s come full circle in an cycling adventure that began by touring with his dog and jumping trains as a younger man in his 20s. He then spent two decades racing full-tilt, and half of that time was on the WorldTour. He retired in 2019, but he says that he’s back to doing what he loves most - exploring the wilderness on a bike.
"This is an area I went to 20 years ago and it’s been cool to revisit it again," Tuft says. "It’s close to Vancouver and the mountains are in the Chilliwack area that are part of the Cascades that run down through Washington. It’s a cool place because it’s not that well known. A lot of ski touring guides go to places like Whistler, but this part of the world is really untouched.
"Since we moved back from Europe, I’ve been having fun going to all the old places that I used to spend so much time as a young guy."
Tuft brought an end to a two-decade professional cycling career with a plan to start gravel bike guiding. He started a company – Tufts Adventure Tours – in Andorra, where he resided with his wife and three-year-old son, but when COVID-19 swept across the globe it put an abrupt end to the project due to heath and travel restrictions. He and his family made the move to British Columbia, to kick-start the new business there instead.
"I had a shop going and started touring in Andorra, and in March things changed, and we had to pull the pin on that because of COVID. It would rely on international travel and we knew we would be facing COVID for a quite a while. We decided to come back to Canada, and we arrived in November last year," Tuft says.
"Now we are building it back up, and we don’t know what’s happening this summer in as far as what restrictions there will be and what people can do outside. There is no set plan yet because it’s a wait-and-see scenario. If we can work in a bubble and approach it in a different way with smaller groups but I would like to offer some trips this summer."
Off the beaten path
Tuft is from Langley, British Columbia, and spoke with Cyclingnews in a 2007 interview about his unusual path into professional cycling, which started by way of mountaineering. He told us stories of how he wandered away from a typical lifestyle in his mid-teens and into a more than three-year journey of train-hopping, outdoor survival and long-distance travels that taught him more about life's serenities than most people could learn in a lifetime.
But he also told us that it was a journey that provided him with the mental toughness and endurance which were key to life as a professional cyclist.
During his cycling career, Tuft won thirteen Canadian National Championships, was part of the Orica-GreenEdge team time trial victory on stage 1 of the 2014 Giro d’Italia, where he spent time in the maglia rosa, and he secured the silver medal in the time trial at the 2008 UCI Road World Championships. Despite living the lifestyle of a world-class athlete, Tuft says he always knew that he would come back to the more simple life of bike touring.
"The transition from pro cycling was always going to be weird. I still love cycling and I love the cycling that I started out doing, which was touring at is simplest. I complicated it by racing. It’s been an absolute joy coming back to British Columbia. It’s been grounding to come back here and get back to ski and bike touring and being out in the backcountry, which has been a lifetime thing for me," Tuft says.
"I feel a lot of nostalgia. When you go away for years and live such a different, crazy life, you change as a person. There’s nostalgia but also a feeling of seeing all of this through different eyes.
"At the time, 20 years ago, I thought that this part of the world was so big and I thought I knew it quite well. Now, I’m finding new places to experience and seeing connections that I didn't see before, and through totally different eyes. I’m older and I’ve had so many different experiences. It’s a feeling that I’ve been enjoying."
Backcountry Canada: next-level gnarly
Tuft has spent time touring through the backcountry around Andorra that sits high up in the Pyrenees but explained the added challenges and safety precautions that one needs to consider when in the mountainous wilderness in British Columbia.
"Things are more wild here in British Columbia," Tuft says. "In the Pyrenees, it’s dry for most of the winter, and you can have cold spells and the weather can get pretty bad, but it’s nothing like here in Canada. When it’s wet, it’s a few degrees and pissing rain, and I mean for-real pissing rain, it’s insane.
"The snow, too, and there’s always a danger of avalanche, so it’s next-level gnarly. It offers a different experience. In the Pyrenees, you can get away with a lot, but at 2,000 metres here in British Columbia, I have been caught in a blizzard and all my tracks were covered and gone. It’s more extreme here and I like that aspect."
He also says that while the bears might be hibernating in the winter during ski touring, precautions need to be considered in the summer months for bike touring season.
"In the winter the bears are all in hibernation and it’s quiet because they are all hunkered down for winter," Tuft says.
Tufts Adventure Tours will be designed to take groups and individuals out on various terrain based on what they want to see and ability level. Tuft says he wants people to have a great experience in the wilderness without worrying about their equipment or accommodations. His bike tours are very much designed for people who simply want to get out and explore, without the added stress of riding on the roads with traffic.
"People are getting tired of being on the road with other traffic and dealing with cars," Tuft says. "It can be dangerous. It’s nice to be out on gravel or in the middle of the forest on a dirt road, breathing fresh air, and not having to worry about some crazy guy running you over. I love to show people a wild part of the world in a way that is safe and enjoyable."
Cycling has truly come full circle for Tuft and he says that what he loves most about bike touring is the freedom to explore new places and just be outside with nature.
"It’s freedom. There’s no schedule. You do whatever you want to do, go wherever you want to go, and at whatever time. It’s freedom. That appeals to me. It’s also exploration. The terrain here is so wild and for anyone who is fascinated by nature - it’s never ending. I haven’t had that feeling for a long time so that’s a good sign that I’m doing something I love," Tuft says.
"I always believe that you have to do things in life that you love. A lot of people make decisions for financial reasons, but I feel like when you’re really passionate and love something, that’s what you need to focus on. I want to be excited about the things that I’m doing and not feel like I have to go and do something that I hate all the time. It feels natural for me to be back touring and I want to get more people out into the backcountry."
Svein Tuft's essential touring items
- Goretex stormproof jacket
- Down or insulated jacket
- Touque or thermal hat (no matter how warm)
- Wool socks
- Leg and arm warmers
- Spare undershirts
- Stormproof matches
- Jetboil stove
- Neck tube, especially now as doubles as mask
- Fanny pack. Keep all your personal stuff close
- Battery pack for multi day off grid trips for GPS, phone and other electronics
- The list could go on and on, but these are the main ones!
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