An interview with Svein Tuft, October 13, 2008
It is a long way from Langley to Varese and a difficult journey from mountain biking Canada's outback to stomping a top-flight field in the World Championships time trial, but that is just what Svein Tuft accomplished. The enthusiastic Canadian explained to Gregor Brown of Cyclingnews his journey and plans for the coming season with Team Garmin the day after he made his mark on European cycling with a silver medal performance.
"We are kind of pretty far out of town and so we did not really do anything too crazy. I hung out with all my friends here on the national team. We drank some vino – it was nothing too wild," explained Tuft, 31, of the evening that passed since we last saw him as the happiest looking of the three men on the Worlds time trial podium.
Tuft crossed the line in Northern Italy's Varese a quarter past three in the afternoon with a time of 52:44. He set a provisional best but was quickly topped by Germany's Bert Grabsch. However, his performance held against Sylvain Chavanel, Marco Pinotti, David Millar and David Zabriskie. USA's Zabriskie gave him the biggest scare, but fell nine seconds short.
After Levi Leipheimer rolled in as the final time trialist on the 43.7-kilometre parcours and judges confirmed the top three, Tuft emerged as the day's surprise. He finished second behind Grabsch, who won the 2007 Vuelta a España time trial in Zaragoza and ended the Worlds three weeks later in fourth place. Tuft was ahead of Zabriskie, who the Tour de France's maillot jaune in 2005.
"The Beijing Olympics was a big confidence builder. I then did Tour of Missouri [where he finished third - ed.], and I had a good ride there. It was a good motivator and I came here confident," said Tuft, who even seemed to surprise himself, judging by his grin. One day after, his mind was on returning home British Columbia, Canada, and concluding his season. "I am travelling home to Langley, BC. I will go mountain biking up in the Kootenays."
Tuft's season performances back in Canada and the rest of America helped him take the next step. He represented his nation well in the Pan-American Games in Argentina with victories on the track and the time trial title on the road. One month later, in June, he used the time trial to claim the race overall lead of the Tour of Beauce. Team Symmetrics helped Tuft win the overall classification three stages later.
He started his run for the Olympics and Worlds with his fourth national time trial title in July. Back in Langley, he called upon his dad for motor-pacing help in the days leading up to his departure east. He joined Team Canada in Japan for acclimatisation prior to his assault on the Olympics in Beijing. He finished seventh in the time trial at two and a half minutes back from gold medallist Fabian Cancellara.
The early days
The fight and grit that helped him through the year and on to a silver medal at the Worlds came from Tuft's early days. He discovered the liberation and the ability to see the world through mountain biking adventures north of British Columbia and as far south as Mexico.
"I got into cycling through bike touring," he remarked. "I went through Yukon [Canada] and into Alaska a couple of times and then down to Mexico. I started in Langley, BC, headed up north. The first few trips were massive learning experiences, where I would work along the way. I spent life on the road for quite a few years, and I fell in love with travelling by bike. ... It was probably a couple of years before I started racing – I was 19 or 20 years old."
The rough roads led to racing and his first professional contract. He signed for Team Mercury for the 2001 season – at that point, a team known for Manager John Wordin's financial problems more than for its once-dominant stature in USA racing.
"It was at the tail-end of the team, when all the big guys were not being paid and John Wordin was scrambling to keep the programme together. He kept pushing to riding the Tour de France. I think all the big guys were upset at not getting paid and just looking for another job; they were not too happy with the situation.
"That whole experience was a little too crazy and the best option was to go to Prime Alliance, where Kirk Willet was the manager. I learnt a lot with those guys – Jonas Carney, Chris Horner, Danny Pate and all those guys. It was a really good team and a really good place to start out."
Though there were some big wins when Tuft was racing with the maple leaf of Team Canada on his back this year, he is very acknowledging of the trade team he had represented for the last four years – Team Symmetrics. He joined the Canada-based outfit in 2005, a home where he could learn the trade as the team developed.
"We have a really good team as far as Canadian cycling goes – that is really important to me. Jonathan [Vaughters] would offer me a job every year and I wanted to do it, but I also wanted to see our thing grow. At that time we had something that was making its way to the next step.
"We are really proud of being all-Canadian and I think Canada needs something like that – to have a place for our young guys to have a place to learn. Unless they go to an American team it is really hard to get any experience.
"It is also that I grew with those guys over the years; four years is a lot of time and we pretty much kept all the same guys. It is a family experience. There comes a time where money is not the point, but enjoying yourself and having a really good time. When you are on the road with the guys for a month at a time it is pretty key. It showed on our team, we had that going for us."
He considers a possibility to help with a similar team when he retires from racing. "If we had the right infrastructure and the right people then I would definitely love to be involved. I get a lot out of helping people; it is really satisfying. Probably one of the greatest things in life is to be a part of someone's personal growth and development."
The big time
Tuft will make the jump from an all-Canadian team to a multi-national USA-based team next season – Garmin Chipotle - H30. He finally gave into Vaughters' pleas just before the World Championships and signed a two-year agreement. "Back in Missouri we hashed out a deal," he revealed. "We were always talking and I always was trying stick with Symmetrics."
He will ride alongside Millar, Zabriskie and Pate in the team that in its debut year rode the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France. Instead of fighting for stages in the Tour de Beauce, we could see Tuft hang with the big boys at the Tour de France.
"This whole year has been a shocker. You kind of have your goals and then your really lofty goals," he said, thinking of a possibility to ride in the Tour.
"I want to race a Grand Tour. I have done a couple of 14-day stage races and I have always felt good in those tours," said Tuft, who will soon relocate to Girona, Spain, to live close to the team's other North Americans. "First memory of the Tour? It was probably watching it with my dad when I was a kid. I don't remember the names at the time and I didn't ever understand it – it was just people riding bikes and it did not look like they were doing anything. The more people [there are] riding bikes the more they appreciate it."
Even if Tuft does not ride a Grand Tour he should have his chance in some big one-day races. The mentality that must have carried along the roads south to Mexico 12 years ago should see him excel in the Northern Classics.
"I would love to also ride the Classics, like Paris-Roubaix. I don't know a lot about them, but I generally do well in crappy days, cold days." He added that he would like to focus on "key time trials" throughout the season and have another crack at the top step on the Worlds Podium – in Mendrisio, Switzerland, next year.
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