A glance at the 2013 Tour de France standings might lead one to think Svein Tuft had a bad race. He did, after all, finish in 169th place, last of all the cyclists who crossed the finish line.
It’s the fabled Lanterne Rouge position, named after the red lantern that once hung on the back of cabooses.
But the native of Langley, B.C., was never brought in by his team to compete in the overall standings. Tuft was selected for being a workhorse with the brute strength to protect his teammates and to power ahead during the time trials.
In that regard, Tuft’s Tour de France was a success. His team, Orica-Greenedge, pulled off a surprise victory in the Stage 4 team time trial through the streets of Nice. And teammates Simon Gerrans and Daryl Impey took turns wearing the yellow jersey through the next three stages, thanks in large part to Tuft’s effort to control the pack from the front, pitching himself into the headwinds and allowing teammates to draft behind.
“I was there for a few key stages,” Tuft said in a phone interview from his home in Spain. “After the first super-hard week, it was just survival. The general classification meant nothing to me. I was told at one point, ‘Oh yeah, you’re Lanterne Rouge,’ and everyone had a good laugh.”
When his race was finished, Tuft didn’t join his fellow competitors heading to the bar. He was bruised from four crashes during the race, and had an early flight to catch to Spain.
“In my condition, I was just ready to get home,” Tuft said. “The whole last week was so difficult, I’m still in a bit of shell-shock. I had been sick, and broken, and partying can just delay that whole recovery process.”
Tuft was turning heads before the race started. At 36, he’s the oldest Tour de France rookie that anyone can remember, and his background is unlike any other racer’s. While most professional cyclists start training in their early teens, Tuft dropped out of high school in grade 10 to start biking B.C.’s back-country, hauling a camping trailer up steep mountain roads.
“For me, the part that I always look back at and kind of shake my head is that I had no idea in those days what bike racing was,” Tuft said. “If you had told me back then, when I was riding up to Alaska and living just day by day. … If you had told me I’d be doing this at this age, I would have laughed. It was never something I was drawn toward.
“But sometimes you start following a path and it just keeps opening doors, and you look back and think, how did I get here?”
Taking to the mountains wasn’t out of character for Tuft’s family background; his Norwegian grandfather had competed in cross-country skiing at the 1936 Winter Olympics.
But it wasn’t until he was 23 that, at his father’s suggestion, Tuft started cycling competitively. He had his first victory by the third race.
“I think he realized fairly quick, once he had the opportunity to get involved in the sport, that he had significant talent in it,” said Mark Ernsting, who competed against Tuft in his younger days and later became his agent.
“And I think doing what he has done in the past that is not necessarily the norm for a cyclist has contributed to him having a long career, and being able to excel at this stage of his life.”
Tuft became known for his strength on the bike. He became a specialist in time-trial races, where riders are sent out at intervals to compete against the clock, and dominated the Canadian national time trials, winning the championship eight times between 2004 and 2012. At the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, he finished seventh at the individual time trial, and he took second place at the 2008 world time trial championship.
Though Tuft has seen adversity – during the 2008 world championship, he had a flat tire six kilometres from the finish line – the Tour de France proved a singular challenge.
“We had the jersey for four days,” Tuft said of his team. “It takes a lot out of you. From the gun, you’re riding on the front, right to the end of each stage. The last few days in the Alps was like nothing I’ve ever experienced as far as suffering goes.”
His determination to get over the finish line in his first Tour de France recalls his youthful determination to conquer B.C.’s rugged wilderness.
“I was building a foundation for what I’m doing now,” Tuft said. “I’m really glad I got a different route.”