In more than a decade covering the sport, I have never met any rider as seemingly laid back and unperturbed about life as Svein Tuft. But around the same time last year, that insouciance did not extend to how he felt after his first get-together with Pegasus Racing, the team he originally signed with for the 2011 season.
“I left the Pegasus training camp wondering, ‘How is this all going to work?’” he says in his soft-spoken voice, which is somewhat incongruous with his heavy musculature, telling me that the only thing in common with the ill-fated project and GreenEdge, the outfit he will ride for in 2012, is that both were Australian-based projects.
The Pegasus story has been well documented. Though for many Australian cycling fans and its former riders, there still remains a bitter aftertaste when the subject is broached.
The abridged version goes something like this: In mid-2010 Chris White, the team owner of Fly V Australia, the most successful team on the U.S. domestic circuit the previous season, strikes a deal with Alex Gillett, son of Colorado-based businessman George Gillett, one-time owner of Liverpool Football Club. The arrangement involved bringing Red Bull on as title sponsor of what was set to be Australia’s first ProTeam in 2011.
But on September 30 of that year, when news broke that Tour de France champion Alberto Contador had tested positive for clenbuterol — a case that remains unresolved to this day — suddenly, all bets were off.
Red Bull CEO Dietrich Mateschitz, fearful of a negative impact on his brand, pulled the plug on the proposed sponsorship. Panic-stricken but still believing he could make it happen with another sponsor, White begged Alex Gillett to remain the team’s financial underwriter — but Gillett warned the investment would be rescinded in early December, replacement sponsor or not.
On 2 November, when the UCI released its list of teams applying for a place on the 2011 WorldTour, Pegasus Racing was ranked 23rd; out of contention, which forced them to apply for the next best thing, a Pro Continental license. Yet days before the December 10 application deadline, White had still not found a replacement title sponsor and Gillett’s bank voided their deposit with the team.
On his knees once more — this time to the UCI — White received a five-day extension and upon application, claimed to have secured a new sponsor and a budget in excess of half a million dollars. The governing body did not buy it, however, and on December 20 they released a short public statement, indicating Pegasus’ application for a Pro Continental license had been rejected.
Three days later, the UCI took the unusual step of sending out another press release, saying that while they lamented the decision and outcome for all involved, “Pegasus Sports did not provide either a bank guarantee or sufficient financial guarantees for 2011.”
In other words, Tuft was right: It was never going to work. But the Canadian, originally from Langley, British Columbia, still needed to find a job, and three days before Christmas he received an early present in the form of a contract with SpiderTech-C10; fortuitously, a squad that had ended the 2010 season as the best-ranked team on the UCI America Tour and had just been awarded a Pro Continental license for the following season.
Coming off two stage wins and third overall at the Tour de Beauce, Tuft would achieve two significant mid-year milestones, both in Toronto, Ontario. On June 23 he put a minute between Christian Meier, his next-best competitor (and soon-to-be GreenEdge teammate) and himself to take a seventh national time trial crown and equal the record held by Eric Wohlberg, who won seven titles during 1997-2003.
Two days later he had enough left in the tank to win his first-ever national road championship, his SpiderTech team-mates Will Routley and Zachary Bell, who finished second and third, gifting Tuft the victory as the dominant trio finished well clear of the field.
“I think that was something I always really wanted to do in my career, was the road race,” he says. “And it’s always difficult when a lot of the times you come into those races outnumbered. Fortunately, I came into that race with Team SpiderTech and I had great support from my team. It was a great gift they gave me; the national championship on the road was very satisfying.
“The time trial is something that you’re always proud of. But to do something new, and to be road national champion and to represent (the jersey) in Europe in WorldTour events, I think it’s a pretty great thing. For my career, anyway, it’s quite exciting.”
By August 24 it was announced he had signed for GreenEdge. Tuft said at the time that leaving SpiderTech-C10 was “one of the toughest decisions I’ve had to make in my cycling career” but added: “I had to make a personal decision to get back to the UCI WorldTour where I believe I have plenty more to give.”
Having just completed his first training camp at the headquarters of the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, the nation’s capital, has only affirmed what he already knew — this is the right place for him.
The decision to sign with GreenEdge “was pretty simple,” he says. “To have the opportunity to ride again at the WorldTour level, it’s pretty much a dream for me for the latter years of my cycling career.
“So much of cycling, for a lot of the riders, can be risky — going from team to team. But that’s part of the job, and from what I learned in the Pegasus experience and coming to GreenEdge for 2012, we’re talking about two different things. Being here, and doing this camp, it’s been so apparent how professional and how well organized everything is.
“I know the management before and the riders, so it was just an easy transition and a great program. I really can’t compare. … I left the Pegasus training camp wondering, ‘How is this all going to work?’ And now here with GreenEdge, they’ve got their WorldTour license for 2012. For me, that was always going to happen. (Before signing) I didn’t see (GreenEdge) in the same ballpark, whatsoever.”
Tuft has lived an enviably carefree life. At 18 and on a $40 bike with a homemade trailer that included camping gear, his 80-pound dog and a sack of potatoes, he headed nearly 600 miles into the Canadian wilderness, drinking from streams and eating by an open fire, some days riding up to 12 hours.
Then, in his early days with the Symmetrics Cycling team in Canada, he lived in one of two trailers behind his team manager’s house, the other occupied by his compatriot Meier — a completely unacceptable habitat for virtually every other pro cyclist. For him, it was perfect.
Now 34, Tuft acknowledges that while he’s happy with life in general, having only spent two full seasons in Europe he still has much to learn about racing at the highest level. With what was then Garmin-Slipstream between 2009 and 2010, his results of note included a prologue win at the Eneco Tour and second overall at the Tour of Denmark (which came largely as a result of a time trial stage victory) — as well as two national time trial titles, of course.
“You’re always learning, and I really needed those years (with Garmin) to develop as a rider and to start learning what it takes to race in Europe. So yeah, I’m still wide open and still feel I’m learning a lot as a rider — and I feel my best years are yet to come.
“I do have my goals — I’m looking forward to the Olympics and the classics, and races like E3 Prijs are on my calendar. For me, it’s really just being effective as a rider. Doing what I’m capable of; that’s the most satisfying and what I really look forward to as a rider.
“Yeah, you want to win races, but it’s also being part of a squad that lays it all out on the road and you have your guy win the race — that’s hugely satisfying for me. I think on GreenEdge, we have that opportunity quite a bit next year, so (I’m) definitely looking forward to that.”
The trailer Svein (pronounced ‘Swayne’) used to live in his early days as a pro will no longer suffice. After spending Christmas with his family in Langley, British Columbia, he will move into an apartment north of Girona, the foothold for probably half the Anglophones living as pro riders in Europe nowadays.
In David Millar’s autobiography, “Racing in the Dark,” he sums up its lure when he first arrived in the Catalan city 60 miles northeast of Barcelona in mid-2006: “Girona was perfect; the weather was fabulous, the roads quiet and varied, and there half a dozen English-speaking professionals living there, ensuring that there would always be training partners. This was key because my attitude had changed — I no longer wanted to isolate myself from my profession.”
Millar would also say “the Catalunyan landscape is sublime at times,” but Tuft reckons he won’t have too much time to kick back and enjoy it, because he’ll be spending most of his days on the road.
“It’s a heavy race schedule, and just how I like it — travelin’,” he says, as his broad Cheshire cat grin returns.
Realizing life in advertising was nothing like “Mad Men” and buoyed by the Olympic Games in his Australian hometown of Sydney, Anthony Tan turned his back on a lucrative copywriting career in 2000 in pursuit of something more cerebral. Combining wordsmithing with his experiences as an A-Grade club racer and an underwhelming season competing in Europe, a career as a cycling scribe beckoned. More than a dozen grand tours and countless classics later, it’s where he still is today. He has been a contributor to VeloNews since 2006. In 2010, he won Cycling Australia’s media award for best story. Follow him on Twitter: @anthony_tan