Back in December, as the Christmas lights went up, and the year like no other wound down, I started to reflect on my journey through this pandemic, realising that there was one person I needed to speak to before the year was out. Svein Tuft. The person that funnily enough, I associate with the start of all this craziness.
The last time I saw Svein was in Andorra in March, the weekend before most of Europe went into lockdown for the first time. We had the luxury of not really understanding what COVID-19 was, or how it would turn our lives upside down. All we had ahead of us was gravel tracks, stunning mountains, rushing rivers and glorious sunshine.
Nine months on, that trip feels like a lifetime ago, and as I picked up the phone to dial Svein, and had to enter a Canadian country code, rather than a European one, I realised just how much had changed in such a short time.
Svein, like many of us, is stepping into 2021 with life looking very different than it did when he stepped into 2020. He’s just moved back to his homeland; Canada, he’ll soon become a father for the second time, and he’s in the middle of considering the wealth of new projects that lie ahead for him.
2020 for Svein was full of extreme highs and lows. He experienced everything from the devastating loss of a parent, to the wonderful news of a growing family. He launched a new business, bike packed across a large section of Europe. He even had a house fire the night before he moved back to Canada. Despite everything he’s been through this year, he takes it all with good grace, remaining as levelheaded as ever, offering wisdom without effort, and inspiration without realising.
Letting go of who you once were…
We chat first about the inevitable challenges that come with transitioning out of professional sport. Svein tells me how he’s still working on his ‘noggin’, explaining “It takes a lot of time to do it right. In Andorra I was just hopping into the next thing, but I hadn’t really dealt with a lot of the transition stuff. I can’t say I’ve dealt with it completely until I have a clear vision of what’s next. It’s hard to leave it behind and I still love riding so much, you know, I’m still a cyclist.”
Having said that, moving continents, certainly seems to be helping. Svein very honestly admits that a big part of the challenge with no longer being a pro-athlete, is moving away from the self-centeredness of it all;
“Part of it is letting go of your identity, and coming to Canada has been really great because in Andorra my life as a cyclist was just there. There were a lot of things connected to that, that made it hard to forget about for my ego. But coming here no one knows who I am and I’m in a completely different environment.”
On top of that, interestingly, it’s the challenging aspect of cycling that Svein finds so difficult to leave behind. He reflects on the realisation that a normal, relaxed life, is not for him;
“I realised for my own sanity I have to still do trips. I have to struggle a little bit to feel good. Which is a bit crazy, but it’s a big part of living for me, it’s crucial. I don’t enjoy much in life unless I’ve struggled a bit. Like if I have a day where I have a glass of wine and some good food, it doesn’t really interest me, I’m not content with that. But if I’ve had a massive day and I’m pretty fucked up, then I really enjoy that.”
It was this search for struggle that led Svein in July 2020 to compete in the GB Duro, a 2,000km self-supported bikepacking race from Land’s End to John O’Groats. It’s a gruelling mix of road, gravel, singletrack, and everything in between. 2020’s winner completed the race in just over seven days and seventeen hours.
Before even starting the race Svein rode from Andorra to Roscoff in France, only to be told that he couldn’t get on the ferry to Plymouth on just his bike, due to COVID, he had to be in a car. I, along with many others desperately tried to find him a ride, all to no avail. What got him to the UK in the end was some serious sweet talking and a large wad of cash. The race wasn’t meant to be in the end. Despite him working so hard to get there, Svein ended his time on day three after falling sick. He tells me of his adventures;
“I learned a lot of stuff there. I went out to see what it was, I had to give myself that chance as it’s something that really intrigues me. I’ve been pushing myself for 20 years but that was just a whole new level of wackiness. I was lucky to do a sport where you do push yourself like that but you get paid for it.”
“Essentially what it comes down to is not sleeping. That’s who does the best, those that don’t sleep. And I like sleeping. But I had to see what it was. If I was 25 and single I’d go down that rabbit hole, but I can’t do that now and I don’t care that much about racing anymore. As soon as it became a race it was ruined for me. The trip across France was the most enjoyable, as it was just me doing my own thing, but as soon as I started racing, all these other weird factors came in and it got ruined.”
“People shit talk adventure racing as it’s not the highest level of physiology but actually it’s a whole other level of mental aptitude and fortitude. World tour riders don’t ride past 10 hours. There’s some really special things that start happening around the 18th hour of riding in a day. You hallucinate a little bit. It’s a different world. I think it’s special for everyone to feel what that is. To push that button.”
In the end, there was no real disappointment in not being able to cross the finish line. Svein knew that his body was trying to tell him something, and that he should listen to it. That is after all how he survived for so long in the professional peloton. I get the impression that he got everything out of that experience that he needed. It gave him the opportunity to see that he was changing.
Have you ever had a moment when you’ve realised you are not who you once were? A time where you’ve opened your eyes and it’s as if you’ve been walking around with blurred vision for months, and suddenly you’ve been given some glasses. Everything rears into focus and like it or not, you realise you’ve changed, beyond all reckoning, you will never be the same again. And you ponder to yourself how you can possibly exist in the same body as you did yesterday.
If you have experienced that, then think about all those discombobulating feelings, and then I think you get some way of being able to imagine what it feels like for a professional cyclist when they stop competing, particularly when, like Svein, they retired by choice, not because their body was no longer up to the challenge. If you’ve not experienced that, one day you might, that’s the strange thing about life, suddenly it can change in ways that you never expected.
…Becoming the person you will be
So, what’s next, how does Svein envision he gets from where he is now, to where he is going? Well, many paths lie ahead it would seem, for the man who still loves nothing more than life on two wheels. One thing Svein is certain about is which path he will not take, as he stresses to me, “I’m becoming very disconnected from that World Tour world that’s for certain.” So, we shouldn’t expect him to pop up as a directeur sportif any time soon.
What he really wants to do is head off into the wilderness and lose himself in the backwaters of Canada, hunting for food and raising his children. However, Svein is realistic and knows that that isn’t entirely possible. He sighs as he says, “You have to make money in this world we live in. We got to hustle. But also, you always have to do stuff you’re excited about.”
In the name of hustling, and things he’s excited about, he has multiple projects on the go;
With adventure biking growing exponentially Svien is well placed to get in on the action after years of galavanting pretty much everywhere on a bike. With a million different things you can attach to them to make them great for travelling, he sees an opportunity in creating bikepacking bags.
He’s also keen to continue with his touring business, Tufts Adventure Tours. As with everything at the moment, uncertainty reigns, but Svein is optimistic about the future, telling me, “Getting people out will always be something that I love. So I’ll just do a few next year, and plan more for 2022.”
Then, there’s the project that doesn’t revolve around two wheels, but instead something much more immovable. His inventive, entrepreneurial, spirit comes out as he sheds light on what he sees as a great avenue for creating something sustainable using his own bare hands;
“My brother builds custom homes but it’s always with modern materials like vinyl and drywall, people always want to pay the bottom line and what you get is a house that lasts 30 years. Whereas you go to Europe and see homes that are 500 years old and still going strong. So I’m pitching to him doing one big project a year building a fully locally sourced home using local materials and labour. You can find all kinds of cool stuff like old sinks and bathtubs if you’re willing to spend the time. I’d been really keen on that as it’s very satisfying.”
Despite the fact that Svein is still absolutely a bike person, the excitement in his voice shows he is finding serious inspiration thinking about this other life that’s out there, away from the saddle, and everything that comes with it. It may currently be the furthest away, but it’s getting closer as every day passes that he no longer has the job title of professional cyclist.
Don’t be a cog in the machine
This thread of sustainability is clearly front and center of mind for Svein. This pandemic has given him the time to reflect and realise how much change he wants to bring to his life. He emphatically tells me;
“For myself going forward I want to change things massively. The life I was living before I don’t want, I see it wasn’t sustainable. Yeah it’s fun to travel around and do all that stuff but it’s not sustainable.”
So, what does that sustainable life look like? Svein has a clear image, but he knows that it is not necessarily going to work straight away. He chuckles as he talks of not wanting to be dependent on any government. How he’d rather do his own gardening, have a few animals, and hunt for food. But, ultimately there is a struggle between achieving that ‘Captain Fantastic’ goal, and balancing it with the needs of his family. After all, a life in the wilderness is not for everyone.
Our chat turned philosophical as Svein calmly pondered his thoughts out loud, whilst pushing his little boy Gunner on the swing. I listened, feeling like I was having a personal audience with the Dalai Lama. He effortlessly contemplated the strange world we live in and the dark side of consumerism, politely stating;
“The problem I find with humans is that we always think we want something and then when we get it, we realise it’s not actually what we want. But that’s what life at the moment provides us with, a load of shit that we don’t need, but we think we want, and unfortunately it’s a very hard lesson for people to learn, and come to terms with, that actually what you need is a life where your day is spent getting food. That’s where there’s value. We do all this other shit to send kids to great daycares and school, and then we’re not with them. But a life spent around your home, growing stuff, and doing stuff, then your kids are with you and learning with you, and for me that’s how it should be.”
As he continues to talk I don’t have any epiphanies, I know what he is saying is exactly spot on, it resonates with many thoughts I’ve had myself, yet it’s rare that I think about these things. These conversations are scarce, because put simply, they are tough. I feel like I know what is wrong, but don’t know how to make it right. And all too often, I run away from these thoughts and conversations, because the problems at hand are too complex to tackle.
But not today. I open myself up to the possibility that shit is hard, and that I have to face it. So I listen, as Svein takes me back to a world before we had everything, and how different our lives were;
“Think of the pioneer days, when you would have come to a new country and have had to settle on the land and you didn’t have choices, you found a flat piece of land and you had to plant trees and move rocks, and that was it. Now I can look at 20 properties in a day and I’m like, ‘oh I don’t know about this one’. There’s too many choices.”
“As a hunter gatherer you had to work for everything, everything was a bit of a struggle to reach the end of every season, and we just don’t have that any more. I can get a mango to eat in Canada in the winter now, that’s not right. That’s not struggling. I can just drive down in my big car, and get my cart, and buy whatever I want. That’s not struggling, we’re not meant to be like that.”
He finishes with a flurry, a sad and painful reminder of how things really are;
“We’re in a real pickle as humans. Right now, we’ve never had more options, and we’re miserable about it.”
I talk to him about Barry Schwartz’s work and ‘the paradox of choice’ in western developed societies, where a large amount of choice is commonly associated with welfare and freedom. But, too much choice, causes the feeling of less happiness, less satisfaction, and can even lead to paralysis.
Svein knows this feeling all too well, as his speech quickens, he describes a situation I’m sure we’ve all found ourselves in;
“We’re sold that idea of perfection on the internet. You can just go down a rabbit hole of finding the perfect thing and every time I’ve ever done that I’m never happy when I get the thing, because I didn’t have to do anything for it. It’s not a way to live, I don’t like it any more.”
When Svein said this I felt profound sadness sweep over me. Because he was so spot on. And then he went on to say;
“My fear is that you just find distraction, and never really deal with anything, and I think that’s what a lot of people do. I don’t want to live a life like that, where you’re like ‘I know what I’m doing is wrong, but I’m going to do it anyway as that’s all I know’. There has to be a better solution, or at least halfway point.”
Then it really hit me. Because it’s all too easy to get distracted. I know I do, I’m sure you do, we all do. I closed my eyes for a second and thought about how ignorance is bliss. And as I let those words slip out of my mouth and Svein replied with, “I wish I didn’t know any better.” I was wishing deep down in my heart and soul I didn’t know any better too. Like the naivete we both felt back in March. I almost wished I wasn’t having this conversation, because I know that the reality of actually having to do something, of actually having to make positive change is way harder than just pretending that nothing is wrong.
And then I stopped wishing, and I sat up straight, re-entered the conversation and talked about how scared I am. And Svein replied;
“We’ve just been sold this line of bullshit. People still seem to be spending money at the same rate even though they’ve not got work anymore and the cost of living is the highest I’ve ever seen it. I’m just blown away. I’m like how do people do it? I don’t understand how it works. But they just keep printing money and bailing things out. Everyone wants to give you a loan. Maybe you’re buying a camera and there’s a loan. It’s like don’t just pay outright, get a loan. And I’m like no I don’t want 40 things coming out of the bank account because I wanted something right away.”
“I believe more so than ever that the system is working hard to enslave us.”
“You have a society completely dependent on ordering their food, sitting at home, watching TV, getting fatter, and just living off online banking and credit cards. And that’s the part that scares me, the part of human nature that’s content and is like I’m just going to sit at home for a month or two. I’ve seen people, they don’t look healthy, it has not been good for a lot of people.”
“To be such a cog in the machine attracts me less and less these days.”
These are undoubtedly the words that will live longest in my memory following our conversation.
Cog in a machine.
I know that’s what I am. And most of the time that’s ok. I like being a cog. I like knowing exactly what I’m going to get paid, and when. I like the routine of starting work at eight every day and finishing at four. I like the fact that when my day is over I don’t think about my work any more. I like the simplicity of it.
And then every now and then, someone will say something, or something will happen, and I will undoubtedly think, I am not OK being a cog in a machine. And for me too, it definitely attracts me less and less these days.
That’s the bloody burn with talking to Sveino. Every time I do I’m convinced I want to quit my job, run away to the countryside, buy some sheep and disconnect from society.
Everything in life is about how you view it
But for now, instead of ending with what Svein has said that will haunt me, I will end instead on what he said that made me rejoice in the pure promise of possibility.
When I asked him to conclude with how he felt about last year, all the pain and the suffering, all the challenges that he knows we face coming into 2021, he gave me nothing but hope;
“That’s life, you just have to keep on keeping on, and keep truckin’. You can’t get too wrapped up in the minor details. Everything is just about how you view it. Sure you’re going to have bad moments. Sometimes when I tell our story from the last year I go, holy shit that was a lot to take in one year, but you know what, the last twenty years before that have been easy street, so it’s like every now and again you have to pay the bills. I’m not one of those people that’s like poor me, 2020, it’s been the worst. It’s just like, shit just happens in life and you just keep on truckin’ on, and it just gets better. That’s my take on it. By no means am I thinking what a horrible time, because looking forward is so exciting.”
It’s funny really because Svein said to me multiple times, you have to just keep on truckin’. And it always made me smile.
But when I reflected back I realised Svein is never just keeping on, he is always pushing ahead, with something, in some way. He is always trying to live a better life, create a greater life for his family, and have a more positive impact on the world. He is far away from just keeping on keeping on, as many of us do, with our eyes closed. His eyes are wide open. And thank goodness, he’s helping to keep the rest of the world’s eyes open too.