3 Grand Tours in a year: part 1 – Keith Tuffley
At the age of 47 Keith Tuffley got on his bike and rode more than 10,000km in 63 days — not only that, but he did so knowing that if he slowed down, the racers of the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España would have caught up with him.
(This story originally appeared in #RIDE73, published in October 2016)
The first amateur rider to complete all three Grand Tours in a year liked his adventure so much that he started a project to host holidays for cyclists wanting to ride the Giro, Tour and Vuelta on the day of the race. Here’s his story about why he rides a bike.
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Keith Tuffley: Grand Tours cyclist
– By Rob Arnold
Keith Tuffley believes in the idea of sustainability. He was an investment banker for 25 years but now works on initiatives to try and make the world a better place to live. At least that’s how he now explains his line of work. “I had a background in finance,” said the 51-year-old, “but I realised that, having gotten involved with a number of environmental NGOs, the amount of damage we’re doing to the planet is of real concern.
“If we haven’t got a healthy, thriving planet then we miss out on certain experiences and it will create problems. I realised that I wanted to do more to help us live truly sustainably, to ensure that we enjoy our planet but also so humans can survive and thrive.”
He’s an Australian living in Switzerland. He rides a bike and wants people to share his passion for cycling. At the age of 47 he rode all three of the Grand Tours in one year, on the same roads as the race… only hours before the peloton.
“Obviously it’s 21 days of cycling for each race,” he says before reciting some of the stats relating to the ride. “The Grand Tours are the only races that are allowed to do the full three weeks. So it’s 21 days each, 63 days of cycling.
“I did something like over 10,000 kilometres in total.
“The total elevation in that time was 150,000 metres – so 150km of climbing which is quite an amazing thought when you realise that space is 100km off the surface of the planet. Basically I cycled the equivalent of into space, plus another 50km in vertical climbing.”
Did he notice a change in body shape? Was he physically affected by all that time on a bike?
“I found the mental challenge as difficult as the physical one. You’ve got to be really disciplined and have to enjoy every day even if it’s pouring with rain at five o’clock in the morning and freezing and you’re all by yourself, you’ve got to mentally enjoy it otherwise your body falls apart.
“Ironically I had a knee injury at the end of 2012 and had to get a small operation that December. I was back on the indoor trainer in February of 2013 and doing that until March, and was outdoors again in April. Then, of course, it was time to start the Giro in May. I was able to do all three Grand Tours having had a knee operation on the December beforehand. It was a credit to the surgeon. I was able to build up the strength over time and my body hung together pretty well throughout the three months.”
What Tuffley has done is quite extraordinary. But the way he tells it is rather matter of fact: yes, I rode a long way. It was fun. We should all do it. Come and join me. To the point and obvious: why ride? Because it’s good. Is there really a reason to ask? Evidently not. He believes people do like to ride and he and some colleagues in Switzerland established a holiday company, ‘Grand Tours Project’, that caters for other people who want to challenge themselves the way he did a few years ago.
“When I did the three Grand Tours in 2013, it was just an idea I had: to see what it was like cycling on the same day as the race. Way back in 2010, I’d cycled the route of the Tour de France and again in 2011, when Cadel Evans won, I cycled every kilometre of the race about two hours ahead of the peloton. And I did that solo.
“That grew to include the Giro d’Italia and the Tour the following year. And in 2013, I decided to become the first amateur cyclist to cycle all three Grand Tours in the one year. There have only been 42 professionals who have done this in one season but no amateur had ever done it before, particularly on the same day as the race – and solo.
“I thought, ‘That was such a great experience…’ and no one else was doing it so I wanted to share it.
“I’d love to give the opportunity for other people to do this wonderful ride and everything that came with it – the passion, the environment, the people, the mental discipline. And so we decided to start this business up to allow people to experience the same thing that I did in 2013.”
He’s a businessman with a passion for cycling and while he does spend a lot of time on the bike, it’s not the only way that he gets around. When we speak, he’s driving – a Tesla, he later tells me – to a meeting in Geneva. The electric car is another way for him to reduce his carbon footprint. For the moment, it’s a little difficult to get the charge for the vehicle when following riders from one town to the next, day after day for three weeks. Otherwise, his holidays would be fully supported by electric vehicles already.
He explains that the aim is to eventually host these Grand Tour trips with only electric cars as support vehicles. The idea of sustainability is never far from the conversation, in fact he tends to steer every topic in that direction.
Cycling just happens to fit into that genre. “The bike is a great symbol for sustainability,” he says. “If more of us were on bikes rather than driving around in various forms of fossil fuel-burning transport, the world would be a better place both by reducing emissions but also by raising human experiences and knowledge about the impacts we’re having. I see the bike as being a wonderful and consistent approach to what we’re doing.”
Riding a bike is not the only way that Keith Tuffley spends his time. The holiday company is one aspect of his business but he’s involved with a range of initiatives that promote the kind of thinking he believes is necessary for a sustainable society. A few years ago, he committed to a change of scene and a move away from banking.
“I decided to move to Switzerland with my family and started up an impact investing business,” he explained of his move away from Australia. “While running that I was also asked to join an NGO called the ‘B-Team’, which uses business as a force for good, using the best elements of the private sector – technology, innovation, entrepreneurship, finance – to solve some of the world’s problems.”
He expands on the concept and asks: how do we ensure that we as humans, the seven billion of us now, can actually survive on this planet and keep it thriving and healthy?
That’s something he’s striving to find an answer to. In the meantime, he continues to ride his bike and explore the world. As he does this, he notes the cues in various locations about how dramatically the planet is changing and why it’s necessary to try and facilitate more sustainable lifestyles.
“We lost 22 percent of the Great Barrier Reef in the last few months,” he says. “That’s half the size of England of a reef dying because of human impacts. It’s unacceptable.
“That’s just one element. I skied to the North Pole in April and I could really see the impact of humans on the ice with the very quick melting. I’m heading to the South Pole in December to see the impacts of climate change in Antarctica as well. It’s a real area of concern but we can change it.”
Cycling, Tuffley believes, can play a role in changing things for the better. “One of the reasons we set up the Grand Tours Projects is because it was up to people to realise that experiencing the planet on a bike is far better than buying more consumer goods – and for them to actually appreciate our planet and the people who live on it and find ways to enjoy it without doing further damage.”
None of these concepts are new to most people who read this magazine. We like cycling because it’s cool on so many levels. Tuffley’s experience of riding the complete itineraries used for the three biggest races in the world was his way of getting to know the sport, the world – and himself – better. As bold as the accomplishment is, he shrugs off talk about what toll it may have taken on his body and gushes when explaining the benefits of these rides.
“I climbed over 100 passes in the period of riding the three Grand Tours a few years ago,” he said, “each of them was different and each was quite stunning. It’s the variety that helped make it special: either there was a particularly challenging gradient, a passion with the fans, or just the scenery – the beauty of the location.”
When people consider riding the more famous mountain passes in cycling there’s a tendency to gravitate to some of the obvious ones. But it wasn’t until the very end of the trio of Grand Tours that Tuffley found his climbing nirvana.
“We love to go to places which have been proven to be fantastic by other people. So climbs like Mont Ventoux and Alpe d’Huez and some classics like that – the Tourmalet in the Pyrenees – are the ones we keep flocking to. They are brilliant, they quite are amazing, but I must say that some of the days on the Giro and the Vuelta in particular – riding climbs that are just far less known – were as good, if not better, and for varying reasons.
“The Angliru, for example, is stunning and incredibly steep for a long time, and the roadside was filled with very passionate Spanish fans. It ends with this little plateau – about a three or four kilometre flat section right at the top. When I got there, it left an impression on me: I’d just climbed this enormously challenging mountain at gradients of up to 25 percent… when I finally got to the top there was a beautiful plateau. It really did feel like a cycling heaven because there was no one around at the top, it was just pure silence and peace with cows grazing.”
We see the scenes from races in Europe and believe that the roads must be filled with fans all day long but Tuffley says his first taste of a Grand Tour route was a lonely one. He laughs about his maiden ride ahead of the peloton a few years ago. “Back in 2010 when I first tried it – and it was really just an experiment to see what it was like – I started in Rotterdam by myself.” The Grand Départ of the Tour was in the Netherlands – a haven for cycling – and he set off on the 223.5km course that finished in Brussels.
“I started very early in the morning, expecting there to be a whole bunch of cyclists doing it and there were none. I did that whole day without seeing one other cyclist.”
He’s since learned a lot about how to manage the routine required to stay just ahead of the peloton. So how was it for the trilogy of Grand Tours in 2013? Did he have to get up at 4.00am to make sure he was finished before the racers?
“It depends on the stage,” he said. “I’d work out each day what time I needed to finish because that varies. If it’s a flat day – especially on the Giro, for example – I finished some stages only 15 minutes before the peloton. But on the mountainous days, you have to finish earlier because they close the roads early. I just work my way back as to what the estimated average speed I’ll make and, of course, factor in a few photo stops and a few cafe or boulangerie stops and work out what time I have to start.
“When I started the Mont Ventoux stage in 2013, it was a 230km cycle to the base of the climb, and so I had to set off at three in the morning. Other days, you can start at five, six or even eight o’clock, depending on the itinerary.”
He has done a lot of cycling already but Tuffley doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Plenty of kilometres have passed under his wheels but he loves the act of riding and also what it represents for his other passion: sustainability.
But what’s his background? Why did he find himself waking at 3.00am to ride his bike ahead of a bunch of pro cyclists who were paid to race 240km? In other words: why does he ride? How did he become a cyclist?
“I’ve never raced. I’ve always been a recreational cyclist. I rode as a kid and in my teens. I lived in the north of Sydney and used to cycle to Sydney University which is a good ride each morning and evening. I’m lucky to be alive having done that for five years on Sydney roads, but I survived.
“I kept riding for fun throughout my early adulthood – a bit of triathlon, some adventure cycling… then we moved to Europe and got into it more because it’s very cycle-friendly in places like France, Italy, Spain and Switzerland.
“There are great roads, great scenery and the first time the Tour de France came through our village in Switzerland back in 2009 that was when I decided I’d try and cycle two days of the Tour in front of the peloton. I tried it, loved it and that sparked the idea of trying to do every stage.
“To be honest, I think cycling is one of the wonderful sports of the world. It’s social but at the same time you can do it solo. It’s great for your fitness. You can do it at any age until you drop dead. It’s good for the body, it’s good for the mind. You see things as you go along.
“I love swimming but watching a black line, versus looking at the scenery? I find there’s a big difference.
“Cycling is also a symbol for sustainability because it’s got great technology but at the same time it’s a most efficient use of energy. There are so many elements of cycling that are positive to the world.
“You can ride along and talk to friends about solving the world’s problems at the same time as exercising. The bike is such a great invention for humans, peace, harmony and enjoyment of the world and the people around it.
“It’s a wonderful hobby. It’s a fantastic challenge for people too. You can spend hours on the bike and every moment challenging yourself physically and mentally. I really do love the cycling.” Okay, I told him afterwards, I’m sold. After that pitch I’m going to get into this cycling caper. It sounds like a good thing to do.
– By Rob Arnold