What is Strathpuffer?
Strathpuffer: “Probably the only 13 year old winter 24 hour mountain bike race in the world”. Not the catchiest turn of phrase, but it does a good job summing up the event. Strathpuffer is raced in Contin woods, which are close to the Victorian Spa town of Strathpeffer. You can race in teams of 8, 4, 2 or for the questionably mad, as a solo. Those looking for victory will be trying to get their timing dibber around the 7.5-mile track as many times as possible within the 24 hours.
The appeal of 24-hour racing isn’t obvious to people who haven’t tried it. Getting your head around physically exerting yourself for an entire day with limited sleep is difficult and entirely logical. As such, forward thinking is a crucial part of any such event. Things like planning your breaks, menu and bike maintenance lets you focus entirely on the riding, something that a tired mind will appreciate.
Two fully loaded vans left home base in Derbyshire for Strathpuffer 2018 - with Simon taking Paul and Jonny, and Mitch taking Neil and myself. It’s a 12-hour drive (including generous food stops) with some lovely scenery along the way: the seafront along the A1 to Edinburgh and the remote wilderness along the A9 are of particular note.
After a warm night’s sleep in a hotel in Strathpeffer, we got ourselves sorted and onto track early Friday afternoon. Our pits came together quickly with a single event shelter and a makeshift stove sitting just out the front. The fire takes centre stage as it keeps you warm and this year we used it to both cook on and boil water. The day was finished off attending the annual Pasta Party at Contin village hall.
Race day requires an early start as there is plenty to do. Rental lights need to be collected, breakfast needs eating and the fireroad needs inspecting for any last-minute tyre changes. Some snow had come in overnight but as there was already a covering several inches thick, the extra was barely noticed.
The six of us have all raced at least one Puffer before, so we had some idea of what was to come. Between us are years of experience riding mountain bikes with Mitch and Neil being particularly well seasoned riders. I rode consistently throughout the autumn and winter and was feeling strong for it. Simon, Jonny and Paul all found time to ride in the build up to Puffer, but heavy workloads and child care kept them from being as prepared as they would like.
The tyre choice of the day for all of us was ice spikes. We had spent a long time in the preceding weeks deciding on tyres. Each small metal studs gives total piece of mind considering the cold and snow. I was hoping to use my 3” plus tyres to keep things a bit smoother, but the benefit in grip outweighs the gains in comfort.
Strathpuffer starts with a traditional Le Mans standing start – running down the entrance road and finding your bike wherever it is parked on the fire road climb. The ice on the road wasn't too slippery, but the thought of falling over meant the pace was slow. All six of us split up immediately (the mass of people makes it difficult to get on your bike, let alone ride with someone). Often it’s better to keep to your own pace as you can get carried away riding with other people. Lap one is heaped in traffic, as people were struggling to find traction on some of the punchy climbs. The powdery snow was rutting whilst compacting so you really needed to concentrate to stay on two wheels.
Neil and Simon had both pulled over to the pits after their second laps. Neil had recently had major shoulder surgery where the doctor had explicitly told him not to crash. Lots of slipping back wheel and a brief stop atop a snowy bush was enough for Neil to call it a day. The constant accelerations to maintain traction on the snow was wreaking havoc with Simon’s knees so he decided to take a break as well. From there on, cups of tea, warm food and words of encouragement were then in their capable hands.
My daylight laps were largely uneventful and consistent in timing. Despite my four loops past the pits, I had still not seen Paul, Mitch and Jonny since the start. On my fifth time past, I pulled over to find Jonny cheerfully grabbing some food and chatting away. He was well aware of how his legs were feeling (tired) so was taking an extended break before getting back out. Despite this, he was still in high spirits as the track was such fun to ride.
I checked in with Neil to find out about how Mitch and Paul were doing. Both had managed to get themselves into a nice rhythm, steadily finishing laps. Neil said it was quite easy pitting for the three of us who were still riding – our lap times were regular enough that they could time the kettle to be ready at the same time we were! With my next lap running into darkness, I got my lights fitted and powered on. Using the daylight to learn the track and perfect your lines pays dividends, as you engage your night time autopilot and sail down descents without a second thought.
The track had stayed much the same during the day, only bedding in slightly. As the pitch black of night firmly set in, the temperature started dropping and everything began to freeze. People were regularly sliding out in front of me, with no obvious sign of danger under-tyre. Many riders who had risked fast rolling tyres during the day made the switch to spikes and I’m sure none of them regretted it.
The cold brings more problems than just feeling a chill. Mitch has struggled in the past with dry eyes and the cold exacerbates the problem. He had spent a significant chunk of the autumn and winter trying to find the best solution for it. A combination of eye drops and goggles proved effective at home and it wasn’t long into the night before Mitch pulled out his bright orange eyewear. They only lasted for a few laps however – the snow and mud that kicked up from the track make it almost impossible to see. Mitch pondered the decision with the help of the pit crew and he decided to keep going with his regular glasses and muscle through the discomfort.
After his extended break, Jonny managed to get back out and complete two laps in the dark before decided to pull in and call it a race. Paul was still plodding away at his own pace. Any pace, however fast or slow it is, means you’re moving and that a lap is being completed. Whilst feeling a bit sorry for myself, I felt much happier after putting a fresh pair of gloves on.
Between 02:00 and 04:00 is known as witching hour: this is the time in the night when you are most likely to give up. There is still enough of the race left that finishing seems like an age away, despite all the hard work you have already put in. Stood by Swivel Seat, I start seriously thinking about ended my race after this lap. The thought of warming up inside a sleeping bag and lessening the strain on my legs was more appealing than anything. Fortunately, word reached the pit about my wobble. As I got back, ready to hang my helmet up, Neil was straight away telling me how close I was to finishing. Those few positive words went a long way in keeping me motivated. I made that stop short to get back out again – that way, I had to keep going.
As witching hour passed, I finished that lap in good spirits, only needing a short break before getting on with my penultimate lap. Returning to the pit after that I found Paul and Mitch looking pretty dejected. To the contrary, I was excited to get my last lap done. Paul, who had done significantly less training that Mitch and I, had already put in a superb performance but was feeling it. Despite our best efforts, myself and Mitch couldn’t persuade Paul to join us on our victory lap.
Starting out, we could already see that the sky was beginning to brighten. The sky was starting to turn crimson by the time we reached the top of fire road and just kept getting better throughout the lap. We stopped at Swivel Seat to admire the view and to let Mitch re-inflate his leaky tyre. The views felt even better this morning than they were the day before, although that may be something to do with the lack of sleep.
It wasn’t long before we got to the final descent – we were eager to finish. Mitch led us in to the marquee and we both dibbed in for the last time. After grabbing a quick photo, we weren’t sure what to do. We decided that the best thing to do was to sit down and grab a bite to eat. As we both polished off our bacon cobs, Paul walked in after pulling himself out for one last lap. We had another cob to celebrate, this time double filled with bacon and egg.
This year’s event was one to be remembered. The riding conditions were unlike anything I had ridden in before and the picture-perfect snow made the event feel that bit more special. The supplied bike wash had been entirely unused – something that had never happened before.
Normally you give it a couple of weeks before even thinking about next year’s Puffer – for us, it was less than an hour.
What makes Strathpuffer so special?
What separates Strathpuffer from the rest of the world’s marathon races comes down to the location and timing of the event. The wintry time of year brings no certainty about the weather, leading to much discussion beforehand (much to any Brit’s delight). Some years it has been warm enough for short sleeves and others have seen sheet ice – which leads to the second major discussion of tyre choice.
The Strathpuffer track is a wonderous bit of design. Some lapped events struggle to keep people interested because of an uninspiring course, but this isn’t the case at the Puffer. A long fireroad climb warms you up at the start of the lap, followed by some technical, undulating and rocky singletrack. The final descent of the course is something you genuinely look forward to (and not just because it means your lap is nearly over!).
This combination brings in a totally unique crowd of racers and spectators alike. Everyone parks and sets up their pit along the side of the fireroad climb so the general hubbub and warmth raises your spirits as you ascend the hill. The atmosphere and race are well worth experiencing, even if you don’t want to race yourself.