The Strathpuffer is regularly featured as one of the toughest mountain bike races in the world. It’s riding
an 11km course as many times as possible over 24 hours non stop. Easy right? Well add in that this is January in Northern Scotland. It’s dark for 17 hours a day. It’s cold, a damp Scottish cold that got icy during the night, then the course is rough, much rougher than I expected. Why enter I hear you ask? Good question….
On 6th January I got an email saying “you’re invited to enter the Strathpuffer solo on 21st January” That’s a little over two weeks away, I thought to myself some people must’ve seen sense and pulled out. At the time I was ill with a bad cold, but I figured two weeks was enough time to be well again so I entered.
I thought maybe the organisers had a shortlist of people crazy enough to enter the Strathpuffer solo with just two weeks notice and I guess I qualify! Either way I had entered with pretty much zero preparation time. I figured I just needed to eat well and feel better and I would be OK.
I know people will think “well he rides his bike loads so he’ll be fine”. However for an event like this it’s never easy and I would prefer to have a few longer road rides under my belt for building strength in my quads, then a few similar long MTB rides to build my upper body strength and prevent too much fatigue in arms and back. However I was most worried about my chest and a cough that hadn’t completely cleared up.
I set off for Strathpuffer loaded up with plenty of lights. I was grateful to friends who had lent me an an epic array of night lights ready to blind the competition but more importantly this also meant there was no need to charge anything during the night. I was sharing pits with two guys who were were racing in a pair and they had a sorted pit setup from the last couple of years. A van, shelter and a fire are essential for surviving the night!
I camped on the Friday night in the pits and it was the pits. It was freezing cold, I was in a four season tent with a decent sleeping bag, then thermals, hoody, down jacket, hat and I was still cold. It didn’t bode well for Saturday night.
Breakfast was 5 sachets of oat so simple. Then some coconut water to ensure I was fully hydrated. An energy bar before the start. I had prepared variations of roast chicken and ham sandwiches for the day as my savoury option. Then bananas, malt loaf, savoury crackers, mixed nuts, snickers, oaty energy bars, gels and hot cross buns. For drink I had more coconut water, Orange juice and High 5’s 4:1 endurance energy drink. I had Torq’s recovery hot chocolate for during the night.
The start was nothing too crazy as we ran to the bikes, most people were soon riding a steady pace. I quickly settled down to sitting and spinning up the first climb. It wasn’t too steep and actually pretty easy up a smooth 4×4 track. The top always seemed to arrive quicker than I expected and it was a good section for eating on. The next section was proper mountain biking, it was rough and horrible to ride when tired. It was up and down but over slabs of rock that killed momentum, you were standing up when you wanted to sit down.
Picture of me below taken from the BBC website:
The first few laps went fine, no mechanical issues and my legs were strong. It was still just a long day ride at this point. Then over the next few laps the sun faded quickly and at 4pm it was setting over a cloud inversion with the mountains poking up through the white shadows. It would now be dark for the next 17 hours!
The stars were out and bright, it would be a clear but brutally cold night. The air felt spiky and my chest hurt from breathing it in, I started to cough a bit more. If it gets worse I need to quit I said to myself.
As night starts the race gains its unique atmosphere. The road up is lined with caravans, vans and motor homes. All have fires burning, various designs of stoves puffing smoke out like dragons or actually Darth Vadar in one case! The wood ash in the air looked like snow when picked up in the bike lights. A couple of occasions I was convinced it was actually snowing, then again on a couple of laps I was convinced I saw things people in the woods – the mind plays tricks on you as it misses sleep.
As it got colder I spent the race saying, one more lap and I’ll quit.
Picture below taken from the BBC website:
I then let out about 5psi from my tyres and the difference was huge, the ice was forming on the course and the extra traction helped, but also my chest was taking less feedback and felt way better.
I pushed on still taking it lap by lap. I was apparently up to second at one point early on, however I thought to myself “just enjoy it and not worry about position” so I soon dropped to 5th! Mostly because I took a long 15 minute break on alternate laps. The fire and brewing up hot tea was too inviting to pass if not the most competitive!
As the night went on the cold air was getting more intense as were the stars, a crescent moon put in an appearance too.
Drinking was becoming an issue because my bottle was frozen and the prepared energy drink was turning to a slush puppy in the pits. Brain freeze was not welcome at this time in the morning!
The track got icier still each lap, the rocks had a film of muddy ice, even the plain mud was sheet ice in places. It was generally fine unless I used the brakes a lot, but there were people going over all across the track. I saw no injuries just some ripped lycra here and there. Finally my cough was getting worse so I made the decision to stop and get some sleep. At 4.15 am I went to bed and set my alarm for 6.30. I had done 22 laps and with almost 7 hours left I was comfortably on course for 28 laps – my target.
I awoke feeling as rough as you might expect. I rolled down hill to hand my dibber in. Then I decided actually I could do one more lap. I dibbed in to end lap 22, then printed my results off. I was 7th still despite my sleep. I could feasibly still get a top 5 finish I thought. So lap by lap I did 3 more and clawed back to within the grasp of 4th place with sub 50 minute laps each time. However I thought the race ended at 10am . The lady at the end asked if I was doing one more lap at 9.30am, “seriously it’s not finished?” I said in my sleep deprived exhausted state; “No I’m done”.
I finished 6th out of the solos on 25 laps. Without the sleep break I I was on track for 300kms which was my aim so I was pleased with my pace overall, I just didn’t want to risk getting sick again. Next year maybe I’ll be back and hopefully I can push on for the podium!
I was pleased with my bike setup but a short travel full suspension bike would be better than a hard tail and also a way to clear the frozen ice off the bike frame would’ve been good! By the end I had a few kilos of solid mud and ice that wouldn’t budge! No punctures, no chain issues and I didn’t even wear half a brake pad either. Not a bad result all round.