You may wonder why we are publishing a blog about cycling in sub zero temperatures just as a heatwave is hitting Europe…however, at 10pm on 4th July 2019, entries open for the popular Strathpuffer 24 hour -mountain bike enduro event at it’s set to sell out fast (solo entries had all gone within 5 minutes last year!). Markus took on the event earlier this year so we’re just casting our minds back to those dark days of mid winter to hear all about what it’s like to ride your MTB for 24 hours in the snow and ice. You never know, it might help cool you down in this heat!
Suddenly I feel my front wheel sliding off to the left. Shortly afterwards I sit in a small river, my woollen gloves are wet. I am not able to move my right arm. This is certainly not the start I had envisaged. I am almost done with my opening lap of Strathpuffer, but such a massive fall wasn’t what I was hoping for.
Frequently chosen as one of the toughest mountain bike races in the world, the ‘Puffer’ is not your average race. As if 24 hour mountain bike races are not hard enough already, this one takes place in the Scottish Highlands in January, where the lack of daylight requires teams to ride 17 hours in the dark. The terrain is not for the faint-hearted either, with technical climbs and long ascents, which test most riders’ abilities to the core. To race ‘The Puffer’ you have to be quick on the course but also on the keyboard, as solo places sell out in less than five minutes when entries open in July.
I lost control on a big sheet of ice and in the subsequent fall dislocated my shoulder. As painful as it sounds, it is an old injury that had been nagging me for years. I don’t want to let it to ruin my race. I have travelled a long way from Edinburgh to Contin, north of Inverness, and not just for one lap. This time I am also not riding solo, but in a team with 14-year old Erin Wood . The last thing I wanted to do is to let down my team mate and the support crew down. After a few minutes I manage to put my shoulder back in, wait for the pain to settle a bit and grab my bike and carry on.
The Puffer started in 2005. First a one-off local event it has grown into a national event that has reached legendary status. In 2019, round the world record holder Mark Beaumont joined the line up of riders with his team mate Alex Glasgow, while in recent years names like Guy Martin, Lee Craigie and Mike Hall have joined the madness. All kinds of weather conditions have made this the most unpredictable event you can imagine, with gales strong enough to blow away the marquee, iced roads, loads of snow and temperatures down to minus 10 degrees.
If I think about type 2 fun, I think about the Puffer first. I am almost at the end of my lap, taking it much slower than before my fall. My right arm hurts, and the sheer thought that I will have to ride at least another seven laps is not settling in well. But then a cowbell stops my mind drifting away in negative thoughts. I am close to the marquee, the end of lap one. Spectators line the course and I start to fly again. On the finish line a cheery volunteer takes my dipper and I am off to climb the fire road from the marquee to our camp, where I hand the dipper over to Erin.
The Puffer follows the traditional 24 hour mountain bike race format, riding the same lap over and over again. The course has changed over the years, the current lap is about 14 km long. The race starts at 10 am on Saturday morning with a Le Mans style start. Competitors must start their last lap on Sunday by 10 am and complete it by 11 am. You can enter the event solo, as a pair, a team of four or a school team of eight. There are two safety points on the course manned by marshals, all of them volunteers.
I have done the Puffer three times before, and the last time I thought I was done. Forever. I didn’t like it at all. Shortly after returning from my round the world trip I entered the solo category in 2017, but rode home after seven laps. I was bored, stiff, tired and cold. The bed in a hostel seemed a much better option than a night in a tent.
But then, all of a sudden I found myself replying to a post in the Facebook forum, and soon agreed to team up with Erin who was looking for a ride partner. At 39 I am almost three times Erin’s age, so we both weren’t sure how this would work out for the both of us. Erin had done four laps last year and her goal was to double that. I had managed seven laps when I bailed in 2017, so matching Erin’s eight laps seemed like a reasonable target for me without any specific training for the event. I tried to change the gear ratio on my Surly Ogre, the same rigid single speed I had used for cycling around the world, but the chain ring bolts were stuck. So I kept the 32 -18 ratio which had worked so well over the years.
For the first two laps Erin matched my times. The course was very icy, but both of us had no other option than to get used to it. Tires with ice spikes are usually in high demand weeks before the Puffer, but both of us took the gamble and used normal tires instead. Under clear skies the temperature had dropped to double digits below zero on Friday night, and the mercury didn’t climb much during the day either. Perfect Puffer weather they say, as everything was solidly frozen with no mud in sight.
Just as I got bored of going around in circles in lap three I reminded myself of the positives of cycling the same course over and over again. I knew where the icy bits were, I knew where to hammer into a climb on my single speed, and I also knew I appreciated the last meters climbing before handing over to Erin. I was glad when the downhill sections were over. The rigid fork and no suspension made riding the course an enormous physical effort for me, especially with a wonky shoulder.
By 2am I gave Erin some rest and went out to do a double lap. So far we had changed after one lap, which didn’t allow either of us to get sleep. I was suffering from sleep problems the weeks before the Puffer. Handling a night without sleep wasn’t unusual to me, but Erin needed some time out. I did also have to remind myself too that she is only 14.
And it was on those two laps in the middle of the night that I remembered what the Puffer was ALL about: the amazing atmosphere. I can still remember the guys playing Tequila on their amplified trumpets at 2am in the morning at the top of the first climb. The jelly babies handed out by friendly marshals after the fire road climb shortly afterwards. The many cheers and the smell of fires as I cycled through the area where people were out supporting.
At 7.24 am I went out in the darkness for the last time. One of the most magic moments of the race is the when the sun rises after 17 hours of darkness. By now we had done 18 laps and were comfortably in front of the next mixed pair. We had beaten our own target already by two laps. I had just finished my tenth lap when Erin took over. When she came back to hand over for the last lap, I simply asked her if she wanted do go out and ride the last lap. She smiled and off she was. It was her drive and enthusiasm that was infectious and kept us both going through the race. So it was for her to finish what was not only an amazing race, but also an incredible weekend. Or to put in in the words of Howard Swindells, who composed the Puffer Song: If you pass on the chance to ride it, you’re a duffer.
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