Strathpuffer 2019

Yeah. We were wrong. We needed spikes. I have ridden my bike (and pushed it and fallen off it) in all sorts of horrible conditions over the years, from minus double-digit cold and mud-caked pine plantations to axle-deep snow and blanket bogs, but I have never encountered riding surfaces as slippery as those we tried to race on at last weekend’s ice-bound, frost-blighted, freezer-burned Strathpuffer 24.

Unsurprisingly for a day-long race held in the far north of Scotland in the middle of January, the Strathpuffer already has a fearsome reputation, and this year’s event will have done that reputation no harm at all. It inevitably sells out fast, attracting hundreds of hardy riders keen to measure themselves against a testing cross-country course in sub-arctic conditions with brief stretches of thin daylight sandwiching seventeen hours of darkness. The bravest attempt a solo ride, bashing out laps alone for the full length of the event, but obviously that would be way beyond my limited abilities at the best of times; I was instead taking part as one quarter of a quad, meaning that at most I’d need to do about six hours riding spread across the whole event.

Queuing for parking passes at Square Wheels in Strathpeffer

The logistics of running the event in Contin Forest, which has limited opportunities for parking race support vehicles, mean that competitors really need to establish a base on site on the day before the race. For us that meant doing a nine-hour drive to Inverness the day before that, Thursday, to be on time to pick up the single parking pass allotted to our team and to get onto the course to bag a decent spot. We were carrying equipment for a number of other groups of riders, including two massive EZ-Up shelters for Team JMC, and we pulled out all the stops to snag a pitch about a third of the way up the main climb above the start/finish area. We spent the rest of Friday setting up as much kit as possible and guiding in various friends and acquaintances as they arrived, before retiring to a nearby B&B for a few beers and a good night’s sleep.

Race prepration at TeamJMC/MNPR base camp

The next morning dawned some time after we’d got up and had breakfast, this being northern Scotland, but once the sun did finally show it illuminated a beautifully clear day with barely a cloud in the sky, no wind to speak of and snow dusting the hills. Everywhere was frosty and breath condensed into large clouds as riders rode slowly up and down the fireroads preparing for the 10am start. The implications of these cold temperatures, coming as they did after a much milder and wetter week of rain, would shortly become clear to all, but for now most of us were feeling optimistic and happy that we were going to be spared the misery of a wet, muddy slog.

The race itself begins with a Le Mans style run with the pack of riders dashing free-for-all up the first fire road to retrieve their bikes from the melee of assistants and spectators lining the start straight. I had been roped into holding bikes for both my teammate Daz and also for proper fast solo rider Rich Rothwell who was sharing our base camp with us. Rich somehow managed to run clean past when another racer fluffed up a CX remount and crashed right in front of me, but we managed to untangle everything fairly quickly and the lads were on their way.

Mayhem at the race start

Whilst the main fire road climb was dry and clear, lulling us into a false sense of security, the previously discussed clear frosty weather, following immediately on from days of rain that had soaked deep into every surface, had inevitably resulted in the formation of black ice pretty much everywhere else. When the first rider came through after a lap, they responded to a yelled query about the conditions under-wheel with two words: “ICY DEATH!” This was further attested a few minutes later when Daz returned to the pits with torn leggings and a bloodied knee, having crashed hard twice. Riders were hitting the deck with alarming frequency, and we later heard that in the first hour or so seven people reported to First Aid with broken collarbones. The entire course was as cold, slippery and unpleasant as a Tory cabinet minister. Every rock, boulder and pebble was coated with a layer of invisible, teflon-slick frozen water, and even surfaces that looked grippy, like hard-packed fire road, were unpredictably lethal. One section of the course, just above the final descent, snaked through old growth woodland, and had somehow managed to remain fairly ice-free, with the result that the singletrack was merely laced with the usual damp, slimy tree roots. Normally I’d approach this sort of thing with great trepidation, but in comparison to the rest of the route this stretch was grippy and solid, and on subsequent laps the wet wood and mud hereabouts provided a welcome relief from icy rocks. Four-time race veteran Rich Rothwell pronounced conditions the worst he’d ever seen – he abandoned after five laps due to feeling unwell, but the state of the course can’t have helped much.

Some nodder getting in the way of the fast lads (photo by Gary Williamson)

Whilst I was out on my first lap, experiencing the friction-free excitement of verglassed bedrock on summery XC rubber, my teammates excavated a pair of Schwalbe Ice Spiker tyres from the mountain of spares, and fitted them to two front wheels. By adjusting a few brake calipers we were able to set up each of our four bikes to accept one or other of these wheels, and we spent the rest of the race swapping these over to give us a fighting chance at not crashing every ten yards or so. I have never used ice spike tyres before, preferring to just stay at home when the weather is really properly daft, but I have to say I’m thoroughly impressed. They aren’t infallible, but they do allow you to ride your bike like it has normal mountain-bike tyres on in the sort of circumstances where normal mountain-bike tyres will dump you on the floor without warning. On my second lap I rode warily through a section where my fast-rolling front had done just this a few hours earlier, but the tungsten carbide spikes held, making a satisfying velcroey sound, and whilst my back wheel did playfully try to dash off into the distance from time to time, by riding the front hard down everything and assuming that the back would eventually follow along some approximation of the same line I was able to stay person-side up almost all the time.

As the race progressed into the darker hours we switched from a single-lap strategy to putting in double laps and my turn came up at around 9PM. I headed out onto the hill under clear skies and in between dodging crevasses and avoiding yetis I managed to sneak a few glances at the starry sky and near-full moon illuminating the snowy mass of Ben Wyvis to the north. The scenery hereabout is lovely, the undulating terrain softer and less imposing than the bigger mountain ranges to the west and south, but no less appealing, and I was glad to be out in the wintery hills riding my bike, or trying to, even if the trail itself was in rather less than ideal condition. The course quietened down noticeably as the night progressed, and many teams and riders clearly started to take long breaks as the darkness took hold. After my two laps were up I refuelled with some noodles and crashed out on the back seat of the van, cocooned in sleeping bag and quilt, where I managed to get a surprisingly decent few hours rest in between occasional disturbances as teammates went out or returned from their own laps. Eventually I prised myself out of my nest with a very sore back and headed out for my next turn at around 5AM.

The 4am slump (possibly extending towards the 6am slump at this point, I forget)

The dedicated team of marshals remained spread over the hill all night, paying particular attention to the trickiest bits of the course, and I was greatly reassured by the occasional sight of friendly hi-viz clad figures picking up the odd crashed competitor below some of the most slippy sections. I had largely managed to avoid any further incidents until this last lap, when a clumsy entanglement with another rider on an iced-up hump of bedrock ended with me clattering my right knee quite hard. I initially thought I had got away with it but within five minutes the pain was noticeable on pedalling, and by the time I reached our camp I had slowed to a crawl on the hills and decided that pulling out was probably the best plan. I still had a nine hour drive home to deal with and I rather needed my right leg to be able to operate the van properly, so I announced my retirement to Rik and started to pack up. Rik did a further lap as the sun rose, but on his return Kai and Daz had both elected to stop riding also, so at around 8.30 we called it a day and began to break camp.

We headed down to the finish line for the final hour or so of the race to watch friends roll in, grab some breakfast and generally soak up the atmosphere of the end of the event. Our results were respectable enough, we ended up in 34th place (out of 90 teams) in the Male Quads category, after 22 laps over 21h49. Had I been able to put in another lap I could have possibly dragged us up to around 25th position, but I don’t think this would have been a great idea as my knee is still a bit sore several days later and pushing through it could have made things significantly worse. We were pleased to see our fellow Monday Night Pub Rider (and Team JMCer) Jason Miles take the win in the mixed pairs category with riding partner Sofia Christiansen, an impressive feat as they had to put in a very hard race to do it and apparently Jason crashed umpteen times on the last lap as a bout of sleety rain made the course yet more treacherous.

Team MNPR Yorkshire post-race, still smiling, just about…

With the race over we headed back to the van and finished loading everything in as quickly as possible. We were off site by around 11.30AM, and on the road properly before lunch time. I shared the drive back with Rik, dropped off various borrowed items on the way, and crashed into bed too tired to even manage a celebratory recovery beer. Strathpuffer is a very tough event, and whilst I was suffering on the course I swore to myself that I’d never do anything like this again, but inevitably, now I look back on it, I start to question whether I’d be able to put in a more convincing performance, perhaps by doing some training, setting my bike up with ice tyres, working on core strength, not getting injured, the list goes on. I was gratified to read in an event wrap-up email from the organisers that “Seriously icy conditions out on the track made it, probably, the most demanding Puffer ever”, which is good to know. Even in light of the ice and cold, I definitely think this attempt went much better than my last stab at a 24, from which it took me weeks to recover before I could even look at a bike again. I don’t think I’ll be back to race in Contin next January, but I might still have a crack at some other endurance event before too long.