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Three Strikes. The Strathpuffer 2016.

Three Strikes. The Strathpuffer 2016.

Puffertime!
Neil, Mitch Bryan, and Simon Owen with the all important race numbers!
Every year in Northern Scotland, in January, there takes place a remarkable event, The Strathpuffer 24; fondly known as The Puffer.

“The Puffer”; it’s an endearing abbreviation, it makes it seem somehow cuddly. Don’t be fooled!

In the UK it’s the type of event that we might best describe as “character building”.
It’s an event that attracts a lot of characters, and a lot of people with character. As Winston Wolfe so profoundly put it in Pulp Fiction all those years ago “Just because you are a character doesn’t mean you have character”. The Puffer can help you solve that particular conundrum.
Fundamentally it’s a 24 hour mountain bike race; nothing unusual in that, there are plenty of them on the calendar, there’s even a World Championships. It has Solo, Pairs, Quads, and Team of Ten categories. The Solo’s, quite rightly, attract the most attention; and the places sell out in less than five minutes every year!
What The Puffer has is 17 hours of darkness and the wild vagaries of Scottish winter weather; snow, ice, rain, sleet, hail, wind, and mud, (in varying permutations) along with trail conditions that destroy drive trains, chains, brake pads, bearings, tyres, clothing, skin, and spirit, with merciless impunity.
It is probably the hardest 24 hour race going. Any self respecting endurance racer should have this on their palmares.
It’s the most fun you can have in January with your (many layers) of clothes on!
As far as I was concerned this was to be my third and final attempt at completing it, if I failed this time that would be it, I would accept defeat.


My first attempt was in 2013. I went alone as a self-supported solo rider. Me, a bike, and a small tent. That meant stopping to cook my own meals, service the bike, everything. After 14 hours I was suffering a bit with really sore oblique muscles (lower back), I lay down on my camp bed and massaged the muscles with my fists to relieve the pain. I awoke three hours later. I was furious with myself. As far as I was concerned (and still am) a 24 hour race means staying awake and racing for 24 hours (as a solo); you have to stop to eat and drink of course, but the whole spirit of it is to race for 24 hours. 

A lot people are happy to stop and have a snooze and then carry on later, and it’s each to their own, but it’s not my sentiment. Sleeping isn’t Cricket. (Unless you’re an eleven year old called Tom, then you are allowed to have a little snooze).
Lesson learnt – make sure that your bike fits correctly to prevent unnecessary discomfort.
I handed in my timing chip.

In 2015 I tried again, this time Mitch also came along for his second attempt (and finished 14th with a magnificent 20 laps under his belt!), and Simon Owen for his first attempt. 
You can read my report of that trip here.
Needless to say I failed again.
Mechanical and physical issues contributed to my retirement but ultimately it is psychological failure that stops you in your tracks. I cracked.

We enjoyed a fair amount of snow in 2015.


Would 2016 be the year of my redemption?
I did have some concerns coming in to it.
I spent two months in Nepal at the end of 2015 and during the last few weeks of the trip I made the most of the fine weather and dry trails, often riding twice a day. I probably overdid it a little bit. Since my return I had been suffering with aching muscles every time I rode my bike or went for a run. The week prior to the race I decided to stop everything, not even cycling to work, in the hope that I might recover somewhat and actually finish this time.
Mitch Bryan, Simon Owen, our “Pit man” Jonathon Smith, and I, set off for Scotland on Thursday evening to try and break up the long journey north from Derbyshire.
We overnighted at Tebay Services on the M6 near Penrith in The Lake District. Somehow or other those three all slept on the rock-n-roll bed in Mitch’s Volkswagen T6 whist I ended up in my little tent on the grass verge! I’m certain that they enjoyed the wind & rain, and the sound of the trucks, just as much as I did! They seemed very happy about in the morning!

Mitch making his way in to Square Wheels.


Friday morning we continued our steady journey over the border and arrived at Square Wheels Cycle Shop in Strathpeffer around 1pm.
We collected our parking permit, grabbed some lunch in the village deli (I had Scottish Pie, the lady in the shop said it was a bit of an acquired taste; I had no trouble acquiring the taste for it), and then made our way the short distance to Contin, where the race is held.

Entering the site at Contin.


A lot of racers had already arrived on site (it opens at 12 noon) and we had to go a long way up the hill to find a suitable camping spot. The Puffer starts with a long forest road climb (2 miles/3 kms) and competitors are allowed to camp “Tour de France” style all the way along. It makes for a fantastic atmosphere as you pedal slowly up during the race. Many of the encampments have fairy lights, fire pits, and music playing; and you get an enthusiastic cheer from almost everyone as you pass through.
Our camp was at least a mile up the track but we had plenty of room and it was pretty flat ground too.

Setting up camp.


Mitch built up the bikes and managed to get the forks back to front on two of them. Simon jumped on his bike and wondered why it was steering funnily until he spotted the problem!
I, of course, laughed hysterically.

Mitch looks very pleased with his handiwork. It’s a shame he got the forks back-to-front!

Once we were set up we had plenty of time to kill so we trundled off down the hill to see what was happening elsewhere.
We bumped in to fellow Alpkiteers Rich & Tom Seipps, also from Derbyshire, and had a nice chat with them. We admired with envy their splendid Wigwam, complete with wood burning stove and chimney! Rich & Tom are father and son; Tom is eleven years old and a Puffer veteran!
They go on great adventures together and I admire them for it.
(You can follow Rich & Tom’s adventures from the links at the end of this post).

At 6pm we popped in to the marquee, officially registered, and collected our all important race numbers.

Neil Cottam. No24 this year.

By 10pm we called it a night. Mitch, Simon, and Jonathon, cuddled up in the camper whilst I was afforded the special privilege of sleeping under the gazebo on my camp bed, within earshot of the party animals next door.
That’s what friends are for.
It’s a good job I did too. During a particularly virulent rain storm a gust of wind got hold of the gazebo, ripped it from it’s mooring, and attempted to blow it to Norway! Fortunately I managed to grab hold of it. For some unknown reason none of the others heard my shouts for help. It must have been all of that cozy snuggling. So I scuttled around in my underpants and managed to get it pegged down securely again.
I had a mild panic attack every time the wind got up after that episode!

In the morning we dragged our weary bodies from our comfy beds (some more comfy than others!) and fired up the coffee pot.
For the first time (for me) there would no snow on course. Instead it looked like being a very wet and muddy ride. As it happened the day dawned bright and clear and throughout the whole race we were never visited by rain once. Instead of worrying about how to keep warm I had more trouble trying to not to get too sweaty on the long climb up to the moor!
I had no ambition other than to finish. I did, however, have a little target of 15 laps in my head, which would take me over the 100 mile/4000m mark, anything above that would be considered a bonus.
As expected things didn’t go entirely to plan but you have to expect a few issues to materialise during these type of events. Both the bike and the rider take quite a battering.
The mud, in places, was horrendous (but fun!).
The race begins with a “Le Mans style” running start whereupon you gallop together to the actual start line, a couple of hundred metres away, gather up your bike and begin the long initial climb. After that it’s the straightforward matter of pedaling round as many times as possible in a big circle until the end.
Well that sounds a simple enough concept… 

The Le Mans style start.
The Le Mans style start.


I went off initially for three laps with a plan to grab a drink and something substantial to eat after that, then repeat the cycle until I was knackered. It worked out reasonably well for the first five laps. By lap six I was starting to experience some discomfort. My wrist’s and elbows were getting sore and I had considerable discomfort in my obliques and hamstrings. 

Looking very clean at this point, just a few laps in.



As I began the climb, just after the transition, at the start of lap seven, I pulled over knowing that something was wrong with my saddle position. On inspection I found that it had dropped about 40mm. I had fitted the carbon seat-post earlier in the week and obviously hadn’t tightened it up quite enough, the rough trails had helped me batter it down slowly with my bum. That explained the backache and hamstring pain.
Once I arrived at our camp I gave the drive train a good rinsing off, then set about adjusting the grips to a better position. I knew after a couple of laps that my Ergon GS2 grips weren’t in quite the right position and I should have stopped sooner, 4 or 5mm was all it took to transform the feel of the bike and I suffered no further wrist or elbow pain. I also adjusted my saddle back a few millimetres to help stretch out my back muscles. All problems were resolved temporarily.

The Transition Area after dark.

Lap eight however was another matter entirely, the latter end of the circuit is predominantly down hill, and it’s ace, unfortunately by the time I reached transition my front fork was sagging badly. A few metres into the climb and the suspension was none existent. For whatever reason all of the air had escaped and this was, potentially, a race ending catastrophe. I was dumbfounded, and very nearly in tears, as I pondered my predicament all the way up that bloody hill. It was an identical issue in 2014 that contributed heavily towards my retirement and I just couldn’t believe that lightening had struck twice (although it was a different bike and fork).
I was forlorn. If I believed in such things I might have thought that the gods were conspiring against to me to never ever finish this f***ing race!




Mitch just happened to pull in to camp shortly after I arrived there. He offered me some consoling words and then we set about about addressing the issue. I had to try pumping it up again if nothing else. As I started to unwind the valve cap I realised that the whole topcap assembly was spinning free instead. Eureka! That was it. The air must have escaped through the loose topcap. We fudged around for something to tighten it up with and eventually settled on a hopelessly inadequate pair of snipe-nosed mole grips, and then re-pressurised with the shock pump. Yeehaw, I was back on track!

My euphoria was short lived… On the aforementioned down hill section there is a short fast descent into a tricky left hander with a pronounced dip in the middle. Get it right and you carry good speed in to the next section. get it wrong and you grind to an abrupt halt. I got it just right. Unfortunately the girl in front of me got it just wrong and fell on to my bike with her considerable belly. It was dark so I couldn’t really see much, she apologised profusely and of course I accepted it with gentlemanly grace, praying to the gods that I don’t believe in that everything was OK. Once in the glaring lights of transition I could see that all was not well, the wheel was buckled and going in all directions but the right one!
FFS Seriously??? Come on… give me a break here!
Once more unto the camp, once more, I went. Mitch helped me out yet again. He stood on one side of the wheel to secure it whilst I jumped up and down on the other side until it once again resembled something remotely round.

Somewhere up on the moor during the daylight hours

I was beginning to wonder how much more I could take.
Half a dozen good laps, followed by three near disastrous laps, what next?
Nothing much actually. From here on in it went fairly swimmingly to be honest. The usual mood swings that go with the territory raised their ugly head from time to time but that’s par for the course. You get over it. (and apologise to your friends later).
Throughout the night I took it pretty steady, just cruising around and ticking off the laps. I stopped on pretty much every lap to clean the drive train, the mud was taking a heavy toll and causing plenty of shifting issues, but nothing to get in a state about. I enjoyed plenty of coffee to keep me going.
Strangely I wasn’t even visited by the sleepmonster until daylight and that didn’t take much shaking, one Torq Products Guarana Gel saw that off.
Simon retired about 4.00am. Mitch had a wobble shortly afterwards, he was suffering from nausea and was having trouble eating anything. He decided he was out. I was having none of that. Mitch is extremely fit and an excellent competitor. I gave him a bit of friendly stick (abuse) and called him a few choice (vile) names for my own amusement. Thankfully I persuaded him to come out again and do a social lap with me, we could take it easy, enjoy the show, and just see how it went.

At the end of our lap, about 5.30am, we called in to the marquee at the transition area and got some hot food for breakfast.
The bacon sandwich did me the power of good, I deserved it after all.
Mitch wandered over to the timing board to check on our progress. He returned rather animated. Apparently Guy Martin was a lap behind him; that put a rocket up his arse!
He seemed to make a miraculous recovery.
Mitch told me that every time he has done The Puffer the guys at work always ask him if he beat Guy Martin. This was his chance to go back with his head held high. I laughed a lot.
Mitch is possibly the most competitive person I know. He also loves eating so when he leaves half a plate of chips on the table you know that his overriding uber-competitive streak has kicked in. Mitch never leaves food. He did three more laps before 10.00am!
And the best part, which made me laugh like a drain, it turned out that Guy had already retired when we saw his last lap time on the screen. Mitch buried himself for three laps for no reason whatsoever! I nearly soiled myself with mirth.

Helmet off to cool down on the long forest climb.

 My last dark lap saw a final minor drama unfold. About a third of the way in my handlebar light went off. Flat battery. Shortly followed by the final gasping breath of my helmet light.
I have a slight problem with colourblindness so the little green/red light that indicates battery life means nothing to me, zero, zilch. I should have carried the spare battery.
So for two-thirds of a lap (about 7kms!) I hung on to the back of anyone I could and followed the trail ahead with their light. Not the simplest of tasks on a very muddy and fairly technical singletrack course I can tell you! Fortunately it all ended well.
In the end I managed 16 laps. The 15 I wanted and one more for good measure.
Mitch did a brilliant 19 lap effort.

Daylight had returned again at last.

Now then Strathpuffer, just you wait until next year! We’ll be back for more and chasing our personal records don’t you know! You’d better be ready for us!!!
A huge thank you to our ever patient pit-man Jonathon Smith, you did a great job for us. Err… are you busy next year? 😀

Me and Bill on my final lap.

Below is a bit of information on my kit choices and nutrition, so if that’s not your thing you can stop reading all this bollocks now if you like and skip to the very useful links at the bottom of the page.

Bike: Pivot LES 29 with an Easton EC90 carbon seatpost and Renthal Carbon FatBar in 780mm. The carbon absorbs a lot of trail chatter and is especially useful on a rocky course like The Puffer.
I also ran DMR Vault flat pedals; flats help to prevent Achilles issues by allowing greater movement, they also help you to fall off better when the sleepmonster arrives.
DMR Vaults are the best flat pedals I have ever used by a mile.
Ergon GS2 grips for comfort. The jury is still out on these, I’m not sure if I just prefer a standard ODI Ruffian to be honest.
I use a Fizik Gobi XM Kium saddle, I find it really comfortable. Everyone suits a different saddle so don’t take my word for it, but they are definitely worth checking out. They need three or four rides to bed in but once you get used to it they are superb.
I ran Specialized 29 x 2.0 Storm Control tyres. I have used these for years, in my opinion these are the best winter/mud tyres out there. Predictable and near mythical grip. They are cheaper than most and can also be run tubeless. If only they did a larger size (Please?).
My handlebar light is a Lumicycle XPG with two batteries (I only used one battery! Ahem).
Helmet light: Exposure Joystick.
I had a Hope Vision One light for back up but didn’t use it. These are also very good.
Helmet: Troy Lee A1 very comfortable but too warm. Great coverage at the cost of poor venting, would have been OK if it had been very cold. A Specialized S3 is a much better option for racing in milder temperatures.
For carrying spares, tools, and tube I used a top-tube mounted Alpkit Medium Fuel Pod.

Alpkit Fuel Pod

I raced the whole thing in one bibshort: A Castelli Endurance X2, expensive but worth it.
Rab Kinetic waterproof trousers with 3/4 zips which allowed me to ventilate easily when the need arose, particularly on the long climb.
It may surprise you but I rode in walking boots: Lowa Renegade GTX. Stiff enough for pedaling and flexible enough for walking through mud if you have to, they are very waterproof. I coupled these with a pair of Gaiters I bought cheaply from the Rab Factory Shop, these stopped any mud or debris whatsoever from getting in my boots (Mitch’s brilliant idea).
As a consequence I only needed one pair of socks: Gore Bike Wear – Countdown. The Gore socks are brilliant. Hardwearing and comfortable, I have used them extensively for years.
During the daylight hours I rode with a Primal Jersey (Yak Attack) over a Rab MeCo 120 long sleeve tee. When it dropped cooler I swapped it for an Alpkit Kepler Merino long sleeved tee in 160gsm, again brilliant.

Alpkit Kepler Merino Tee



Fuelling was mostly bars and gels from Torq Performance.
I ate one Torq Bar per lap (usually on the climb up from transition) and two standard gels. Later in the night I switched to the Torq Guarana Gels, these are unbelievably good.
To be perfectly honest the Torq Performance stuff is probably the best out there. I have used bars and gels from many of the major manufacturers and none of them come close in either taste or performance.
For my drink mix I used Nectar Fuel in orange flavour – 3 measures per 750mls bottle. A bottle usually lasted me for three laps.
I ate a couple of spicy homemade bean and chicken burritos, a few peanuts, a bacon roll, and some Doritos in Chili Heatwave flavour.

The real trick to finishing one of these things (I’ve finally discovered) is to stay warm, dry, and well fueled. Fit a mudguard too, it might look crap but it will save your race. Hero’s die with their boots on. Don’t be a hero.

Thank you for looking, I hope you enjoyed it.

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About The Author

Neil Cottam

Neil is the founder of Chase The Rainbow. He has spent a lifetime exploring the outdoors, from a childhood climbing trees and scrambling his bike around old pit heads to hiking in the Himalaya and backpacking around Europe and Asia.

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