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The Strathpuffer 2015.

The Strathpuffer 2015.

The Strathpuffer is a 24 hour mountainbike race held annually in The Highlands of Scotland, on the edge of The Cairngorms Range,  and it’s something of a unique event. It is held in January each year, boasts 17.5 hours of darkness, and usually delivers a mix of wild conditions; anything from high winds or heavy rain, through to snow and ice! It is considered to be one of the toughest 24 hour races in the world. And that is the whole point of it! 🙂
It’s also hugely popular; 800 racers took part this year including Solo’s, Pairs, Quads, and specially for the 10th anniversary, 10 x Teams of Ten.
The Solo category sells out in less than 10 minutes every year! The hardest category is the most popular. Go figure that out! 😀
Mitch Bryan and I both had a score to settle. I attempted it in 2013 and Mitch in 2014, both of us retired before finishing.

As usual my preparation was less than ideal. It seems, lately, that every time I have an event coming up things start to unravel! But that’s life.

Not quite fully loaded. You need a lot of stuff for a winter 24 hour race!

I spent Thursday morning rushing around doing final packing and preparation,  Thursday afternoon at a family funeral, and Thursday night at work until 4.00am!

I left work and drove the short distance to Mitch’s house to convene with him and our friend Simon Owen who had also entered. Mitch was going to drive my car up so that I could get some sleep, and Simon was to follow on behind in his van. 10 long hours, 500 miles, and a couple of coffee stops, and we pulled in to the car park in the village of Strathpeffer, about 17 miles north of Inverness, to collect our parking permits from the Square Wheels bike Shop in the centre of the village. I hadn’t fared all that well in the sleeping department and was starting to feel a bit cross-eyed by now.

Queueing for Permits at Square Wheels.
This years posh parking permit!

We joined a long queue, in the freezing cold, and patiently waited our turn, before heading off, once again, for the short drive to Contin and the race HQ at the trailhead. Upon arriving we joined another long queue!
At The Puffer there is a long “forest road” climb from the start banner to the top section of trail, and this is where most of the vehicles are ensconced, Tour de France style, for overnight camping, and the organisers where having a tough time clearing the road and getting some of the larger vehicles up it.
We got our spot eventually, a bit of prime real estate, just around the second hairpin. An excellent position.

HQ for Team Chase The Rainbow!

We set up a rough camp as best we could given the conditions, and made our way back down to the registration marquee. I queued alongside none other than motorcycle racer Guy Martin!
I signed my life away on the disclaimer and for the second time ever in a mountainbike race I was handed the number 13. It made me laugh, fortunately I’m not remotely superstitious. Mitch got No8 and Simon got No61.
Lucky 13?
After that we just pottered around, fettled the camp in to some sort of order, and lit the fire to keep warm.
In the evening Mitch and Simon went off to the pre-race Pasta Party at the Village Hall. I had another mission to complete. A friend of ours, Jo Chaffer, was coming along to crew for us. She had flown in to London from Nepal a couple of days earlier and was now headed towards us on a flight to Inverness Airport, 25 miles away, and I had arranged to collect her from there.
I doubt there are many support crews who can claim to have travelled as far as Jo did!
She did a fantastic job for us throughout the race and she must have enjoyed herself because she is now considering returning next year to enter in The Pairs! And people think I’m a nutter! 😀
Simon and Mitch cosying up to the fire.
Simon and Mitch at the Pasta Party.

Late in the evening we all bedded down for the night. Jo was afforded the luxury of the tent/camp-bed combo, Mitch and Simon spooned in Simon’s van (a bit too enthusiastically for my liking!), and I squeezed in to the back of my car for an uncomfortable night of tossing and turning again.

We dragged ourselves out of bed, bleary eyed, about 8.00am Saturday morning to start getting ready for the 10.00am start. We were greeted with a fresh layer of snow, perfect Puffer conditions!

Greeted by a fresh layer of snow.
Simon pottering around the camp.

The view from camp was nice!

As we were getting ready a friend of mine, Keith Partridge, turned up with his camera and filmed a little interview with me for the BBC Scotland Adventure Show. I might be on the telly again! 😀 (Keith was Director of Photography at The 2013 Yak Attack which was filmed for the recent Channel 5 series -Race to the Pole). Keith is a bit of legend, having climbed Mount Everest in 2012 with Kenton Cool, and also filmed all of the climbing scenes for the movie “Touching the Void” amongst other projects!

Neil being interviewed by Keith Partridge for BBC Scotland.

My principal fuelling for the race included Energy Bars, Gels, and Drink Mixes from Torq Performance; plus some real food, Ham Sandwiches, Pizza (Which proved to be a mistake! – Indigestion), Malt Loaf and a few other bits & bobs. I’ve used the Torq Performance stuff for years and it’s by far the best race fuel that I’ve tried. I’ll do a proper review of it some time because it really is worth looking at.

Torq Performance products. The best I have used.

My bike was my usual race steed; built around a Kona Kula Watt Carbon Hardtail Frame, with Shimano XT brakes and Drivetrain, FSA K-Force Light Carbon Crank, Rockshox SID XX World Cup Carbon Fork – 120mm, Easton Carbon Seatpost and Bars, Odi Ruffian Grips, Fizik Gobi XM Kium saddle, Schwalbe Ice Spiker Pro Tyres (Tubeless – Stans), and everything else (Wheels, Pedals, BB, Headset etc) coming from British manufacturer Hope. Finished off with an Alpkit Fuel Pod for storing tools and spares.

The steed.

Just before 10.00am we rolled down to the start line. At The Puffer they do “Le Mans” style start, meaning that you leave the bike at the start line and walk down the lane for a couple of hundred metres before sprinting back to the bike and starting the long, 2 mile/3.2km, climb up the course. It is a 7 mile/11km course and the idea is to do as many laps as you can in 24 hours; simple.

Bikes waiting for riders at the start line.
Le Mans Style. Riders making a dash for the start line.

The first lap is always a bit chaotic, and this year was no different. Anyone with aspirations of winning needs to get away quickly to avoid the queues further along the course. With no aspirations of victory we trotted up to the bikes and began the steady climb up the hill.

The climb, up a wide forestry road, is on a nice gradient and the fresh snow offered plenty of grip. It’s a nice spin up to the top before entering in to some rocky, technical, singletrack. The final section is downhill and generally flows quite nicely. It’s actually a really interesting and varied course.
The initial climb up is also a lot of fun. With people camped along side it for a good way you get a lot of encouragement and cheering as you pass through.
I was wearing my Yak Attack race jersey and one particular group must have recognised me from the recent TV show and shouted my name out every time I passed them. It took me a couple of laps to figure it out; it was all a bit weird to be honest with you! 😀
The jersey drew quite a lot of attention from other riders too and I chatted about The Yak Attack with several of them during the course of my race. It’s great the the race is finally getting the recognition that it deserves; I’m very proud to have been a part of it three times.
And so we plodded on at our respective speeds. Mitch and I were never too far apart, and Simon lapped a little slower.
Up the climb, across, round, and up & down a bit, then descend to the start/finish line, dib the dibber (electronic timing chip) at the dibbing station, then start all over again! Round and round you go.
Jo Chaffer (Wo)manning HQ. She made a big difference to our racing this year.
My plan was to carry enough Torq Bars, Gels, and fluid for three laps, then call in for a quick bite of proper food before doing it all again. This worked out pretty well for me. Jo would have coffee brewing ready for us, which was great, and she fussed around us making sure that everything was alright each time we passed. It made such a difference having someone to crew for us.
The pizza proved to be a mistake for me, it gave me uncomfortable indigestion, and I dropped it from the menu.
I did this for eight laps without any real problems. After completing Lap 9 I had to spend a bit of time giving my drive-train a good clean. The lower part of the course was starting to cut up pretty badly and was getting very muddy, as a consequence of this I started having a few gear shifting issues. I had also lost my rear brake and I had to bleed it twice to get it operational again. This cost me a fair bit of time. (I had also had a similar problem out in Sri Lanka at The Rumble in the Jungle stage race a few weeks earlier but I thought everything was OK. I later discovered that the banjo fitting on the rear piston assembly wasn’t tight enough and oil was escaping from the hose).
Midnight maintenance issues!
Laps Ten and Eleven went fine, but I was starting to get some pains in my wrists; I also had a spectacular “over-the-bars” on the muddy descent, luckily it was a steep section and I just rolled out of it without any damage (except for my pride!). I had had a problem the previous week with my front fork losing air pressure and didn’t have time to investigate it properly. I had elected to race The Puffer with the fork “locked-out” just in case; so I was effectively riding a rigid fork. On Lap Twelve I noticed that there was again very little pressure in the fork, this explained the wrist pain! Once again I pulled in for food, and also spent a bit of time trying to sort the fork out.
The mud on the lower part of the course was gradually getting worse and causing me all sorts of drive-train problems, another cleaning session was required. It was also affecting lap times, adding ten or fifteen minutes on to each lap.
On Lap Thirteen I had another crash; approaching the “Bridge of Thighs” one of the “team” riders undercut a corner on the steep drop down to the bridge forcing me to take a wider line, and I misjudged the trail in the darkness and flew off the bike, down a steep bank, and into a fallen tree. My right shoulder took a bad knock, fortunately it didn’t dislocate on this occasion! 
I was already tired and grumpy, and I was particularly pissed off at the rider concerned. The team riders lap much faster than the solo riders and this guy was obviously too impatient to offer a bit of trail courtesy. 
I started Lap Fourteen in completely the wrong frame of mind, I was being overtaken by the sleepmonster, my knee’s were getting sore, my wrists were sore, my shoulder was sore, and I had stopped enjoying the riding, in particular I was dreading the muddy section. On the way up the climb I started losing it, I was struggling to stay awake, my motivation had got up and left. By the time I got to the top I’d had enough. Mitch came past me and stopped to see if I was OK. I said that I was, and was just taking a few minutes out. But the truth is I was done, I almost fell asleep standing up.
The other truth is that I had cracked psychologically and there was no coming back from it. All the other problems were irrelevant, you can over come them with sheer force of will. I just didn’t have it in me that night. I knew that I was done and started a slow descent back down the forest road to our camp.
Jo did her best to convince me to carry on. She also suggested having a nap for an hour or so and then seeing how I felt. That could have a been a solution but I have this belligerent theory that a 24 hour race is 24 hours, and stopping to sleep doesn’t sit right with me personally.
A lot of riders do this and that’s fine, but I want to do it my way, and that means staying awake. Simon had retired hours before me and that made the decision to quit a little easier to bear, but not much. I was disappointed; but there’s always next year! 🙂
Mitch marching on, early in the race.
Mitch however was still marching on! And with a bit of encouragement from the rest of us he went on to complete 20 laps! When he finally flopped off the bike he looked like I had felt a few hours earlier. it was a fantastic effort that saw him place 14th overall. Brilliant.
The winner Keith Forsyth amassed 28 laps (he also happens to be the 24 hour world champion).
It just shows how tough the conditions were this year because in the 2013 race the winner Jason Miles did 31 laps; this year he placed 3rd with 26 laps (that’s 35 miles less!). Guy Martin split the podium to finish 2nd with 27 laps.
Looking a bit happier after a couple of hours sleep.
I made a few mistakes, and a few useful discoveries that I will be able to take forward and hopefully put to good use during next years Tour Divide in America.

Most importantly – quality sleep is essential.
Staying dry is another important lesson. Next year I will be using a rear mudguard.
I forgot to fit my Ergon Grips, these would have eliminated most of the wrist pain, I won’t make that mistake again.
Don’t eat pizza during a race!

I’m not sure how much further in to the race I would have got anyway; on returning home I noticed that the pedal boss in one of the carbon crank arms had broken loose and would probably have failed anyway. Hey-ho.
I’m beginning to wonder if my Strathpuffer obsession is cursed. When returning home from my 2013 attempt my car engine blew up halfway home. A few days after returning this year I crashed my current car and wrote it off!
I can’t wait to see what next year brings! 😀

Anyone interested in The Strathpuffer can find out more about it here
Or on their Facebook page here

For information on the excellent ALPKIT range of products take a look here
On their facebook page here
and on Twitter here

For Information on products from Torq Performance look here
and on Twitter here
Fresh snow!
Simon getting ready to race.
Schwalbe Ice Spikers. Weapon of choice for most Puffer racers.
After. The rocky terrain soon eats up the spikes!
Ergon Grips. These would have helped a lot.
ALPKIT Fuel Pod. Perfect for tubes, tools, and fuel!
A whistlestop tour of The Lake District with Jo on the way home.
Thanks for looking.
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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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