Winters in the Scottish Highlands can be fierce, so why do hundreds of riders head there every January? Welcome to the Strathpuffer, the only 24-hour winter race in the world.
The Strathpuffer has become the stuff of legend. A 24-hour race is hard enough in the summer, but in January and in the Scottish Highlands? That’s a recipe for misery and suffering if ever there was one. In the five years that the event has taken place the weather has thrown down everything from non-stop rain to heavy snow and ice, with temperatures staying well below zero. There’s always one constant though – 17 hours of riding in total darkness!
So why would you want to take part in such an extreme race in such wildly inhospitable conditions? To challenge yourself. To push yourself beyond the boundaries of your normal riding and hopefully come out the other side in one piece. The satisfaction of completing a 24-hour race is hard to beat and almost impossible to describe.
You might be wondering how you even prepare for such an event? Well, you need to have a certain amount of fitness but you don’t have to be a top racer to enter or indeed enjoy it. The most important things are a stubborn ‘no quitting’ attitude and the ability to pick yourself up and head out for another lap when it’s 3am, pouring with rain and freezing cold. To get ready I spent the winter riding through the worst the weather had thrown down, both night and day.
The strength and core workouts I’d been doing each week would hopefully help protect my body against the battering it would go through. It’s the arms, back and shoulders that ache during a race like this, rather than the legs as you may expect. I also spent some time on a turbo trainer. It’s a great way to improve both fitness and mental toughness. As I arrived at the event, near the town of Strathpeffer, it was too late for any more prep. That was all behind me. I just hoped I’d done enough.
For the majority of people taking part the biggest motivation is the challenge of the event, as well as enjoyment of the experience. There’s something special about the Strathpuffer that keeps riders coming back year after gruelling year. Entries for this year’s event sold out within a day. I was riding the Strathpuffer in a mixed pair with top endurance racer and 2010 UK 24-hour Female Solo Champion Rickie Cotter. We had similar aims for the event – first and most important is to enjoy it, but we’re both very competitive so I’d be lying if I said we didn’t have at least one eye on winning…
The friendly atmosphere helped keep everyone upbeat but the real gem was the course. It was 11km long, with some fantastic singletrack that kept the mind engaged, the blood pumping and the adrenaline flowing. The weather is always a major factor and this year the headline was ice. Lots and lots of ice. There’ll always be a low point in any 24-hour event when your body and mind are telling you to stop, and this one was no exception.
The moments are usually during the early hours of the morning, but if you stick it out and push through there’ll also be moments of pure joy – for us this was the dawn lap, when we knew the worst was behind us and the end of the race was in sight. And the final outing – ticking off every section, savouring the moment knowing it would be the last. And, of course, the finish line, which brought elation and relief – no more pedalling and no more pain!
About the Strathpuffer
The right bikes: One of the keys to completing the Strathpuffer is having a bike that’s comfy to ride over long periods. People take everything from singlespeeds to burly all-mountain rides – you should bring whatever you’re most used to riding. Another aspect is reliability and simplicity. We weren’t alone in choosing to ride singlespeeds, hoping that fewer parts would mean less to go wrong. The abrasive mud on the course destroyed drivetrains, and brake pads were disappearing within a few laps.
Taking enough spares to cover most problems is a wise move – there won’t be any bike shops open at 2am to replace worn or broken parts. The weather and trail conditions will often change during a 24-hour period too, so it’s wise to have a variety of tyres to hand. Spiked ice tyres were a massive benefit but many people did manage the race without them, albeit with a little extra care and a few extra falls.
Getting involved: The Strathpuffer is one of a growing number of 24-hour mountain bike events but is currently the only one in the world to be held in winter conditions. Taking place near the small town of Strathpeffer in the Scottish Highlands, it’s at a more northerly latitude than Moscow! Entry is open to solo riders, pairs and teams of four. Because the race goes on mainly in the dark, riders are required to have lights fitted to allow them to see properly and ride safely. Entries for the 2012 event (14 to 15 January) open on 5 November at 10am. See www.strathpuffer.co.uk
Matt and Rickie’s race
10am: Go! The Strathpuffer kicks off with a mass start 200m run on an icy fireroad before we pick up the bikes to start riding.
10.40am: First lap over – I got a bit carried away. Better ease up a tad from now on.
1pm: First stint done – time to hand over to Rickie. Already have a nice lead in the category.
1.45pm: Rickie puts in a flyer! First-lap jitters out of the way.
3pm: Darkness draws in. Time to fit the lights on the bikes.
4pm: My turn to ride again. Thankfully the ice is thawing, but mud is now a major problem.
5.30pm: Only halfway through my second stint and the brake pads have disappeared but I have to carry on. Oh, and it’s started raining – great.
9pm: Rickie’s out on the course and we’ve built up a good lead. Mechanical issues keeping me busy. Really not looking forward to going back out again but waiting in the pits is the worst – time passes so slowly.
10pm: Halfway through – yes! Still another 12 hours to go – boo! The never-ending darkness is taking its toll. I head back out but am not feeling so good this time.
12pm: I have to cut my stint short – brake pads are completely worn out front and back.
1am: Feeling really tired but I have two bikes to sort out so am not able to get any sleep at all. Rickie seems to be going well and enjoying the tough conditions.
4am: With all the bikes sorted I head out for my last three-hour stint. First lap is a real drag but final three are better.
7am: My ride is over – handing over to Rickie for the final time. We’ve built up an unbeatable lead.
8.30am: Rickie finishes her last lap. We have time to spare.
10am: Official finishing time. Riders can’t start any more laps. I’ve got a huge range of emotions – mostly joy but also sadness that the experience is over.
For many people the drive to the Highlands can be a long one, so why not make a holiday of it like we did? The Strathpeffer area boasts some fantastic riding beyond the Strathpuffer course and is well worth visiting outside the event weekend. The nearest trail centre to the village is Learnie Red Rock, which offers 16km of trails for all skill levels. Other centres such as the Highland Wildcat (near Golspie) and Laggan Wolftrax (at Strathmashie Forest) are just over an hour’s drive away and provide technically challenging, all-weather riding.
If you’re travelling up from the south then most of the 7stanes trail network (www.7stanesmountainbiking.com) is within easy reach of the road links and can be used to break up the journey. For more downhill-oriented riders, Fort William is two hours’ drive away and home to the famous World Cup downhill course (open for public riding between May and September) along with several cross-country trails (open all year).
If you’re more adventurous there’s an extensive amount of natural riding on offer around the Strathpeffer area, all accessible from the village itself. From short blasts to ultra long epics there’s something suitable for all abilities and types of bike. Many of the natural tracks are maintained by the local clubs, which means they stay in good condition and are rideable throughout the year. Visit the Square Wheels bike shop in Strathpeffer for information and local trail maps showing all the best places to go.
This article was originally published in Mountain Biking UK magazine.