Every year, in a dark, cold and damp forest in the north of Scotland, hundreds of mountain bikers gather for what is often billed as one of the most difficult mountain bike races in the world – the Strathpuffer.
BikeRadar sent technical writer Tom Marvin and his teammates to tackle the grit and glory of this 24-hour mountain bike race at the end of January. Here’s how he got on.
The Strathpuffer draws an eclectic mix of racers, from flat-out, shaven legged lycra wearers on carbon superbikes to 60-year-olds churning out the miles on their fat bikes. I raced as part of a team of four – we’re all friends from riding in the Alps together. Two of them are experienced racers and one is an alpine guide, so I was feeling the pressure to match their performances.
I don’t really remember my first lap of the race, other than thinking that the rigid singlespeed I’d chosen for the race might be fast, but that it probably wasn’t as comfortable as a full-suspension bike would have been!
With a burning chest and streaming eyes I arrived back at base and passed over the dibber. With lap one out of the way, it was time to change into warm kit, eat, drink, sit down and wait out the next hour-and-a-half until it was time to go out again.
The course at the Strathpuffer is one of the best of all the 12- or 24-hour races that I’ve done. The lap starts with a long fireroad climb, broken up with a section of singletrack in the middle. From the top there’s a rocky traverse, before a more undulating section using a mix of singletrack, and doubletrack.
There are rocky sections, including the odd mini-slab, to add technical interest, and there seemed to be plenty of overtaking places. The lap ends with some fast singletrack descending.
Conditions are tough – ice and snow are usually present, and if not, the rain has a reputation for creating a muddy paste that’s known to grind through pads and drivechains.
This year we were lucky – temperatures remained above freezing, and there was little rain. Our team never had to change a brake pad in the 24 hours, and the benefit of using a rigid singlespeed was that I managed to get through the race without having to give the bike any TLC. Mudguards were still a godsend though!
Despite the laps coming around quicker than I’d anticipated, my team was maintaining a good position. My second lap hurt as I was trying to keep the lofty position that our team had gained by having fitter riders than me in our numbers.
As the race wore on and darkness set in, thoughts of simply surviving the night meant lap times slowed down for all but the fastest competitors.
Our team decided to split into two pairs over night, to give us a chance to sleep. My final lap before I had some kip was by far the toughest; the early fast laps had started to take their toll. I hadn’t eaten or drunk enough, and this started to show, as cramp in my thigh made an appearance during the steeper climbs.
At some ungodly hour of the morning, a knock on the van door signalled it was time to climb out of my sleeping bag, into my lycra and get back onto the course for a set of double laps.
As dawn broke news came through that we were seventh overall, and by the time 10am rolled round, my teammate went out for one last flying lap knowing we were just a couple of minutes behind sixth place. Huw pulled out a stunning lap, our 36th, to put us into sixth place out of 85 teams, just a couple of minutes short of fifth.
With the race over, sausage sandwiches were consumed and tales of heroics shared with the friendly faces we’d met at the race. All that was left was the epic repacking mission, a 600-mile drive back to Bristol and a mountain of washing to do when we got home.
More photos from Strathpuffer 2014 are available at www.rightplacerighttime.co.uk.