Strathpuffer 2020

Sometime in December, when festivities were high, I received a message from my friend Laura asking me if I wanted to come on a trip to Scotland. There will be bikes and whiskey, she promised and so, of course, I said yes. Without really asking any helpful questions. Like, what time of year will this be? Or where and how long is the ride? Knowledge is power, so they say, and Laura had successfully used her knowledge about me against me. I love both cycling and whiskey and she knows full well I am unlikely to turn down anything involving that double act.

Then the logistics of this trip started to trickle in. It would be high up in Scotland, in January, likely in the snow, definitely in the cold and the cycling part was actually a 24 hour mountain bike race in 17 hours of darkness, the Strathpuffer. Sadly one of Laura’s team mates, Donna from Velobants CC, had needed to pull out and it appeared I’d inadvertently agreed to take her place.

Fast forward a couple of weeks (which mostly involved me frantically asking around how to survive such things) and I was dragging every item of cycling kit I own and my bike across London by train, tube, tube and train to meet Laura and James (team mate number two) so we could begin our travel north. One of the guards asked if needed an articulated lorry to help me carry all my stuff, I was pretty worried about getting cold.

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Waterproof sock anyone?

After a night in the Carlisle Travelodge, we met up with our forth team member Jim, a native Scot who knows a few things about winter riding and survival, in Perth Aldi. It was clear I was being taken to only the best places on this trip. We immediately started to act like slightly over excited school children and popped some haggis in the trolley, just because we could, and the best Aldi Special Buy the world has ever known, the reduced to £2 waterproof socks. Now, I have always been a bit sceptical about such things, I have waterproof coats that don’t keep me dry, but these were amazing. I had packed 10 pairs of socks (did I mention I was worried about getting cold?) and I didn’t need any of them once I’d started riding in the Aldi pair.

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Ultimate team mate, Oscar

Next stop was to pick up the most important player in our team, Oscar. Oscar wasn’t great at riding bikes but he was great at providing cups of tea and most importantly he had a heater. Hiring a campervan was a stroke of genius. Warmth guaranteed.

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Post-race singlespeed Stevo.

After setting up camp in Contin with our fellow competitors, we had a pre-race beer in our gazebo huddled round Jim’s gas powered heater. I didn’t even realise such things existed. I’m very glad Jim did. Then onto race HQ for pizza (black pudding, stilton and pear is a surprisingly good combination) and another beer. We got chatting to other racers and met Singlespeed Stevo who would be riding the whole 24 hours on his own on a singlespeed. It was only after doing the course myself that I truly realised what an impressive feat this was. He managed 18 laps, a whopping 221km.

We also met another rider, whose name I sadly can’t remember, who was in the process of buying his second beer. He announced that he’d be drinking that, going back to his camp, drinking a bottle of red wine and eating his lasagne. Strathpuffer is all about the experience, he explained, and the pre-race prep was all part of the experience. Keen not to do things wrong, I took a leaf out of his book, had another beer, a dram of whiskey and  went to say hi to our camp neighbours who were drinking round their fire.

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Pre-race prep in full swing

There I found a group of friends from the Czech Republic and Slovakia who were supporting their friend Martin who was riding solo. Their hospitality was amazing, from cooking up some gammon in cider on the fire, to handing round their hip flasks,  letting us sit on the carved wooden thrones they’d brought with them and sharing one of the tastiest coffee cakes I have ever had (from the Mountain Café in Aviemore, if you’re ever nearby). I received detailed instructions on how to distil alcohol from European plums and how to test if it was drinkable by lighting it and watching the flame. Blue, we’re ok; yellow, not so good; red, will kill everything. It had quickly become apparent that one of the main draws of Strathpuffer was the vibe. This was a place that you could chat to anyone and have a good time. We were all in this madness together.

At some point we decided we should probably go to bed. Laura and I had been nominated to sleep up on the shelf in the camper (the girl shelf as it became known). I was convinced that my head was going downhill when lying the right way round so switched about so my face was in the smallest of gaps down the other end where the diagonal roof meets the bed. My nose was about a millimetre from the ceiling. It turns out that perhaps, this being after a small consumption of alcohol, I may not have been quite right and something else might have been powering this sensitivity, but I’m not quite sure. James slept in a tent. He is a harder man than I.

We’d nominated Jim to be our first rider so just before 10am on Saturday we headed to the start and waved him goodbye as he walked down the hill. The Strathpuffer kicks off Le Mans style so Jim, along with all the other competitors, had to run up the hill from the bottom, past the start/finish line and on up the climb until they found their bike. Thankfully we got to hold it, rather than a melee of riders rummaging through a jumble sale of bikes across the road. Keen to make sure he found us, Laura waved the Velobants flag while I wore a unicorn head. It was slightly terrifying and much more preferable to be in it looking out than outside looking at it.

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Look casual, Jim’s coming…

I was up after Jim. The team had generously offered for me to ride second so that I would have two opportunities to ride the course in the daylight. They had all ridden last year (in -13°) so knew a bit more want to expect.

I have ridden on snow once, on a fat bike, and although I was ok on the flat, any time it went downhill I fell off – a lot. I had been a little wary about what would await me at the Strathpuffer. It turned out I needn’t have worried as there was a weather inversion and it was warmer in Contin than it was back home in London. My local Saturday rides were being cancelled due to ice while we had been listening to rain all night on the campervan roof. This meant only one thing awaited us, mud. I know where I am with mud. I was more than a little relieved.

Covered head to toe in grime, Jim handed over the timing dibber and told me that if I stuck to the sides of the trails I’d find some grass and it wasn’t as muddy. By the time I got to them, no chance, it was like a sodden Glastonbury on steroids everywhere you looked.

So off I went up the hill to start my first lap. It was over 2km long and it was the most fun I have ever had on a climb. The fire road was lined with vans, tents and gazebos where some of the teams had set up camp. From the start, right through the night and into the morning people were standing outside them cheering, ringing cow bells, playing the trombone, handing out sweets, giving high fives and offering up shots of coffee. The endurance needed as a supporter seemed to surpass that required as a rider. Special thanks to the Puffer Ritz crew who were a welcome sight near the end of the course and never let their enthusiasm wane.

After the climb came a rocky section that popped you out at the top. I’d been encouraged by my team to stop at the top and take a moment to appreciate where I was. We wouldn’t be challenging for a podium so we should all take time to really enjoy ourselves and let everything sink in. I’m glad I did, it was stunning.20200118_113233

On then to meet Puffer Bill, a regular in the forest who, even though his best days might be behind him, never fails to raise a smile.

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New Magspeed signing for 2020

To be honest, the actual riding has all become a bit of a blur. Which lap was it that I nearly bobbled off into the trees? When did I realise that just because I had reached the top of the climb, it did not mean there was no more climbing? Which lap was it that I finally braved riding across the bridge of doom? (Why is it that if someone asked me to ride between two lines painted on the floor it would be no problem but put those lines across water and all skill and ability fly out of the window?). When exactly was it that I saw three people having a rave in a field? Or finally realise the little bird cheep that followed me around was actually a moving part of my bike. Riding in the dark was certainly more challenging than during the day but there was plenty of opportunity to practice after the lights went out at 4pm.

James had some stonking laps, coming back in under the hour and Laura took one for the team by having our only puncture. Unable to fix it, she ran over three kilometres back to the handover point, missing the most fun part of the trail and garnering a lot of kudos for her speedy dash back to base.

Jim was a hero cleaning the bikes after every one of our rides. If he hadn’t done that, I think I would have been running for a lot more than 3km. I had been pre-warned that the mud at Strathpuffer is a very special kind of awful. It contains mica, the sparkly part of granite, which is indestructible and can ruin brake pads in seconds. Everywhere a muddy one of us went, we left a glittery trail behind.

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If my name’s on a number does that make me a Puffer?

At around midnight, James finished a lap and we decided to have a break and eat a very late dinner together. He had cooked up a chilli before we left and a hot meal was much needed. Although I had also managed to scrounge a hot cheesy potato from the Pannier CC team earlier in the evening. I didn’t know them at all, we just have a mutual friend, but they were incredibly friendly and welcoming, like everyone else I met. They also had a very good iced gingerbread.

By the time Team Velobants had finished dinner I had entered into some kind of delirium and was not making a lot of sense at all. Perhaps the pre-race prep was starting to take its toll? Or perhaps it was something to do with Laura and Jim speaking in Scottish dialect. Who knew that fit fit fits fit ski was a sentence? And something about taking it turnabout.

I seem to recall everyone else drinking beer again, I was beyond anything by this point, my eyes rolling around the back of my head. The others wanted to call it a night and get a bit of sleep and I knew that if I went out for a lap then, I would have been dangerous. I decided to put my head down for a couple of hours too and get up early doors to start our laps again.

When the alarm went off I wasn’t quite sure what had hit me but I got quietly up and managed to get safely off the girl shelf without injuring myself. The night before I had fallen down the gap while elegantly trying to disembark and smashed my cheek into the dashboard.

I had an athlete’s breakfast of two chocolate pancakes, a bounty and a glass of coke and collected my bike to find the saddle covered in frost. The temperature had dropped and things were looking distinctly more like I had expected. I went back into the gazebo and put on a second long sleeved jersey for luck.

The slabby rock was much more slippery now in the ice but there were so many riders going through that the mud just stayed like mud. It took me a while to get my eye back in to riding through the rock garden in the dark but eventually I completed my lap. I went to find Oscar so I could handover to whoever had made it out of bed but instead of a bleary eyed but enthusiastic greeting, I was met with silence. They were all still fast asleep. Charming.

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Source of the mass lie in

Undeterred and buoyed by the positivity that came from surviving the ice I thought I may as well go out and do a double lap. I topped up with another bounty, a tunnocks caramel bar and another glass of coke and headed back out with a wave to James who had raised his weary head off his pillow.

This was when the really special moment came, the kind that casts a spell over you and makes you truly glad to be alive. I took a second out from concentrating on the trail and gave an upwards glance. I was treated to the most spectacular sunrise I have ever seen. The type of wonder that only nature can provide that hits you straight in the chest with a warm glow. People around me stopped pedalling as we all gazed in awe at what we had been waiting for since 4pm, the lights were coming back on.

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20200119_082249And that was it, my Puffer laps over as I handed back the dibber to Jim with a big wide grin. Not because it meant I didn’t have to ride any more but because I’d had such a wonderful time and I was chock full of endorphins.

I met a chap over the weekend who last year had been signed off work for six months with depression. He didn’t want to take anti-depressants so bought a mountain bike instead and embarked on therapy of a two wheeled kind. He was proof of the magic of cycling and nature which I believe in so strongly and was once again getting to experience for myself.

I would like to thank the organisers and volunteers at the Strathpuffer who put an incredible amount of work, energy and passion into making the event what it is. It’s real bucket list fodder for so many and I can see exactly why.

Thank you also to Laura, James and Jim for being such great team mates and taking a punt on letting me in your team even though I’d never actually met James or Jim before. Thanks too to Donna who let me fill her cycling shoes when she couldn’t be there. I can only imagine how disappointed you were to miss it and I hope you can be there next year.  I know I certainly will be.

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Are you sure one person didn’t do all the riding and the other three just drank tea?
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