Let's go round again … Strathpuffer 2024

The Strathpuffer, or just ‘The Puffer’ as it’s affectionately known, is a 24 hour mountain bike race that takes place near Strathpeffer (geddit?) in the Highlands of Scotland in early January each year. This means 17 hours of darkness and conditions that could include just about any weather you can think of, save for a heatwave. It’s been running since 2006 and has been on my radar for years but I’d never really thought about actually riding it until a chance conversation with a riding buddy, Eddy, who had entered was followed the next by seeing an entry for sale online and couldn’t think of a reason not to give it ago. There’s options to ride as a team of 4, a pair, or solo. I’d signed up for the latter option, reasoning that I’d ridden for getting on for 24 hours a few times in the past so kinda knew what I was getting into amd what was the worst that could happen?

So, barely a fortnight after deciding to do this and the day before the race I headed north with my wife coming along as support crew, up past Inverness and to Contin where the race takes place. I registered and then drove onto the course. It takes place on a looped circuit through the woods with a fire road providing most the course’s elevation, before it dives off on to singletrack trails. This fire road is lined with campervans and makeshift campsites where teams and supporters have set up to act as a track-side pit areas. I found a spot to park up 50 or so meters off the track, about 500 meters from the start/finish line: Riding solo I didn’t want to have to ride too far off the course each time I needed anything from the van.

Parked up and as darkness fell, we headed to the marquee that had been setup where pizza and other food was on offer, together with a bar and also Exposure Light’s setup who were renting out lights to those that needed them and also providing charging services during the race. I had brought enough lights and batteries with me to likely do without their assistance but it was good to know there were there if needed. I briefly caught up with Eddy and got introduced to his team plus a few others he knew who were riding then headed back to the van to give my bike a once over and then bank some sleep.

It was relatively mild overnight and in the morning. I’d brought a spare set of wheels with ice spikes, but it didn’t look as they’d be warranted so grabbed my bike and rolled down to the start. Having recced the race online via YouTube, I was aware there was a Le Mans style start, so found a spot shortly after the start line to leave my bike with Kirsty before heading back for the rider briefing. We were to follow a piper up the route a little, before dropping down back towards the start line and on ‘go’ run for our bikes and be on our way. Grabbing the holeshot would seem of limited benefit over 24 hours, but that didn’t stop some riders sprinting all out to make a start.

I jogged with the crowd, picked up my bike and eased myself onwards and upwards onto the course. From this first lap on, the first half of this long climb was a riot. The trackside team pit areas were like stumbling from one rave into another again and again: sound systems blaring, cowbells ringing, people shouting … Good times! I was riding my dropbar Cotic Cascade which seems to climb better than many managed on their MTBs, so picked off many a rider on the climb. As the firetrack gave way to singletrack the riding became far more technical than I’d thought it would be and my progress would slow. The pitted rocky slabs made it tricky to maintain any kind of flow, perhaps as a result of being a little more head-down than a flat-barred bike, and some of the riders I’d pass on the climb would come back past where they could squeeze by. This ebb and flow would repeat itself around the lap, bike choice perhaps evening up overall.

Being my first attempt at the race, I’d not really got a plan nor an idea of how long a lap may take, but had kinda thought I’d do a handful of laps before a pause to properly refuel and then go again. I did three, then pulled off the course to the van. I was already feeling pretty beaten up so had a bit of a stretch, ate, and headed back out. Two laps this time and back in again. That was perhaps 6 hours in and from then on either two or just a single lap between quick stops would become the norm, including stopping once at the start/finish area for a longer rest and warm food.

Darkness fell and I soon realised I needed to rethink my regular lighting setup. The pace I was carrying was far greater, or the terrain trickier, than I think I usually ride for solo ultra-distance events, where I can make do with barely a flicker of light and the presets I had set for my Exposure lights weren’t enough. Next lap round I stopped and upped the power which made a massive difference, although I still found myself lusting after the SixPacks people ran whenever beams crossed. The darkness accentuated the difference between the rowdy climb and near-silent singletrack sections, silence and often solitude only by the odd supporter hanging out in the woods here and there, or another rider pausing for breath. I was surprised how empty the lap felt at times considering how may riders/teams were riding.

At one stop I checked the leaderboard. I was actually doing ok, despite feeling a bit of a wreck, and was buoyed to push on as evening became night became the early hours. The weather had given us everything, thankfully save for heavy rain, during the day and come 3am-ish tired, damp, and muddy I decided to have a nap. I set a timer for 3 hours and dozed on the floor of the van, having been told I was too filthy to use the bed. Feeling relatively refreshed I headed back out. Snow was falling which completed a four seasons in one day kinda set, and gave the course another dimension as the sun rose.

Riding into daylight always feels great and today was no exception. I did another couple of laps then gathered my thoughts at the start/finish tent over a portion of fries. I’d done 13 laps, which obviously wouldn’t do as a number to leave things on, so decided on one more before calling time. This final lap was incredibly stop-start. I was feeling absolutely battered, and while you can start another lap anytime before the 24 hours elapses, with about 25 mins to go, I was done.

I finished 36th of 149 solo riders, covering 178km with 4678m ascent in a moving time of 17:25. That’s an awful lot of time not moving and so surely room to improve. Perhaps next year …