Mike Hall’s top tips for surviving the Strathpuffer 24-hour race

Mike Hall won the perilous Strathpuffer 24-hour race solo in 2011, cementing his name in the great hall of UK enduro racers with a performance bordering on insane.

Unfortunately he won’t be defending his title when the event goes ahead this weekend, with bigger goals on the horizon, but took the time out to share his top tips with riding the event solo. And even if you’re not riding solo, or the Strathpuffer, there’s some good tips in there.

1. Its all about the brakes

The abrasive mica at Strathpuffer is famous for eating brake pads quicker than anywhere else but there are ways to make them last.  Fit box-fresh pads in the middle of the race without burning them in and you can expect to be repeating the procedure every lap.

Most brake pads rely on the heat and pressure of braking to complete the cure cycle and harden the  friction material to withstand the rigours of use.  This is fine for most people and most types of riding but start them off in cold, wet abrasive conditions and the relatively softer material will be wiped out before its had chance to harden up.  They could do this at the factory for you but then your pads would cost twice, if not three times, as much.  Generally speaking more expensive pads get a longer cycle but its still not enough to ready them for the kind of conditions you can see in a UK winter but there are a few ways you can do this yourself.

To start off with you’ll need some sintered metal pads (I used Clarks with Avid Elixir brakes for last years event and had exceptional results).  Make sure you have ones with the friction material keyed into the backing plate, rather than just stuck on.  You can tell they are keyed together if you look at the back of the pad and there’s holes in it and the friction material pokes through. This gives a mechanical joint between the two and reduces the chances of them separating.

No.1: The Blowtorch

The first way you can prepare the pads is to expose the braking surface to some heat.  A minute or two under a blow torch will do the trick and your looking to see a change in colour of the pad material (a sort of rainbow pattern will appear like oil in water).  This is good for ‘in the field’ prep with limited tools but it’ll only prepare the surface rather than all the way through the material so the results may be less effective.  However a hard outer surface should give you time to get some heat into the brakes before they disappear and they can harden as you go.

No.2: The Turbo

Fitting the pads to the rear calliper and pedalling against the brake on a turbo-trainer (you won’t need the resistance roller applied) is a great way to achieve this too and it’ll give you a little last minute resistance training!  Like the blowtorch you’ll only be preparing the surface here but the advantage is you’ll be applying heat and pressure so you should get slightly better results.  You’ll know when they’re up to temperature by the lovely warm brake smell.  Around 3 minutes or more per set should do the trick.

No.3: The Oven

This is potentially the best way to achieve the longest possible life for your pads by heating them all the way through. Before I tried this method (in combination with the turbo method actually) for the ‘puffer last year a few people told me it wouldn’t work and friction material would fall off the pad, however in 24 laps I only replaced pads 3 times and that was because I thought I should. Only one set of those actually needed replacing, the others were about half worn, so I don’t need any more convincing.

I also took a few extra precautions in my method though, borrowed from my one time day-job ‘shaking and baking’ high integrity aerospace electronics, to minimise the chances of disrupting the bond between friction material and backing plate.

First up household ovens aren’t great at accurate temperature regulation but you can give yourself a fighting chance of repeatability by removing any ‘thermal mass’ from the oven as this will all require heating up and can cause a significant difference between the temperature setting of the oven and the actual air temperature around the pads.

That means get rid of all the baking trays and grill pans you keep in there.  Next you want to try and hang the pads in a cold oven. Avoid laying them on a baking tray as it may act as a heat sink on the backing plate side. You are trying to bring the pads up to temperature in a steady, uniform, manner so there’s less differential expansion in the two types of material.

Bring the temperature up to 200oC (the bond on sintered pads is typically made using copper, which has a melting point of around 1000oC so you should be comfortably inside temperatures that would weaken it) over a period of around 15 minutes and keep it there for a further 15-20 minutes before switching the oven off and opening the door, allowing them to cool slowly.  If you want some extra confidence you can give them a spin on the turbo too before/after as this has the benefit of adding pressure to the bond.

I should make a disclaimer though about hardening your pads in this way.  Using them over long periods and especially in the warmer weather could lead to you overheating the brakes more often and damaging them (depending on the type of brake you have).  Having said that the pads I had in my rear brake at the end of last year’s ‘puffer went on to complete a ride across the continental divide, ending in New Mexico in 100oF heat before the seals on the brake finally died a few weeks later and I’m not really sure the pads were to blame.

2. No really, it’s all about the brakes

So, you’ve prepared your pads well but you can still help them last (or not) with your braking habits? In a cold mucky race like the ‘Puffer dragging the brakes, or better just one brake, down a descent can be better than repeatedly applying both brakes or feathering them. This can seem counter-intuitive but hear me out:

By doing the majority of breaking on one wheel, one brake takes all the energy and converts it to heat, rather than sharing the load and having two brakes heat up half as much. Also when you first apply the brake the pad/disc interface will be gritty and dirty. With a few revolutions the interface between pad and disc will be cleaned and if contact is maintained, it becomes very difficult for mud and water to get between the two again.

Pad and disc also get warmer and evaporate moisture. You can also gauge the feel of the one brake you are using and still have the other to fall back on. For the first 4 laps of last years race I used the rear brake exclusively knowing that I could switch to the front and get roughly the same number of laps in before I needed a pit-stop.

3. Take a little time to look after your bike

As well as wearing brake pads at an alarming rate the Strathpuffer’s soil is equally ruthless in trashing transmissions.  Use a fraction of that time you saved by not replacing your brake pads as often to rinse down the gears and re-lube. Thankfully while the puffer’s mud is abrasive, it also washes off quickly under a hose. If you have pit help (and if there’s anywhere you need it, its here) then this is where they are most valuable.

You can stuff your face with hot pasta and sugary tea while they give your machine a mini-service. Avoid extremes of chainline as this will wear your teeth from the side. I used XX last year which was an expensive mistake as it chain sucked in the smaller ring meaning I was in big-big a lot and wore the large chainring out. I’d consider using fitting a cheap cassette, chainrings and jockey wheels and a 1×10 or 1×9 set up with a steel chainring would work pretty well on that course too.

4. Look after yourself too

Hands and feet are going to take some serious abuse at this race and this year’s edition looks like its going to be a decidedly wet one. Despite the claims of waterproof shoes and gloves it’s inevitable that the water will eventually get in. At last years event my feet were in water soaked winter boots for over 20 hours and the skin on my toes was like tissue paper. Think about pre-treating your skin with Vaseline or similar and have a few pairs of dry gloves on hand. Avoid gloves with a liner that comes out with your hand when you take them off, they’re hell to get back on with cold wet hands.

5. Well fed is well fast

Remember to eat well. The Strathpuffer lap starts with a long steady climb which is perfect for eating on.  Fill your feed-bag, pockets or hands with plenty of energy goodness and munch your way to the top. If you’re cold you need the calories for central heating as well as pedal turning.  Hot food is great; being cold and tired is not.

6. Ice Tyres

Ice tyres are a big help for staying upright but they needn’t be the difference between winning and losing if you take it easy and keep your wits about you. It looks like these aren’t going to be deployed en mass this year anyway but if you wake to sheet ice covering the fire-road and your not packing spikes; fear not.

Rideable lines eventually appear and as a soloist you’ll know every inch of the course before long and how it changes subtly as the race goes on. Even in the iciest conditions ice tyres were only a significant advantage for a few laps. After that lugging around an extra kilo of tyre starts to become tedious.

7. Don’t Panic

Things happen at races and that’s never more true at the ‘Puffer, but they can and do happen to everyone. So if mechanicals and other bad things happen to you, just keep at it as you never know what might happen.

In all endurance races keeping the mind stress free, going with the flow and staying relaxed helps you delay the effects of fatigue whereas getting tense when thing aren’t going to plan is a short cut to feeling worn out early on. I ran for half a lap after my tyre shredded but it still didn’t cost the race. Try not to think about how much your bike is disintegrating beneath you and enjoy the madness for what it is. Sunrise and the scenery at the ‘puffer is a feast for the eyes after so much darkness and absolutely worth waiting for. It also means that the end is only an hour or two away!

More info about the mad event here www.strathpuffer.co.uk/home

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