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Strathpuffer 2011: A view from the charging stand

Stunning scenery and wet riding (all pics: Right Place Right Time Photography)
Staying warm and dry proved tricky
Behind the scenes
Keeping warm

The sixth annual 24-hour Strathpuffer took place on January 15-16. Philip Hodgkiss, part of the support team, reports back. 

Strathpuffer 2011: A view from the charging stand

The Strathpuffer. A 24-hour mountain bike endurance race in the Highlands of Scotland. In January. Probably the only 24-hour winter mountain bike race in the world. Definitely on the must-do list for all endurance enthusiasts.

Strathpeffer is a stunningly beautiful place – the trails are varied, technical and challenging, and come with the traditional Highland welcome, full of casual professionalism and fun. Over the past six years, the Strathpuffer has been ‘snatched from the jaws of defeat’ by Sqaure Wheels bike shop owners Steve and Clancy Macdonald, alongside Alastair and Linda Lawton, Katy Boocock and their army of volunteers. Every year has brought with it a battle against the weather:

1st: The Inaugural Moonlit Puffer
2nd: The Tuffer Puffer – very wet.
3rd: The Kinellan Puffer – tundra
4th: The Cheesy Puffer – snow
5th: The Plow Puffer – more snow
6th: The Matured Puffer – warming with ice, just like a good 12 year old single malt.

Some say that the Strathpuffer competitors drink cask strength whisky just to find enough courage to sign the entry form and that, while racing, they drink meths to keep their blood circulating. All I know is that having raced and worked there, if you love endurance racing you must come along and try it as either a solo, pair or quad and enter quickly or you’ll miss the chance, solo places were full for 2011 within 30 minutes.

About three months ago, I convinced Rory Hitchens, marketing director for USE/Exposure Lights that he would need a Scottish translator to work for him on the light charging station. With approximately 17 hours of darkness (yes, 17!) our charging station was bound to be a busy place. Flights to Inverness were bought and our onward bound journey arranged thanks to Gary Tompsett, who was riding for Singular Cycles and Exposure lights. Nothing more to do other than get excited. Arriving on Friday, we set up the charge station and eventually, at the end of the evening, flopped onto a very welcome couch, then shortly after, bed.

As the race stopwatch clicked over into 00:00:01 the next morning and bagpipes droned into tune, I was standing, ready to hand up Gary’s Swift. Very soon, the elite came rushing, purposefully to snatch and ride. Some with ice tyres, roasting up the climb, others riding with less accuracy. It is a hard decision. Ice tyres certainly work, but drag on other surfaces. This is certainly the only UK race in which a ‘what tyres for?’ question is truly valid. Gary was 12th up the hill, cannily wearing his tungsten tipped fell running ice shoes. Grabbing the Swift, he was off.

Although confined to the event marquee and charging station, I know the race route well from 2008 and followed it in my mind, remembering the switchback climb and the brake-cooking final descents. As the race progressed through the first few laps, it became clear that there were going to be some epic battles.

Fast 40 minute metronomic laps where being tapped out by male quads: Square Wheels/Bilsland Cycles, Nevis Cycles Woo Ha! and Glencroft Rabble. Matthew Page (Wiggle), riding mixed pairs with Rickie Cotter, shot past up the climb for a blisteringly quick second lap.

Gary came back in looking fresh and I set about my task of pitting. Mike Hall (Bikeshed Wales) and ‘Twinkly’ David Powell (Team JMC/Ragley) were in a head-to-head battle – no quarter given and both consistently knocking out sub-hour laps. Race on! Gary moved quickly from around sixth up to fourth. Before long, darkness arrived and the Exposure Lights charging stand became a hive of activity, like a hi-tech cloakroom for an assortment of lights, mobile phones… anything needing a charge.

The SPORTident printouts and screen made it possible to prepare for Gary’s pit timings with some degree of accuracy. Gary was riding well and moving up, but there was stiff competition forming. Then the Mystic Shoes started to play. With some bands you just can’t help yourself. Trying not to move in time to their beat… it’s like trying not to chew fruit pastilles. Alistair Humphreys (Team Howies) floated past with his camera, grinning behind his mud splattered face. Although Alistair has cycled around the world, the Strathpuffer was his first night race and he was clearly enjoying it.

Checking the results, Gary had moved up into third place so the next pit was crucial; brake pads front and rear, check tyres, lube chain – singlespeed simplicity. Gary came in and began changing and eating. As he decided only to ride the Swift, time was ticking. Straight into the bike stand and, wheels out, I set about his brake calipers, shouting and listening for information over the music; current position (given), light and troublesome back status (received). ‘Two minutes!’ … ‘Ready!’ … wham, straight back out. A rider who I almost sprayed with water, clearing the brake calipers enjoyed the F1 pit stop show so much that he slapped my shoulders: ‘That was amazing!’

As the night turned to early morning, Luke Morris (Ison distribution/Lightshed Wales) launched a fierce attack, putting 40 minutes into his claim for third place in the solo race. Kate Cheesewright had become a familiar and welcome cheery presence, as she paced her efforts between laps to take third place and first solo singlespeed. Lisa Kamphausen started appearing to collect charged batteries, looking cheery, surprising given the incredible 18 laps she tapped out to take first solo female.

In summer 24-hour races, the pre-dawn rise’n’shine body clock normally kicks in around 03:30. Not at the ‘puffer, as dawn is still five hours away. The race becomes an epic battle, every rider dealing with the torment of continued darkness. As dawn broke, it became clear that Gary had won the solo singlespeed category and would not be moved from his fourth position overall. There was no more need for light charging and only the last two of Gary’s pits, therefore time to relax and enjoy the final throes of what had been an exhilarating race.

The organisers, well aware of the battered state of all competitors, made the prize giving a swift and fun affair, working through the categories to arrive at the solo winner – Mike Hall, who had completed a stunning 24 laps of the sixth ‘puffer. Next year, I’ll see you on the start line.

The organisers would like to express their thanks and gratitude to their sponsors, supporters and invaluable volunteers who helped them deliver the sixth ‘puffer:

The Contin Community (without whose help the ‘puffer would not be possible)
Triple Echo/Adventure Show
The Co-operative Partnership
BlackIsle Brewery
Cube Bikes
Exposure Lights
RAF Kinloss, Mountain Rescue, Forestry Commission
Red Poppy Restaurant
Rob Ellen of Medicine Music
Yarwoods/Kubota from Inverness


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