1000 words about: Strathpuffer

Sunday morning, 4am in the middle of the Scottish Highlands. I cycle past a small village of caravans, vans, tents, all with mountain bikes piled up. The smell of burnt wood reminds me of the nice open fireplace in my parents’ house. If there is a paradise for mountain bikers, this must be it.

It is cold. People are asleep in the deckchairs around the fire, wrapped up in their down jackets. Underneath my tyres the fire road slowly disappears. Rain drops are gently falling on the ground. I am looking for the right line to ride, trying to save my energy. I take a sip out of my bottle to wash down the rest of my banana while I slowly climb into the black.

At the end of the fire road I dip onto a singletrail and into the forest. I have just changed into a fresh layer of clothes, stuffed my jersey with muesli bars, banana and chocolate. I haven’t had a minute to sleep since 6am the day before. While I climb back onto another fire road, the monotony almost sends me to sleep. I stop, force myself to drink some more cold water mixed with apple juice and jump back on the bike. At least I imagine I am drinking. It doesn’t help. Minutes later my body tries to pull the plug. In the distance there are lights, I can hear people cheering.

‘Want a jelly baby?’ A marshal comes running towards me on my right. I grab the jelly baby, say thanks and hit the cranks to get over a small wooden bridge. The bridge is muddy and slippery. Everything here is, even the jelly babies. I wake up just as my front wheel is about to hit the first big rock. After a short push I look back to see if I am in someone else’s way. This time I am not. I only have one gear, and no choice. Holding others back is not my style.

A bit more than an hour later I pass the friendly man with the jelly babies again. I have stopped counting how many people I have passed, or how many have passed me. The rain has become heavier. I wish for the rain to rinse of the rocks that are covered in thick mud. A few minutes in I am just about to grab my bottle for another time. I am thirsty, I have forgotten to drink. This time I reach into an empty bottle cage. There is nothing to grab. The bottle has gone. On my way down the rocks through the mud I spot a bottle, looking exactly like mine. I grab it, take a sip and carry on. The apple juice tastes sweeter than before. More rocks, more mud. It seems to be a never-ending game.

At 6am I come in the last time to clean my bike, switch the battery for my lights and lube the chain. Max, our pit dog, wants to hug me. I just want to sleep. While searching for the last battery, I find my bottle sitting open on the table in our pitch, filled up to the top. It suddenly dawns on me. I never picked my bottle up when I set out for the last three laps. I stuff more bananas and bars in my jersey, and put an extra bottle on the frame.

I cross the finish line at about 9.50am. ‘Out for another?’ a friendly face asks me. I am not sure. As I try to lift my arm towards the marshal to get the timing chip cut off I ask for the cut-off time. ‘You need to be in before 11’. I don’t ask any more questions, I just jump on the bike.

20 laps have passed since I ran to pick up my bike. At the start, Le Mans style, accompanied by the sound of bagpipes. I didn’t know what to expect when I started. I had heard loads about Strathpuffer, but experience has taught me that races like this are a different experience for everyone. Races like Strathpuffer make or break you. I didn’t plan to break. I stocked up on everything essential to survive beforehand: loads of spare brake pads, ice tyres, mud tyres, spare chainrings, chains, tubes, even spare wheels. It turned out I didn’t need any of these.

As I hit the first stretches of ice it suddenly dawned on me. This might be the hardest race I have done so far. I finished Relentless24 last October on a singlespeed. At the moment I saw the ice on the fire road I was convinced that riding a mountain bike in the middle of the Scottish Highlands in winter is somehow different. Memories of the Karapoti Classic and the Rainbow Rage in New Zealand raced through my brain. Back in the days I thought those were extreme. This time I was on a singlespeed bike, in the solo category of something that was much bigger than I had ever done before. I could still remember how happy I was when I secured a spot from the waiting list. By the time I had finished three laps I was already knackered.

I am on my last lap, with no room for error. I can hear people cheering in the distance. I push the cranks for a last time to tackle the final hill. It is all downhill from here. My legs hurt while mud splashes in my faces. I wipe my eyes and carry on. I am awake since almost 30hrs now, but my mind is fresher than ever. As I roll over the finish line I suddenly realise it is over. I am almost sad. I am tired and sore, but I have just finished the Strathpuffer, on my own, with one gear. I have done extreme things before, but nothing like this. Happily I return my timing chip. I have never taken fun so seriously.

Some more pictures can be found on Flickr here
My lap times can be found here