Knee Chance – Strathpuffer 2018
Scientists have studied it and have been dumbfounded. Philosophers spend endless hours pondering but still can’t work out why. Partners left at home shake their heads in disbelief. What I’m talking about is the reason why a certain set of mountain bikers find the idea of an ice-ridden, semi Arctic 24 hour mountain bike race just so damned appealing. This is the 13th year of the Strathpuffer and it’s gained quite the reputation. It’s undoubtedly the inspiration for my own Kielder Chiller 24 but it’s clear they are two completely distinct events.
Cast your minds back to summer 2017 and the thought popped into my head to have a crack at the puffer. I floated it with a few people and friend David Gobby was all over it like a fly on horse poo so we signed up as a pair. The only issue was that David is much fitter than myself so a crazy fitness regime followed. Unfortunately around October/November time I was struck down by a recurring health problem which brought all that to a stop. By the time December came round I could get back on track but the task at hand was large.
Hours and hours were spent down in the gym just churning out the high intensity work. Real work is just one of those inconvenient things that get in the way of training so I had to fit it in wherever i could. A few long rides at Kielder and round the Chiller course did give me some hope that fitness was returning. Gobby was absolutely flying.
Endless hours were spent thinking about bike choice. Well for me it’s not really a choice as I only have one but was a steel, rigid Stooge riding 650b+ tyres really a suitable choice? The frame is heavy but stands up to punishment well and I’d reduced as much weight as possible with carbon bars, seatpost, 1x drivetrain, etc. There was boat loads of chat about ice spiker tyres but nowhere to buy them for my tyre size. A little bit of confidence was restored when I found out that neither David or Jason were using spikers either.
Christmas came and went and usually the training plan was stuck to and no signs of illness had popped up. All systems go. Attention turned to preparation. Around this time Keith Fawcett had committed to come and work the pits for us and Jason Woodhouse had blagged himself a solo spot for his fat bike. The predicted weather was horrendous so my plans of taking the Land Cruiser with it’s bad boy mud terrain tyres had to be shelved in favour of the van to be able to fit 4 people and all our kit.
What kit did we take? This is just a list for anyone who’s thinking of tackling something like the puffer of Chiller:
– large event shelter
– 2 gas stoves, constantly on
– multi plug adapter
– masses of food, cups and cutlery
– big bag of clothes each
– spares and tools (many thanks Team Cycles)
– bike stand
– 1 bike each
– garage style spot lamps
We didn’t use any snow chains or socks and this was a cause for great concern given the prevalent conditions. One of the reasons the puffer is so epic is that it’s such a monumental journey just to get there in the first place. From the forecast we had seen that heavy snow was coming in the early afternoon around the Borders. We set of early doors and I picked up Jason and Keith and soon collected David from Jedburgh on the way. Just as we crossed the Forth bridge and went over the high pass to Perth the snow came down really heavy. Two light grey lines formed as the only sign we were on a road. We sat in convoy with other traffic for about 20 miles doing 10mph. After that we popped out into glorious blue skies skirting the Cairngorms.
The endless speed cameras of the A9 can be forgotten due to its sheer beauty. A lot of people heeded the warnings not to drive and the roads were quite quiet. Along the roadside there was thick snow and abundant wildlife such as deer and large horned stags staring at us imperiously as we went by. Our only stop on the way was at Pitlochry and we pulled in to the Escape Cafe and realised that a few other travelling puffers were there as well. Food was great if a little on the sedate side.
The last big pass was summitted and we dropped into Inverness with the town sprawling out around us. Ahead in the distance were some tasty hills and mountains and somewhere in amongst all that is where we would do battle against the elements. Registration is at Strathpeffer and conveniently it was exactly opposite our hotel so we checked in and then had a mosy across. The tiny bike shop had cleared all the queues by then and we picked up our golden ticket, the mighty parking pass.
Our moods were lifted now it was all happening. We jumped in the van again and headed along to register as riders in the main event HQ. Jason came very close to being thrown out of the car for insisting we were going 180 degrees in the wrong direction. The snowy road was passable but it was more than evident that loads of people had set up base camps already and we would just have to take a chance in the morning. The marquee was chaos with people rushing to get a dibber. In hindsight we’d just give it 45 minutes and then you can waltz in with zero queues and be done in minutes.
Following the sign on we took a walk along the course. It was immediately evident that our van would not be getting up that hill. It was the domain of 4x4s, snow tyres and chains only. So as an alternative we looked at the extra parking low down and it turned out to be a single road that already had vehicles on it as far as the eye could see. Frollocks! The last thing we wanted was a pit location miles from the marquee but it was out of our hands now.
With the admin done we headed back to Strathpeffer and managed to squeeze in a table at the Red Poppy cafe. Clearly you needed to book in advance but they fitted us in even if the owner was abundantly clear he wanted us out as soon as possible. Never before has “would you like deserts” ever sounded as much like “will you please sod off out of my restaurant”. The food was very nice. Jason smashed in an extra deep fried brie, he’d need all the calories around tomorrow.
All talk turned to the riding. It was just a matter of counting down the hours until we could get out there and get stuck in. Everyone seemed very excited. With the extra people on the trip it meant that I got to sleep on the floor whilst David and Keith were in the beds. My light sleeping turned into no sleeping as Keith tried his very best Darth Vader impression all night. Oh well, lucky there isn’t a 24 hour mtb race to do soon 🙂
Tiredness didn’t matter. Kit was gathered and the anticipation of the big day was near. Our plan was to get there early doors and try our best to get as close to the event as possible. In reality things turned out event better. We were third in the queue and due to the large number of vehicles attending we were shoved in to a tiny little spot right by the event HQ which turned out to be absolutely magic. We had no more than 50m to get to transition.
The pit was set up and we had solo rider Stew Mccon joining us in the pits after he travelled up from Durham. With everything in place we counted down the minutes until game time. David was up first and needed to clock 2 laps before he could hand over to me. The pipes started up and riders were marched down the road to a signpost. The clock struck 10am and riders ran the 400 yards to the marquee, collected their bikes and then dashed off up the climb. I’d thoughtfully left David’s in top gear so he had a great time changing down before he started riding.
With the mad dash out of the way it all went quiet. We headed back to the pits and filled the kettles to ensure they were all hot. Food was on hand and I started sticking on my kit ready for action. I’ll admit the nerves were starting to show. Our walk of the course had shown that snow and ice were the main factors. Although cold the skies were a stunning blue with far off mountains covered in snow and whisps of clouds. We soon spotted David go through his first lap and it was clear he was on a fast pace. Nothing new there then.
On coming around the second time he dibbed and then his only advice was “stay out of the deep stuff”. OK then, what does that mean? The plans of taking it steady and consistent went out the window. I shot off the massive fire road climb passing people left, right and centre on the way. Not so bad this course. Then boosh! The singletrack starts and it all goes a bit mental. No-one had tyres to deal with the deep snow so a quick push and then you were into a skittish descent through trees where grip was minimum and eyes were planted firmly on the end of stalks.
It was clear that riding style would need to be adapted from one of just churning onwards to having to deal with the prevalent conditions. Descent were a mixture of bravery, skill, hope and a bit of luck as weight was transferred heavily to the front as the rear fish tailed around. Everyone was dangling legs out and drifting rear wheels to ensure no front end washouts ended a race. In the middle of the course were a serious of seriously hard snow covered climbs. Early doors no thin tyred bike was getting up them and the plus tyres dug in and churned away to the top. A small degree of satisfaction regained to make up for the lack of ice tyres.
The only none-snow covered part was a small stretch in the trees which twisted this way and that before popping you out to begin the final drop back to the HQ. Steep, rocky and covered in ice and snow – what’s not to like? There was no option to go slow, rather you had to stay balanced, pick your line and control the wobbles as best as you could. Many people took tumbles on that steep drop and some didn’t get back up to continue.
A short icy section through the shrubbery was always interesting before finally coming to a fast section through the woods. Go as fast as you dare and then brake for a series of lovely sweeping berms before being dumped back at the transition via a sheet-ice covered drop. Joy. Having put in so much effort it was great news to get back to the Keith saying “go and do another lap”. I could have honestly headbutted him on the spot and the look of horror clearly showed on my face as the guys standing by laughed their heads off.
Lap 2 was great fun also but made it very clear that the course was constantly changing. A line was forming around 12 inches wide on the faster sections which compact snow in the middle and deep snow either side. Concentration was key as any slight mistake that meant drifting into the deeper stuff and then you were toast. Corners that were previously passable had their top surface removed. Wide lines were replaced with hitting the apex. Braking was nearly exclusively with the rear. My front may well have just been taken off as it just wasn’t needed.
The carnival atmosphere was such a delight. There were random marshals all over the place who were clanging bells and cheering you on. A big group of lads heckled you in near the end and there were loads of places where the music was blasting. I’m pretty sure there was a fair bit of drinking going on at the first corner with the loud music! It was a great way to get round a lap.
So the churn began of knocking out laps and alternating every lap between myself and David. In between Keith kept the bikes running super smooth and fixing any niggling issues that occured. Masses of food was consumed, clothes changed and tips transferred about how to proceed. Everyone tried hard to get a fix on the course to gauge certain distance markers but such was the effort to just stay upright it became hard to do this until the later laps. I do remember the views being absolutely stunning.
Soon darkness was falling and our hopes of having a light night due to the large amount of snow were dashed. It was yourself and the area lit up by your beam. Chill-tech CREE on the handle bars and their helmet lights were working wonders. The fast, tight sections became even more tense with several riders coming off and ending up in the scenery. The big snowy climbs were becoming a right chore but now were rideable to all. As it became later it became apparent that less riders were out there and those that were out were moving quickly. Twice Keith Forsyth came past and even stopped for a bit of a chat before stomping off into the distance. Legend.
Jason’s fat bike experience ended early as he crashed heavily on lap one. There was one ice covered rock drop off in particular that caught many people off. Jason tried to go down in and landed on his shoulder only to damage his deltoid. He did manage a few more laps but clearly in a lot of pain. He needed a long massage from Keith but Keith was not obliging. Stew was pressing on. He wisely brought a spare front wheel fitted with an ice spiker and switched to this to gain way more traction.
During the late hours of the night my knee had began to hurt. I gave it one more lap and the pain became so intense I had to walk the final half of the lap. I knew my time was up but dreaded going back to tell David and Keith. David had been on fire and still looked in great shape so I really thought I’d let him down. I’d never looked how we were doing and as it transpired we were up in 12th, 14 laps down at midnight with 10 hours to go. Looking back the winners did 25 which was out of touch for us but 10th spot did 20 laps which was surely within our grasp. This has only made us more determined to go back and prove we can be at the sharp end next year.
This event was all about learning. Some points I’d pick out are:
– train for as long as possible
– pick out foods you know your stomach can handle
– expect to eat a lot and eat often. No, force yourself to.
– have someone there to help. Makes a massive difference.
– write down a list of kit and take it.
– take as much clothing as you can.
– if it’s going to be super icy then invest in an ice tyre. They make a huge difference to down hill confidence.
– bring a source of electricity like a generator
– bring a bright light(s) for the pit area
– a heat source is great. Otherwise plan to have engine running and heater in vehicle.
There’s probably loads of other stuff in there. We ended up sitting having a few coffees before packing up and leaving before the rush. It was -11 degrees as we left. As I’ve already aluded to there was a key man in there who didn’t get on a bike once. Keith Fawcett, in the pits, kept everything going super smoothly. The bikes (and still is afterwards) in perfect riding order. Food was always available and hot drinks were prepared before we got back to the pit. Can’t thank him highly enough for his efforts.
As I look back now I have to say I really enjoyed the event. A lot of things can be transferred over to the Kielder Chiller 24 but the single most crucial element at the puffer is the number of people. It’s this thriving mass of tents and activity that really make the occassion. That and the pretty spectacular location when there is snow on the mountains and bright blue skies. For my capabilities it was a perfect event – super cold, technical and fun. Although I’m pretty sure the climbs were getting longer and longer every lap.
As for David Gobby he was a superstar. He was flying at this event and banging out consistently fast laps. I reckon he’ll be firmly at the sharp end of things in any races in 2018 if he stays injury free. Team JMC were asking about him as he’s unknown – well I can safely say your quad at the Chiller has a serious asset.
Back to the puffer though. Will I be back? Definitely. And I’m counting down the bloody days until I get there.