Team Clements tackles the Puffer

Two years ago I did the Strathpuffer solo for the first time and said I would never do it again but after a few months, when the feeling finally returned to my toes, I made a few notes of what I would do different, IF I did it again.

For those who are not familiar with this event it is a 24 hour mountain bike race held in the Highlands of Scotland in January, where competitors can compete as a team of 4, in pairs or if daft enough solo.

If first did it in 2015 in a quad team, then again in 2017 solo and now again in 2019. Entries for the event opened in July 2018 and the solo category sold out within an hour or less, so I had to be on the ball to get entered. Although as race day approaches there always seems to be people dropping out with injuries or just the realization that what seemed like a good idea in the height of summer is no so appealing when winter sets in.

Training wise I knew what to do, just lots of miles, but I did do more gym stuff to try and build hand and upper body strength as this is where I suffered most in 2017. On the equipment I was taking my bike and Amanda’s so I could keep going as much as possible. I decided to buy an Ice tyre for the front wheel, to give me a bit more grip should the temperature drop below freezing as things can get pretty sketchy on the icy rocks. Both mine and Amanda’s bike needed and new chains and cassettes so they were replaced a few weeks before the race. Thinking that would be it, we both had a short ride around Kirton Off Road Centre the weekend before the race and Amanda noted that her bike was still jumping out of gear. This was diagnosed as a worn small chain ring so with time quickly running out, I stripped Charlotte’s bike and took the chain ring off that. Bikes now sorted I just had to sort my race strategy. With any long distance race, you can’t do it without backup out and Amanda had agreed to help out. My plan was to do a couple of laps, which would take around 2 and a half hours, depending on conditions then stop for a short break. I would grab a quick bite to eat and a drink, maybe swap bikes if maintenance was required or if I had an issue, then carry on.

We travelled up to Scotland Friday morning sharing the driving for the 400-mile journey and arrived at Contin around 6 0’ clock. We were stopping at James Fowler’s house which is literally a few hundred yards from the start of the race. We unloaded the bikes and overnight kit then and had a quick catch up with everyone. James was in a Pairs team with Steve Kyte who was returning for the fourth time. There was Pav, who had raced in James’ teams before and this time was in a Quad team with Contin locals Ceri, Josh and Jason; and finally another Solo rider, George. Once we’d all introduced ourselves we walked down to the start tent to register for the race and join the scramble for the obligatory race T shirt. Then it was round to Ceri’s house for some more Highland hospitality for a bite to eat before heading off to bed.

Race morning arrived and I felt like there was loads to sort out. So after breakfast I set about sorting my gear. I had taken a pop up tent which I put up a few yards after the start which would be a base for Amanda and a stash for my stuff which included snacks and sweets, spare batteries and a charger dock, some dry clothes and a few spares. Once that was set up I returned to the house to give the bikes a final check over, fit lights to Amanda’s bike and quickly go over my race plan once again with Amanda. Final checks done it was time to head to the start for Race briefing.

The race start is a Le Mans type where you have to run back up the track to collect your bike. This is always a mad dash as around 400 riders run up an icy road in bike shoes before jumping on their bikes. After the initial spike of adrenalin as I set off things soon slowed down once on the bike as it becomes a slow crawl until things spread out a bit further up the track. The first part of the course is steady uphill past all the team vans and camps so there is always a lot of people ringing cow bells and offering encouragement.

This then stops as you turn right onto a narrower section before a left turn onto a short singletrack shute to return you to the fire road for a long slog uphill again. This second section of road was quite icy in places and it caught one rider out behind me. I heard the sound of someone coming off behind me, then apologising to all the riders caught up in his crash. At bit further up you get a short respite from the climb with a welcomed downhill section before the final climb up to the start of the rough stuff. Considerately someone had written ICE ICE BABY on the track to warn of the peril, although it was a bit too late for one person at least.

As you reach the top of this section you heard the sound of music blasting out as you come to a marshals post and from here you cross a short wooden plank bridge to the start of rocky twisty single track. Most of this wasn’t too icy apart from where you have to ride over or down rocky slabs. These parts were treacherous especially on the first lap when riders hadn’t worked out the best lines and they were sliding off all around. On one section I had to stop when a couple crashed in front of me and I tried to walk around them but couldn’t even stand up and went sliding down the slope on my back. After the final slab the track turns sharp left on a banked corner and widens and starts to go up hill again. It turns another corner and then goes up a new section which is probably the hardest climb of the lap on a gravel track. With fresh legs this was hard as you had to try to keep the wheels turning but not loose traction on the loose surface. At this point James passed me so I followed him to the top then down a short way and back up an easier climb. Another descent followed and I kept in James’ wheel track as he has ridden the course hundreds of times but as we approached a tight right corner I hit a patch of ice and was down. As I picked my bike up and re-mounted all I was thinking was “this is going to be a long day…”

After falling off I often find it hard to get back into a rhythm and the next section was more bumpy twisting singletrack which didn’t help but as I soon got into it again as I crossed the Bridge of Thighs over the river and climbed up the over side. Soon after that I hit a large pothole on the track and felt my rear tyre deflate so had to stop to check what was going on. I run tubeless tyres on my mountain bike and this can happen if you run the pressure too low. It’s always a compromise between low pressure for grip and burping air out if you hit a large pothole. A quick check reassured me I should be ok to ride back to the start if I took it carefully as so I didn’t waste time pumping the tyre up. The rest of the lap involves a few more climbs and lots of fast downhill sections which are great fun, but for now I had to take them relatively easy.

Back at the start I dibbed in the rode a short way back up the fire road to Amanda to sort my tyre. She had brought her bike but the track pump and my ice tyre were still at the house so I had to borrow a pump from a guy in a nearby van. Tyres fully inflated I asked Amanda to bring my pump and ice tyre for the next lap round, and off I went again.

Lap2. Things get a bit easier second time around, you start to settle into a rhythm, competitors are spreading out so it’s easer to pick your line to avoid the hazards (ICE) and you know what to expect. Now feeling relaxed as I approached the top of the fire road I felt water running down my leg and when I looked down it was my camelback valve leaking. I’d not realised it had frozen on the first lap and now it was starting to thaw. I took a quick drink but after a few minutes it froze again so I had to rely on the water bottle on my bike (which also froze). As I approached the ice where I fell off earlier I took the inside line on the right which took me through a few muddy puddles but at least these offered more grip than ice. The rest of the middle section was completed without drama and I was looking forward to bombing the downhills now my tyre was fully inflated. Pav caught me up somewhere around here and we swapped positions a few times, I was quicker on the ups and he was on the quicker on the downs. This is a really nice section through the woods with two fast left hand bends and Pav was in front here so I let the brakes off to try to keep up with him. The first left turns off the main path between two boulders and then as we hit the second bend it must have been icy as Pav went into a massive two wheel drift. At first I thought he might save it but he didn’t and went down right in front of me. I had to anchor up quickly, trying not to crash myself, and ride around him. As I passed, I checked he was okay but carried on any way, thinking that was very nearly me going down. I made another mental note for the next lap to take it easy there. The final downhill section was in the sun and pretty much ice free, so you could really have fun here over a few jumps and around the berms that ended the lap.

Laps3. Quick snack and a chat with Amanda, who had been scurrying back and forth with stuff. Changed to ice tyre and off again up the track. One off the teams had a note on their van saying “Pull a Wheelie” so duly obliged to keep the guys happy. The ice tyre was a new purchase for this year and I hadn’t tried it out in proper conditions before but I didn’t really notice any extra weight from the metal studs. I did notice that things didn’t feel quite as sketchy as before and it made an awesome scrauking sound as it went over the icy rocks. I still took it easy on Pav bends though, but on the downhills I really let it rip, getting air over some of the jumps.

Laps 4 and 5 went without major incident although lots of other riders were getting caught out by the conditions especially on the rocky sections. I had worked out a line that I new was ok but it still required loads of concentration not to make a mistake, but even so I had my fair share of slides and near misses. At the start of lap 5 I asked Amanda to bring my lights as I would need them from then on and I did two more laps on my bike.

From lap 6 on though I noticed my gears weren’t shifting as cleanly as before and thought my derailleur was maybe icing up. I struggled round laps 7 shifting as little as possible but at least my lower climbing gears indexed ok. I thought maybe my strategy of riding through the puddles at the side of the track was spraying water onto my gears and then freezing so for lap 8 I put the ice tyre in Amanda’s bike and set off again. Riding a different bike gave me a new lease of life as the change in riding position eased my aches and it had slightly lower gearing to make the climbs easier, although by now I was struggling with the steepest ones and was forced to get off and walk. Three more laps complete and I was ready for a longer break.

We sat in the marquee and tried to warm up a bit. I was going a bit mad at this point and worrying Amanda slightly. I couldn’t really think straight and was talking nonsense; something most people would probably think is normal for me but Amanda could notice a difference. I just put it down to tiredness and too many jelly babies, so helmet back on and out for another two laps. It was around 12:30pm when I set off, so I said to Amanda to head back to the house and I would meet her back there when I’d finished these two.

These seemed like really long laps and I was rapidly losing my enthusiasm, although this was lifted momentarily on the fast downhill when I heard people cheering riders on, so I decided to go for it and gritted my teeth and let the brakes off to try and get some air over the jumps. At the end of lap 12 I headed back to the house as it was now around 4am and I was in need of a longer rest and a warm up. Also, my gears had frozen up again and I had done the last 2 laps in my lowest gear, so I needed to sort that too. Back at the house everyone was asleep and the temptation to rest was too much so I headed off to bed.

People started to re-awake around 7am so I dragged myself up and went to the kitchen. James was up with the intension of doing another lap as long as he could sort a bike to ride. He’d had a mechanical issue in the night and had to stop, so was going out on his son’s bike. I wasn’t feeling too bad except my hands were aching from holding onto the handlebars for so long. I decided to do one more steady lap as the sun rose and hopefully get a few pictures on my phone. It had been a clear night up until then but just before sun up, as I set off it started to rain.

This meant no spectacular sun rise photos, but more worrying, it froze making a slippery course even more treacherous. I took things extra careful, stopping at the first marshal post for a coffee and biscuit, then for a selfie with Billy Bones and a final one at the park bench before the downhill. Here I noticed a text from Amanda saying the final corner before the finish was really icy and loads were coming off, so with that in mind I finished the lap very cautiously at around ten to ten. I could have gone for another but with the icy conditions and gears playing up, not to mention my hands aching, I didn’t think I would make it round before the 11:00am cut off time so that was me done on 13 laps.

My actual riding time was 17hrs 56m, height ascended 15131ft, total distance travelled 100.75miles with a minimum temperature of around -7 degrees and I finished in 45th place out of 123 Solo riders. As for next year, I don’t think I’ll do a Solo, may just do a Pairs team anyone……….? Or a Quad? Entries open 4th July so give us a call, I’ll even throw in a few coaching sessions to prepare you……..

Finally I’d just like to say a massive thank you to James and his wife Issy; and everyone else we met that weekend, making us so welcome, and also to Amanda for running around after me in freezing temperatures just so I could do one of the maddest events out there.