The idea of doing the Strathuffer, a 24 hour MTB mountain bike race in the Scottish Highlands in January, was first muted while chatting with Pete Gossop at the Burringham Duathlons. I can’t remember actually saying that I would do it, but over the course of the summer and into autumn it became clear that I was on the top of Pete’s list of team members along with two of his work mates from LKAB. The organisers don’t open the entries until 10pm on November 5th so at about 10:30pm on Bonfire night I got a text message to say that we were in.
Team LKAB Lincsquad got together a few times with Joao (John) Silva and Manwell Pina to sort out a plan to survive a Scottish winter for 24 hours. With a day to go the Scottish weather decided to make things interesting and caused us a few worries. With snow and freezing conditions hitting the Highlands we were wondering weather ice studded tyres might be needed but they are not an item most bike shops keep in stock, and would we really need them??
So on the Thursday we packed the van, minus ice tyres, ready for a 3am start on Friday and an 8 hour journey north. At around 11:30 we arrived in Strathpuffer , got a bite to eat, and then joined the queue outside the bike shop to get our site pass. Pass collected we drove to the race venue and joined another queue to find somewhere to park the van. Parking was on the fire road at the side of the race route just after the start finish area. The track was snowed over and mainly uphill with all of the best spots filled, but we eventually found a place at a fork where the race route turned off to the right. The area was flat so we parked up and set up camp and got registered for the race.
Saturday dawned and conditions were a bit milder for race day, a barmy 1 degree C, so at least for now ice wasn’t our concern. We fitted race numbers and headed down for the race briefing at 9:45am, ready for a 10am start, which was a 500metre Le Mans style run to the bikes. Briefing over I joined the melee to park the bike, John was going to hold it for me while Manwell took photos.
Pete and I then headed back the other way to the run start, only to get a few hundred yards when we saw a mass of runners all heading down the track. I froze for a second not sure what to do when Pete shouted RUN!!! I waited for the first runner to pass then joined the front of the pack. John looked shocked when I appeared in around third place but got me on my way up the hill. The first part of the course is mainly uphill past all the competitors van, and out into the countryside, across a stream then a longer uphill fire road. It was all snow covered but not too slippery. After a few miles we crossed a narrow bridge and onto some twisty, technical, rocky single track. The rest was a mix of fast twisty stuff, fire road then rocky downhill sections before heading back down the first fire road with a diversion down some steps to Dibber in to record the lap. First lap done in 44 minutes and back up the hill to our van to hand over to Pete. We were doing a lap each in the daylight so Pete handed over to John, and John to Manwell, then me again. My second lap was my fastest, just under 43 minutes and I caught Pete unawares when I came in, but we quickly got him out for his second lap. Waiting for Pete to come back with John ready to go, I got a missed call from him and realised something was wrong. Unable to call back due to poor reception we had and anxious 15 minute wait over his expected lap time until he rolled up and we got John away.
Turned out he had a puncture but in his haste had unscrewed the quick release too far and the nut fell off in the snow. Luckily he eventually found it a got on his way.
By the time John returned it was dark and Manwell started the 17hour night shift. My next stint was a 2 lap run but I’d didn’t take enough to drink and didn’t have any food or gels with me. I started well and when a certain Guy Martin passed me I tried to stay with him for a while, then re-passed him, (He was in the solo category so doing the full 24 hours), and I completed the lap around in about 47 minutes. As I passed our camp for my second lap I felt good but it didn’t last. I ran out of drink a third of the way round. I started to struggle and make mistakes on the techy bits and eventually got around in 56 minutes. John sorted me out with food and drink and I soon felt good again but realised 2 laps was not the best strategy. Pete did 2 also and said the same when he came in, so John went back to single laps. Doing 2 laps cost us a good 20 minutes overall and dropped us from 43rd place to 49th so from then on it was singles all the way. Are concern was that we would need to sleep, but we pushed on and stayed up all the way through. I had a short 20 minute lie down, but was awaken when John rang up. He had a problem with leg cramps and couldn’t pedal so Manwell had to go to meet him to finish his lap. Otherwise the night time went without incident. We got into a routine, ride, eat, drink, re-charge batteries, dry clothes over the fire, check brake pads and download GoPro footage. Time seemed to pass quicly as we all pulled together to help out the guy coming in, and get the next one out. John cooked us two amazing meals to keep us fuelled up. We all changes brake pads once in the night as the mud there is really abrasive, apart from John who got through on one set front and back. We cleaned the bikes once as the course got slushier, just to keep gears running smooth but other wise the bikes ran brilliantly.
As dawn approached we had moved up to 31st place, just because we didn’t stop, while other had a sleep. We started to talk about a top thirty finish when we sent Manwell out at around 9:15 for what we thought was the last lap. The rest of us wandered down to cheer him in. As we watched riders coming down the steps before the finish just before 10:00am I was secretly hoping he wouldn’t get round before as I would have to do another lap and I had changed out of my biking gear. But our calculations proved correct and he came around at 10:03, giving us a total of 26 laps and 33rd in the quads. Our total distance was286km, with 6600m ascent.
As a comparison the winning quad did 36 laps and top solo 28. Guy Martin did 27 for 2nd place. After 24 hours and 3 minutes of racing we were all elated and probably a wee bit tired although the adrenalin kept us going as we packed up and headed back home.
All in all it was an amazing experience, a brilliantly run event with a great atmosphere and amazing people, and we all said we would like to do it again. Massive thanks to my team mates John and Manwell and especially Pete for including me in his team.
A link to the result here; http://www.strathpuffer.co.uk/home
Also another race report on Red Bull website; http://www.redbull.com/en/bike/stories/1331700667950/when-hell-freezes-over-strathpuffer-2015