A full moon lit the A9 as I headed north through Stirling, Perthshire and the Cairngorms, illuminating the remnants of last weeks snow and casting an atmospheric glow on shrouds of fog which clung to the mountain sides. Despite the moon and stars adorning a cloudless sky, it was raining. This is a defining feature of Scottish weather, rain appearing from no-where or perhaps blowing from its source over the horizon. I was heading north to compete in the 2016 Strathpuffer, a 24 hour mountain bike race with a group of auld pals.
Our team credentials weren’t particularly noteworthy; Ewan and I probably had the least excuses for poor performance having grown up biking around Inverness. We used to sneak out of school on Wednesdays to hit the local trails before visiting the chippy to consume at least 12 times the amount of calories we had just burnt. Gregor bought a mountain bike a few months previously and carried bike tools in his riding bag despite having no idea as to their actual function. Gregor’s brother Ewen was the final member of the team and came from a primarily road riding background. I was just trying to think of amusing collective nouns for our group. A group of bats for example is a cauldron, a group of fox a skulk and a group of hippopotamuses a bloat, any suggestions? (a stench of mountain bikers?).
When I arrived on Saturday morning my Inverness based teammates had already secured a good position for our hired campervan. The race organisers sent motor-homes up the initial forest road climb to park Tour de France style along the edges of the course. Instead of neatly unpacking our bags and sorting different areas for food, clothing and rest we hastily threw all our belongings in and soon every surface of the interior was covered with single gloves, used mugs, bike lights and tangled chargers.
The race kicked off at 10 am with a mass run to the start line and inevitable clog as everyone passed through the bottleneck of the start banner at once. It was a warm day but the ground was still saturated from the previous weeks of rain and snow. Despite pretending I don’t, I always get pre-race nerves and stupid thoughts enter my head; what if I get lost or take a wrong turning? What if my chain snaps? What if I let the lads down with an impishly slow lap? So I was champing at the bit when Ewan returned from his first lap.
As soon as I got going the worries dissipated and I enjoyed the feeling of blood rushing through my veins again and sun on my face. There were a great variety of bikes on course, I brought my new Whyte 160mm travel bike which I was worried would be a lumbering beast on the cross-country style course. Fat bikes, hard-tails and fully rigid mountain bikes were all out and playing to their various strengths. The first lap was a bit frustrating in terms of getting stuck behind groups of riders but I was glad to find a couple of rougher descents where my longer travel bike came into its own. It soon became obvious that mud was going to feature heavily in the race, the last descent down to the finish line had a particularly thick, sticky mud of a depth that made riding impossible and running past unpleasant. Our camper soon resembled a cattle barn with wellies a more suitable alternative to slippers inside.
Temperature stayed in the double digits and we were soon counting up the laps. We started off doing a lap each then moved on to working in pairs doing lap about (i.e. rider 1, rider 2, rider 1, rider 2 – next pair) so we all had a chance to rest. I raced down a rocky singletrack descent on my 4th lap to find a concerned group of cyclists aiding another who had crashed just before a narrow wooden bridge and lay clutching his side in the way that only people with broken bones do. People passed down alarmingly small first aid kits (‘here’s a strepsil for your broken bone son’ style) and we raced on to notify the race marshals. Nothing like a bit of emergency to enthuse aching legs!
After our laps, Ewan and I snuck down to the main event tent and scoffed soup and chips, I know, foodstuff of champions! A far cry from my usual mountain marathon famine rations. Gregor returned from his next lap wearing the face of a man who had just endured a week on the front line. He had crashed fairly heavily, managing to stab himself in the neck with his own handlebar, luckily he had bar ends in or he might have been able to exhibit a nice core sample of own his neck. His handlebars were twisted in a manner which meant he would have completed the rest of the course facing forward but with his hands well out to one side which I found particularly amusing (he didn’t know how to straighten them so just charged on).
I really enjoyed my last two laps, trundling up fire roads and racing down muddy, rocky descents. Ewan and I had finished our shift well in time so had the luxury of watching our teammates struggle through to the finish at 10 am on Sunday. Ewen came in from his 5th lap pale faced and mouth-breathing (when you are too tired to close your jaw and breathe through your nose). Plonking himself down in one of the canvas chairs he refused offers of energy gels or juice, suggesting they would come straight back up again. We were sure that he wouldn’t make it out again but after a wee sit-down he heroically jumped back on the saddle and pedalled off for his final lap, which turned out to be a good one. As darkness changed to daylight we walked up the final descent to see Gregor finish. Being mischievous and terrible teammates we were hoping for a mud-based crash from the big man but he just rode past like a sweat/exhaustion ridden pro (proof in the first photo below).
The race organisers should be commended for their idea of lining the forest road climbs with team vehicles and tents. I remember enjoying the range of music from the start banner up which changed from power ballads to folk, some live guitar playing and finally deep electro just before the start of the singletrack. Other highlights for me included on course banter and some great views across the sun-soaked countryside before dark. The Strathpuffer basically felt like a big group ride at a grotty time of year and it was bloody fantastic at that.