The ‘Puffer is tougher

Monty of De’ils on Wheels reports:

The team: Sam, Andrew, Monty, Andy L-R

We thought, having done the 150k West Highland Way in 24 hours last year, that the Strathpuffer should be easy in a team of four since we’d only be riding for a quarter of the time each.  But it wasn’t!  We didn’t factor in the cold, dark, ice, slush, mud, rain and gradients that the ‘puffer throws at you.  It just grinds riders and their bikes into mush.

The winning rider – Mike Hall (Bikeshed Wales) did 24 laps SOLO.  We are in complete awe of this.  All the solo riders must be superhuman mentalists, and our hats go off to you.

Overall the race was great fun in spite of the misery and suffering.  Everyone was really friendly and the support we got from the organisers and marshals was fantastic.  Singletrack sent us up some lights to test out since we were short of equipment, which was brilliant.  Biggest thanks of all go to the British Heart Foundation, and all our sponsors who made dragging our cold, wet, muddy arses back out of the tent for one more lap unavoidable.  Without you, we would probably have given up and gone to the pub.

Bleeding hell...

So, here’s how it went.  We drove up on Friday night, got to Inverness travel lodge at about 11pm and started pre-race preparations including watching a film and drinking some whisky.  A bit slow off the mark in the morning we went to Tesco’s (boo) to grab plenty of food and a big breakfast. We arrived at the race course at 9am, an hour before the start.  Andrew went off to register as the first rider while the rest of us set up camp.  There wasn’t much space left but we managed to shoehorn our giant marquee into the camp site, because there was a big patch no-one else wanted because it was so icy and slushy.  Set up continued while Andrew did the first lap, and we met him at the Arena for the change over to Andy.

By the time Andy got back with a split lip from headbutting a tree stump, our camp was almost sorted.  Andy’s a doctor so he was annoyed that he couldn’t put a stitch in his lip to keep it tidy, so a dab of superglue from the tool kit sufficed.  We had a pretty good set-up.  We pitched a tent inside the marquee for sleeping and keeping dry stuff in.  We had a big ‘kitchen’ table with all our food, a full tool kit and work stand (essential), a few chairs, and best of all a gas fire to warm up by between laps and dry things over.  In the evening we set up the human power station rig with a laptop and projector to watch movies or charge batteries.  The idea was to invite people round and ask them to donate to BHF but it never really happened.  However the Adventure Show came in and interviewed Sam in the middle of the night, and when we showed them the cinema they were flabbergasted – so we might get on the telly.

Mid race fettling...

So, what was it like, and how did our kit stand up?  Well, it is less of a race than a war of attrition.  The camp site is like the trenches, with teams doing their best to keep warm, dry and well fed between laps – almost as much effort as riding most of the time.  Then in turn you head out “over the top” to do battle with the course, the elements, and your competitors.

The course is a mix of long fire-road climbing slog, and fun technical singletrack with lots of challenges, tricky rock sections and fast descents.  Throw in LOADS of ice and mud and it becomes a real test, and we loved it. It’s very tiring to do at any sort of speed, and the special Strathpuffer Krypto-mud literally grinds your bike to pieces.  Brakes fail, forks collapse, and drive trains disintegrate every lap.  The mud is so abrasive we got through at least 10 sets of brake pads.  Every lap you pass by the casualties – broken bikes and broken riders lying by the wayside.  Sam is a downhiller and he was incredulous to see so many people pushing their XC bikes up hill.  ”But their bikes are MEANT to go uphill, and they give US grief for pushing up?!?”

We got through without any terminal failures or injuries.  Mechanical problems included a broken chain, mashed gear cables, vanishing brake pads, and disintegrating pedals.  Our bikes are all generally set up for beefy trail riding rather than cross country mileage, but I think that was good for reliability.  Big DH Holy Rollers might not be quick tyres, but none of us got a puncture. The burst chain was the only issue that cost us serious time (it broke in three and was irreparable), vanishing brake pads the only issue every one of us had.  We’d heard about this problem on forums, but didn’t believe it until we saw it.  It’s incredible – you don’t even have to brake much at all for most of the course, yet the mud just digests your pads.  Sam only got one or two laps out of his Superstar pads in SLX brakes.  20km, pads gone.

Night riding was ace, thanks to the lights Singletrack Mag provided and a few other bits and pieces we borrowed or bought for the race.  I used a Lupine Tesla 5 on my helmet and a Niterider Minewt 150 on my bars (850 lumens all in).  Sam used a set of Ay Up lights on helmet and bars with 3 and 6 hour batteries (800 lumens).  Andy had a Magicshine and a Niterider Minewt Mini 150 (850 lumens), while Andrew had a Hope Vision 1 on the bars and a Niterider Minewt 250 on his helmet (500 lumens).  The bottom line was our lights never slowed us down, until the batteries died on both Andrew’s lights on his last lap and he had to tailgate another rider all the way in.  So the Hope’s Duracells were only lasting about 2 hours on full power, and the Minewt 250 lasted about 3 at full.  I used my Minewt 150 on low power just to light up the area directly in front, and the rechargeable battery lasted fine for over 4 hours.  It complemented the Lupine really well and was dead simple to charge and fit.  I was impressed that the quick release bracket stayed put on the bars despite the terrain.  The only small snag was that the usb charging cover came loose and the socket got filled with gloop.  The powerful lights we had – the Lupine, Ay Ups and Magicshine – were all fantastic.  Quality and weight seemed a tiny bit inferior on the Magicshine, but at the price you can’t complain.

Sam, mid suffering

Human frailty was ever present too.  Most of us decked it at some point. Andrew felt odd during a night lap, then fainted on the bike.  He came to on the ground, found no injuries, threw up, then carried on!  After a team order re-shuffle to get a longer rest, Andrew then went out and threw down our fastest lap.  We thought he was cured, but he suffered again next time round, took more than twice as long, and came back looking like death.  I forgot to eat between laps (too busy filing the wrong brake pads to fit my calipers) then had a major bonk.  The fantastic race marshals helped me out with chocolate and sweets.  None of us got more than 2 hours kip, and cold and damp gnaws at you when you’re off the bike.  Without a gas fire in our marquee, it would have been ten times worse.  If I was planning another puffer, I would spend the most time working out how to keep warm, dry and comfortable between laps.

We don’t own much specialist bike clothing. Our standard riding apparel of jeans and Five-Tens raised a few eyebrows, but it mostly worked fine.  Chafing got a bit nasty though.  A warm, dry change every couple of laps was heaven.  A thermal top under our BHF t-shirts, with a jacket in the bag for when it really pissed down kept us plenty warm even at night.  Poly bags in shoes worked as well as fancy sealskins socks (I know because I wore one of each for a while and couldn’t tell the difference).

So team BHF Scotland survived in one piece, and enjoyed the experience despite finding it far harder than we thought.  At the end, the feeling of pride at having survived it outweighs any sense of disappointment in not ranking higher.  Although if there’s one thing that might make me sign up next year, it’s that if we had all matched Sam and Andy’s speed and consistency, we could have finished a lot higher up the board!  And our change-overs were rubbish – we wasted at least 5 minutes every single lap, often more at night.  Will we be back next year?  Ask me when the chafing has healed.  Oooft.

The final lap...

Overall the race was great fun in spite of the suffering.  Everyone was really friendly and the support we got from the organisers and BHF Scotland was fantastic.  Singletrack Magazine sent us up some lights to test out since we were short of equipment, which was brilliant.  Biggest thanks of all go to all our sponsors who made dragging our cold, wet, muddy arses back out of the tent for one more lap unavoidable.  Without you, we would probably have given up and gone to the pub.

Team performance was a good effort all round.  The results are here.  Sam and Andy were both quick and consistent – if we had all managed this we’d have probably made the top 10. 252km (23 laps) in 24hr 55min won us 36th place out of 78 quad teams – that’s in the top half of the field! Not too bad for a novice enduro team on a strict training regime of christmas turkey and beer. Especially if we were a bit more vigilant on the change-overs, where we generally wasted at least 5 minutes a lap. Andrew had a bit of a nightmare – did our team’s fastest and slowest laps, breaking a chain half way ’round on one lap. Later he came in really late and we thought he’d had another bike problem. “How was your lap?” we asked when he got back.  ”Not bad” he said, “but I fainted on the bike, crashed, then threw up”.  Not bad at all.  Less competitive / daft people might have called it a night there but Andrew went for a wee kip then carried on.  Then his lights ran out before the end of a lap – nae luck! I was the team slow coach.  No excuses, just too many christmas beers perhaps.

The course is a mix of long fire-road climbing slog, and fun singletrack with lots of challenges, tricky rock sections and fast descents.  It’s really tiring to do at any sort of speed, and the special Strathpuffer Krypto-mud literally grinds your bike to pieces.  Brakes fail, forks collapse, and chains disintegrate every lap.  The mud is so abrasive we got through at least 10 sets of brake pads – about 100 times what their ‘normal’ wear should be!

Our bikes and equipment generally held up pretty well.  Three of us had hard tails set up for general trail riding, with big fat DH tyres.  Exactly the same bikes we use for everything, definitely not a cross-country race set-up.  The other bike had full suspension and slightly skinnier tyres but it made no odds.  The bike might make a minute or two in a lap but the half hour differences were down to fitness and reliability.

If you’re thinking about doing it,  you need a decent quality bike with lots of spare parts and the ability to repair things as you go.  Your bike will take a beating.  We managed to get decent quality lights for everyone and they were fantastic, making night riding much easier.  The pace hardly dropped in the dark.  Clothing wasn’t too much of a problem – we mostly wore jeans, trainers and a thermal layer, maybe a jacket when it was raining hard.  Staying warm between laps was – if we hadn’t had the gas fire to get warm and dry it would have been a hundred times worse.

Will we be there next year?  Maybe…

Categorised as:

Events Online Feature