Lee Craigie won the right to host
Britain’s most bizarre mountain bike adventure race. Join her as she juggles the craziness involved in choosing this year’s Man and Woman of Porage.
Words lee craigie Photography james robertson
In 1999, Ultra endurance legend and tweaked genius Gary Tompsett visited the Czech Republic and entered a mountain bike event called The Rocky Man. It was a hard-core mountain bike challenge event, but with its tongue pressed so firmly in its cheek that this in itself was a test of endurance. Gary was so delighted by it, he decided that Scotland needed its own version. After all, this is the man responsible for the famous Rat Race around Edinburgh; a popular multidisciplinary challenge event that saw participants paddle, abseil and ride their way around Scotland’s capital city.
It would be fair to say that Gary’s events are fiercely competitive and extremely physically challenging, but it wouldn’t be wise to suggest they are all about winning. The man prides himself on curve balls and surprises. If you aren’t a fan of the unexpected, then an event organised by Gary Tompsett might be worth avoiding. If, however, you thrive on being tricked, cajoled, pushed to your physical and emotional limit and given a maths problem to solve that’s been printed backwards on a beer mat, then The Man of Porage might have your name on it.
Making the porage.
Established the year Gary returned from the Czech Republic having been inspired by The Rocky Man’s cheeky, goodwilled malice and creative challenges, the arbitrarily named ‘Man of Porage’ began in a remote, secret location among a group of seasoned mountain bike friends. Silliness was key, seriousness penalised, and yet the competitive nature of the event somehow remained. Behind the smirks and nonchalance, everyone coveted the right to claim one of the two wooden bowls that would become the property of the Man and Woman of Porage for that year.
In 2015, I finally earned my invitation to this underground bike event that had reached cult status among my more seasoned peers. Five of us drove six hours from Inverness to reach the highest, most barren, windswept and soulless spot on the UK mainland. For the next 11 hours we rode, pushed, carried and dragged our bikes round in circles through the snow and later, desperately, in the damp darkness.
When we became disheartened, Gary or one of his volunteers would pop up out of the heather and make us eat Curly Wurlys as fast as possible, or pan for gold, or reward us with mulled Buckfast if we solved a riddle. It felt as though our motivations were being played with. Every time, just as we were about to throw in the towel, someone would appear to make us laugh and remind us that this was not so much a test of fitness, but one of humour and resilience.
Always read the fine print.
What Gary failed to make clear to me was that if you became the Man or Woman of Porage that year, you became responsible for organising the whole thing the following one, thus earning yourself the additional and illustrious title of ‘Rotating Head of Porage’. And so when I won the title, I did what I do best and delegated.
Friend and endurance rider Jenny Graham stepped up and together we masterminded the first (Wo) Man of Porage around our stomping ground, the Cairngorm National Park.
We recruited volunteers (friends, family members, Backcountry.scot and Torridon Mountain Rescue), we created a suitably vague and fact-devoid Facebook event page and engineered a series of elaborate challenges to test all who foolishly trusted us. The outcome was a female heavy, mountain bike smash-fest that included Tyrolean traverses, slacklining and packrafting. Face painting was essential, as was taking an oath of self-responsibility and finally, to keep things fair, we decided to double points for evidence of café stops.
Bring on the porage!
Forty confused, but open-minded, Porage hopefuls turned up in Aviemore at 8am one spring morning to take the Porage Oath. Then, with faces painted and maps scrutinised, they set off in giggling groups to visit as many of the marked controls on their maps as possible before the sun went down. An equal number of volunteers spilled out over the National Park to man control stations and facilitate river crossings. At each successfully negotiated control, participants received from volunteers a letter of the alphabet on an annoyingly small piece of paper and were reminded that at some point on their convoluted 80km off-road journey, they also had to find an egg.
As Rotating Head of Porage and Mistress of Ceremonies, I had the privilege of scooting about between controls to judge participants’ levels of colouring in and witness attempts at planking while eating cake. I just had to ensure I was back at the River Spey by sunset in time to help facilitate the packrafting and egg-boiling element of the challenge.
With everyone having safely packrafted across the Spey, built a fire and boiled their egg, we all now assembled by the riverside for the final challenge. Participants dug about in their pockets and retrieved from among the broken eggs and cake crumbs, the paper letters they had collected that day. With the last vestiges of concentration, words were formed from these letters, (most of which not suitable for print) the longest of which would determine who would be Man/Woman of Porage that year. In the men’s race, it was a done deal. Out of forty participants, there were only eight guys anyway and six of them had either stopped in the pub early or pushed their bikes tens of miles having suffered mechanicals, so Paul took the Porage Bowl for the second year running. But in the women’s race, things were a bit more competitive. With a draw on length of word and number of controls visited in the shortest time, Nicky and Lucy were tied for the win. So the 2017 Woman of Porage had to be decided by a single round of ‘sudden death plank slapping’ from which Lucy walked away with the coveted title and two bruised forearms.
Porage is an annual event that remains the antithesis of other mountain bike events. It’s staunchly anti-commercial and, while extremely physically challenging, is also liberating and entertaining in equal measure. It will have you about to drop to your knees weeping with frustration and exhaustion only to be swept up again with guffawing laughter. Man of Porage is a lesson in humility and humour, both so much more valuable that almost any other attribute traditionally associated with a competitive event. Bike racing is silly. Might as well embrace that fact…