Strathpuffer: The Winter Wonder of the HighlandsEvents
Story by Cat Sutherland // Photography by Gary Williamson & Bobby McCombie
I woke wheezing for breath as the deep-seated cold took a grip of my lungs. At the sound of the 2am alarm, I knew it was time to go again. I’d succumbed to a power nap to reboot my weary legs and wandering willpower, ready now to take on my 15th lap of this brutal yet brilliant 24-hour mountain bike race known as the Strathpuffer.
On its 12th year and showing no signs of slowing, this world-renowned event is held each year in the Scottish Highlands. What was once a local affair has transitioned into an epic winter wonder. Likeminded riders look to race the clock as well as each other in pairs, quads or even solo. The latter was my elected category, and with a late entry and a somewhat laissez-faire approach, I was keen simply to survive the fabled course – often wild with lashings of ice and snow.
Said snow came and left in time for a stunning weekend of freezing mid-January temperatures teamed with bright blue skies and a glowing sunset. After jostling for position through the running start, I found pedalling rhythm and eventually my breath. Racing the first lap, I was conscious to look up and take in the spectacular views as well as the cheers from crowds framing the fire road climb. My memories led me back to riding the route of the Tour De France as caravans, cars and tents lined the way with vivacious spirit and even a vuvuzela. Heartfelt thanks go out to that sparky spectator delivering her noisy encouragement each round; a distraction in the early hours for my numbing feet and delirious mind.
After the long and steady first climb, the track summited and changed pace where a narrow wooden bridge marked the transition to a trail of technical delights. A strategically positioned medical station sat close to the impending pitfalls that would later turn to lethal, icy snares in the low temperatures. As is customary in the early hours of my endurance racing endeavours, I slid hard in the second lap and hit the stony sides of the trail, my hand absorbing the impact and reminding me to take it easy for the long game. Later, I’d find myself nervously negotiating the black ice and manoeuvring my bike through the gorse bush to avoid falling at all costs.
As riders relaxed into their saddles and the rhythm of the course, I found confidence on my new bike, a beautiful Bianchi Methanol CV. My shiny new ride made light of the punchy climbs and I couldn’t help but love the mix of weaving singletrack, loose descents and swooping turns that marked the final stretch. A carefully crafted course made for a remarkable number of laps set by 877 riders – a total of 6,583, the highest in Puffer history. I spent much of the daylight hours chatting to fellow riders. A bond rapidly forms from sharing the highs and lows of endurance racing. As a solo competitor, keeping your mind occupied as well as your legs turning is critical to survival.
As darkness fell, the testy conditions presented sobering moments – bodies and bikes were skidding and stumbling through the toughest under-tyre terrain on record. But camaraderie was in full force as night set in, calls of concern delivered to anyone flagging as the time ticked by.
Plagued by lighting troubles, I spent my first three laps of darkness with a single head lamp beam, my battery pack playing games as my drivetrain succumbed to freezing conditions. Armed with smiles and mugs of tea, my faithful pit crew were on hand to set me right and on my way. I’d had to supress my energy and enthusiasm in the early stages; I knew that when darkness knocked on the door, it would cast a shadow over my morale as I battled cold and progressive tiredness. Soon it hit me. By 1am, my weary body craved a rest, and the light and warmth of the smoky fire pit that marked our camp spot reeled me in. Never had a hot bowl of pasta and a Snickers tasted so satisfyingly good! I’d been riding since 10.30am, and I snuggled in for mere minutes of rest.
As much as the constant riding grinds at your legs, the repetitive nature is what eats at your mental strength – your brain battles to ride the same lines mile after mile. Ready and relaxed, I took off for another few laps, and the cold hit me once again. As I circled for the third time, my smiles were replaced by wavering sickness and the effects of a second body slam that bubbled tears in my eyes. I pulled up past the van and got off the bike. Within moments, the bed was down and I savoured a few hours of sleep – my toes frozen to my socks, in turn cemented to my shoes.
For the second time, the piercing buzz of the alarm woke me up and as the light shone through the window I knew the end was in reach. Refreshed by daylight and an encouraging team, I took off once more – my 17th lap of the 24-hour time limit. Riding those oh-so familiar trails, I descended for the final time to the crowd of fellow finishers, supporters, marshals and hosts – to find that even with my sleepy pit stop, I was holding 3rd place in the solo female category. There were minutes in it and it was tense. I stood around watching and waiting to see if the rider behind me would emerge and make it for a last lap. As the clock ticked to 10am, my podium was secure and I joined in the elated spirit of the crowd, who were delighted to have also secured their Puffer prowess.
Hearing the stories of the many riders who had made the journey to ride, it was impossible not to draw inspiration. Children as young as 11 had persisted throughout the night, as well as a new mother with a baby to feed in addition to herself between laps. Strathpuffer is a battle of attrition for the body and the brain, fighting the harshest of Scottish winter conditions, yet this blend of mild insanity and deep satisfaction makes it a calendar favourite amongst the mountain bike fraternity. Without a doubt, it is one of the most rewarding races for endurance feats, technical treats and electric atmosphere.