Mud, Sweat and Gears – Strathpuffer 2020Events
Written by Jenny Tough // Photography by Gary Williamson
An impressive array of vans, motorhomes, tents, and even a teepee line the gravel roads winding uphill through Contin Forest, and a nervous buzz greets daybreak. The sun rises as late as 8am this far north in January, and a freezing squall blows in with it as bikers and their support teams emerge from their course-side camping setups. The whizzing sound of flywheels dominates the air, and smoke rises from each team’s campfires. These fires will be kept going for the next 24 hours to provide warmth and light throughout the long winter night. This is the Strathpuffer.
More than 1000 mountain bikers have gathered in the Highlands for the infamous event, now in its 15th year. Journalists dub it as one of the toughest mountain bike races in the world. The event is a non-stop, 24-hour lap race through a mix of forestry road and technical singletrack, and riders can compete in quads, pairs, or solo. The rider (or team) who completes the most laps, wins. Past editions of the race have seen all weather conditions, most notably ice and snow, but this year is tentatively mild. Experienced riders are noting the conditions and hastily fastening mudguards – some even DIY plastic bottle bodges – to their bikes. The squall that has greeted the morning is almost taunting the racers with one last-minute attack on the trails, ensuring what was already a muddy ride becomes oversaturated.
After the bagpiper finishes his opening tune, the race starts with a sea of bright waterproofs and helmets rushing up the narrow road to start the first climb of the very first lap. It’s just under forty minutes before the first rider returns, and a steady stream of the fastest begin screeching into the marquee, ‘dibbing’ their trackers in the start/finish zone to record their laps. The updates are available on a screen for team members and support crews to keep track. Spectators cheer and thrill at the sight of the muddy riders – only one lap in, and many are completely awash with mud, covering clothes and faces.
Team riders quickly swap the dibber and send the second rider onto their lap, while solo riders turn around and start up the hill again. It will be a repetitive process for them, as most will attempt to continue lapping the course for the full 24 hours. Although to tempt them away from the punishing laps are dry and comfortable campsites, catering and even brewery bar.
It doesn’t feel like much time has passed before the sun starts to set. With 17 hours of darkness ahead of them, riders begin donning extra layers and mounting bright torches to their handlebars and helmets. They will be grateful for the hours memorising the course and learning locations of the deep puddles, disguised rocks and bad lines.
The sky has stayed clear since the startline torrent, nevertheless the mud on the course is reportedly much worse than previous editions. Support crews hastily wash down clogged drivechains on every lap, and even install new brake pads less than half of the way through the race. With so many tyres passing through the dampest sections of the trail, puddles are expanding and muddy ruts deepening. No serious accidents are reported, but many riders take trips over their handlebars in the slippery conditions.
At 10:05pm, the halfway firework lights up the cloudless night sky. Fatigue sets in and the marquee grows quieter. With the exception of the quad teams, who will mostly continue putting in sub-hour laps, taking advantage of the rest between each individual’s time to perform, many riders have succumbed to the dark night and crawled into their vans for a brief nap. This is when the race is won. At the top of the field, leading solo riders are maintaining a consistent pace on their unceasing laps, pausing for only a few minutes to refuel, put on dry clothes, and maintain their bikes before pushing onwards.
A pink sunrise fires up the sky, and the race suddenly picks up pace after the struggle of the cold and dark night. There is a rush to get in the last remaining laps before the race director lowers the barrier on the marquee. Spectators are hooked on the computer screen; there is not much between the leading solo men, lead now by Kyle Beattie. The women’s race was wrapped up by a dominant Zara Mair early on, but the race for second on the women’s podium is enticingly close. A cheering crowd grows at the finish line as the final riders pile in, exuberant, exhausted, and above all, caked in mud.
For one of the toughest cycle races on the planet, the award ceremony is a typically low-key affair, with a makeshift podium made out of stacked pallets, and prizes from the event sponsors accompany unique metal trophies. The muddy conditions delivered a relatively slow year by number of laps completed, and worn-out champions struggle on seized legs to climb the podium to receive their accolades, to the cheer and laughter of the small crowd.
The 15th Strathpuffer will be remembered and retold by veterans of the race for its challenging trail conditions, and doubtless earn a venerable spot in the history of this legendary race.
Strathpuffer 2020 Winners:
Solo female: Zara Mair 18 laps
Male Pairs: I-Cycles, 27 laps
Mixed Pairs: Team Breakpad/JMC, 21 laps
Female Pairs: Erin Wood and Anne Murray, Bennachie Bike Bothy
Male Quad: Orange Fox Bikes – Citrus Vulpes, 30 laps
Mixed Quad: Clydesdale Colts 1, 28 laps
Female Quad: The Powerpuffers, 22 laps
Eight (schools only): Invergordon Academy, 23 laps