- Taking gulps of partially frozen water and crunching through the sharp shards of ice to be able to swallow.
- ‘Tripoding’* down steep frozen rock slabs with a planned bail out into the bushes.
- Wearing shorts in minus temperatures through ice, snow and 16 hours of darkness.
- Repeating every hour on a bike with only 1 gear for 24 hours.
This was a proper ‘Puffer.
They don’t come around every year but I was lucky enough to be at the 2019 edition of the Strathpuffer.
*’Tripoding’ – Two wheels, one leg. A controlled-ish slide.
For the last few years other commitments have limited bike riding to the occasional blast around the local woods or a quick spin on the roads. To keep my mind happy i’ve tried to fit in at least 1 long race per year. My thinking is that i’m just packing a month or so of riding into 1 ride. 2019 was going to start with the Strathpuffer again, which I hadn’t done since 2015. I was treating it as a long challenging ride rather than a race. Going into a race like this without the training but with high hopes of succeeding is a recipe for an unhappy ending.
As of October 2018 my Puffer/Highland Trail race bike, the Singular Swift, was still going strong although now as a rigid 6-speed bike rather than a singlespeed hardtail. I fully intended to use this bike, it was bombproof, or so I thought, and I had done many miles on it. One morning I was trying to locate the source of an ominous creak from the front end when I noticed a large crack on the underside of the top tube where it met the steerer tube. Not quite as bombproof as I had thought.
Needless to say, this was a bit of a blow only 3 months before the race. I hadn’t intended to spend much money on the Puffer given I wasn’t aiming to really race it. I began looking at new dream bikes, mid-range new bikes, and replacement frames/using most the parts off the old bike. The most realistic option of course being a new or second hand frame.
Replacing the frame had it’s own issues. It turns out a lot has changed since my old Swift was built. I needed a 1 1/8th steerer and a quick release sized rear end if I didn’t want to get a whole new wheelset/forks. I spent every evening browsing many 2nd hand options, nearly buying a whole new bike a few times and eventually getting hold of a 2nd hand On One Inbred frame at some point in November.
Everything transferred nicely onto this bike with only 1 issue. It now had to be singlespeed specific as it has horizontal dropouts. I hadn’t ridden a singlespeed for any length of time in a few years. The bike felt great to ride though and I decided to get some suspension up front to make the ride a bit more forgiving.
Training isn’t as rewarding as racing. So it was that with very little training and suddenly riding a singlespeed I found myself getting ready for the Strathpuffer again. This time round I also didn’t have any support team. I was riding solo, singlespeed and unsupported. I couldn’t wait.
I snuck my way up the fireroad looking for a spot to squeeze in my car. I was late to the party and it was pretty full already. I really needed to be on the track so I didn’t have to leave the route to get to my ‘support’, which was just the boot of the car. I found a spot near the top of the first section of fireroad and bumped the car off the trail with the boot facing the fireroad. I was not sure the car would get back out but that was a problem for another day.
In the morning I got everything ready in the boot so it was easy to access and left some food and water outside next to it to save some time in the early stages of the race. I rolled down to the start and plonked my bike down behind the rows of people holding bikes for other competitors. It was beginnning to feel a bit lonely, I didn’t know anyone else at this race.
After a bit of nervous chat and shuffling about the crowd started moving and we all trotted along the road to our bikes. I politely parted the line of people holding up bikes to retrieve my bike from behind them and then made my way up the fireroad. This was by far the most relaxed start to a race i’ve ever had, I usually charge off round the first lap as though i’m going to win it and then regret it later.
My main goal was to achieve consistent lap times. It’s is very common to have fast laps at the beginnning and then lose lots of time just trying to keep going at the end. I wanted to see if I could still be pushing a decent pace by the end of the 24 hours.
I was relearning how to ride a singlespeed. You spend a huge amount of time standing to pedal and this makes eating while riding difficult, and stopping to eat is just wasting time. You need just the right gradient that you can sit while riding and it needs to be smooth enough and long enough to actually have time to get something out of a pocket and into your mouth. With the current route at the Strathpuffer this turned out to be the fireroad section from the start line up to the top of the fireroad, although every so often on this stretch I still had to stand. This meant whenever I stopped to pick up food and water I had to predict how much/what I would want to eat in nearly an hours time. Numerous times I ended up carrying lots of food for a few laps and other times I found myself desperately trying to shove food in on a short ‘sitting’ section soon after my pit stop as I was ravenous.
The route itself is brilliant. I really enjoy that it has changed a bit as I have ridden the route far too many times. The route now veers towards the left after Old Bill the skeleton and the frozen rock slabs. It tackles 2 steep climbs that were in the very earliest Strathpuffer route. These are steeper and longer than the rest of the route and after a couple of laps there was no way I could tackle them without gears. So it was for the first time ever I had a mandatory walking section every lap.
Part of the beauty of singlespeeding is the attitude it instills in you out of necessity. I have found when riding with gears at some point I will start blaming the bike. “If only I had a few more gears” “What is that clicking sound…” “Agh I just got the wrong gear there I will have to slow down a bit to get up this hill”. With a singlespeed this negative thinking doesn’t happen. You don’t have a choice, you don’t have any options. You have your bike and your body and you want to achieve continuous forward motion. It’s beautifully simple. It’s meditative. It takes all thoughts away from the bike and lets your mind be free. If you can’t ride it then you walk. If you are walking then you are walking. You don’t jump off and have a quick moan about “if I only had gears”. You just walk. When you are done walking you get back on and ride, you can rest on the bike.
The hours ticked by and I kept moving forward. Aside from the rare brief chat with other riders, I was interacting with no one (I was singlespeed, we travel at a completely different pace on each section of track). Every time I needed to stop, I changed my water bottle, grabbed some food out of the boot of the car and kept moving. Mentally I found the lack of support team a great way to keep moving. There were no comforts at my car. There were no reasons to stop longer than absoloutely necessary. Actually it was way more pleasant to be moving. It was cold at the car, very cold.
At some point during the night I discovered I had a blocked water bottle. I thought it must have been so muddy and slightly frozen that it was just blocked. I didn’t think too much about it and swapped it when I got back to the car. I had a few water bottles just sitting on the ground next to the car for quick turnarounds. I soon realised this next one was blocked too, it was completely frozen. When I got back to the car next time I opened up the boot, downed a lot of partially frozen water, it must have been slightly warmer in the car, grabbed a bottle from inside and then kept going. The bottle froze before the end of the first section of singletrack.
From then on I had to stop every lap, down some water and crunch through the shards of ice and then keep going. I stopped taking a water bottle, there was not much point carrying a block of ice. It was tough, I was always very thirsty well before the hour of riding was up and I could drink again. I was limited to how much I could drink in one go because if I stood still for a few minutes drinking frozen water I quickly started to feel very cold.
I never really fully acknowledged the cold, sure my water was frozen and the track was an ice rink but it’s been like that at the Strathpuffer before and as long as I kept moving I felt ok. I put a fleece on over my other fleece (pro cycle kit here) at some point and changed my socks and gloves at another. Other than that I felt fine. In the early hours a few people commented on the fact I still had shorts on. It never occurred to me to stop and change them, my legs must have been too numb to tell.
At no point during any of the race did I know how I was doing, I lost count of laps around 8 and I couldn’t tell if I was racing any of the riders I saw during my laps. I found this a really nice way to race. It kept my mind clear of any external pressures, all forward movement came from internal motivation. Sure if you are actually racing it really helps to get a boost by knowing where someone is ahead or behind you but it can be equally demoralising when you are struggling. I pushed a consistent pace for the whole ride, I maintained a decent level of motivation and really enjoyed it, all of it. Well, nearly all of it.
After a long dark night the much anticipated sunrise lap came around eventually in the most dissapointing fashion possible. It was dull and grey and drizzling. The course that had nearly thawed out with all the wheels passing over it suddenly turned to sheet ice again. The last 2 laps were the worst laps ever, the usual morning boost was crushed by the horrendous conditions. I was flying high and loving it right up until the last 2 laps when I was suddenly hating it and just wanting it to be over.
By the time I finished I was completely finished. I had a look at how many laps I had done (somehow thought I had done 22 at this point, it was actually 21) and was very happy with that. I saw that I was in 6th place and hobbled up the fireroad, content and exhausted. A top 10 finish is always my goal at the back of mind and I have achieved it in all the solo endurance events I have done. I was pleased not to break that streak. I bumped my car out of the ditch successfully and drove away for a sleep. Another Puffer complete!
I later found out my name had been called as 1st place Singlespeeder. I had forgotten they give a shout out to that at the Puffer. In all other races, singlespeed is either a different category with a full podium or it’s just not. I’m not sure why they just give a prize to 1st place singlespeeder. I was 3rd place Singlespeeder in 2015 but it’s not a different category so it made no difference. Both times I was racing the overall in my mind. Interestingly I was 6th overal in 2015 and 2019 but 3rd singlespeeder in 2015 and 1st singlespeeder in 2019. The good singlespeeders must have not shown up this year!
Looking back I am very happy with my performance. I had very little training, I was recently converted to singlespeed and I had no support crew. I managed to get 6th place purely by minimising stop time and maintaining consistent lap times throughout. I achieved my goal of consistent lap times way better than I thought I would. Now having done that I’m really looking forward to having another shot at a 24 hour with a decent training block before it, or even just riding my bike.
Why write about this 5 months after the event? Well I have a big race coming up which I have also done minimal training for. I know I have the underlying fitness to complete the race but I still want to compete at whatever level I am at.
Fitness is completed before you get to the event, you can’t do anything about it at that stage. What you can do is ensure your head is in the game. I’ve analysed my performance at the Puffer and i’m pretty content with how I did. I intend to use the same tactics I did at the Puffer. Don’t look at how everyone else is doing or where you are. Ride your own ride and don’t ride too hard. Consistency is key.