I bumped and bounced down the trail and across the narrow bridge above an icy stream. I felt slightly dazed and out of control. The darkness seemed to be closing in, enveloping me, deepening in the already black night. I began to wonder if I’d hit my head when I flew over the bars down a steep icy rock slab just moments ago. This was the Strathpuffer. This was a proper ‘puffer. Snow, ice and 17 hours of cold, dark nighttime in the Highlands of Scotland.
I was always going to race singlespeed. The Highland Trail success had already decided that. Singlespeeders seem to excel at the ‘puffer course as well. The only change came from reading one of Jason Miles‘ past blogs. He mentioned he rode a 34:17 gear set up. I had only ridden 32:18 previously which is a bit easier but decided to change that to 32:16. Jason had won multiple times so if I wanted to compete it made sense to use the same gearing. Little did I know how much I would regret that decision.
I knew from the start that I wouldn’t be competing at the front of the race, the training just hadn’t happened for that. I was still hopeful I could finish in the top 10 though. The first lap was a lot of fun, it always is. I forced myself to hold back from the all out sprint I usually do at the start of these races and found myself riding just behind Jason and Guy Martin, seems this was the right pace then. Near the end of the first lap and I was still feeling strong when I suddenly had a horrible thought. I checked my wrist and I was right, my dibber was still in my jacket pocket in the car! I took a detour down the fireroad right near the end, dug out the dibber and zip tied it to my wrist. By the time I backtracked to where I left the trail and continued down to the finish I had lost quite a few places but these are long races and it had only just begun. I had asked Sarah not to tell me how well I was doing for the whole race. It’s difficult to pace yourself in this length of race anyway but even harder when you push yourself too hard for a couple of laps trying to get away from someone breathing down your neck. I’ve done that before at a race and just found it frustrating. That said, looking back now I feel I could have done more during this ‘puffer, perhaps a mix of the two tactics is best.
It quickly became a case of grinding away up the slippy fireroad in too hard a gear and then trying to make some time back on the singletrack. And repeat. It wasn’t long before I was regretting the gearing choice. The fireroad became painfully slow and sections of it had to be walked when it properly froze in the night. Ice tyres would have helped of course but I find it hard to justify the cost of them for one race a year! Before everything froze over though I noticed riders slipping around on the rocks in the singletrack with ice tyres on so I’m not sure how much of an advantage I would have gained over the course of the whole race. They certainly would have been useful however when I plummeted into the darkness down the icy rock slab in the middle of the night. After that fall I continued down the trail and across the bridge then started up the hill on the other side before I began to wonder why it seemed to be getting darker. Eventually, just before the switchback climb I stopped to check my light. Sure enough, the cable had been pulled out of the dynamo hub and my main front light had been gradually dimming. I was relieved at least that it wasn’t just shear exhaustion or that i’d hit my head and I was hallucinating.
After grinding my way round the course for the full 24 hours, repeatedly wondering why I’d chosen such a difficult gear, I finally finished with 24 laps and still not a clue as to where I was positioned. Sarah met me at the finish and told me how i’d done. 6th place overall and 3rd place singlespeed. I was very pleased with this result, 3 more laps than I had managed last time and on a ridiculous geared singlespeed!
Thanks to my girlfriend Sarah for the amazing support. Thanks also to Jason Miles for influencing my gear choice! Although I believe he struggled with the gearing this time as well, read his blog here.