A ride on the Strathpuffer


Discover why hundreds of mountain bikers clamour each year for a place in one of the world’s toughest 24-hour races

Photograph: gringo.phil (flickr)

Twenty-four hours of mountain biking in the depth of a Scottish winter and on one of the shortest – and darkest – days of the year? It is remarkable that anyone even considers such an event, let alone rushes to enter.

In fact, the Strathpuffer cycling challenge is a year-on-year sell-out success with riders filling places in the solo, pairs and quads categories. Riders travel from near and far to compete and many are return Puffers.

On 18 January 2014, the ninth annual 24-hour mountain biking endurance event known as the Strathpuffer gets under way. The now event, which takes place through 17 hours of darkness close to the Inverness-shire village of Strathpeffer, is incredibly popular.

Origins of the Strathpuffer

The unique day-and-night Strathpuffer was invented when local bike shop owner Steve Macdonald was asked to organise a winter mountain bike event as part of TV’s Adventure Show series. He came up with the concept of a 24-hour cross-country challenge to be held in the forest at Castle Leod.

Entrants compete solo, or as teams of two or four, cycling non-stop around an 11k loop of unrelenting winding and hilly trails.

Steve says: “I wanted to create something different, something Britain had never seen before. I knew we had a great location, a network of ideal forest trails and a susceptibility to some pretty severe weather conditions.

“And when I initially roped in a few friends to help me plan the project we all thought this type of event would be a fantastic idea. But then we tried to imagine how popular a race would be in Scotland, in the depths of winter, and for 24 cold and wet hours.”

The Strathpuffer Ltd team clearly had not reckoned on the enthusiasm of the world’s dedicated mountain biking fraternity. The debut event in 2006 saw 300 people racing to complete as many laps as they could in the 24 hours.

Steve says: “Despite extremely low temperatures and absolutely masses of mud everyone seemed to have a ball.  They all kept saying how great it was to take part in something so mad. And fortunately it made great TV, too.”

The following year, the Strathpuffer attracted another 70 competitors and this year there are 81 solo riders, 60 pairs and 83 quads. The waiting list is usually so long that it is closed well before the event.

Why riders love the Strathpuffer

BBC sports broadcaster Dougie Vipond, a previous Strathpuffer competitor, sums up the event as “completely insane”. But he adds: “It might be mad, cold, wet, painful and frustrating but I love it. I just love the challenge.”

Offering a longer, but no less bonkers-sounding, description of the Strathpuffer is Rich Wild, of Bristol. “Cycling through a deserted pitch-black landscape, the odd bike light in the distance, snow flying around you, lights pointing to the sky like Second World War searchlights as someone falls on the ice, more mud than you can believe, unplanned swims in streams when you pick an incorrect line, hog roast baps at 2am and much more. It’s such a fun event.”

Indeed, Julie Nimmo, of Kilmaurs, Ayrshire, reckons the Strathpuffer is the ultimate MTB event. Julie, 44, has competed twice, once in a quad, when her team won the mixed category, and also solo, when she came home second female.

She says: “As a mountain biker I am always looking for the next challenge. There are so many events and you tick them all off one by one. The Strathpuffer is the big one and eventually you really can’t avoid it.”

Julie reckons the toughest part is between 2am and 4am. She says: “You start in daylight and that’s when you can ride the laps at your fastest. Then the sun sets and your speed is hampered by darkness. Then the tiredness creeps in and around 2am you feel at your worst. Then, when the sun starts to come up again you know you are nearly there. That’s when your spirits lift again and you feel euphoric.”

Drew ThomsonJulie’s partner Drew Thomson, 43, is a strong contender for a top five place in the 2014 solo male category. In the Strathpuffer 2013 he was fifth and completed an amazing 23 laps. He agrees that the early morning is the toughest time. He says: “I just keep going, doing lap after lap, and not thinking about it too much. But those early hours are really tough. You just have to keep pushing on. This time I really want to break that 24 laps barrier.”

It is surprising, when you hear about the challenges and difficulties of the Strathpuffer that riders go back for more. Paul McGreal believes there is “something addictive about it”. He says: “It’s like an itch that can’t be scratched. I keep going back – twice as a pair and once as an unsupported solo – because it keeps beating me. There is therefore unfinished business.”

The Strathpuffer 2014 will be Hannah Kemlo’s third go. Hannah, 30, of Glasgow, says: “The first year I entered I was part of a quad team with boys. It was quite relaxed and the weather was decent but I nearly cried on lap one because I had to walk so much of it. Once I realised I wasn’t any slower than the other girls I found I enjoyed it a lot more. It’s tough for everyone.”

In 2013, Hannah was part of an all-girl quad. Her team came home in second place. This time she is competing with just one other woman in a pair. She says: “Eventually I’d like to do the event solo but I am building up to that. The hardest part is the mental side of things. It’s motivating yourself to get back out to do a lap when you are wet and cold. My friend, Christine Little and I will be taking it in turns to do a lap.”

Event for new and experienced

The Strathpuffer attracts a wide range of riders, from newcomers to very experienced.

Steve says: “Because it’s possible to do the event at your own speed and complete as few or as many laps as you want, entrants can be of all levels and abilities. However, riders do need to be aware that the conditions are often tough and when it’s cold and wet, even the most experienced can suffer.”

For Elspeth Luke, of Crosshill, Glasgow, the Strathpuffer was her first ever adventure race. The 32-year-old musician had only owned a mountain bike for three weeks. She says: “I got my bike for Christmas and suddenly I was racing on it in the Strathpuffer. It was a baptism of fire. But the event got me hooked on adventure racing and mountain biking.”

At the opposite end of the scale is Gary Tompsett, an adventure race organiser and veteran competitor. He is also a two-time winner of the Strathpuffer. He says: “I love the challenge of finding comfort with the discomfort so the Strathpuffer is perfect for me. I won as a pair with John Laughlin in 2005 and I won the solo singlespeed category in 2011. It’s a happy fantastic event that is so wrong that it’s right.”

So could the Strathpuffer be for you? Paul sums up the Strathpuffer as the closest you’ll come to a “real” adventure within the confines of an organised event. He concludes: “The Strathpuffer is long, dark, cold and unrelenting. You certainly explore yourself and your own resolution and tolerance levels. But it’s also an amazing adventure.”

See Strathpuffer 24.

A Strathpuffer Lite takes place in the summer.

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