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Recounting the highs and lows of the Strathpuffer 24

By John Davidson

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By Mike Dennison

Passing 'Bill' on the singletrack. Picture: Dorothy Carse
Passing 'Bill' on the singletrack. Picture: Dorothy Carse

Around this time each year, I can usually be found making last-minute tweaks to my mountain bike. And along with hundreds of fellow competitors from across the UK, engaging in the ‘dark art’ of predicting the Scottish weather.

Biking gear for every eventuality would lie scattered across the living room floor, and a selection of high-calorie snacks and drinks would spill from a cool box on the kitchen table.

If the ground’s frozen I’ll need Ice Spiker tyres for traction on the pan-hard trail. But if it thaws, then the skinnies will be the tyre of choice to cut through the infamous sea of mud. Just one of many crucial decisions that need to be made!

But not this year. Like so many other events, the Strathpuffer 24 has been cancelled. Instead, I’m left to reflect on the highs… and lows… of my previous efforts to conquer this legendary challenge.

For those unfamiliar with endurance racing, the Strathpuffer is a 24-hour mountain bike race, taking place annually near Contin in the Highlands. Each January, bikers from across the UK congregate in Strathpeffer, to race around a 12.5km circuit in a forest, on the side of a steep hill.

Competing solo, or in relay pairs and teams, the rider or team in each category that completes the most laps in the allotted 24 hours is declared the winner.

A simple enough concept on the face of it, right? Or perhaps not…

With less than seven hours of light each day in January, most of the race takes place in the dark. And then there’s the weather. I’ve raced in temperatures as low as -12 degrees Celsius on a course plastered in ice and snow, and I’ve also raced it in the rain, or rather, in a sea of Strathpeffer mud, which seeps into your boots and clothing, sucks relentlessly at your wheels, and gradually chokes the life out of every moving part of your bike.

The mudfest of an event can play havoc with the bike!
The mudfest of an event can play havoc with the bike!

But worst of all is when it’s neither one thing nor the other; when the temperature fluctuates either side of freezing, and you’re not sure what you are riding on until it’s too late. As I found out during my first attempt… that’s when accidents happen!

It's 3.30am, Raigmore Hospital A&E, 2013. It started well enough – knocking out some rapid laps. But as darkness fell, so did the temperatu – and the game changed.

Mud turned to ice, a veneer of verglas formed on the technical rocky sections, and the course became a treacherous test of nerve. My relative inexperience was exposed, and with hindsight, the outcome was inevitable.

As riders began switching to Ice Spiker tyres, I raced on in blissful ignorance… until I suddenly stopped. A dubious line choice on a fast icy descent, and the next thing I knew I was picking myself up off the deck, with the razor sharp end of a sheared brake lever buried in my thigh. Game over.

The A&E nurse’s needlework was precise, unlike my ‘gung-ho’ approach to tackling the UK’s toughest mountain bike race, which was clearly in need of a rework.

And so my obsession was born. Undeterred, I enlisted the support of a friend and fellow mountain biker Jon, and together we planned, we plotted… and we trained! Our objective was simple – a podium spot in the ‘Pairs’ category within three years. And we left no stone unturned in pursuit of our goal, including building bikes specifically designed to handle the ‘Puffer mud!

Our perseverance paid off – in 2014 we placed 7th, and in 2015 we came 5th.

Winding the clock forward to January 2016, the situation couldn’t have been more different to my first naïve attempt. Conditions were appalling; persistent rain and deep thick mud, and we were loving it!

Mike en route to third place. Picture: Colin Rae
Mike en route to third place. Picture: Colin Rae

At 3.30am Jon and I were holding 5th place, but gaining ground. We gradually caught and overhauled two more teams, eventually crossing the line in 3rd place. Mission accomplished – job done!

An appropriate moment to hang up my ‘Puffer wheels, and bow out gracefully perhaps? Not likely! I’ve since competed twice in the ‘Solo’ category and I’d be there again now, had the race not been cancelled. Last year, a 74-year-old completed the race, so I know there’s a few ‘Puffers in me yet.

But what exactly is it about the ‘Puffer that draws me, and hundreds of others, back to a cold muddy forest on the side of a Scottish hill each January?

In truth, there’s no ‘one thing’, but many different things, which blended together make this event so compelling. There’s the chaotic ‘Le Mans’ style mass start, where hundreds of riders sprint 200 yards to their bikes, before haring off up the first climb – the first mile of the course is reminiscent of a Tour de France climb with competitor’s camper vans and gazebos lining the trail, festooned with fairy lights, and banners; music blares out, fire pits blaze and barbecues are tended by pit crews who yell encouragement at the passing racers.

At key locations, volunteer marshals dole out sweets and encouragement in equal measure, while the racers urge each other on through the night. And then there’s the challenge… and the mud / snow / ice / rain / sleet / wind – delete a maximum of two, dependant on the year!

But most of all, there’s ‘the craic’, and the camaraderie. The ‘Puffer is a real melting pot of mountain biking personalities; of all ages and abilities and from all four corners of the country. And it is perhaps this which makes it such an iconic race.

While it’s seemingly impossible to predict the weather ahead of race day, a festival atmosphere and good craic are always guaranteed!

Mike and his team partner Jon triumphant in 2016.
Mike and his team partner Jon triumphant in 2016.
  • Mike Dennison lives in rural Aberdeenshire and is the marketing and tourism development coordinator for Sustrans Scotland

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