When I was first asked about riding the Strathpuffer in 2019 I was all for it. The plan was simple, 3 bikes 3 riders (myself, my dad and his friend), a van, tent and good spirits. However 2020 was not to be my year, after we had arrived and got set up, I began to feel very sick. Through the night I got progressively worse and in the morning I told my dad that I wanted to go to hospital. Long story short it turned out I needed surgery due to a bowel obstruction that had occurred. Instead of racing and having a *fun weekend with my dad, I was hooked up to about 5 machines and pumped full of morphine. After spending 2 weeks at the hospital I promised myself that I would be back to conquer the ‘Puffer.
This time I had a score to settle, now riding for the Clydesdale Colts (a local cycling club for all ages led by Alan Kain) the plan was to win the overall. They had won the mixed quads in 2020 while I was in surgery and now they wanted to win the quad male and with it the most laps of the event.
The stage was set and we went about preparing for the race. This time I knew that I would need more specialist kit to survive the cold wet night shift rides. After a bit of research I settled on the kit list below.
A spare set of Shimano XC902 (incase my MW702s broke at some point)
Spare 11speed shifter
Spare crankset (this will come in handy at around 4am!)
I dug my Genesis Mantle out of storage as I didn’t want to destroy my lovely Cannondale Scalpel.
I decided that it would need some upgrades so I stuck a Shimano Pro Tharsis dropper (100mm) and Shimano Tharsis 3Five carbon handlebar, I knew that I would like a dropper for the course as some of the descents are long and fast, so the dropper would enable me to stay off the brakes and move around more freely on the bike. The carbon bars were very much a purchase based on the course and past experiences. I had ridden the Glentress 7 in the summer and my hands had died from the vibrations. Looking at the course for the puffer I could see that there was a lot of rocks and rough descents, so the bars were bought to attempt to alleviate some of the pain. They really worked as I was able to ride 100% of the time and didn’t have too many issues with my grip and hand pump.
Kitted out with Mud Huggers front and rear, and a full service from the guys at the shop. The bike was ready.
Genesis Mantle 30
Fox factory 32 SC with remote lockout
Dt Swiss XC1500 wheels
Maxis forecaster 2.20 tyres
Shimano xt groupset
ODI elite motion lock on grips
Tharsis 3Five carbon handlebar
Pro Tharsis 100mm dropper seat post with remote activation
Panzer tyre insert (only in the rear wheel)
The team that the Colts were bringing was nothing short of magical, we had 22 helpers to 12 riders. A little overkill you might say but the club really wanted to win this event and they were pulling out all the stops. 3 large vans were brought up to help with bringing all the gear to the campsite.
We arrived at Inverness on the Thursday night with the aim to go up the hill on Friday morning to set up camp. After waiting in the queue for 4 hours to get hill passes we rushed up the mountain to the spot that we had ear-marked . After getting all the vans set up so that we had cornered off an area that we wanted to use, we all set to work setting up a myriad of gazebos and tents, (6 gazebos, 1 Icelandic tent and a tipi in total). We had an area for bike mechanics, an area for cooking and food preparation. The tipi was used for sleeping and rest. And we had a massive fire next to the gazebo that was used for relaxing after a lap. The fire was the main source of heat as well as used for boiling water for a lot of the food. The guys had raced the puffer before and the setup went really smoothly as they all knew what to do.
Kitchen staff hard at work - These guys were great at keeping us fed and hydrated.
Now that the setup had been done, the pressure was on for me and my teammates to deliver on the win. We had Puffer veteran Niall Carlin starting for us, he was a strong rider and came through after the first lap about 2 mins down on the leader. With a relatively clear field I set off.
I was to go off second out of our quad with the aim to get the fastest lap. Though it wasn’t to be as Mark Mcguire was too strong, besting my lap time by a solid minute. I was the only other rider to go under 40 minutes, so I’ll take that as a mini win.
Warming up in my kit for my second lap
For my riding kit I opted for a a longsleeve thermal top under a road jersey (so that I could carry all my tools easily) and my waterproof on top. The lower half was a similar story; double socks on my feet, bib shorts and thermal longs on underneath my waterproof trousers. The idea with the full waterproof setup was to try to stay as dry as possible to avoid losing heat due to wetness. I would heavily recommend this setup to anyone riding in the winter - racing or just causally riding mountain bikes.
After finishing my lap I set about eating as much as I could as you are always going to need fuel even if you don’t feel hungry. The campfire as well as a dryrobe are critical to staying warm at events like this. I had bought about 5 of my favourite Tesco meal deals as I found that my stomach has a tendency to reject food that I don’t like especially while racing and I was in no mood for my stomach to eject its contents half way through a lap.
My second lap passed without any issues and I was able to maintain our lead in the male quads.
My third time out I punctured about half way through the lap, fortunately the orange seal in the tyre and a dynaplug solved that issue and with a bit of c02 I was off and going again, the total time I was stopped for was about 50seconds, much quicker than changing a tube, I’m fully set on tubeless now on all my bikes.
The rest of the laps merged into one as we raced throughout the night, 1 rider out, 3 riders resting. Just ride, change, eat and rest, change, ride, rinse and repeat throughout the night. Our team consisted of Niall Carlin, myself, Sam Hislop and Finlay Barr.
About lap 6 at around 4am I lost concentration and spun out on a corner, While I did my best to let the bike take the impact to save my body I ended up ripping my trousers and getting a pretty nasty cut on my shin. Nevertheless the team was counting on me so I made it back to camp. I gave my "state of the bike"report to our wonderful mechanics Ronnie + Scott -they found I had broken my crank in the crash and it was a miracle that it hadn’t snapped as I rode the rest of the lap. Fortunately they were able to swap the crank (always carry spares) and clean the bike. Paramedic Dave Carlin cleaned + dressed my wound and full of paracetamol and ibuprofen I was able to complete the final 2 laps needed to win the event.
After prize-giving we headed back to the hotel and I slept from about 12pm to 9am, I hadn’t slept at all during the race as I was too sore / eating to much. But I think that it was worth it as I didn't bonk while riding and was able to have very consistent lap times throughout the race.
Would I do it again - yes, but I probably would do it as a solo or a duo for a new challenge as with a quad you get a lot of rest, this is great for anyone's first time but I feel that I want to push myself more next time. Stay tuned for my report next year.
Huge shout out to the Clydesdale Colts for making this as smooth and as enjoyable as it can be, special mentions include. - Alan Kain and Celia for organising the entire Colts setup and race teams, mechanics Scott + Ronnie, Joe on lights, Dave Carlin and Ewan Jones for their paramedic expertise, and finally Lesley, Sandra, Nancy + Nicola for keeping the food coming throughout the day.
The MVP (Most valuable purchase) of the day turned out to be my MW702 shoes. They were a godsend. After riding for years in summer shoes with overshoes, a real set of winter shoes were incredible. My feet were warm and dry every lap.
A close second was my Avalanche gloves - although they were very dirty and muddy, they kept my hands warm and dry throughout the event and the benefits of having warm hands and feet were on full display as my lap times didn’t vary much throughout the event and I was as comfortable as you can be. Like I say, smooth is comfortable and comfortable is fast.
Riding the entire event in waterproofs was a very good suggestion by one of the mechanics (Barry) has he had done similar events and the key to having ‘fun’ and enjoining yourself is staying dry first and foremost.
Aside from the crank and the puncture I had no issues with my bike at all, brake pads were changed about halfway through, but the bike soldiered on and didn’t let my down at all during my laps.