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Cold. Brutal. Epic.

By Talyn Williams
26, Jan, 2018

Team Alpkit head North to witness one of the toughest 24hr mountain bike endurance races

©Alpkit

Casting my mind back to last Thursday, I was sitting with my coffee in front of the morning news watching various reporters on every channel warn me not to drive anywhere. “Don’t go out in your car" they told me. “Avoid long distance journeys” they said, “as heavy snowfall is causing dangerous conditions”.

Naturally, I climbed into the fully loaded Alpvan, picked up marketing man Dan and bike guru Liam, and began the journey north. 8 hours north, to Strathpeffer in Scotland where we would be taking part in one of, if not THE, toughest 24hr mountain bike endurance races in the UK (and quite possibly on the planet). Maybe we’d lost our minds, maybe we were just pumped full of adrenaline in the face of the incredible challenge that is the ‘Puffer.

A shot from in the van of the road surrounded by snowy mountains

Entering the Cairngorms

 

Strathpuffer has always been on our radar and when the opportunity to sponsor the ‘Quads’ category arose, we jumped at the chance. Being our first year, we thought we’d just head up to see what it was all about with a small Alpkit pop-up shop for anyone seeking a warm jacket in the cold, as well as some Sonder bikes for a few test laps.

 

After racing the weather on the way up, we arrived in plenty of time to pitch up the 6 man Heksa, meaning there was plenty of room for our winter camping kit as well as Liam’s extraordinarily long legs.

A man stood by a fire whilst it's snowing with a tent in the background

Bike guru Liam warming up by the fire; the snow coming down thick and fast

 

By the next morning, fresh snowfall and subzero temperatures had cloaked and encrusted the Heksa, which now resembled an igloo against the crisp, white blanket that covered the stunning highland landscape. Believe it or not, that was the warmest night we would encounter!

2 men preparing coffee with their camping stoves with the ground and a tent covered in snow

A breakfast brew on a perfect winters morning

A wintery scene with a snow covered tent and forest

The igloo-like Heksa 

The sun beginning to rise through the trees with snow covering the ground

The sun peaking through the trees on Friday morning

A marquee and cars getting covered in a heavy snowfall at night with floodlights to light up the area

A 'light sprinkle' of fresh snow before Saturday mornings race start

 

The race kicked off on Saturday morning with near perfect Alpine conditions: sunny and dry with no hint of wind. From this point on the temperature remained stubbornly below -2°C, meaning the bike wash went completely untouched (there’s a first time for everything). The bright blue sky stretched across the surrounding summits and got everyone amped up for a race to the top.

Clear blue skies and a trees covered in snow

Nothing but blue skies

 

Competitors were lead down a path on foot by an aptly dressed Scotsman and his bagpipes. When the whistle blows, racers run up the fire-track, collecting their bikes on the way and haring off along the steady climb and out of sight. There are 4 competition categories, Quads, Pairs and for the real nutters, you can take on the full 24hours Solo.

Lots of people stood in the snow holding bikes

Personal pit crews, team members and spectators lining up to hand riders their bikes on the way up from the starting line

 

As the day went on, Liam, Dan and I all managed to squeeze a lap in. Liam headed out first on the Evol, Dan followed, turning heads with his 37c WTB Riddler tyres on the Camino Al (not a popular choice for riding a MTB route covered in snow and ice). For some reason, I wasn’t too surprised when he rocked back up at basecamp with a slightly sorry looking front tyre.

A man on a bike with snow all around and barrier tape separating the bike route from the spectator area

Liam returning from his lap on the Sonder Evol

The Alpkit pop-up shop with clothes hanging up and a Sonder Camino Ti stood on the table with bikepacking gear attached

Back in the marquee, we had plenty of layers to help keep everyone warm (including ourselves) | Photo: Rachel Sokal

A fake skeleton in the snow

Bill, the race mascot doing his best to cheer on the riders

 

By the time I got out for a lap on the Transmitter, the sun was beginning to set and I couldn’t help myself but stop in awe at some of the jaw dropping views we experienced on the way round. Not one to usually enjoy climbing, the route up to the top was a highlight with campers and pit crews stationed all the way up. With music pumping and plenty of cheering for passing riders, the atmosphere along this first section kept the legs peddling and spirits high for the more technical singletrack to come.

A setting sun behind snowy mountains

The sun setting behind the distant mountain tops made it impossible not to stop and take it in

The sun has set behind snowy mountains and the moon has come out

A clear night made for some incredible star gazing once the sun had set

Dusk in a snowy forest and mountain bike riders with bike lights switched on

As darkness crept in, the hillside lit up as riders switched on their lights

 

When the fire road veered off onto singletrack, the previous night’s fresh dump of powder meant that following the narrow line carved out by riders was the only way to avoid a battle with stability in the loose, thick snow. As competitors pushed on through the 17 hours of darkness (reliable lights being a crucial part of this event), the temperature dropped to -12°C, which meant pit stops for tyre changes. The freezing weather covered much of the course in ice, making for easier riding with the aid of spikes.

A light with letters covering it that spell out "puffer time"

A barrier separating the mountain bike route from spectator area at night and a biker with a light on

Approaching the start/finish line, a steady flow of riders throughout the long night

 

As the sun (eventually) rose, it brought with it a new lease of life for the exhausted riders struggling through the mental and physical pressures of endurance racing in a freezing Scottish winter. We couldn’t believe the determination of some riders, as well as the variation of people taking part. Ages varied from 10 (yes 10!) to 72 (good effort!), with young Tom Seipp (age 12) taking it on solo for a fourth year!

The sun rising behind the trees of a snow covered forest

The rising sun bringing determination back into the eyes of riders

A father and son with helmets on smiling at the camera after having completed Strathpuffer

Young Alpkiteer Tom accompanied by dad Rich Seipp, looking happy to be finished after a fourth year and setting a new personal best

Lots of people gathering in a big marquee to watch the prize giving on the stage at the back

Riders gathering in the marquee awaiting results and prize givings

 

It’s a real testament to Strathpuffer that many of the people we spoke to had taken part in previous years. It goes to show how addictive this event is, creating an amazing atmosphere of camaraderie and turning a brutal endurance race into a social event, with someone always there to spur you on in dark times (of which there were many). The organisers were also amazing, staying up through the night alongside the riders to offer encouragement and advice along the way (they even helped us out more times than one). USE-Exposure Lights were there to help everyone see in the dark, local bike shop Square Wheels took care of emergency repairs, Fuel10K kept riders peddling through and RedPoppy Grill supplied satisfaction for our stomachs.

 

We’ve had our first taste of the notorious ‘Puffer and, like many others we met there, are wondering a) why we ever thought it would be a good idea, and b) where we can sign up for next year!? It’s an event that really gets under your skin (in a good way!) and we can’t recommend it enough, whether you’re a serious rider or just up for a good crack, Strathpuffer should be top of the list.

 

If you want to get involved with Strathpuffer 2019 then keep an eye on the official website for updates. You can also check out how the riders did and the winners of each category here.

 

Alpkit tested out Strathpuffer this year, meaning next year we’re going full throttle. We have some grand plans for 2019, so keep an eye out as the year goes on for developments, we’re already pretty darn excited for it.. See you there!

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