Last year, I swore that I would never do the ‘Puffer again. It was too damp, too dark, too gritty, and it cost too much in new bearings/chain/cassette etc. I think I said the same thing the year before; I’ll probably say the same thing before entries open for next year. When it comes down to it though, the thought of everyone else suffering their way through the night while I’m sat at home like a lemon doesn’t feel right. It appeals too much to that little voice of bloody-mindedness in your head, and if you listen to it you wind up trying to knock out decent laps at 5am and wondering why your unmentionables feel like they’ve been on a belt-sander for hours. I think I might be stuck in a ‘Puffer-guilt loop.
Last year the Puffer was significant, too, because it came just a week after two friends were among the four people killed in an Avalanche in Glencoe. In the turbulence that followed news of the avalanche the ‘Puffer became a bit of a focal point, and some last-minute fundraising ultimately raised a shade over £20,000 for the Mountain Rescue teams that responded. A lot has been said about Chris and Busty’s attitudes towards adventures in the year that’s followed – this blog is named after map-scouring sessions looking for hidden gems with Chris – and as this year’s ‘Puffer coincided with the anniversary of the avalanche it seemed a much better option than moping. Team BikeVillage was named ‘Bustin’ your Bell End’ (geddit, thanks Addy), and on Friday evening me, Tom, Addy and imported French talent Sam convened at team HQ in a misty and mostly ice-free highland forest.
Team HQ one-upmanship was as strong as ever, with special mention going to the team with a juggernaut-sized horsebox complete with sofa and generator powering a tumble drier! There’s definitely a train of thought to suggest that such home comforts are beside the point here… although that might be jealousy speaking. Our camp high up the first fireroad climb had its advantages it turned out, but distance from the start was not one of them. Due to a lack of brain cells, I was nearly late for the running start into the first lap, so sooner than I would have liked, and with zero warm-up, I was wheezing up the climb I had just span down and trying to hang onto the rear wheel of an ‘out of condition’ Alex Glasgow racing for Nevis Cycles.
I managed to be the second rider home at the end of the first lap, and while other teams changed riders I joined the solos in cranking back up the climb to our higher changeover point. After everyone’s slightly manic first laps there was a sense of settling into a rhythm, but as always at the Puffer the darkness comes just as you get comfortable, and the night laps began. When the lights come on the race takes on the feel of trench warfare, and the camps strung out up the fireroad climb put a pall of woodsmoke over the riders.
The feeling was though, that this year conditions weren’t really too bad. Drivetrains were lasting an entire lap or even two without sounding like a sack of spanners, and many an original set of brake pads survived the 24 hours intact. What little ice there had been at the start was quickly crushed and melted as the temperatures hovered a little above freezing, so apart from the perpetual spray of abrasive muddy paste being flung up your bum the riding was almost okay (I take it all back, mudguards are cool and I want some). There are certain things that Strathpuffer survivors will all relate to: the soul-crushing feeling of damp lycra at 3am, and the temporary joy of a dry change of clothes being snatched from you after the first puddle. Sleep-deprived mental maths to try and work out how many more laps you need to suffer through is about the limit of your mental capacity when dawn comes around.
I can only speak for myself, but given the circumstances and the people that we were there to remember, the 24 hours were a pretty positive experience. Sam especially has been adamant over the last year that it would be a bloody shame not to make our thoughts about Chris and Busty happy ones, as they far outnumber the unhappy ones, and among the people who knew them that seemed to be the case. It was pointed out that the boys probably would have liked the fact that the date of the anniversary coincides with the most masochistic event of the year… I think the race as a whole fits well with that optimistic attitude though – the challenge of the course and weather at a time of year when long summer days out still seem a long way away.
Some dodgy maths lead to Sam and Addy doing a longer stint than they expected while me and Tom got a few hours sleep, but as the sun came up and we took up our share their racing was done. Sunday started with us sat in 7th, but some last-minute leap-frogging meant that we finished a not-too-bad-at-all 6th, two minutes behind 5th. The strong Nevis Cycles team set what would be a new record of 41 laps, but even they were knocked back by a ridiculous 43 laps from quads winners FlatOutCycles. Part-robot Jason Miles won the solo crown with 31 laps, and a JMC/MSteel pairs team won their category with 36 laps.
So for another year the human sacrifice has been given, and the days can now get longer and longer until none of us can breather for all the dust in the ruts. Ignore most of what’s been written above, start stockpiling dry lycra and haribo, and get yourself a team for Strathpuffer 2015 (the tenth anniversary!)