Many thanks to Nigel Smith for sharing his account of the 2017 Strathpuffer with us, things don't always go to plan, knowing when to drop out of a race can be a tough decision, but with a full season planned ahead.... anyway, this is how the story unfolds.
Mention the word Strathpuffer to any cyclist who is aware of the event and you will see fear (or horror!) in their eyes! Most are aware of how tough this event is but the problem isn’t always the snowfall.
The NIER team have done a fair few 24hour mountain bike races over the past two years and have achieved great results, but when it comes to solo racing the pressure is really on. It’s all about you and there are so many things that can go wrong, it makes you feel that to some degree there is an element of luck involved!
I wouldn’t say I trained for Strathpuffer as its riding my bike and that's what I do in my spare time. Calling it training instead of riding makes it sound a bit too formulated and sucks the fun out of it. That being said, whilst most cyclists are taking it easy through the winter, myself and Donna are putting the big miles in over the Christmas and New Year period in preparation for the upcoming event. The problem with the puffer is how do you prepare for such a brutal event?
You can control weight and improve endurance by putting the hours in, and you can ride technical trails with rocks and drops. But then combining both elements and adding sub-zero temperatures, sleep deprivation and fatigue, increased bike weight due to mud that becomes frozen stuck to it (yes, it was that cold!) and 17 hours of darkness is very difficult. The race winner will cover 180+miles and 28,000ft of climbing on a circuit of approx. 7miles Well as you may be able to tell already, things did not go as well for me at Puffer as I had hoped. I was riding strong through the daylight hours on my full suspension Pivot429 which smoothed out a lot of the smaller rocks. I was riding in 2nd place for 17laps before I was overtaken and dropped to 3rd. As darkness fell, the sloppy mud on the top moorland sections froze to the rocks creating an additional technical element which progressively got worse as more riders polished off the surface and made the line selection through those rocks very difficult.
Bikes were beginning to freeze solid and the solo field began to deplete with mechanical issues and crashes. At 18 hours in I had just had a break for 15 mins to take on board some hot food and was feeling reasonably well considering the -8c temperatures when a few little mistakes on the rocky moorland section and final decent cost me my podium position!
The first crash I had was a straight forward slip on the ice with me landing on my left hip, it wasn’t too severe and once I’d composed myself I carried on with the lap. The second crash I had was the most unexpected and risky situation I could have found myself in! I was descending at about 20 mph when I banked into a corner and the tyres failed to grip, causing me to go down hard on my hip and twist my thumb out of joint. The rest of the lap I could not change gear or pedal effectively, with over 5 hours to go I made the difficult decision that it was over for me!
I was still in 3rd place having covered 150miles and 22,000ft of climbing with a 5mins gap on lap 23 but the sight of my bloody hip bulging through a hole in my shorts and swollen thumb joint made me think about the rest of the season and the fact I had to go to work on Tuesday!
Donna also had to pull out early on having covered 13 laps with a shoulder injury which had been bothering her for the past few weeks. There was also the small issue of her contact lens freezing in her eye. This was really frustrating for her as she was managing her food intake well, her legs were good and she wasn’t feeling the tiredness.
I have learnt a lot from riding this event as a soloist and will take this forward to the 2018 Strathpuffer where I will make my second podium attempt at probably the toughest 24hour race in the world!