The infamous Strathpuffer gives you every excuse to back out before you race. 24-hour race, buried deep in the Scottish Highlands, held in the middle of winter, around 17 of the 24 hours are in absolute darkness and the weather is freezing and miserable. Having soloed ‘Puffer three times, I know how fickle and difficult Strathpuffer can be and this year was no different.
The course was 2 or 3km longer than when I last raced in 2017, taking us further north into the forest above Contin and it was damn icy from the start. After the mad dash for the bikes in the Le Mans start, we were all climbing the long fire-track battling for a good position before we hit the singletrack. At the top of the climb, over the first few rock gardens, you realise how icy it was and how tricky this one was going to be.
Sliding out on an off-camber line I took too aggressively, I took my first crash on the first lap. I rode hard for another three laps and nearing the bottom of the fastest descent, I washed out the front wheel, span the bike and cracking onto the rocks beneath me. Getting back on the bike, dazed and in shock, I was determined to keep riding hard. Getting to the pits I asked the guys to try to find some studded ice tyres for the next lap but nowhere had any left – I was stuck riding without any grip.
After few laps later, I was confident over the whole course. I knew where there was grip, I had a good line through the technical sections and where the climbs were. A couple of laps after this we were in absolute darkness. The temperature fell with the sun and it didn’t get above zero for the rest of the race.
After six hours, it was getting dark and I was yet to stop.
Six laps and just over six hours into the race, the lap-times were slowly getting longer, and I needed some food. The big lesson from WEMBO was how much more I should be eating. I was forcing calories on every lap – stocking up on Trek bars and a couple of gels while on course, but I still needed the odd stop with ‘proper’ food occasionally.
I started making stupid mistakes on the descents and wasting energy on the climbs, but around 1900hrs I was told how I was doing. Of the 123 soloists, I was sat in 21st or so. Keep riding like this and I was sure to out perform previous years. This thought spurred me on and kept me out for a couple more laps.
Ten laps in and I began stopping after each lap to rest, stretch and eat. Coated in sweat, if I stopped more than 10mins, I would start trembling from the cold; at this point, I was always kicked back onto the bike. The guys kept me warm, fed and kept the bike rolling smoothly… but they never let me relent. I hated them for this, but I love them for it now.
There is always a dead patch between 0200 and 0500 when there are fewer riders out. If you’re going to get some rest, now is the time, but throughout these hours I kept lapping, never stopping for more than 20mins at a time. In the early hours of the morning I had climbed to 13th.
This is the difference having a crew makes.
I had soloed Strathpuffer without a crew three times. I had to clean and service the bike, cook the food, keep the fires going and still manage to motivate myself to keep riding. This year was totally different. I had a larger, more experienced crew than ever before, and the best pit set-up I have had. Every lap, I was given food, a fresh water bottle (that hadn’t frozen) and encouragement. I couldn’t have kept lapping through the night without my crew, sister and her team mate.
From around 0700 you start noticing the light coming up. Strathpuffer runs 1000hrs Saturday to 1000hrs Sunday. When the sun comes up, you know you’re on the home stretch. The problem is that everybody else has noticed too. Lap-times start dropping as everybody becomes more confident and all the teams are trying to squeeze the most out of the final few hours. As a soloist who had been riding through-out the night, you’re slower and need to make sure you let others race. Everybody there has been riding through -10ᵒC and are utterly shattered, yet most are still polite and have a laugh.
With three hours left on the clock, I had noticed that my feet were in a bad way. My shoes were new, and cleats may have been too far forward, putting a lot of pressure on my toes – I knew they were buggered. I couldn’t walk without limping, but I knew I had to keep riding. If I stopped now the race would be lost and I would have wasted a ton of effort. My feet had been cold, numb and sore since the early hours of the race, but I couldn’t relent.
It was also around this time, that it started lightly raining. The ground being around -10ᵒC, the rain instantly froze and coated every exposed rock with a sheet of ice.
We were all so close to the end of the race and suddenly it changes. The lines you picked out have been polished by all the other riders. I decided to take it slow and just focus on getting around – I had already taken six falls in the race and two were nasty. It was now just about survival and keeping the laps coming.
I finished at 0947hrs. 17 laps – equalled my previous highest, but with a course 20%-30% longer, I was stoked with how the weekend had gone. I had dug deeper and pushed myself further than ever before. Total ride time was 21hrs 43mins. My toes we in trouble and I couldn’t walk, but I ended 15th of all soloists in one of the hardest races in the UK. I was f**king stoked!
Crew – I’ve ridden ‘Puffer three times without a crew, just sharing a pit area with my sister and her teammate. This was the first year I have had raced with anybody ready to help when I came around. I had my Dad, little brother and a good friend – and they were all incredible. They rigged up a heated marque and kept the music blaring out! After 12 hours of racing, you start making bad decisions and forgetting what needs to be done – and this is where they come in. They were proactively making decisions, kept me fed, warm (enough) and kept my spirits high. What’s more is that they did all this while putting up with my moaning about the cold and my feet and without more than a couple of hours sleep. They were heroes.
ProBike Tools – The first guys to sponsor me; this lot keeps the workshop and pits stocked with some great bits of kit. The mini-rachet is a great tool to have out on the trail for when the bike takes a hit! 20% off with code: ben-pbtuk20
Skye Bike Shack – Tucked away on Skye, these guys supported me with spares, shoes and pretty much a whole new drive chain just before the race. This made the climbing easier than before. Marks insights to riding on Skye are awesome, and when it comes to bikes – he knows what he’s talking about.
Island Engineer – A small white good’s repair company from the Isle of Skye, they donated the van for my dad to drive over a ton of spares to give me piece of mind. A hardy bunch, working in the middle of nowhere – I’ve never heard a bad word about them!
21hrs 43mins of riding, ground temperatures recorded around -10ᵒC, sheet ice over half of the trail. My strongest performance at Strathpuffer – most laps, furthest distance, race position, and several mental barriers further than before. ‘Puffer ’19 was a brutally cold, sufferfest and I’ll be there again next year!