or at least that I’ve done, was undoubtedly the Strathpuffer 24 this weekend.
A full 24 hours of racing, in mountains in Scotland, in January. Riding relays in a pair. To add to the lovelyness of it, it was camping too.
Early on Friday morning, Joe McLean who I was riding with phoned me up to say that he was going to be a bit late, because he’d just been to the hospital and had a cast put on a suspected broken Scaphoid on his wrist from riding his mountain bike. At this point, scary visions of riding solo in Scotland came into my head and the fear set in. Fortunately, Joe had talked the doctor into giving him a cast that he could drive with, and had only promised him not to ride any bikes, the doctor hadn’t said anything about unicycles. So Joe turned up, with a massive cast on his arm, and much to Penny’s bemusement at his insaneness, we set off up to Scotland for the race.
Much driving later, and we finally got there, at about 11.00 Friday. We were greeted by a beatiful full moon over the mountains, so bright you could see without a torch, and a scattering of tents pitched among them, with a few very skinny looking riders milling around looking fit. We were pitched up in a glade on the edge of the woods, with views over the mountains in one direction, and a scarily steep slope going up into the woods where the course was in the other direction. We could see a line of singletrack on the course running along the side of the campsite. It being Scotland, there was a fine drizzle just threatening to start.
It was pretty cold, so we pitched up, ate some cake (home made lemon and chocolate - an odd combination but definately recommended), and some sensible food (if you think jam and cheese sandwiches are sensible anyway) and I got into my sleeping bag with everything I own on, only to get really hot and open up the toasty super-sleeping bag most of the way down. At 4 am, I woke up frozen and zipped up the sleeping bag again, as the temperature had really started to drop, and I took a quick look to see that the sky had completely cleared, making for fantastic racing weather.
The alarm went off at 7.30 and once we’d cleared a bit of ice off the tents we headed up to register. There were a few more tents now, and lots more people wandering around who looked like they did training. At this point it began to dawn on us that this was quite a hardcore event. We headed back and cooked up some breakfast and I got ready for the start. The temperature was below zero, as I discovered when I put my camelbak on and the tube was frozen, ooops.
At 9.30, we wandered off to the rider briefing, to be told to be nice to each other, and look out for other riders, check they’re okay etc., which was even more true given the conditions. I laid down my unicycle in the start area, then, it being Scotland after all, a bagpiper piped us along to the line where we would start running to the bikes.
Come 10 o’clock, a horn blew and we set off on the course. The course climbed up 326m (1069 ft) each lap, and you started feeling this right from the start, the finish and start lines being both at the bottom of a steep uphill fireroad. I rode up the hill, passing several bikers thanks to my rather lightweight unicycle, and into the first singletrack, heading steeply down into the woods. Part way down, there’s a small fallen tree, with a log pile setup to ride over it. This is followed by a tight corner, and then suddenly I’m heading towards a rocky watersplash at full speed. This is way more technical than any 24 hour race I’ve seen before. I bailed on the watersplash, ending up right on the other side, away from my unicycle, so I have to run back and get it and keep riding. This is followed by a long, long climb, which is all fine to ride, a combination of fireroads and tarmac tracks. At the top, there’s a singletrack entrance, followed by a small hop up onto a little wooden palette bridge, followed by a rock garden and a steep and very muddy climb. Needless to say, this involves a little bit of running.
Up on the top, it started to get a bit muddy. It was still rideable, but barely, not helped by the scattering of rock gardens, slabs and wooden palette sections. Then it went down into a tight drop into the woods, singletrack through the trees so tight that it was amazing a bike could fit down it, followed by another wooden pallet bridge, with a rock angled to step up onto iit, although I preferred the flying dismount option here. From this section, it got really super-muddy for the next couple of miles, and I had to walk a fair bit. Then as suddenly as it had began, I hit a nice section, descending at full speed on a loose rocky track over the moors, towards a big loch, with views for miles of the mountains and over the local village, Strathpeffer. This was followed by loads of fantastic fast descending through the woods, and then a massive sign ‘SLOW DOWN’ heralded a sharp right-angle turn followed by a couple of small steps, down to an easy fireroad. By this point I could hear the music playing at the start again, so I knew I was nearly home. But the course had more in store, off the fireroad, another sharp corner and the race headed steeply down through another tight singletrack, this time littered with little steps and roots, twisting down the side of the hill. This was fantastic fun, and I really got to use my newly fitted brake down it. At the end of this long section, we hit some relatively easy singletrack that headed past the campsite, and a small uphill and downhill later, I’d finished my lap, with a massive grin on my face from the fantastic xc riding that made up the last third of the lap.
Joe was waiting at the start, so I told him that it was ‘a bit muddy and a bit technical’, and he set off, to return later raving about the final section, although a bit annoyed that he had to take it carefully what with having the cast on his arm. Fortunately the cast was shaped okay for his muni handle.
My second lap was a little bit slower, not helped by my frame breaking part way through, leaving me with a twisty seatpost for much of the final descents, so I ditched gears and brake and got out the muni while Joe did his lap and got ready to go. As I was waiting, darkness fell, it was 3 o’clock in the afternoon.