A 24-hour mountain bike race, in Scotland in January? Madness you say, but Lisa Kamphausen said, “Bring it on!" To win the women’s solo class she had to beat ice and mud, battle inedible chewy sweets and harness the lure of the porta-loo.
"Showers then heavy rain Saturday, gales, thaw."
The forecast the week before Strathpuffer was its usual cheerful self then. Ah well, suppose it wouldn't be the ’Puffer without it.
The four previous times I have done this race there have been 24 hours of rain, sheet ice, deep snow, and anything in between… I arrived at the site Friday afternoon in the rain, walked to Contin's village hall in the rain to eat too much pasta, went to sleep in my tent listening to the rain, and was a bit disappointed that I would not need my new deadly-looking ice tyres.
Saturday morning changed all that though. It had been a cold night and I've never seen so many people frantically putting spikes on their wheels. Sheet ice fire road here we go, perfect conditions.
Spikes but no sparks
Ice is quite fast to ride on, certainly faster than mud, and you've just got to close your mind to the horrible scratching noises of ice tyres on rocks. It would be way better if they made sparks, but after 24 hours of checking I can say with some certainty that they don't. The geologists in 10,000 years will have a great time working out what the weird 21st century humans were up to on those rocks.
10 minutes to go.
Some last minute scrabbling to deposit all my kit in the Ben Wyvis Cycle Club gazebo and find the misplaced race number, but I finally had everything lined up.
I had been too nervous to eat more than two bites of a sandwich for breakfast but now calmed down – nothing I could do at this point other than ride my bike.
And I was going to ride it hard. After all I had dedicated the past two years of my life to the cause of riding a bike round a big circle faster, and this was crunch time. I was über-motivated. I wanted to win and to come top 10 overall.
I wanted to win so badly I had cut out all caffeine to get the maximum benefit from taking it during the night (and I usually drink a lot of coffee). I had got a road bike. And Lycra (shock! horror!). I had braved the gym to grow some muscles and gone to Pilates classes with old ladies. I had got rollers to be able to do drills all winter despite icy roads.
I had even stopped going away for weekends playing in the mountains to be able to fit in recovery time somewhere. I've not always loved all of it, but it's been an amazing two years.
On top of it all I was going to do this race to raise money for the fantastic Kaghan Memorial Trust (of "KMT Tour of the Himalayas" mountain bike stage race fame) who run a school in northern Pakistan providing free top notch education to marginalised boys and girls. More laps means more pennies to them. Time to make it count.
Ah sweet porta-loo
16 hours later. Hanging out in a porta-loo does not generally cut it as a reward for riding another fast lap, but while cycling on ice through freezing rain in the middle of the night you'll be surprised at what works.
I'd done a good number of laps, no idea how many or what time it was, but it had been dark for ages and I was on target to get another fast lap in. Little rewards like dry gloves next lap or stopping by the porta-loos helped getting up the grinding fire road climb.
The singletrack up top was fun and took much less effort to ride at a good pace, then a flying descent, and repeat. Just keep doing that all night. Keep forcing down freezing sugar water and chewy sugar sweets and keep pedalling. Grind up the climb, enjoy the second half.
Legs felt good, and while being on the bike in general was hurting a bit after half a day in the saddle (life is full of surprises) it didn't seem to hurt any less for pedalling slower – so I might as well pedal faster.
Slowly over the course of the night I worked my way up the ranks through the men's solo field (there were only two solo women entered. Bit of a poor show, got to improve that for next year).
Into the night
My start had been okay, but it is at night when this race really kicks off, and the night was 17 hours long. I wasted a little time putting on dry socks once and getting the ice-tyre tactics slightly wrong, but otherwise didn't stop.
When finally the sky changed from black to inky blue, light blue, then grey overcast and rain again, I was up in sixth place. BOOM.
Great thing about soloing is you always get the dawn lap. Time for two more, just had to bring it home now, two hours to go, piece of cake.
I got a real kick out of still going (reasonably) fast, flying down the descent a bit quicker every time because I was on first name terms with every sodding pebble of this course, and laughing to myself about the absurdity of it all: I was completely delighted because I rode my bike in a circle faster than a few years back, how's that for a goal in life? It felt brilliant.
This has definitely been the best 24-hour race I've done. Twenty-four laps, very symmetrically pleasing. First woman, sixth solo overall. That makes five solo Strathpuffers and five podiums.
Mud down my pants
For the first time I didn’t have a really bad patch during the entire 24 hours. Yes, sure, there were times when I was struggling, when the chewy sweets didn't want to stay in my stomach, when I got sparkling sharp mud down my pants and when my hands felt too weak to bend with those heavy gloves on. But hey, braking less means going faster and it was nothing like as bad as it can be: no dribbling snot and tears and gloom this year.
The worst moment (and no, I didn’t really see the funny side at the time) was sometime in the early morning, falling off my bike while riding up a straight bit of fire road which should have been easy, but with only one ice tyre on I kept spinning out the back wheel on the solid ice sheet. Ouch. Scrambled back to my feet only to repeat the performance while trying to get back on the bike. OUCH. I then insisted on having the second ice tyre back on the bike, whatever if it would cost me 10 minutes. Sulk.
I’d like to thank...
This was the other part of what made this Strathpuffer so much better. I rode for Ben Wyvis Cycle Club and got first class support throughout the race. Not having to fill up my own bottles, being able to keep riding on a spare bike while the other was getting brake pads changed, having someone to keep track on when to swap the batteries of my shiny new Ay Up lights and to tell me to drink more and to put another ice tyre on my bike at 5 am made a massive difference.
Thank you very much to Andy and Stephen P and Ay Up lights and everyone else who made it possible for me to worry about nothing but riding. And of course to the marshals and the volunteers and rest of the Strathpuffer team who have the imagination of making a bike race in January in the north of Scotland an epic success.
Here’s to next year!
Want to know more? Check out the official Strathpuffer website.