The Strathpuffer, or ‘The Puffer’ to those unfortunate enough to be familiar with the event, extends the scale of agony a cyclist can befall.
Recently rated the third toughest cycling race in the world by Off.Road.cc and a regular on the top 10 list of many other observers, ruddy-faced entrants are expected to battle through sub-zero temperatures amid the Scottish Highlands’ peculiarly crippling brand of wind, sleet, and snow.
What makes the event so extravagantly brutal, however, is that it lasts for 24 hours – 17 of which are spent in almost complete darkness while the negative temperatures plummet faster than any faith you once had in your own decision-making for signing up in the first place.
There are a lot of experienced riders at Chain Reaction Cycles, with former road cycling champs, Megavalanche riders, and RedBull Rampage alumnus among them, but only one person is – and we’re using his own word here – “stupid” enough to have a go at ‘The Puffer’.
Category Marketing Manager and experienced endurance rider Geoff McComb has tackled tough events in the past, but this Scottish celebration of sheer pain is something he’s yet to experience.
Geoff competing at Mountain Mayhem
“I’ve raced Mountain Mayhem in a team of four a couple of times,” Geoff said. “Since I got into endurance riding and heard about The Puffer I’ve wanted to do it.”
Mountain Mayhem is no barrel of laughs, but what Geoff is about to encounter is of quite another order of magnitude.
The Strathpuffer takes place across 19 and 20 January 2019 in Strathpeffer, deep in the depths of the Scottish Highlands, around 20 miles northwest of Inverness.
The first Puffer took place in 2005, designed initially as a one-off local event but its reputation for savagery quickly earned it cult status, with subsequent years seeing riders pedal through gale-force winds, iced roads, minus 10-degree temperatures, hail, multiple feet of snow, endless rain, and – once – some sunshine.
“My regular biking week, between commuting and an MTB spin, is 100 miles.”
Indeed, one year, the event’s marquee almost blew away threatening to expose the teams and organisers to the elements and calling off the race. Even for those not racing, the Highlands can be a temperamentally elemental host.
Today the event attracts world-class competitors from all over the world, such as bike-packing endurance specialist and The Hub contributor Naomi Freireich.
The Strathpuffer route for 2019
Training for an event like The Puffer needs a regime almost as extreme as the event itself. The hour hand of Geoff’s alarm clock begins the day on the wrong half of the clock face, with a morning regime that’d give most mortals nightmares.
“My regular biking week, between commuting and an MTB spin, is 100 miles,” he said. “I’ve added in a 5.30am 30- to 35-mile ride before work, and this gets me to 100 before I ride at the weekend.
“Then a 50-75 miler on Saturday or Sunday gets me to the mileage I need and leaves time for recovery.”
It’s big mileage, especially considering it’s all on a mountain bike.
“The most important thing I’ve learned from prepping for previous events is to train on the type of bike you will use for the event,” Geoff told us. “All my miles between now and Jan will be on the MTB.”
Winning The Strathpuffer event means completing the most laps of the 12.5km course within the event’s 24 hours.
It starts at 10am on Saturday morning with competitors beginning their last lap at 10am on Sunday morning and completing it by 11am.
Many enter the event as pairs, teams of four, or teams of eight for those of school age, giving them a chance to tag in and out and have some rest.
Not Geoff, however. He has entered solo. He is on his own.
“The original plan was to race it as a pair with multiple Strathpuffer winner Jason Miles but that didn’t work out,” Geoff told us. “So, I’m going to ride the event solo. That wasn’t the plan but it’s where I’ve ended up, so I just have to go for it.”
Riding solo means no one to take over for a few laps to allow you to rest and no sleep either – just 24 hours in the saddle, pedalling, and pedalling, and pedalling, and pedalling some more.
But while short on team members, he’s still bringing plenty of back-up.
“If you’re still feeling good with just a few hours to go then you can think about upping the pace.”
“I use Endura clothing all year round and, being a Scottish brand, their winter kit is perfect for the Puffer,” Geoff said.
“The race venue is 20 miles northwest of Inverness in January. Temperatures on previous years rarely reach five degrees and are normally below freezing.
“The clothing I’m bringing includes Windchill Bib Tights, then a mix of the MT500 waterproof jacket, shorts, trousers, gloves, and overshoes with the MTR Primaloft jacket and gloves. I’ll also have BaaBaa baselayers, socks, and beanie, which I’m confident will see me through.”
While our intrepid Puffer participant should be protected against the weather’s most jagged edge, keeping warm is really only the beginning of the hardships Geoff has ahead of him.
Just eating and drinking enough to sustain 24 hours on the bike can be a big ask.
“You go through a daft amount of calories at an event like this,” he explained. “By the time you feel hungry or thirsty it’s too late, you’re about to bonk, and that would be a complete disaster.
“Even if you don’t feel hungry or thirsty, you’ve got to keep the energy and fluids coming in.”
Another issue is getting the pace right and Geoff explained finding a strategy that works for you is itself a significant challenge.
“It’s easy to get drawn into a fast pace at the start but I’ve learned the hard way to take it steady,” Geoff said. “If you’re still feeling good with just a few hours to go then you can think about upping the pace.
“It’ll be the first time I’ve attempted to use this negative splits strategy as I’ve never been in good enough shape to implement it before!”
Then there is the mental side of such a long race. Riding constant laps in the snow while sleep deprived, cold, and exhausted is hardly going to do wonders for one’s happiness index.
He said: “People think your legs will be the first thing to give up, however, in most cases it’s people’s heads that go first. There will be highs and lows across the 24 hours; all you can do is try to even those parts out and keep the pedals going around as long as possible.”
When riding on the edge, mechanical problems, flats, or a poor set-up can add critical levels of pressure to completing a race of this severity. Geoff, understandably, has spent a lot of time considering the bike, components, and equipment best suited for the challenge ahead, and he explained some of the thinking behind his choices.
“I’m riding a titanium 29 inch hardtail with 100mm forks and a 10-speed Shimano Drivetrain,” he said.
Geoff is using a combination of Hope R4 on his handlebars and a helmet-mounted R1.
Geoff’s top tube-mounted battery pack.
The Mavic XC on the rear and 10-speed Shimano drivetrain.
Geoff’s Nukeproof flat pedals.
Rockshox forks provide control
Geoff’s cockpit, where he’ll spend 24 hours come January.
“The decision to use a titanium frame was based on its superior spring compared to carbon or alloy. This makes it much more forgiving on your lower back over long distances.”
For wheels, Geoff is using Mavic Crossmax Carbon Elites.
“I’d never ridden carbon MTB wheels until I built this bike a few weeks back and I’m impressed,” he said.
“They accelerate quickly and hold speed well. I’ve also gone tubeless for the first time.
“I’m running Mavic XC tyres, which are perfect for training. The race will most likely require ice spikes or mud tyres. It’ll be a question of keeping an eye on the forecast a week out from the race to see what’s needed.”
For stopping power, Geoff will be relying on Hope X2s with 180mm and 160mm rotors.
“I’ve used Hope brakes for nearly 20 years and they are the best in the business – they’ve never let me down,” he said.
When riding muddy trails in 17-hours of oppressive Scottish darkness, one crucial equipment choice will be lights and Geoff is going big, bold, and bright.
“I’m using a Hope R4 on the bars and an R1 on my helmet,” Geoff added. “Powerful, easy to change the settings with gloves on, and you can get them on and off your bars or helmet in seconds if I need to carry out a quick repair.”
Finally, the drivetrain, which contains a number of unusual choices.
“I’ll be using a selection of 10-speed parts from my old bike that are in good shape,” Geoff said. “I run an oval ring and, oddly for XC, I’ll be riding flat pedals.
“I’ve problems with my right knee and can’t clip in for long periods anymore. Riding on flats works well for me.”
So, should Geoff successfully overcome the cold, the wind, the snow, the rain, the ice, the mechanical problems, the mental torture, the terrain, his strategy, the nutritional difficulties, his knee injury, crashes, competitors, cordons, and the physical torment, what is he most looking forward to when he finishes?
“Getting home to see my family, a steak dinner and a couple of recovery pints of Guinness,” he said.
Maybe a medal of honour might just as well be in order.
The Hub will be bringing you a full report on Geoff’s progress at the Strathpuffer 2019 in the New Year.