Water bottles freezing halfway through each lap, ice-covered rocks, sleet, and 1,000 riders ploughing through the same slippery single track for 24 hours – The Strathpuffer 2019 was no Sunday afternoon spin.
Chain Reaction Cycles Category Marketing Manager, Geoff McComb, chose (yes, chose) to compete in this year’s Scottish homage to two-wheel torture, which invites you to ride lap after lap through hell frozen over. In December, Geoff (pictured above) told us how he was riding over 100 miles a week on his mountain bike to prepare for this extraordinary test of endurance and gave us a glimpse into the gear required for such an undertaking.
While understandably Geoff had a hotel’s-worth of reservations going into the race, his preparations and endurance racing experience paid off.
“The race went well,” Geoff said. “I came in 38th out of 123 solo riders, which for a first crack at a solo race isn’t bad at all. I’m really happy with it.
“In total there were close to 1,000 riders. That was split between Solo, Pairs, Quads and teams of eight for schools.”
“It’s like having a large village descend on a remote Scottish forest for the weekend. Vans, campers, tents, even horse transporters; you name it, it was there.”
“It was an amazing mix of people that took part. You have everyone from XC Whippets, road endurance riders, including Mark Beaumont, weekend warriors, folk doing it for charity, and teams-of-eight school kids.”
“There was a palpable sense of comradery among the riders and support crews throughout the entire race – it was a cracking atmosphere!”
The entire track, fire roads, forest paths, and rocky singletrack were covered in a layer of ice
The snow of previous years didn’t fall, but that wasn’t necessarily welcome news for the competitors, as Geoff explained: “In the week leading up to the race all the talk was of mud as it had been so mild. However, the further north of Glasgow we went the lower the temperature got.
“When we arrived on Friday afternoon it was minus two and that’s pretty much as warm as it got until we left.
“The entire track, fire roads, forest paths, and rocky singletrack were covered in a layer of ice, which made it treacherous for the entire race.
“It got down to minus seven during the night when non-insulated bottles with regular drinks were starting to freeze after half-a-lap.”
Geoff also said he found the track more technical than expected.
“It was a proper XC course, made up of long fireroad climbs, rock slabs, and rocky singletrack,” he said. “The final section was a fun, flowing trail centre-style trail with berms – a great end to the lap.
“Did I mention the ice-covered rocks?”
I remember one lap asking for ‘soup, coffee, and two paracetamol’
Nothing about that sounds easy, so it was of considerable relief to Geoff that he had support from a great team and his family.
“I’ve been lucky to have such great people around me,” he said. “My family allowed me to be super selfish for 12 weeks beforehand and train, while all the time offering support and encouragement.
Geoff with his support man, Dave Smith
“A very good friend of mine, Dave Smith, came along to look after me.
“Dave is an Olympic-level coach with a background in sport science. Thanks to Dave, for the duration of the race, all I had to do was pedal, eat, and drink.
“Dave did everything else, including prepping what I’d eat and drink. We got into a routine of discussing at the end of each lap what I needed next time around.
“I remember one lap asking for ‘soup, coffee, and two paracetamol’. It’s hard to get across how important your support team is at an event like this. I wouldn’t have got close to 38th without Dave.”
In the months leading up to the race, Geoff also had the guidance of 24-hour legend and good friend, Jason Miles, who was able to answer many of his questions.
“Jason has won The Puffer multiple times and never seemed to tire of my calls and texts,” Geoff explained. “From getting ice tyres delivered to his house the week of the race, to words of encouragement at the start – and when he passed me on the track – he’s a well of information that I couldn’t have done without.”
Something else that helped Geoff beat The Puffer was his bike, and we asked how his decisions about his set-up worked out, and what he’d change in hindsight.
“The bike worked really well, it didn’t miss a beat,” he said. “When I came through after lap one Jase had left word to switch front wheels and run the Schwalbe Ice Spiker.
Geoff’s Schwalbe Ice Spiker tyre
“That helped. However, it was only when we dropped one onto the back that I really started to enjoy things. Having ice spikes front and rear was like having four-wheel drive and was worth eight to 10 minutes a lap.
“Everything on the bike worked great. There was very little mud, so I got away with running one set of sintered pads for the full race.
“The Mavic Crossmax carbon wheels got a battering in the rocky terrain but are still running true.
“The icy conditions meant feel on the brakes was really important and, as usual, my Hopes didn’t let me down.
“If I was being fussy, I might go from a 32t ring to a 30t in future, just to allow for a bit more recovery on the climbs. But I’m not sure that would have let me do any more laps!”
Meanwhile, his choice of Endura clothing resulted in being another piece of sage decision-making.
At the time I said, ‘never again’
“Put it this way, Dave was feeling the weather conditions more than I was,” Geoff said. “Everything worked flawlessly. The only time I started to get cold was when I stopped, but the first climb after I set off again sorted that.
“Endura’s Baa Baa Merino Long Sleeve base layer, Baa Baa Beanie, MTR Merino socks, Windchill tights and MT500 waterproof shorts were the basis of the entire ride.
“Gloves wise, I switched between MT500 Waterproof and Pro SL Primaloft, and had warm hands for the full ride.
“On top I started with the MT500 Thermo jersey over the merino base layer. When the temperature dropped, I layered-up with the MTR Primaloft jacket over the top and ran the MT500 waterproof jacket when the sleet came around 7am.
“I was warm and comfortable for the entire race!”
So, with Geoff having successfully completed The Strathpuffer 2019, was he now determined to enter The Puffer 2020?
He told us: “Good question! At the time I said, ‘never again’. However, now I’ve had time to think about it, a part of me would love to try and better that result.
“The concern I have is that I could train harder and make some changes to the bike, but without the same level of pit support I could end up with a lesser result.
“Your support crew is so important! The circumstances would have to be right to ride solo again, so definitely-maybe.”