After our introduction to Strathpuffer in 2018, we couldn't wait to head back up North for the 2019 edition of this legendary 24hr mountain bike race. This time though, we brought a team of Alpkiteers with us to take part in the Quad category. The male quads are one of the most competitive categories at the 'Puffer, with returning teams year on year gunning for that podium place, so we thought we'd give it a crack.
With us were Rich and Tom Seipp. Strathpuffer veterans, this was Toms first year in the quad category (after 5 years riding in the solos), and the first time he's been old enough to ride laps without his dad Rich shapperoning him round. Tom was riding the Sonder Evol, whilstdad Rich opted for the Transmitter.
Pete McNeil also joined us riding the Sonder Broken Road. Partly wishing he was riding solo and partly thankful for the break between laps, Pete's taken a stab at the 'Puffer once before and is well known for his fondness of 'type 2 fun'.
No stranger to all things Strathpuffer, Neil Cottam brought his Signal Ti hardtail along and no matter what the weather did, Neil refused to succumb to the ice covered course.
The Sonder-Alpkit Team. From left to right - Rich Seipp, Tom Seipp, Neil Cottam and Pete McNeil
Neils Puffer story...
We all met first thing Thursday morning outside the Hathersage store, itching to hit the road. Friday was set-up day and registration, the riding team set up their camp along the fire road, using the giant green Sonder gazebo for the perfect pit area. We also helped out the first marshall point this year at the top of the fire-road climb, providing the Alpkit gazebo, strung up with lights for some shelter and a big old speaker to keep the music going through the night and giving riders a boost whilst they're quietly suffering.
The Alpkit marshall point... Cheering on riders through the night and keeping spirits high with music and sweets
You never quite know what to expect at the 'Puffer; things can change in an instant. One minute you're fine and the next you're switching tyres, pedals and adding extra layers. Here's Neil as he recounts how he got on in the 2019 edition of Strathpuffer...
The Puffer, as always, lived up to expectations, and it delivered on its reputation of wildly diverse weather conditions. I’ve been to five Puffer’s in seven years and no two races have been even remotely the same. This year’s ice ruts made line choice particularly interesting, and the rain that fell around dawn had me riding the top tube in spectacular fashion more than once – a bit like an out of control/out of body near-death-experience. It was a race that demanded commitment and confidence to get around in one piece, I found that attacking the sketchier sections was more favourable than caution, straight lining, in many cases, was preferable to technical dexterity.
Warming up pre first lap
Each lap begins with a long fire road climb before entering singletrack. It was obvious before I summited on my first lap that tyre pressures would need to be super-low. I pulled over and drained the valves until the tyres were squishy, probably running only 13 or 14 PSI for the whole event (there’s a lot to be said for these fancy big volume modern tyres).
The minimal use of the front brake also proved to be an advantage, I barely even hung a finger over the lever for my entire six laps, relying instead on gung-ho bravado and a drifting/sliding/foot-stamping combo to remain vaguely upright. It was, as they say, the most fun you can have in winter with your clothes on.
Racing as a quad was also a first for me and it was a pretty cool experience, it was nice to go out for one lap then hand over the baton to someone else before hanging out in our popular pit area, soaking up the smell of the woodsmoke and drinking coffee with passers-by. Why we were even graced with the effervescent presence of non-other than the record breaking round-the-world cyclist Jenny Graham at one point.
The Sonder gazebo providing the perfect pit area
Late night changeovers...
Muscle management, on the other hand, was much tougher and after lap three I genuinely thought I might have blown it; my legs were shot. I changed my recovery tactics and strategy slightly and stayed on my feet a little more – slumping in front of the fire pit and letting my muscles cool rapidly was clearly a very bad idea.
A combination of changes had a massive impact for me. I started chugging a gel about ten minutes before I expected to go out, which seemed to help a lot. Cruising up the climb rather than attacking it actually kept my lap times similar because I was able to maintain a more consistent pace around the course, and part filling my Swig bottle with warm water was a nice little touch, boosted my morale on the bike, and stopped the valve from freezing up (a little trick I developed whilst racing The Yak Attack); drinking ice cold water in sub-zero temperatures isn’t that much fun - I didn’t have a single issue with muscle fatigue or soreness from there on in.
Keeping warm by the fire
We worked really well as team and supported each other throughout the night, making sure the fire was stoked and hot water was ready for the coffee pot. It was the most comfortable pit area I’ve ever had thanks, in part, to the massive Sonder gazebo and our raging hot space heater (Thanks also to my employer Eagle Fabrications for the loan of the generator and the bottle of propane). Extra hands in the pit would have been nice so if anyone wants to volunteer for next year don’t be shy in coming forward, you’ll be made very welcome.
Pete McNeil was our speed machine, closely followed by Tom Seipp, Rich and I (the oldies) brought up the rear and we finished in a magnificent 19th position out of 90 uber-competitive Male Quads. Now we’ve learnt a few lessons about quad racing we might even podium next year – get ready.
"Long live The Puffer!"
Pete's Puffer story...
Pete's Sonder Broken Road, fully 'Puffer ready
The Strathpuffer is a special and wonderful kind of event. Whilst at 3am with your eyelids pinned open shivering in 3 layers of down jackets on a caffeine and sugar comedown and wondering what on earth you’re doing it might be easy to see the ‘special’ in it, perhaps the wonderful is a little less apparent!... But when you realise that some lunatic somewhere on the course is still up, sitting out in the snow on a deck chair next to an inflatable bear, covered in fairy lights and warming themselves in front of a washing machine drum filled with dying embers cheering on random passersby you get that glow inside that makes you realise that people are awesome and ‘wonder’ is probably the best way to describe it.
It was my second crack at the Puffer and whilst I originally contemplated the solo category I’d been pretty hammered by some self-supported races over the summer and as such hadn’t really thought too much about any sort of training since. The opportunity to race as a quad with some awesome Alpkiteers seemed like good craic and whilst we had plenty of hard won experience between us, as a quad I knew there’d be a good balance between suffering and enjoyment.
The great thing about racing as a quad is that race strategy can pretty much go out the window and you can just let rip, riding a lap as hard as you can, handing over the batton at the end and taking the next few hours to drink tea and recover. (kind of like a really drawn out interval training session).
This approach is especially great fun on such a well laid out, technical and fun course and fits well with my own ‘dog chasing a car’ style of racing. It’s all very well rationalising where you are in the field and metering out appropriate effort but whilst there’s someone out in front to overtake, the urge to do so is hard to ignore. This ‘bull in a china shop’ approach led to me punching out a pretty speedy lap to begin with and kicking the race off in second place. (The effort was mostly thanks to a fear of being embarrassingly crushed by our own 14yr old Tom Seipp 3 laps later… he wasn’t far off!)
Fortunately, however, we didn’t keep up with the pointy end of the race otherwise our suffering to enjoyment ratio may have been thrown way out of whack. Instead we settled into a steady rhythm, all putting in consistently solid performances and supporting each other in our luxuriously kitted out Sonder Bikes pit area (albeit at the expense of an alarming cafetiere breakage rate on the part of Neil…)
On the start line -Ready, set, GO!!...
....41 minutes later!
We continued with a one-lap-each schedule as the light quickly faded and the course got progressively slippier. My titanium Sonder Broken Road didn’t skip a beat though as I swapped out the 27.5+ wheelset for a set of pre-prepared ice-spiker 29ers and these gave me the confidence to continue railing the corners on the descents whilst being the envy of many other riders gingerly tripoding down the trail.
Two blissful hours of sleep were grabbed in the wee hours of the morning thanks in no small part to the loan of a cozy Arctic Dream sleeping bag. And then, just as it seemed like it might never happen, the first wisps of dawn edged their way into the sky. It was at this point that the Puffer threw down it’s final gauntlet, sprinkling a light rain shower over the already frozen course it turned the riding surface to ice.
Sitting in the finish area we counted and grimaced as at least two thirds of riders washed out on the final corner. Over a hot sausage butty I suggested to young Tom that I could take his last lap, making the most of my spiked tyre advantage but he was hearing none of it, going on to succeed where many others had failed in smashing the last lap unscathed.
We finished up respectably in the top 20 and the Strathpuffer has now been cemented in my race diary. Who knows what will make next year special?