Mud, sweat and beers

Richard Croasdale spends 24 hours in the mud, with the competitors in the UK’s most gruelling endurance mountain bike race


The best camping spots at Strathpuffer, right next to the track and near the starting line, go to the teams prepared to begin queuing for parking passes at 6am the day before the race begins. These are the veterans, those who are in it to win it and – in a few cases – those who just want their party to be closest to the action. By these standards we’re tardy, arriving three full hours after the gates have opened and claims have been staked. But we’re still able to pitch a small pop-up supply tent, fire bowl and camping chairs right on the track-side, about 75 metres up from the start line. In a few hours, this will be prime real estate.

I’m nominally here supporting one of the female soloists, a category that has grown dramatically in recent years. Katie began stealing my beer several years ago and the arrangement has now somehow become permanent. There is also a very competitive solo male category, as well as pairs (who split the riding between them in any way that suits) and quad teams.

Dusk is falling as we make our way down to the main event tent, which is already buzzing with nervous energy, as the riders and their support crews stock up on carbs and grab last-minute spares from the long-suffering Giles at Square Wheel bike supplies (“I’ve just got to remember it calms down around hour 14,” he says to me, glumly). There’s a coffee van in the tent this year; a welcome new addition, alongside an excellent food stand which will fry, roll and flip its way through a staggering volume of food in the next day and a half.

There's definitely a real connection between beer and cycling

But the centrepiece, for me at least, is the Windswept bar and its cosy, heated ‘bothy’ tent in the corner. I recognise founder Nigel and Heather already pulling pints, and note with approval that the bar is almost exclusively cask this year, with one keg tap for its excellent Lighthouse pilsner. 2019 was Windswept’s first year running the Strathpuffer bar, and they wildly underestimated how popular their cask beers would prove, running out before the race had even started. I kick proceedings off with a pint of Lighthouse and a nine-pint mini keg for the supply tent. To the apparent horror of several of her fellow riders who are staying off the sauce, Katie tucks into a 6% IPA.

“Everyone said last year that I should actually take part instead of hiding behind the bar,” says Nigel. “And at some point I let them talk me into it. We’re doing it as a team of four though, taking two laps at a time, so fingers crossed we’ll all get breaks of about six hours! The only question was who would get to do their laps in daylight.

“There’s definitely a real connection between beer and cycling, particularly mountain biking I think. I mean obviously at the end of a ride there’s nothing better than a pint, but I think they both attract a certain kind of obsessiveness; you’ll definitely find a lot of brewers who are into bikes and vice versa.”

This certainly strikes a note of truth with me. There’s a lot of chatting with strangers at these events, and everyone is immediately interested in what I do and keen to talk about beer, often with obvious passion and knowledge.

The party atmosphere in the camp makes us reluctant to retreat into the back of our hired van, where the damp Highland chill has taken up permanent residence. Two pairs of socks and trousers, three jumpers, a sleeping bag and a duvet keep us from freezing to death, but do little for the droplets of chilly condensation that occasionally drip onto our faces, startling us awake.

Race day

Dawn comes too soon, skimmed-milk thin, and heralded by a chorus of petrol generators singing mechanical reveille. Outside is a swarm of activity. Cyclists tend to be inveterate tinkerers anyway, and a strange forest of metal stands has sprung up while we slept, as bikes of every conceivable colour are subjected to final checks before the starting gun. This seems a sensible precaution, as steady rainfall overnight has created deep mud, abrasive as sandpaper and bad news for those all-important brake pads.

Reports are swapped about the conditions at the top of the hill and, unlike 2019, at least it seems temperatures haven’t dropped below freezing, though some still complain they’d take sheet ice over a quagmire. At last though, the ritualised faffing comes to an end and it’s time to put months of training in the dark and the cold into practice. A short speech on the ground rules, and the 300 riders are away, running awkwardly from the start line to their racked bikes 100 meters along the track – the ‘Le Mans start’ is a long-standing (and, frankly, hilarious) tradition of the ‘Puffer.

We later hear ourselves referred to as "pit bitches"

The first climb is a tangle of aluminium, carbon fibre and spandexed muscle as the pack jostles to establish position and make a good start. Soon though, spaces appear and the strong climbers begin to peel away in clumps. And then, they simply disappear into the ancient forest, not to be seen again until the end of their first lap in 40-90 minutes. This winding loop, with its punishing technical climbs and hair-raising descents, will be repeated by the strongest solo riders up to 22 times between now and 10am tomorrow, with only short breaks to fix mechanical issues, refill water bottles and take on vital calories.

For those of us left down in the pits though, it’s a chance to enjoy our surroundings, make new friends and drink beer. I walk 15 minutes up the track to enjoy the view and the sun is already beginning to dip. Even far from the highest point, you can understand why mountain biking is so popular in this part of the word.

I duck back into the main tent and, sure enough, there’s now a line of bikes waiting for Giles’s expert help, their tense riders milling around, hoping to be told their race isn’t over. It’s not good news for everyone, and already some are drowning their sorrows (or at least making the best of a bad day) at the bar. Mike only managed his first two laps as part of a quad before a crack in his carbon frame put him out for good; he’s sipping ruminatively at a pint of ‘Puffer ale, brewed specially for the event.

“Yeah I’m gutted of course. Dropping out so early puts a lot more pressure on the other guys, so I doubt we’ll place particularly well. If I’d been able to go out there and do my best, even if we’d come last, that would be okay, but this really isn’t how I wanted the race to end.”

In the pit

We all quickly settle into a rhythm that will hold until the end of the race. Meet your rider at the end of their lap, feed them and replenish their supplies, give the bike a quick wash, send them back out and make sure everything is in place for the next stop an hour later. It’s not quite a Formula One pit, but getting these small things right makes a real difference to the comfort and morale of the rider.

Night soon falls again over Strathpeffer, but instead of withdrawing to the van, I take up my post next to our supply tent, where I light a small fire to stave off the worst of the cold. As I’d hoped, the combination of warmth, chairs and a prominently positioned mini keg makes my little spot a popular hangout for the other supporters awaiting their rider (we later hear ourselves referred to as “pit bitches,” a soubriquet that Katie gleefully adopts on my behalf).

Like many of the supporters, Douglas is a mountain biker himself, but – having not ridden the race in a number of years – is here today to support his pal.

“I still come along to lend a hand, and to be honest it’s probably more fun if you’re not on a bike,” he says, accepting a proffered beer. “One of the great things about this race, and all mountain biking really, is that it’s such a good atmosphere. They’re good people from all sorts of backgrounds, you’re all in the mud together, maybe having a drink. The world would be a better place if everyone did this!”

I also bumped into Ritchie Duncan, a brewer at Fallen Brewery who I had no idea would be at the race. He’s supporting his girlfriend Lynsey.

Digging deep

By 5am, 19 hours in, the riders’ fatigue is really starting to show, particularly among the soloists and pairs. Many have been awake for a good 22 hours now, consistently pushing themselves to the limit both physically and mentally, picking through the demanding and potentially dangerous terrain by the narrow light of a helmet-mounted lamp. Even a moment of distraction here can mean you’re one of the unlucky few leaving in an ambulance. 

At the rest tent, glassy eyes stare from mud-dashed faces into the middle distance, and the support crews are really earning their spot, doing for the riders all the things they’re no longer capable of doing for themselves. The lights may be on, but there’s definitely a feeling that instinct and muscle memory are the main things propelling some through each tortuous lap. Quite a few have bowed out completely, either though injury, mechanical failure or the simple inability to continue.

For those who remain though, the competition is on, and it’s a powerful motivator to find hidden reserves of grit when there’s seemingly nothing left. At the entrance to the tent is a double flat-screen, showing every rider’s position in their category, as well as split times for each lap; largely ignored at the start of the race, these screens now have a rapt crowd of supporters, watching their respective riders rise and fall in the rankings. It’s these final hours, when mental toughness becomes as great an asset as physical strength and speed, that endurance races are won and lost.

The night is darkest before the dawn

The first haze of light in the sky casts an eerie silver tint that, sleep deprived, we can’t be entirely sure is real until it blossoms over the trees into livid bruises of cloud. The return of the sun seems to put something back into the riders who have hung on through 18 hours of inky winter darkness, and exhaustion is now tempered by steely determination. One-by-one, the contenders skid-stop into the pits to record their lap time, glance at the boards, and pump their burning legs back up the fire road for one final lap. It’s nearly done.

The social side is almost as big a draw as the sport

It may be a cliché, but in the case of Strathpuffer, everyone who crosses that line 24 hours after they set out is a winner. And once the final riders are in, this is something they can all share; there are podium spots for the top three in each category, but the mutual respect, the shared experience, the exhausted euphoria that comes from pushing your body beyond the limits of your own endurance… these things unite them.

I catch up with Nigel beaming in the bike wash queue; clearly, he bagged the coveted dawn slot in his quad. “Yeah I’m really happy with how that went – I feel pretty good, but I imagine I’ll be sore tomorrow. Some of these guys are incredible athletes though, you see them steaming past you on the climbs, but this is a very inclusive event so you never feel bad about it.”

Many of the teams have a long journey home now – the infamy of the Strathpuffer has spread across the UK mountain biking community and beyond – and after a full day of drama and exertion, nobody is really in the mood to dig their camps out of the ubiquitous mud. Katie (who came fifth among the female soloists) grabs an egg roll and a celebratory pint, while I pick up another keg of session IPA as a reward for when we get home.

When I’d told Alasdair, who has organised Strathpuffer since the first race in 2006, that I was coming along to write a feature about beer, his response was “it always amazes me how much beer we get through – it’s meant to be a race!” While it’s definitely still a must-ride for the purists, I’d argue ‘Puffer has also become a focal point for the mountain biking diaspora, where the social side is almost as big a draw as the sport. In the Venn diagram of beer, bikes, competition and unforced camaraderie, it’s been a joy to spend 24 hours in the sweet spot.

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