Balblair Mountain, Sutherland

A Winter’s Trail – A Novice’s Guide to the Strathpuffer

It all started in August 2017 when a friend asked if I fancied joining a team to “Do the Puffer”. Living locally to the event, which is held in a forest between Strathpeffer and Contin on the Black Isle in the Highlands of Scotland, I knew of the Strathpuffer but not much else. Turns out there is a lot more to know; this I learned last weekend and I learned fast!

The Strathpuffer has now been held for 13 years and it incorporates a technical endurance cycling course with 24 hours of mid-January Highland weather, which usually means snow. Well, snow there was and it was occasionally deep and constantly very cold.

We put together a team of 4 willing cyclists: 3 experienced Puffers and me the novice. Our Team Captain, Bob was an old hand and with the experience of previous campaigns behind him, he came prepared and ensured our Team HQ was erected the day before and was complete with gas stove, food, drinks and seats for the rests between shifts.

Saturday 22nd January 2018, soon arrived and at 10 am, our first intrepid cyclist Neil, ran with the others from the start-line in a Le Mans-style sprint across snow and ice-covered ground, before jumping astride his bike and setting off uphill to tackle the new course, which had seen extra sections added to it and an extended route waiting for all.

Neil battled with the other 200 or so riders and, in under an hour-and-a-half, handed over to our next relay member, Colin, who attacked the course with gusto. In less than an hour and 20 minutes, it was my turn.

Dressed in a mixture of lycra, fleece and waterproof everything, I set off in 2-3 inches of snow. I spent the first 20 minutes cycling uphill to the sound of cow horns, which have become a tradition amongst the spectators at Contin. This first section gave me a bit of a false sense of security as the well-grooved track made by the preceding competitors made the going relatively straight-forward. As this section gave way to more heavily concentrated snowy paths, the grip under wheel became less assured and my ability to remaining upright was tested severely; I came unseated a number of times but thankfully landed in deep fluffy snow, which broke my fall rather than my bones.

The first lap took me over an hour and a half and was terrifyingly enjoyable. Handing over to Captain Bob for our teams' final first lap, I contemplated my next lap in over 4 hours, in the dark!

As darkness arrived, my fellow Highland Cycle Tours entourage in the guise of Alan and Gavin turned up to provide moral support; I did notice that they seemed to be sniggering. After a tour of our basecamp, which included photo opportunities, I was sent on my way in the winter night by the team, Alan and Gavin.

This time around the experience was not so simple. The mixture of darkness, loose snow and sore legs from the previous effort combined to make my second lap more tentative, slower, with more frequent visits to Mother Earth (no real injuries caused!). The downhill sections, which had previously been a respite and a chance to catch breath, had now become a half-visible terror, which was only fully apparent as my bike lights and head-torch approached the point of no return on the hastily chosen route down that I had selected.

After 2 hours and 10 minutes of this harrowing hedonism, I once again handed over to Captain Bob for what turned out to be Team Over-the-Hill's swan song. A group scrum-down later decided that discretion was the better part of valour and, owing to the increasing cold and worsening conditions on the course, we retired with our heads and our spirits held high. Watch this blog for next year’s attempt at the “Puffer”.