The question I’m asked most often is ‘why?’
After all these years of flogging myself round the woods I am still no closer to the answer.
Deep in the heart of the Highlands of Scotland, every January for the past 15 years, over a thousand hardy souls make the pilgrimage north to compete in the now-legendary Strathpuffer.
A twenty-four hour, lapped endurance mountain bike race.
A few like me however, need only travel ten minutes or so.
It is an extreme test of body, mind, bike and kit.
You have to carefully consider each of these aspects, as they play an equally important role in your success or failure.
Riding or racing, solo or as part of a team, the race doesn’t care.
It will stretch you to breaking point and beyond.
Nor does it discriminate between male, female or youth.
You will be eaten, chewed up and spat out at the other end.
Sometimes intact, but quite often broken.
But then you signed up for it.
You were warned.
You knew where it was.
You knew when it was.
Were you really expecting it to be easy?
This is your world for the next twenty-four hours.
Embrace it, dare I say enjoy it?
You’ll never experience anything quite like it.
Until next year that is.
Having an event like this to focus on so early in the year means that training in the harshest of conditions is mandatory.
Personally, I find myself in dark, lonely corners of the Highlands at some godforsaken hour of the day, halfway through a ride knowing It’ll take me a further five or six hours to get home.
I’ve played this game for long enough to know that the most innocuous of decisions or incidents prior to the race can have an influence on how the race can unfold, or unravel as has sometimes been the case.
Misplaced cling film, forgetting to bed in brake pads, or even to giving yourself a paper cut at work the day before, all can have disastrous consequences at three in the morning mid-lap.
Daylight laps lull you into a false sense of security.
For a mountain bike race the course is fairly tame.
You can see where the rocks are.
You can see where the puddles are.
You can see where the bomb holes and even where the breaking bumps are.
You can take the same predictable or preferred line lap after lap without too many problems.
You are still fresh.
Racing proper starts when darkness descends.
Seventeen hours of darkness.
That line that you railed every lap during daylight suddenly disappears.
The bomb hole which you easily negotiated previously is now masquerading as an innocent puddle and you are now inexplicably drawn to it.
Lap after lap.
Hour after hour.
You are not so fresh anymore.
The accumulated fatigue brings a lack of focus.
Small mistakes creep in.
You suddenly find yourself on the dangerous line down the rock slab that you would never consciously ride any other time.
You need some time out.
A return to camp helps refuel the body, refocus the mind, fix the bike and change your kit.
The family and friends that you cajoled into helping out in the pits are a lifeline.
They help feed you, encourage you, fix what needs fixed and change or clean what needs to be changed or cleaned.
Time for another lap.
You’ve been here too long.
See you in an hour.
In my experience plan for all circumstances and pack appropriately.
Assume snow, ice, rain, sleet, hail, sun, sub-zero temperatures, even up to a balmy ten degrees.
The course can ride hard and fast, soft and slow or a mixture of all.
One thing that is certain, you won’t know for sure until the Saturday morning.
This year, it had rained for the best part of five weeks leading up to race day.
Even though the course was wet a lot of the rain had eroded the surface between the rocks meaning the course was actually riding hard and fast for the most part with a short section of bike and kit devouring mud midway through.
Regardless of the weather, everyone has to ride the same conditions, you’re either prepared for them or you’re not.
An overused cliché I know, but you can experience all four seasons in one day.
So why do I do it?
Fear of missing out?
It’s a local race, it’d be rude not to?
Acclaim from my peers?
Sense of my achievement?
The nostalgia of playing in the mud like you did as a child?
A combination of all I suspect.
But moreover, I love it.
See you in 2021.
(Chris Pitblado, January 2020.)
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