Stuff that survived the Strathpuffer – Craft and Armadillo clothing

If something performs well and emerges from the Strathpuffer in one piece, you can assume it’s worth having. Here’s the first of 2015’s “Stuff the survived the Strathpuffer” blogs….

photo shamelessly pinched from Rich Rothwell

photo shamelessly pinched from Rich Rothwell

It goes without saying that 24 hour mountain bike racing in freezing and wet conditions in the depths of the Scottish winter needs some pretty serious clothing. Clothing that will keep you warm but won’t make you overheat when you put some effort in. Clothing that won’t fall apart if/when you crash and will survive the continual spray of mud without wearing through and/or emerging from the washing machine still covered in brown stains…

I’m lucky to have my winter riding needs taken care of by my friends at Craft UK and Armadillo Merino. But even the best winter cycling clothing needs to be VERY good to stop me getting cold in a round-the-clock race…

Craft took care of the outer layers with Siberian windproof gloves, PB Storm bib tights and PB Featherlight jacket. The final mile of the Strathpuffer lap involved a soaking-wet slither down a hill that was covered in several inches of soaking wet mud. My bibtights basically took a pounding every lap and while they got wet, the windproof panels and the perfect fit meant that they didn’t become baggy and I didn’t get cold. Likewise, when the temperature dropped during the night the jacket kept the chill at bay. My hands, normally the first to turn to blocks of ice when it’s cold, didn’t get cold at all in spite of freezing temperatures and a chilly wind.

After the race, everything spent a couple of days in a bag, rinsed in a bucket and then washed at 30 degrees in non-bio detergent. Everything came out as good as new.

Underneath all of that, I was wearing a pair of Armadillo Merino Commando Socks and a pair of merino liner gloves. My overshoes (cheap, sacrificial ones that I’ve had for years) kept popping off the toes of my shoes, leaving me riding most of the race in summer cycling shoes and socks. It was down to the socks to keep my wet feet from getting cold and I can’t praise them highly enough. I’ve worn loads of wool socks in the past but the performance of these is really quite remarkable. I was expecting cold feet as they were repeatedly exposed to water and wind, but it never happened. The socks themselves were soaking wet but somehow they managed to stay warm. Brilliant. Get a pair.

If it’s tough, warm and well-fitting kit you’re after, my advice is to get something that’s survived a Strathpuffer.


Strathpuffer 2015

Sometimes it’s easy to be fooled by the events of the past. Just because something has turned out well for you more than once in years gone by, it doesn’t always mean that you can rely on things turning out just as well in the future. It’s easy to become over-confident, arrogant even, always assuming that you can trot out the same old same old and get away with it.

What I’m trying to say is that I made a pig’s ear at the Strathpuffer. But it could have been worse.

Riding a 24 hour solo race on a singlespeed might sound pretty stupid, but it’s not when you consider that I’d won this particular race twice on this very same bike so it would be sensible to assume that it must be the right tool for the job, yes? No.


photo: Yaz Lapin

Things started ok, I put in some decent lap times in spite of the icy conditions. The past couple of years have been a bit icy, but nothing like the widespread snow and ice of this time so I was using spiked ice tyres front and rear to allow me to maintain traction while climbing out of the saddle. My second lap was the fastest lap of any singlespeeder in the race, which illustrates how well things were going early on. I was concerned about a lower back niggle that I’d been carrying for a few weeks (probably caused by singlespeed hill reps during training) but I reckoned that it’d be ok as long as I maintained good form on the bike, kept my back straight and didn’t start to “scrunch up”.

The icy course was nice and smooth and fast and I had plenty of the all-important momentum to get me to the top of the short-but-steep climbs in the second half of the lap.

I finally caught up with Keith Forsyth around the 8 hours mark who at that point was in the lead. I didn’t want to pass him just yet so tailed him for a lap or so before I made my move. I now had a grand plan to quickly eat some hot food and then consolidate my lead and create a gap.

Unfortunately for me, around this time the temperature appeared to rise just enough to make the icy course softer and quite slushy in places. I was immediately having to properly put maximum effort into keeping moving and momentum was suddenly in short supply. My lead lasted all of a lap-and-a-half as Keith came tearing past and rode off into the distance and I grimaced, grunted and made a meal of things.

A rear tyre swap alleviated things a little bit, but what I really needed was a set of gears. Still struggling to stay on top of my gear and maintain a comfortable cadence, my back started to give out. I progressively got slower.

A few hours of trying to muscle a singlespeed around the now quite muddy and ‘heavy’ course followed. By the 16 hour point I was pretty broken and was ready to chuck in the towel, when Deb (just doing her job) gave me a right bollocking. She knew a result was still possible as long as I stopped moaning about how much pain I was in and kept moving. I rode off with a flea in my ear but deep down I knew she was right.

I kept going and put in some really slow lap times – by now the pain in my back was preventing me from riding up anything remotely steep and I wasn’t too hot at descending either.

With 3 hours to go, just at the point where I was as in as much pain as I can remember, I started to believe that the singlespeed category win was in the bag and perhaps I could hang on to an overall podium place. I was still in second overall in spite of the fiasco of the past 9 hours but I knew Guy was catching up.

When he did we had a brief chat and he rode into second place as I pushed my stupid bike up another hill. By now the ice and slush had all but disappeared, but I had almost nothing left.

Somehow I’d done enough (in spite of my over-confident and somewhat foolhardy bike choice) to secure 3rd place on the solo podium behind Guy in second and Keith in first – both of them riding brilliantly and consistently throughout the race – and I also took the singlespeed category win for the 4th time, which was nice.


pic: Gary Williamson Photography

Will I be back (with gears) next year? What do you think?


pic: Niall Wallace

Grinding it out for the Strathpuffer

The past three months or so of preparing for the Strathpuffer have been a bit of a struggle. Not a struggle physically, I’m more than capable and fit enough right now to cope with the training I should have been doing – nope, my struggles have been with motivation to get outdoors in the cold, wet and dark to put in the saddle time. It’s always harder to get the miles in during the dark winter months but this time has been different – I’ve thought about it carefully because at one point I was ready to walk away from cycling altogether, but I’ve simply come to the conclusion that I need a break from cycling as I’ve not had an ‘off season’ for over a year.

I don’t mean a long break, just a few weeks. A few weeks to have some rest and devote some time to other things. The house needs some sorting out and I’m mad keen to start trail running again.

The 6, 7, 8 and 9 hour rides that I’d normally do in prep for a 24 hour solo just haven’t happened. OK, I’ve done two or three big rides (I even managed to put in a 22 hour week a couple of weeks ago) but I decided after a major wobble when I almost withdrew from the event some weeks ago that I’d get my head down, tough it out, do the rides and the training that I actually felt like doing, stop whining and go and do the race. Just one more race….how hard can it be?

Luckily for me I’m riding the Strathpuffer on a singlespeed again (bear with me). On a normal bike ride, singlespeeding isn’t that much different from riding with gears. It’s just pedalling. But the longer the duration of the ride, the bigger the differences become. There’s just nowhere to hide – you can’t slip into an easier gear and ‘ride easy’ for a while when you start to ache all over and your body is screaming at you to stop – once you hit any sort of gradient you’ve got to commit 100%. My choice of gear is quite tall for 24 hour racing too – I don’t want to lose too much speed on the easier parts of the course so my bikes are set up so that I can match the lap times of other riders with a full complement of gear ratios.  It seemed to work ok at the hilly Todmorden cyclocross race a couple of weeks ago….I didn’t get completely humiliated anyway 😉

Pic: Dave Haygarth

Pic: Dave Haygarth

It can be done, but the training needs to be different so rather than concerning myself with hours and hours of saddle time, I’ve been focussing more on short (if you can call three hour rides ‘short’) intense training, specific singlespeeding techniques to preserve my lower back and also spending more time lifting weights in the gym – building my upper body, core and altering my body composition. If I’m taking part in a race where I can expect to be stood up out of the saddle for three quarters of it, I’m going to have to toughen up.

In some ways it’s ideal winter training. Not being outside for too long, turbo training, lifting weights…not quite winter hibernation but certainly not the adventurous, epic, fast bike rides in horrible weather of years gone by. Most of the rides I’ve done have taken place within 3 miles of my house. Will it be enough? I’ve no idea.

Whatever happens, it’s a good starting point for the rest of the year and I have to admit I’ve enjoyed working hard in the gym and I think I’ve even started to like interval training. It’s done and dusted in a couple of hours and that’s probably the only reason I’m still on the Strathpuffer start list. I even lost weight over Christmas.

As usual, I’m fortunate to be heading up there in the Team JMC van with some brilliant kit – an ace bike from Niner, proper warm clothing from Craft and Armadillo Merino and 17 hours of darkness-busting Exposure Lights.

The all-important weather forecast? High winds and snow….