Third Time Lucky?

Well we got there in end. I don’t know how, but yesterday Mike Dennison and I finished what we started with a podium place at the Strathpuffer 24 hour MTB enduro race.

Mike takes most of the credit, he talked me into doing this event two year’s ago. Actually he didn’t talk me into it he just told me bluntly “We’re doing it”. For me the Strathpuffer for mountain bikers is like the marathon for runners. I notice runners get a bit defensive when they tell you they’re a runner, but they haven’t/won’t do a marathon. Well the Strathpuffer is same for MTBers and as every January passed by and I politely refused invitations to race and got a little more defensive with each year.

So after our first Strathpuffer two year’s ago I was relieved to get that monkey off my back and pleasantly surprised to finish 6th in the pairs category. Last year we were more focussed and my objective was to try and enjoy the event and to work as an efficient team as we didn’t have any support. Job done and 5th place in the pairs category.

This year we had our eye on the podium. Mike trained hard for this one and I wanted to leave no stone unturned, so I rode through mud, rain, floods, storm Frank, ice, sleet, wind, most of it alone in the dark. I even figured out a smart way to train over Christmas without compromising the odd beer and mince pie.

And so on to the race itself. On the surface it looked like benign conditions. Warm, wet ground, not too boggy. I was physically dialled and we had managed to bag a good spot so that my old skool pal and teammate Phil Simcock could setup the Team JMC tent as he was supporting soloist Richard Rothwell.

Mike and I have an unusual racing pairs strategy. I do three laps, he does two, whereas most competitive pairs will do lap about. The reason for this is Mike is due a new hip in 6 weeks and needs time to recover from the riding and dealing with the pain (which he pretends doesn’t exist). I’ve got my eye on soloing this event, so I’m quite content to do multiple laps. It’s a strategy that works well for us.

But something wasn’t quite right. After two blocks (6 laps), despite the warmth, sunshine and the odd bit of comedy mud, the legs weren’t singing the tune as I was hoping for. When Phil offered to clean my bike down and encouraged me to eat as the light rapidly faded, I was uncharacteristically tetchy and Phil was undeservedly in the firing line. So I made us both a cup of tea, offering something stronger and also made my apologies. Phil just laughed it off like you expect two blokes that have know each other for nearly forty years and shared some of his racing anecdotes which made me feel better.


Perhaps the tetchiness was a pre-cursor to what happened next? Mike finished his block and seemed unhappy. In contrast I started to feel really good – this is more like it!

And then, smash, clunk, fizz. Smashed mech, broken spoke, punctured tubeless wheel. I looked skywards at the full moon and immediately realised our early high position was compromised along with the race. For some reason, I started running which was awful as the course had turned into a super thick gloop of semi liquid concrete.

I don’t do running. I quit after my second knee operation five years ago. At this point I started to look for excuses to quit the race and break out the Auchentoshan. I selfishly engineered a fatalistic reason to stop racing – I’ll ask Mike, he’s in pain, he’s had a bad night’s sleep and like me he likes whisky. If he wants to quit, then we’ll give everyone in our camp a hand in supporting Richard, my nephew Finn Nixon and Ross McMurtrie as they were still racing hard.

I whinged to Mike about my situation, but in his typical style he just said, “Keep going then”. Ok then. I jumped on my Frankenbike and started to think about what had truly happened. This wasn’t supposed to happen! I was convinced this time we would manage a podium place. All last week I felt a strong vibe, the planets (literally) aligning. It was meant to be, we’d put a lot of effort into this last hurrah.

The other side of the brain said “Not to worry, same conditions for all. We can recover this situation”. Yes, of course we can, there’s ages to go!

Then in the next block, for some strange reason the chain fell off. It fell off again and again, and again. I was haemorrhaging time big time. The notorious Strathpuffer mud was filling up the gaps in the chain and it was so dense the teeth on the narrow-wide chainrings couldn’t push them out. So at certain points of the course I would find large puddles or burns, stop and give my drivetrain a wash. A rider suggested I should get a chain guide. It was a good point, but a moot one at that and mechanically ironic.

At the bridge of thighs I reached my nadir. I was under the bridge cleaning my bike when my headlight failed and I simply couldn’t see what I was doing. At that point I was mentally on the verge of a breakdown. I simply hadn’t expected mechanicals at this level. The last two Puffers went without even a puncture and here I was in the early hours of Sunday morning trying to find the joke about me being a little bearded troll under a bridge funny.

Acceptance. Podium was surely gone now, but at least it’ll be great miles for the legs and the time trialling season ahead. Keep moving.

Between the next block Phil, who’s normally either setting long distance records or winning the Strathpuffer himself did a blinding job switching chainrings, trying different things. And then we figured out that the drivetrain had to be cleaned after every lap. This improved matters slightly, but the chain still kept falling off and as the riders started to tire I was conscious of becoming a liability to other riders. Another excuse to quit? Rider etiquette, health and safety. Auchentoshan awaits, a chin wag with the support crew and a bit of pitting? I finished my block and asked Phil for his advice on my concern for other riders potentially slamming into me to and hurting themselves. It was genuine.

Phil muttered two short words and that was it. Reassured and closure on the matter. There was no way I was even going to consider quitting this race. I’m going to bloody well finishing it, regardless of what is thrown at me next. Keep riding. Hard bit’s done. Dawn is not far away.

In the last block as the light reluctantly started to come up an unexpected miracle occurred. The chain stayed on the bike and I knocked out three quick and effortless rhythmic laps, feeling great, energised and almost sorry the race was about to come to a close. I missed the cut-off of 10am to get another lap in, but we were done and finished a respectable 6th again, just like the first year. Not bad given the circumstances. It was just not meant to be, no fairytale ending, etc, but it was ace and great fun with some top banter on the course and lots of familiar faces.

And then in the presentation tent Big Paw Euain told us we were 3rd males in the pair category with 2 female teams and a mixed pair finishing ahead of us. For a split second we thought…podium! Nah, can’t be. Don’t be silly.

Ha ha, twenty minutes later we were somewhat sheepishly on the podium. Who’d have thunk it! You could argue we were a little fortuitous, but like I’ve said before, you make your own luck and we’d had a fair share of bad luck. Evens stevens?

Now Mike can turn 50 next month and look forward to a new hip in March, whilst I’m now looking at going solo next time, maybe on a single speed – complete with a chain guide and a sense of humour!

Top three lessons learned from this eventful race…

  1. When someone offers you help, take it. They wouldn’t offer otherwise – doh!
  2. You can’t train for every eventuality. Expect the unexpected.
  3. It ain’t over till it’s over (you think you’re the only one having problems, huh?).