What started as a one-off event for a TV show has become one of the world’s most iconic races.
This month, the annual Strathpuffer 24 will be held for the 15th time near the Highland village of Strathpeffer in Ross & Cromarty on January 18 and 19.
The 1,000 mountain bikers taking part will attempt to complete as many laps of a technical 12.4km (7.7-mile) course as possible within 24 hours.
Given the time of year, 17 hours of the race will take place in darkness and conditions are always gruelling. It is a feat that almost everyone who takes part describes as extreme, yet strangely, the endurance event sells out year after year.
“The first Strathpuffer 24 was created as part of a series of programmes by independent film-making company, Triple Echo,” founder Steve Macdonald says. “It was intended to showcase outdoor events in Scotland – they were looking for winter races and they liked the idea of an endurance mountain biking event.
“It was an idea I’d been thinking about for a while but I had envisaged it taking place in summer, not mid-winter.”
Steve managed to get some friends together to run the event and it was staged in 2006 with a few hundred riders.
“It was broadcast as part of the now famous Adventure Show,” Steve says. “And while it was a lot of fun, I thought that would be that.”
But the competitors liked the event, and it became clear that there was an appetite for another Puffer the following January.
Steve says: “We did it for a few years after that and it really started to gain momentum. We then said we would keep going for 10 years, but somehow we haven’t stopped.
“This year will be the 15th and it’s clear it’s still very popular.”
The Strathpuffer 24 has gained legendary status worldwide and is included in the top 10 toughest mountain bike events on the Planet in the US magazine Bike.
The weather in January is notoriously unpredictable and the race has taken place in strong gales, deep snow, thick ice, temperatures as low as –10C, rain, hail and, sometimes, sunshine.
Riders can race solo, in pairs and as quads, with the event starting at 10am on January 18, finishing at 10am the next day.
Four-times winner of the solo race is Keith Forsyth, of Musselburgh, East Lothian, rates the Puffer as his favourite event.
Keith, 50, has completed it 12 times, first in the quads, then for five years as a pair, and for the last six years as a solo rider, triumphing between 2015 and 2018. He was second last year.
“It is such a brilliant event, with a unique atmosphere,” Keith says. “It’s organised and run by a team of fantastically enthusiastic people. I’d call it iconic – and a race that is considered a rite of passage for every mountain biker.”
For record-breaking long-distance cyclist Mark Beaumont, the 2019 edition of the Strathpuffer 24 was his first choice for his inaugural mountain bike race.
“The Strathpuffer has legendary status,” Mark says. “I’d never entered a mountain bike race before, so I thought it was a suitably daft way to get started.
“It lived up to its reputation with 17 hours of dark and icy conditions on a technical single track.
“I was also paired with Alex Glasgow, the Scottish super-vet XC Champ, and multiple winner of the Puffer. I had my work cut out to keep up.”
The pair were second in their category, completing 30 laps.
“The Puffer course has a wonderful variety and it is a test for all abilities,” he adds. “But it’s the camaraderie and the sheer grittiness of the event that makes it. It’s such a memorable event.”
The Strathpuffer has also seen an steady increase in female riders, especially in the pairs and quads.
Naomi Freireich, of Edinburgh, took part in the Puffer in 2010, 2011 and 2012 in the mixed pairs coming first, third and first respectively.
She went on to race solo in 2016 and won. In 2017, Naomi entered the pairs again, with Stuart McLeod, and they won the mixed pairs and the overall pairs title, too.
Naomi will be back this month as a solo competitor.
“I had a break in 2018 as I had a lot of other commitments,” she says, “but I am looking forward to this year’s race.
“My riding friend Zara Mair, who has won the female pairs with Joanne Thom on many occasions, is racing solo for the first time, beside other strong riders, Annie Lloyd Evans and Caroline Souter, so it should be an amazing race.
“I think many people are repeat competitors for a mix of reasons.
“There’s the knowledge that you’re doing something utterly bonkers, as well as the sheer personal brutality and the incredible atmosphere.”
“Like childbirth, I think we all forget just how difficult it is until we’re standing at the start of the race again. By the end, we’ve forgiven it.”
The age range of Puffers is an incredible seven decades.
The oldest – and a repeat customer – is Ron Smith who was 79 in the 2019 Puffer.
Tom Seipp, 14, from the Peak District, was the youngest to race the solo category aged just nine in 2015. Remarkably he rode 10 laps, covering almost 105km (65 miles) and 2,438 metres (8,000 ft) of climbing. He was 61st out of 92 solo riders.
He has finished a solo Puffer another three times, improving his laps. In 2019, he raced in a Team Alpkit quad with his dad Richard, as well as Peter McNeil and Neil Cottam. This month, Tom will form a pair with Richard.
“I really enjoy the atmosphere of the event,” Tom says. “And how everyone gets along. Very few people treat it as a race – to most people, it is just a friendly get-together with a bike ride in the middle.”
Steve can’t be sure how many more years they will host the Strathpuffer.
“The people who race our event are brilliant,” he says. “And I am grateful to an amazing team of hard-working organisers and marshals.
“It has become a classic bucket list event and I could never have seen that happening when we started out all those years ago.”
“I’d call it iconic – a race that is a rite of passage for every mountain biker ”