What kind of person creates a 24-hour mountain biking event that takes place in the Scottish Highlands in the middle of winter? Perhaps a man who describes himself as “a keen mountain biker who imagines he’s better than he really is”.
Steve McDonald is one of the co-founders of the Strathpuffer, a gruelling event that competitors just can’t get enough of. Keen to encourage mountain biking in the area, McDonald originally envisaged a midsummer race, with little darkness and much warmer temperatures. However, a conversation with Pat Adams, organiser of the hugely popular 24-hour mountain biking event Mountain Mayhem, turned the idea on its head.
“I was thinking of a midsummer race,” says McDonald. “But Pat said, ‘nah – winter! Mountain bikers like a challenge!’”
Evidently they do, as the event is now in its 12th year and sells out within four minutes of opening for registration. McDonald was as surprised as anyone at the instant popularity of the race.
“At first we thought it would be a one-off, but 250 riders entered and it was clear there was a need! Over 12 years it’s grown considerably, and where it once was a struggle to fund, now we have lots of potential sponsors.”
Planning for the unknown
The event takes place in the Torrachilty Forest, near the town of Strathpeffer, where McDonald and his wife Clancy owned and ran the Square Wheels bike shop until 2016. They joined up with Alasdair and Linda Lawton, who run Hands On Events, to create the event.
Riders can compete solo or in teams of two, four, eight or 10, riding continuous laps of the 11km course for 24 hours, which includes a bleak 17 hours of darkness. This year, approximately 940 riders will take part, proving that the event is a firm favourite within the mountain biking community.
Careful planning is required, says McDonald. “It’s probably not that different from most outdoor events, but we have to especially factor in the weather, as it could be anything from sun to gales to snow. Permissions from the council and Forestry Commission have to be organised, as well as first aid, timing, catering, marshalls, transport, you name it!”
The event, which this year takes place on 21-22 January, has dealt with its fair share of weather-based challenges, including gales blowing away the marquee, two feet of snow covering the track and temperatures of minus 10 degrees. But as the team says on its website, “if we insist on staging a 24 hour event in the Highlands of Scotland in the middle of winter what do we expect?”
A unique offering
The team is always careful to engage with the local community to ensure no one is adversely affected by the event. But as the race has become more popular, hotels and other local businesses have benefited from the yearly influx of visitors.
In growing the event, McDonald says that social media has helped considerably. The Strathpuffer was also listed by US-based Bike magazine as one of the world’s top 10 mountain biking races. But the popularity of the event is undoubtedly due to its unique offering.
“As far as we know, it’s the only winter 24-hour mountain bike race in the world,” says McDonald. “It’s become a ‘bucket list’ event for keen mountain bikers. Plus, we have our own beer!”