Tuesday, 22 January 2008

puffered out

Damnit that was good. And very much a race of two halves. Not chronologically, but simultaneous opposing events, thoughts and feelings...

Arrive in Inverness (yay!) to discover bike not there (no!). Frantic phonecalls to three different ParcelFarce offices finally yield a bike not in Perth but on a lorry on its way to Inverness (yay!). Meanwhile Jac and the campervan are lost somewhere snowy (no!). Long wait in which we get to be excitedly annoying to everyone else at the airport before Jac turns up, we find the PF depot and the bike and drive to Strathpeffer (yay!).

Lots of long faces at Strathpeffer - event may be cancelled due to the wind blowing away the campsite, the timing system and marquees and the rain rendering the campsite a flooded and unusable mess during the day (no!). Find alternative parking arrangements for camper vans, meet up with TSPC and JRA, and sup on pot noodles and red wine and listen mostly to other people talking comfortable nonsense before a short but happy sleep (yay!).

Wake and discover race is on (yay!). Drive to race site and realise we will be towed onto the field by tractor (a very big and scary no! for Jac who is driving, an excited yay! for me and anyone else who likes watching tractors hooning around muddy fields). Set up, build bike, race time (yay!). Forget to eat breakfast, as usual (no!).

Girls have good first laps (yay!), despite returning to report a course covered liberally with "boiler plate ice" (new one on me too - imagine two inches of highly polished glass on every surface of the trail and you're there). By contrast my first lap is utter crap, I can't ride the tech stuff and am mincing around like, well, a girl, full of demons and loathing for slabby rocks that might bite me, and of course at the top of the first climb I slip on the ice (having cleaned the whole climb) and land kneecap-first on the only pointy rock visible above the ice, resulting in being unable to push on the pedals for a bit. When I peel back the shorts afterwards to inspect the damage I have to remove a bit of torn lycra from the neat puncture wound... substantial and resounding no.

Eat a bit, more laps, head down with Jac to wait for Emily, by this point it's dark but we wait and wait and then wait some more... Every voice in head is making quiet but insistent negative noises, overruled by hope which says it's a puncture, it's light failure, it's just a bit muddy, it's a puncture... Then Emily's bike comes down the hill accompanied by someone who is clearly not Emily. **** no! A few garbled attempts at communication with a marshall later and we find our team-mate in the first aid van (yay!) with the first aiders trying gamely to remove her stuck Specialized shoe ratchets. We can't free them either and the scissors come out, the shoes come off and eventually after some prodding and head-scratching we lose our girl to A&E (no!)

The race must go on, Jac hands over to me and I head out for a double. And finally it is FANTASTIC. Absobloodylutely amazing. The rocks click, the bike clicks, I manage a clear run through nearly all the technical sections on both laps and I have a real, rare, bike-and-girl-as-one moment that goes on and on and on and on. YAY.

Then I have to try and stifle the giggling because I remember about Emily and feel bad for having so much fun (no!). Turns out she's back from A&E, where it's been established that her knee is congenitally freakish but not seriously damaged, and is quite happy for me to gibber excitedly at her about how good the laps were (yay!).

It is dark and cold, the trails remain icy and treachorous and a double lap takes its toll on Jac, who returns and vanishes vanwards declaring that she's tired and going to bed and will only come out again for her last lap (no!). Due to the tow-in, our camp is scattered and the temporary loss of another team member requires time juggling which hurts my tired head immensely - so to make it simpler I decide that I'll just do Jac's missing laps for her, which means I'm out for a triple, which strangely enough doesn't bother me in the slightest (yay!). Everyone is tired and emotional and there is a hint of friction in the air, I just want to get out and ride because this is the bit that I hate about racing as a team, when the interactions between people get skewed because of external factors, when everybody's tired and scratchy...

Waiting for my turn to ride I pop to the timing tent and find Phil standing dead still just staring at his bike. After a quick poke about with a torch it transpires that he's somehow snapped the pin off the centre of his disc brake piston, the pads keep falling out and he's done four laps without knowing why he only had a front brake (no!). I send him out for another lap (if he's done four then he'll manage another without incident) and dash off to get my gear together for a lap and find a donor brake for Phil.

The race mechanic has no spares so it's back to the van to beg/borrow/steal - except the van is now full of sleeping bags and snoring as the TSPC gave up to the lure of beer and sleep some time ago (no!). I am about to start removing my own brake when I spy someone lurking round the back of the van - it's Dave, having a moment's peace in the moonlight and in his quiet, matter-of-fact way says yes, of course you can have the brake from my Rig, it's already had bits pilfered from it and I'll bring it round in a sec. Big, happy, friends-are-ace hugs and warm feelings (yay!).

So, back to see Bec go through on the first of her two laps, then wait for Phil. And wait... and wait... Eventually he arrives, looking grey and wobbly (no!), I sit him down in front of the heater and set about speed-fitting the donor brake whilst he shovels jelly babies down his neck and continues his conversation with Paddington Bear. Concentrating hard I do the job quickly and well and I realise that I'm proud of being able to do this, fix my mate's bike competently when he's in need (yay!). And I only get a couple of blood blisters from struggling to use the pilfered pair of tuff-cuts to get the zip ties off with cold fingers (no! and ouch!). Send him out with a working bike and a tired grin on his face, and then I'm out for my triple, which turns out not the be the panacea I'd hoped for because in all the rush to fix Phil's bike I forgot to feed myself so bonk horribly halfway round the second lap (no!).

Shovelling gels down my neck has no effect whatsoever, and I'm struggling to hold onto the bars, so between laps two and three I head back to the tent (where Phil is now asleep in front of the heater, tights gently smoking) and mainline custard, crisps, G&B and more gels, a sugar injection that gets me to the top of the first climb before the joy of the moonlight and the first hint of dawn takes over (yay!). I'm still riding well, the few marshalls on course are still cheery and vocal despite the fact that they must be absolutely frozen and the mountains are still looking gorgeous. On reflection, it's all okay really. Back to the campsite, hand over to Bec and then go back to the van to find a rested and much happier Jac (yay!) preparing for her last lap.

I have one more to do, it is the last but there are few of those 'last lap' feelings (no!), perhaps as result of the more-difficult-than-usual logistics, or not doing all the riding, just not much of the glow. Instead I concentrate on chasing the riders in front and riding well, I get clear runs at nearly all the tech sections, including one of the bridges that's scared me off the bike each lap to the amusement of the marshalls (confession: I am allergic to planks), clear the worst climbs too and catch, pass and definitively drop a rider from the team in front for good measure (yay!).

Back and done, I hand over to Jac who heads up the hill like a girl possessed, and wander off to get clean and warm. The weather is stunning, all blue skies and speeding clouds over the hill, and we're pleased to have survived what could have been a disastrous mess, relatively unscathed. Showers, pig rolls, prize giving (we get lovely second-place china cups that are just the right size for a good coffee, and Phil's mum is sweetly far more excited by the wee bit of paper proclaiming him first singlespeeder than by the gorgeous Boone ti cog that is his prize), and hanging around in the sun all follow (yay!). Goodbyes are said (no!) and the van is swiftly and unceremoniously towed off the quagmire by the same grinning tractor driver leaving us to retire to the town for supper and a well-earned sleep...(yay!).

Hanging around the bike shop next morning we concur that though northern Scotland is a long way to go for a race, Strathpuffer is one we'll return to. The vibe, the location and the brilliant course all combined to make it really something special, despite the frankly barmy conditions. The biggest yay! should of course go to the organisers who worked through the night to make the event work after the disasters of the week; sometimes all you can do is accomodate Mother Nature, work around her and hope that she offers up just a little cooperation. There is talk of no race next year; I for one hope it goes ahead because I would (ahem) quite like to solo, with a little less of the emotional rollercoaster to weather. And yes, I'll be buying some ice tyres...


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