The thermometer reads -7C on the other side of the plastic walls of our team pits. Inside, an industrial gas heater is keeping the washing-up water from freezing but various articles of clothing have slipped off folding chairs onto the ground and have frozen solid into the ice carpet of the tent. The hum of the generator, the whir of the heater, the gentle tinkle of bike maintenance in the corner and the regular rasp of tyres on snow outside are not loud enough to keep these three thirteen-year-old girls awake any longer. While their fourth teammate battles her way round yet another ten-mile snowy lap accompanied by her Adventure Syndicate chaperone, the others slumber quietly under piles of down and fleece. Not even chocolate digestives appeal any longer. The sleep monster has teamed up with fatigue and batted the team’s characteristic hyperactivity away. The Dingwall Academy Girls have been racing the Strathpuffer24 for 18 hours and still have six to go.
Last year, The Adventure Syndicate operated busy pits at Strathpuffer24. We had a female quad, a mixed pair and four solo riders all trying to keep their bodies, bikes and minds ticking over. One of these solo riders was Fin Graham, Drew’s son. Immediately after the race (the best time to formulate plans for the following year) while Fin slept soundly sitting bolt upright in the busy event marquee, Drew mentioned that the school he teaches at has an active mountain bike club and that a few girls were starting to appear. He wondered if we would be interested in mentoring them to compete in the Strathpuffer the following year. The seed had been planted.
A word about Drew Graham and Dingwall Academy: it takes vision, determination and a heart of gold to muscle a proposal like this past the Highland Council’s Outdoor Activity Risk Assessment process. Exposing schoolchildren to a 24-hour mountain bike race in the dead of winter speaks volumes about the school’s insight into the value of such an experience and demonstrates a generosity towards, and trust in, their pupils to take that risk and put in all that effort. That’s why we said we’d help.
The Highland Council agreed to this because they understand the potential benefits to young people’s confidence and self-esteem though outdoor adventurous activities. They also know the risks and this is why the conscientious race organisers, the school and the council wrote in the condition that if a participant is under 14 they must be chaperoned at all times while riding. Though thankfully, nowhere did it say by responsible adults.
For Jenny Graham and I, chaperoning Emilia, Bethany, Rowan and Lillybelle during a 24-hour mountain bike event was going to be the first step of a year-long relationship with them and with Dingwall Academy. With funding secured from the Sporting Equality Fund, The Adventure Syndicate are going to be working with five schools across Scotland in 2018. Our Inspire, Encourage and Enable Programme will identify eight teenage girls at each school who we will work with over the course of the year to prepare them for a bikepacking expedition with us in the summer. Our aim is to change individual perceptions that bike riding is all testosterone-fuelled competition and to challenge public perceptions of what girls are capable of. But in an effort not to exclude anyone from the benefits of bike riding, as part of the project we’ll be encouraging full-school participation in our Match the Miles Challenge, during which Adventure Syndicateers will ride in a straight line south for one week, while schools try to collectively match our daily mileage. Any pupils that engage with this will be offered future bikepacking opportunities. Changing perceptions of what girls and women are capable of means including boys and men too.
In the run up to the Strathpuffer24 (brutally scheduled each year to be as close to the shortest day as possible) I visited Dingwall Academy twice and rode with the girls once in an effort to get to know them a little before the event. It transpired that Bethany, Rowan and Lillybelle all liked the idea of racing their bikes while Emilia was vocal about her discomfort in of feeling under pressure to complete fast laps of the course. As a result, I thought a little management of team expectations was called for and suggested listening to each other’s hopes and fears before setting our own team goal:
“Emilia, someone has to have the slowest lap times. I’ve been in that position before and it was fine. We don’t care how fast you go. We’re a team.”
“Yeah, we don’t care about winning, we just want to do our best and finish as a team. We can all muck in and swap about if people are more tired that others.”
“We calculate we can probably manage 16 laps between us. Four each. Does that seem reasonable?”
“We’re just in this for the experience. We want to work together and have fun.”
“We still want to go fast though! Well, as fast as we can go, that’ll be different for each of us.”
“Nah. We’re not really bothered about the snow and ice. We’re from up here and we’ve seen it all before.”
Right then. I’ll get my coat. See you on the start line.
It takes about three days to prepare for the Strathpuffer24 and about three days to recover. Mark Goodwill from Orange Fox Bikes organised team tents, generators, fuel, gas, water bowsers, tools and spares, as well as giving all the girls' bikes a free service. I made sure clothing, cooking equipment, food, clocks, white boards, sleeping arrangements and support crew were taken care of. Together Mark and I have facilitated many a ‘puffer and make a good team. He is a diligent and tireless worker and can be found still lubricating individual chain links and drying bikes with hairdryers to stop them freezing 22 hours into an event.
Our usual support crew from Velocity Café were strategically out of the country this year leaving poor Ferga alone to take up the mantle of chief bottle washer, timekeeper, motivator and noodle maker. Fortunately she’s extremely good at this and had the help of teacher Liz and mum Marisa.
Liz had been instrumental in helping the girls grow in confidence over the past year and as a seasoned bike rider herself, was bursting with pride over getting them this far.
“The best part of the weekend for me was seeing the girls working as a team and achieving the personal goal they had set out for themselves. I loved seeing how their planning evolved and changed as the event progressed and the discussions they had about what was potentially going to happen and how they would deal with it. I also loved their determination and positive attitudes. They never complained or didn’t want to do laps. They were all ready to take their turn when the time came, yes they said it was hard but there was absolutely no whining or moaning. They were very matter of fact and just dug deep and got on with it without a fuss.” Liz Wilson
Adventure Syndicate colleague and good friend Jenny Graham was supposed to be riding the event solo this year but a combination of fatigue from having just ridden from Land’s End to John O’Groats in four days and excitement about being part of the girls first ‘puffer, meant she agreed to accompany me in chaperoning laps instead.
“I’m so glad I got to share in something bigger than the race itself and my own solo performance for a change. I loved helping a group of already AWESOME riders develop their love for Type2Fun*. However developing the love for Type2Fun entails some suffering and that was difficult to watch, especially in the middle of the night when the girls all went quiet and you knew how deep they were digging into their resilience to keep going. The last wee climb back to camp after dibbing their lap was nice though as they always felt relieved and delighted with themselves for making it through.” Jenny
(*Type2Fun: Not fun at the time but retrospectively the best thing you’ve ever done.)
Jenny and I would work in six-hour shifts, meaning we would each get to ride with all the girls and freeing me up for interviews and live feeds with the media. Everyone was talking about the team of thirteen-year-old girls who were competing this year but the girls were nonplussed.
With some experience of this event already (having competed in a team with seven boys from the school the pervious year) it was decided that Rowan would go off first. At 10am she and I jostled for position in amongst 400 big, burly riders and spent a frustrating lap stuck behind people as they broke trail ahead through half a foot of snow. In addition to this, Rowan’s dropper post failed as soon as she jumped on the bike meaning she had to ride the first section with her knees up around her ears. She never complained and remained upbeat and determined throughout, returning to the team pits an hour and a half later to cheers and whoops from her team mates.
“It wasn’t fun having to push up the hills on the first lap (although I was slightly relieved).” Rowan
Bethany was ready to go and took the team dibber from around Rowan’s neck. We set off at pace up the snow-covered fire road, riders now a bit more spread out and the snow more compressed making it easier to ride. Bethany was easy to keep track of even when it got dark. She emitted occasional whoops and yelps - some from fear, others from excitement - and her eagerness to be out on course and riding her bike was infectious. Neither of us could get over how beautiful the forest looked. It was a blue sky day but the air temperature was maintaining the snow that had fallen the previous day and lay thickly on all the trees and heather, sparkling distractingly in the bright sunlight. Under tyre, the snow that I assumed would quickly turn to slush and soak us through, remained powdery in the cold, dry conditions and actually filled in all the pot holes and bumps of the singletrack making the course flow nicely if you were able to relax enough and believe your tyres would grip. On that first lap, Bethany taught the rigid adult riders she passed that the secret to riding loose conditions is to relax and not worry about falling off. You can’t hurt yourself if you fall off laughing.
At around 2pm, it was time for Lillybelles’s first lap and Jenny jumped in so I could give a TV interview. The pair came back smiling from ear to ear although there was some evidence of falls in the snow for the acute observer.
“I’ll always remember Lee getting me to say “I LOVE HILLS” and also falling in a gorse bush face first!” Lillybelle
Jen and I swapped duties again and I accompanied Emilia on her first lap. It was nearly 4pm and the nervous energy had been building in Emilia all day but as soon as she was on the bike she focused this into forward motion and we spent a pleasant 90 minutes pedalling and chatting and watching the sun dip behind the horizon. It cast one last final golden glow through the still white branches of forest and then, darkness.
As Jen jumped back on her bike at 10pm, Ferga, Liz, Marissa and I watched with wonder at the amount of chocolate it was humanly possible to consume. We made Mark endless cups of coffee and talked tactics and timings with the girls while gently encouraging them to eat something of nutritional value and keep their kit off the freezing ground.
"Sometimes it's not that much fun supporting tired, grumpy, stressed-out riders at these events but these girls were a delight. Rowan was constantly aware of how others were feeling and what they might need. Bethany's sense of humour never flagged for an instant. Lillybelle was remained determined and motivated even after a couple of knocks and Emilia (that dark horse!) exuded a quiet confidence and self assurance rarely seen in someone so young." Ferga
Lillybelle came back from her second lap a bit shaken up after a fall on her head. I leapt up to ascertain what she needed but quickly sat back down again. Her friends were already seeing to her needs and Ferga and I quietly retreated to the background to make her some soup while they fussed and muttered around her making her warm and comfortable.
By the time I’d finished my night shift, it was 4am and the atmosphere in the team pits was more subdued. This is the hard part of a 24-hour event. Tired bodies scream, “Go to sleep!” but the craving for warmth and comfort cannot be given into too deeply. With lurking dread you doze, keeping one sleepy eye on the clock, waiting for your next lap to come around.
“The worst part was being woken up for my last lap. I admire the perseverance of you all as I’m not easy to wake up at the best of times!” Rowan
“I will always remember having to wake Rowan up for her last lap. She didn’t have a clue where she was and took a while to come round. I was so impressed that she pulled herself together and despite feeling sick, carried on.” Liz Wilson
“The worst part of the weekend was waking up at 2am with -7C outside and knowing that I still had to ride.” Emilia
But keep inching forward and nothing stays the same. The sun always comes up in the end, casting aside the fears and doubts felt in the darkness.
“I won't forget my last lap with Lillybelle. We started in the dark but the top of the climb rewarded us rewarded with a spectacular sunrise that continued to deepen for most of the lap. With each corner we turned, we were blown away by the red sky hitting the snowy treetops. Everyone out on course was amazed and it was top chat the whole way round.” Jenny
With steady work, the team had maintained consistent laps times and stuck to their ride order. Rowan, Bethany and Lillybelle had all managed to complete four laps. It was 9.30am when Lillybelle and Jenny arrived at the pits leaving Emilia not much time to complete her final lap. She would have to complete a lap a full 20 minutes faster than any she had managed in the previous 23 hours. We all discussed it and decided she should go out anyway to finish on the same number of laps as her team mates and that it made no difference that she'd come in at 11.20am. Her lap wouldn't officially count but the team goal of 16 laps would have been met. I put on my helmet one last time and set off up the fire road, chattering away at Emilia in an effort to distract her form the length of the effort ahead of her and her already tired legs. I told her about Sarah Outen's invisible peloton, the idea that when the going gets tough, you can summon around you all the inspirational people in your life to give you strength and carry you though. I went into great detail about all my people and through fast, hard breaths, Emilia said “wow” a lot. When I thought I might have overdone the telling of the impressive feats of Sarah, Jenny, Rickie and Emily I also told her that kind and patient Ferga who’d selflessly toiled away in the team pits all night was often at the head of my peloton. That my funny, caring sister Kim often leads the way in the darkest hours of my more extreme challenges as does my mum, 74 years old and still with spark enough to dance me under the table. I asked her who would be in hers. She said "you" and my heart melted a wee bit.
We rode a Shand Oykel with three inch tyres and it was perfect!
We broke that final lap down into manageable chunks and inched steadily round the still snowy course. Emilia paced herself and kept going with a grim determination. I told her over and over again not to worry about getting to the finish before 11am. That was not important or what our team objective was. We sang our "I love uphill" song while passing a couple of ashen-faced grown men. A couple of times, we pulled over to let faster guys pass as they gunned it to get to the finish before 11am. Emilia taught me a lot in those moments. She calmly pulled over and lost herself five seconds while I fretted about what that might mean for her lap time. She knew it meant nothing at all in the big scheme of things and that to pull over to let these stressed-out guys who were frothing at the mouth pass her was being true to her generous nature and was her way of managing her own stress levels. Then, at the viewpoint above Kinellan Loch, she looked at her watch and quietly said "Lee, I think I can do this". A switched had flicked and I went straight into coach mode. We had a crash course (literally) on descending with one foot off the pedal to act like an outrigger on a boat while sitting on our top tubes before skiing down the first decent. It was then I realised she was on a mission but, importantly, a mission of her own choosing.
There was a technical climb before the final descent and from somewhere deep down Emilia found the legs to ride it cleanly, something none of the team had managed to achieve even on fresh legs. Then, the final terrifying polished icy drop into the arena and finish line. And she styled it! I couldn't believe the transformation that had taken place but the most cautious rider in the team hadn't suddenly forgotten who she was and started riding recklessly in the hope of squeezing in before the bell. No. Emilia remained calm and in control and exuded confidence in her new-found ability. With poise and determination, she smashed that descent and popped out into the arena to surprised cries from her team mates who were all standing about at the finish, certain she would appear in about 20 minutes time.
We looked at each other on the finish line. Me, a little in awe and incredulous. Emilia, pleased, slightly surprised, relieved but overwhelmingly exactly the same as she'd always been. She'd not changed her personality out there or pretended to be something she was not. She'd not dug so deep she had harmed herself or worried so much what others might think that she freaked out with the pressure. She'd looked inward and found a little kernel of confidence that had been there all along. She'd tugged it to the front of her mind and encouraged it gently to open up demonstrating staggering levels of patience, resilience and self-awareness. From behind shining eyes it was obvious that Emilia had proved something to herself and I felt privileged to have witnessed it.
“As a result of finishing my last lap just minutes before the time ran out so that it counted for the team, I’ve learned that I can do things that I didn’t think I could do.” Emilia
“I’ll always remember when Emilia came bombing down the final descent into the finish – her fastest lap! That showed real guts and determination. Such a proud and emotional moment… I cried!” Mark
“I will never forget almost bursting into tears as Emilia came zooming down the hill completing her last lap in her fastest time with just nine minutes to go! Heart-stopping stuff!” Liz Wilson
As we stood around the finish line congratulating each other and posing for various cameras, it slowly emerged that not only had the girls accomplished their goal of riding 16 laps in under 24 hours, by chaperoning them, Jenny and I had clocked up enough laps between us to win the female pairs category! This was the icing on the cake for the whole team: the four girls, the two chaperones, the exhausted mechanic, the pit support crew and, joining us to celebrate, Drew and the girls' families too.
While Jenny and I sheepishly climbed onto the podium to accept a win that felt like far more than just ours, Team Dingwall Academy Girls were presented with the Youth Achievement Award for finishing in 5th place in the female quads.
Incredible achievement all round and a fairytale ending for four deserving bike riders.
“I’ll always remember that we managed to make our goal of riding 16 laps and winning the Youth Achievement Award.” Rowan
“As a result of riding the ‘puffer I’ve learned that we are all capable of more than I thought we were.” Rowan
“As a result of seeing the girls ride ‘The Puffer’ I’ve learnt that we should never underestimate what young people can do when they put their minds to it and have the support to help them achieve their goal. Anything is possible. Truly inspirational.” Liz Wilson
HUGE thanks to the race organisers; Steve, Clancy, Al and Linda and all their fabulous marshals who kept us going throughout the night and Sophie and Cat for carrying me on the media front!
Thanks to EDF, Alpkit and Exposure Lights for supporting it.
Thanks to the staff and pupils of Dingwall Academy for leading the way in teaching the next generation how to manage risk.
Finally, thanks to our entire support crew. Without you lot this would never have happened.