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Let battle commence: Battle on the Beach race report

In-depth
14 Apr 2021
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Once a year at low tide, a beach in South Wales plays host to a race unlike any other

Words: Stu Bowers Photography: Geoff Waugh

Jostling for position on a crowded beach is usually no fun. But this is different. There are no sun loungers or parasols, I’ve been slathering on chamois cream rather than suncream. That said, I’m rather wishing I had applied a bit of factor 30, but how was I to know that it would turn out to be so sunny on an April day in South Wales?

I’m standing astride a Cannondale mountain bike tandem alongside nearly 1,000 other competitors at the start line of the 2019 Battle on the Beach. Almost everyone is in short sleeves and sunglasses, and the atmosphere is relaxed as people soak up the unseasonably warm weather.

That won’t last. In a few minutes the starting horn will blast and this thousand-strong battalion will charge down a 5km stretch of Cefn Sidan beach in Pembrey in a bid to be at the head of affairs before the race heads over the dunes and onto singletrack through the woods.

It’s this combination of expansive sand and confined trails that makes Battle on the Beach possibly like no race anywhere else in the world.

Preparing for Battle

‘I’d seen these beach races in Belgium where they race on the flat sand, and one day I came to the beach in Pembrey and just had this vision that I could create something similar here,’ says race organiser Matt Page.

‘In Belgium and Holland, though, they stay on the flat, like a sand crit race, but I felt there’s so much singletrack in the woodland behind the dunes here that I knew I could bring a bit more to the event than just being about the beach alone.’

 

The first Battle on the Beach was held in 2014, and it has since grown into one of the highlights of the off-road racing calendar. This year, 18 nationalities are represented and professional racers line up alongside amateurs for the mass start. Multiple UK National Cyclocross and Mountain Bike champion Nick Craig and National Road Hill Climb Champion Dan Evans are among the entrants this year.

The race’s diversity is its main draw. The rules about bikes are pretty relaxed: basically, if you can ride it, you can race it. The only hard and fast rule is no aero bars; otherwise practically anything goes.

As a result cyclocross bikes rub shoulders with mountain bikes, gravel bikes, fat bikes and a fair smattering of tandems. There’s even a team of Dutch professional beach racers who have turned up on specially designed beach-racing machines.

Choosing the right bike is all part of the fun. Do you go for drop bars or flat? Wide tyres or skinny? Knobbly or semi-slick? It seems there is no perfect solution.

‘The jury’s still out on what’s the best bike for Battle on the Beach because what is fast on the beach may lose out elsewhere on the lap,’ Page says.

Fat bikes, for instance, are made to ride on sand, but keeping up with the lighter gravel or cyclocross bikes on the forest roads will be tough. In the same vein, my tandem is less nimble and manoeuvrable than many of the bikes here, but I do have a significant advantage: two sets of legs.

Sitting behind me on the tandem is my stoker, who also happens to be my wife, Kate. She’s my secret weapon. At 52kg she’s light enough that I barely notice she’s there, but despite her slight frame she also puts out an impressive amount of power.

This isn’t the first time we’ve competed together on a tandem, but we’ve never done anything like this before. For starters, the rhythm of a full samba band is hammering out from the dunes behind us, a crescendo of noise that electrifies the atmosphere.

I’m tingling with a mix of excitement and nerves as the ‘one minute to go’ board is raised. But there’s still none of the usual tension I’m used to encountering at the start of a bike race. Faces are etched with grins, not the more common grimaces of concentration. Then, with a long, loud blast of the air horn, we’re off.

 

Charge!

Luckily for us, tandems have been given a front row seeding – albeit far to the left – to avoid any pile-ups getting off the line in the deep sand. It’s a dilemma everyone faces: how to get going in sand on a bicycle.

Some choose to start on foot, running with their bikes until they reach the firmer sand. Others simply slog it out. We get a surprisingly good start, assisted by the fact that earlier I’d spotted a piece of driftwood in the sand and cunningly placed it under our rear tyre.

It’s not cheating, honest. It’s what I prefer to think of as making the most of our natural surroundings.

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It works brilliantly. With Kate already clipped into her pedals and ready to go hell for leather for 200m until we reach the hard-packed sand, we find ourselves in the thick of the front-end action. It’s like a cavalry charge.

Viewed from a distance (there are several YouTube videos of the start if you want to truly appreciate the sheer scale and craziness of it) it’s like a scene out of a Mad Max movie, with a mass of machines going full-bore in an enormous arrowhead formation.

 

Ahead of us is what amounts to a 5km drag race. I can see the blue and yellow jerseys of the Dutch pros driving the pace up front. A quick look down at my bike computer reveals, incredibly, we’re doing 56kmh as we jostle for position in the melee. Kate has time to glance over her shoulder and shouts to me that we have acquired a lot of new friends, as riders are actually fighting for position on our wheel to sit in the tandem’s draft.

My attention is momentarily distracted as we pass what’s left of a shipwreck, half buried in the sand, but as the end of the beach approaches I put my head down and pedal hard.

Kate, too, gives it her all, as she knows it will be an advantage to be as close to the front as possible when this huge throng of riders tries to pile over a sand dune and into the narrower woodland trails on the other side.

Sure enough, it’s bedlam. As we turn inland and hit the deep, soft sand higher up the beach, riders are forced to dismount and run uphill. With me pushing the tandem, a bikeless Kate bounds happily ahead, causing a few confused looks from our rivals. Thankfully things quickly settle down and we find our rhythm and place in the pack.

We concede the racing line to faster solo riders, but surprise ourselves by how well we’re able to keep up a good pace and ride almost every part of the route on the tandem.

Whipping in and out of the trees is dizzying, and carrying enough momentum to crest the many steep rises has our legs burning, but equally I can’t stop grinning. It’s a blast.

 

The first lap goes by in a blur. The going is fast in these dry conditions but in places the top surface is loose, like riding on marbles, and I need to concentrate fully.

Those who did the night race – held the previous evening – have the slight advantage of knowing how the course flows at race speeds. Just over 26 minutes of racing has passed when we fly under the finish gantry to complete our first lap.

The atmosphere in the arena is electric. Music pumps from massive speakers and the MC, Ian Frewin, has whipped the crowd into a frenzy. Being on a tandem means we get an extra loud cheer from the hordes, enough to give me goosebumps and a dose of adrenaline as we head back towards the sea to face the beach for the second time.

Two legs good, four legs better

This time around we don’t have the advantage of the huge group to help pull us along the beach. The race has strung out by now, and groups of three or four riders are all that are left to work together to share the load on the seemingly endless stretch of sand. We join a small group and dutifully pull our turn. It’s tough going, with a slight headwind too, but I’m certain four legs are still better than two.

As the lap progresses I try to learn from the mistakes we made first time round, but I probably make as many new blunders as fatigue starts to build. It’s encouraging to hear the buzz of the arena again as the lap ends, and the atmosphere is still fully charged as we start the final lap.

This one takes a slightly different course – a clever tactic by the organisers to ensure the leaders don’t have to lap the backmarkers. We still have to complete the 5km of beach, but once we’re off the sand for the final time the course becomes narrower and passing becomes harder.

 

I’m almost disappointed when it’s over. My legs are spent and my teeth are coated in sand, but that’s my fault for smiling so much. Kate too is grinning, and I can tell this event is going to be a regular fixture on our race calendar.

The fun doesn’t stop when the racing is over, either. Battle on the Beach welcomes people of all ages and bikes of all kinds, and there’s a real festival feel to this event, with plenty of trade stands, local food and beer vendors.

Families lounge on the grass, kids play on the merry-go-round and bouncy castle and every rider is cheered home, even two hours after the winner has crossed the line.

‘We’ve still never had a British winner overall,’ announces Page as he presents this year’s winner, Dutchman Bram Imming, with his trophy at the prize presentation.

He’s throwing down the gauntlet for someone to take up the challenge, but I’m sure Imming and his Dutch team will be back to defend their title when the race returns in October 2021.

The details

What: Battle on the Beach
Where: Pembrey Country Park, South Wales
Next one: 2nd/3rd October 2021 (2020 edition cancelled)
Distance: Three laps of a 15km course
Cost: £TBC
Info: battleonthebeach.co.uk

 

Kings of the beach

When it comes to racing on sand, the Dutch are masters

In its six years there has never been a British overall winner at Battle on the Beach, mainly thanks to the Dutch. Beach racing is popular in the Netherlands, and their specialist racers nip across the Channel to take the spoils. So, in an attempt to find out their secrets, Cyclist Off-Road spoke to this year’s winner, Dutchman Bram Imming, about what it takes to be a beach racer.

‘Beach racing is our speciality,’ he says. ‘At home we tend to race only on the flat sand, and not in the dunes like here. It’s about speed. The races are really hard and always full-gas.

‘The start is really important. Everyone in Holland goes really fast off the start and if you’re not in the front then you are chasing all race long, just like in a crit.

‘We build special beach bikes, made for speed. Not for climbing or downhill, but just speed. They are very light like road bikes, but we use flat bars not drop bars, as they are a bit wider for the control in the loose sand. I train specifically for the sand, too. It’s just what we do.’

 

How we did it

Travel

Cyclist Off-Road drove to Pembrey, a journey of around four hours from London (about 1 hr 45mins from the Severn Bridge crossing into Wales on the M4).

Alternatively the nearest train station is Burry Port, which is only a very short distance from Pembrey Country Park where the event is held. An off-peak return ticket from London costs about £90, via Reading and Cardiff.

Accommodation

Camping is the preferred choice of most Battle on the Beach attendees, who embrace the relaxed festival feel to the event, but especially as Pembrey Country Park is a holiday park with extensive camping grounds and all the necessary facilities. This year's rearranged edition is scheduled to take place in October, and the nature of arrangements and the costs involved may differ. However, in 2019 one night’s camping was included in the entry fee, with the full weekend (Friday-Sunday) costing just £10 extra.

There are also many local B&Bs and guesthouses to choose from if camping isn’t your thing. Accommodation is reasonably priced in this part of South Wales, and in 2019 you could expect to pay around £70 for a double or twin room, bed and breakfast. However, again this may differ this year so check availability and cost when booking.

Thanks

Our thanks go to event organiser Matt Page for having us along and allowing Cyclist Off-Road snapper Geoff to ride in the back of the lead pick-up truck on the beach to get some truly amazing tracking shots.