Event: Battle on the Beach 2016
Battle on the Beach returned in March for the third time, and those of us who had raced the previous two events fully expected appalling weather. This is west Wales in early spring after all, and the previous races were unexpectedly warm and dry. The law of averages suggested that tyre or bike choice would be trivial concerns as we grovelled along the beach, heads down into driving rain. But when the day arrived, the weather was kind to us, albeit with dismal, grey skies and light winds.
Almost 800 hardy souls stood shivering in the soft sand at the top of Pembrey beach, comparing goose-pimples and listening to ‘The Final Countdown’, wondering whether to start with bike shouldered or not. Somewhere in the distance was a cheer, and the hordes around me started trundling down towards the harder sand about 30 metres away, enviously eyeing the fatbike riders flying over the soft stuff. They would be caught by the ‘cross bikes later on the beach, who in turn might be caught by mountain bikes in the sinuous tracks through dunes.
There is no obvious, perfect bike for BotB. Four-inch tyres that make light work of the short sections of soft sand rumble and drag on the few km’s of hard beach. Narrow semi-slicks that fly along the beach find cornering in the mud a problem. Nobody thinks they chose the wrong machine. They just need a little fettling to be perfect for next year.
The event is based on a roughly 15km lap of Pembrey Country Park including a drag race along the beach itself, with most racers opting for the full three laps. The course itself had a little of everything other than elevation, but the short steep bursts up the hills in the woods soon tired out most of the field. The Puddle of Doom made an appearance, although not quite as neck-deep as in the first year. And a short section of mud was thrown in, just to make sure that us ‘cross racers felt at home. This is also an event where the unexpected occurs. In the first race, three years ago, there was a bomb disposal unit investigating an unusual object on the beach – Pembrey was a wartime munitions factory, and the bunkers and pillboxes are still visible. This year nothing quite so random occurred, although it’s the first time I’ve ridden through a rotting dogfish in a race.
For me the race went as well as could be expected after suffering from food poisoning in the run-up to the event. What I laughably describe as training had been truncated, and I’d managed to get on the bike twice in the three weeks before, so a degree of moaning and whinging was to be expected. But the race proved straightforward with only six or seven bruises in evidence the next day, one of which came about after I tried to remount, slipped on soft sand, missed the bike and sat on my back wheel. Cue a multi-coloured leg. I finished in my accustomed position – somewhere in the middle – and most importantly didn’t lie on the beach wishing that the incoming tide would wash me away. Thankfully I wasn’t involved in the start line pile-up that saw a rider limp back to his car with a bloody nose. Typical of racing – the softest part of the course and he found something hard to ram his head against.
Battle on the Beach is becoming something of a classic. How many other cross-country races attract 800 riders on bikes that range from single speed fatbikes, through tandems, to specifically designed beach-racers? I haven’t yet seen a recumbent or a trike, but there’s always next year – 26th March – and entries open at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day. It’s worth staying sober for.