I have wanted to ride Battle on the Beach for a few years, but unsuitable dates and inappropriate bikes have meant that this is the first year I have managed to enter. The race is Britain’s only beach race, and the course is designed to be rideable on Fat, Mountain and Cross bikes with sections being unsuitable for each bike, it’s a real melting pot of cycling cultures.
Battle in the Dark:
There were a whole host of firsts ticked off in 10km on a bike: first time trial, first race on the beach and first ride off-road in the dark – what could possibly go wrong?
Riders are set off at 10 second intervals; I start middle to back of the 100 plus riders. I set off, but I’m off again after 200m to run the 150m of soft dry sand at the top of the beach. I lose a big chunk of time to riders on fat bikes and fattish mountain bikes, but once on the wet sand I’m back on the bike and off. I put down the power in an attempt to get some time back. I settle into what feels like a sustainable effort, looking down I am pleased to notice I’m sitting at over 32kph. I pass the people that had me while I was running, two of whom are treating it as a two-up TT, and also my 10 second man. I keep the power on until I notice a rock groin across my path. I slam on my brakes, dismount and shoulder the bike – in my mind this is one fluid elegant motion but in reality I expect to looked like a drunk giraffe ice skating. I pick my way past the first line of rocks over the soft sand centre and back out the other side of rocks. Back on the bike and back on the rivet – again.
The end of the beach leg is marked by a series of stakes with red lights on the top, off again to run up a steep, deep ‘v’ section cut between the dunes and back onto the bike about 55m later. Here the more technical section of the route begins, and where the night aspect of the race begins to change the dynamic. On one level being in the dark is a hindrance, not having an idea of what to expect much more than 50m away – making gear selection and speed into corners a bit of creative guesswork. On a more positive note, not being able to see too far ahead meant that I was less likely to bottle it on the more technical sections (I’m not an awful off road rider – but by no means great – but I tend to run out of bravery before ability). The first half of the technical section is quite close to the beach, so there are a number of areas where the path gives way to sand pits, being on a cross bike I try to skirt around the edges of these keeping on the grassy peripherals where at all possible. Where I can’t do this I keep pedalling and try not to fight the handlebars and let the bike find a route. One section in this area is particularly tricky, for a man of my abilities, it involves a short but sharp decent on soft sand into a tight right hander. I don’t notice it until the last moment – as I overtake another rider – but manage to use the side of the sand pit as a berm missing most of the sand on the descent. Rather lucky, but duly noted for tomorrow’s race. Then it’s into the forest, with a series of diggy little climbs and steep rutted descents. Not long into this section I am either caught by or catch another rider on a mountain bike, and I try to keep up with him using him as a route finder for the best lines in this unfamiliar territory. Before I know it, I have come out of the pine forest and out onto the grassy lawns of the country park. I decide it would be bad form to dive past my pilot now, and follow him around the final corner and roll over the line. It’s at this point I realise there is a third rider behind me.
I finish in one piece; pleased that I have put in a reasonable effort without ruining my legs for the main event the following day. I finish 66th out of 124 riders – I’ll take that.
Battle on the Beach
Having registered the night before, it’s a rather relaxed morning for a race. No early alarm, no mad dash to get everyone in the car to get to register hours before it closes, only to faff with a last minute ‘something’ and get to the start line moments before the race is due to begin – or even after its begun on one occasion.
I make my way to the start line about 20 minutes before the race is due to start, which is probably 20 minutes too late, as I am so far back I can’t even see the beach – never mind the start line. We start to walk forward; I assume we have been called forward to the start line. As the beach comes into view I can see people cycling and running across the beach. I then realise the race has started, but there is nothing I can do until the 100 or so ahead of me can get going so we just shuffle forward until we can really start to race.
Like the previous night’s time trial I had to run the bike across the soft sand before I could start racing. Once on the bike all I could see in front of me was a mass of cyclist snaking its way all the way to the horizon. I make my way to the left hand side of the mass of cyclist (the sea-side – that may even be a deliberate pun) and try to give myself a bit of room to react/avoid other people. I see the aftermath of a collision, I didn’t think it looked too serious but I hope all involved are OK. As I get a bit more confident, I move closer to the pack to get a bit of shelter. As I come towards the end of the 6km beach straight, I move to the right hand side of the mass of fellow racers so I can assess the route off the beach without being squeezed.
Off the bike, to cross the soft sand, and back on again. The next section of the route starts with a stretch of sandy, grassy dual track. It’s not especially technical, good surface with the odd smallish sand pit. It is reminiscent of a BMX or pump track with lots of little rollers – which will burn the thighs if you have gone too hard on the beach. Along this section I notice how quiet everyone is, usually you get a bit of banter between riders, but for whatever reason whether it was back of pack nerves or just concentrating on the shifting sands of the racing surface chatter is a miss. This long straight continues for a while before a few gravel fire tracks before we hit the first single track. The group I’m in file down and we tick over in single file until someone ahead either falls off or stalls as we grind to a holt and have to resort to walking for a bit until we get past a steep sandy bank. We are now on the bit of the route that is covered by the shorter night route. The pattern for the rest of the lap follows this template, single file and flowy but likely to find a bottle neck at the more technical sections or steep climbs.
Back onto the beach, and back on the throttle. By now I have realised that I can get a bit of recovery over some of the single track so I can continue to give it some on the beach – also making the most of where the CX bike is at its best. As on the first lap I continue to pass riders along the beach section, trying to pick up a bit of a draft as I approach groups before swinging out to pass them. This is one of those rare occasions where you feel like you are in fast forward when everyone else is playing at normal speed – probably a bonus effect of starting too far back. Again I drift to the right as we approach the exit from the beach.
Off, run and remount. By now the riders have thinned right out, so I pick off and chase down solo and small groups of riders across the rollers and the gravel roads and join a small group as we hit the single track. I’m at the back of the group and we rattle along, as we approach the sandy climb that I had to walk in the first lap I hear the clanking of gears – we are going to have a go at getting up this and I change gear accordingly. We get two thirds of the way up and a rider in front has an issue and stops. I brake, but seeing a gap I go again.
I don’t go again. After a nasty noise, no more drive. I look down – expecting to have dropped my chain. No such luck. I’ve only gone and broke my bloody chain. At this point I don’t feel angry, or upset, or anything for that matter. Just empty. And here’s the rub – as I had forgotten my pump I decided not to take my saddlebag as ‘I would just be carrying an inner tube for the sake of it’ with not a second thought to the multi tool which is the inner tube’s bed fellow. Fuck!
So I embark on the long walk back. I have no idea how long the walk took, but it felt like a while. As I walked and began to get bored I had two songs, or lines from songs, going around in my head: Inspiral Carpets (This is how it feels to be lonely, this is how it feels to be small…) and upon seeing a photographer or GoPro Newton Faulkner (Don’t take my photograph, cos I don’t want to know how it looks to feel like this). This was occasionally broken when passing riders offered their condolences. This makes me feel better for a moment, but only a moment. As I approach the start/finish line I cut through a gap in the hedge and cut across the camping field to get to my car before the lap is over – I can’t face crossing the finish line.
There was no lap 3.
After I put the bike on the car, it’s off to find the family. Once I find them I go to give my timing chip back with the kids. The chip box is right next to the marshal giving out the finisher’s medals. That stung a little. After chatting to him for a minute, I go to leave and as I do he very generously gives my kids a medal each. They both put them on as we head over to some space to have our picnic. It is at this point that my son (who is 6) misinterprets my disappointment about the afternoon’s proceedings as being disappointed about not getting a medal and after giving me a hug tries to put his medal on me. Then comes the awkward moment trying to tell him that his wonderfully thoughtful gesture just makes me feel worse.
I did however find one of the 25 missing rubber ducks, meaning I got a spot prize of a Lezyne rear light, a pair of Surly socks and a Surly hanky.
Despite its premature end, I really enjoyed my day out at the Battle on the Beach. The mixture of packed wet sand, dry sandy tracks and forest single track offers something to challenge whatever you’re riding. I found the wet beach sand the perfect environment for the CX bike, just get low and get pedalling. The sandy single and double track was great too, trying to pick a route so that you don’t lose too much momentum in the sand pits and the BMX style rollers. But where I struggled was the rutty sections within the forest. I wasn’t brave enough to really attack it, and struggled with some of the descents where I wanted to be on the drops for the extra braking power but on the hoods too to get my weight over the back of the bike. It wasn’t so hideous to make it feel unbearable, but certainly a challenge.
I will be back. Hopefully better. Hopefully finishing.