There are 799 people on this start line more prepared for this race than I am. Those are not good odds for contending a Top Ten. Or hundred.
I’m stood thermal lycra to thermal lycra on the promenade at Noordwijk on the North Sea coast of Holland. In summer this place is absolutely heaving, the vast expanse of beach a sandy Mecca for most of northern Europe and their Speedos but today, on a grey windy mid December morning, it’s the preserve of hardy dog walkers, kite-surfers, and cyclists. A very peculiar breed of cyclist at that; the beach racer.
Beach racing is something that has mostly passed Britain (and the rest of the world it seems) by until the emergence a year or so ago of the prototype Beach Racer bicycle by Dutch brand Koga raised a few eyebrows, and then its appearance at Eurobike as a bona-fide production machine proved that beach racing must be enough of A Thing if a bike can be specifically designed and produced for this rather individual discipline. Beach racing had its first outings a while ago as something to do in the off season, when road pros having fun on mountain bikes brought the crowds in, its current incarnation is only 5 or 6 years old and numbers have been steadily rising to today’s large gathering on the start line.
To say I’m unprepared for what’s about to happen is a little bit of a tiny fib, I had a brief ride on the beach when I was introduced to a Koga’s new bike the previous day. The Beach Racer is based on a cyclo-cross bike, but it’s been tweaked to make it work on flat sand. The wheelbase is lengthened and there’s added clearance in the aluminium frame to fit fat 29er mountain bike tyres, with the top-tube kept flat and long to leave enough room for shouldering. The head angle has been slackened to favour stability over nimble handling as there aren’t many corners on a beach race and you don’t really want a twitchy front end to fight with over the sand, while the seat-tube is a little steeper than usual to throw your weight forward over the front wheel and give a bit more of a time-trial position.
The front end is low with a short head-tube for a wind-cheating position and it’s also unfashionably non oversize to hide from the wind, similarly the carbon fork is narrow to offer a slim profile to the breeze and there’s not much room for the Schwalbe Thunder Burt 2.1 tyre to fit. The narrower grippier tyre up front cuts through the sand while a fatter slicker Schwalbe Supermoto 2.35 rear tyre is specced to float over the soft stuff, clearance out the back is greater with no seat or chain-stay bridges to clog with sand and fish bits. Gearing is a simple 1x10 because there aren’t many mountains on a beach, and the single chainring prevents any chainsuck issues with a sticky gritty chain, but there are cable-stops for a gear cable should you want to extend the capabilities of the bike and run a double chainset.
The Beach Racer uses on-trend discs to brake instead of V-brakes or cantilevers, but it’s not necessarily for the braking benefits, as you might imagine there’s not so much need for slowing down or stopping during a pan flat obstacle free race. Discs are used to take advantage of lightweight and tubeless friendly mountainbike 29er rims rather than heavier rim-brake hoops. The bars are narrow on the tops for body aerodynamics and flare outwards in the shallow drops for more control.
Bike run-down complete Ramses Bekkenk is on hand to offer a few hints and tips on what to do with it. Ramses - what a name - rides a Beach Racer for the Koga team, has won the race before and would go on to take victory again tomorrow, so he should know what he’s talking about. When we’re setting up our bikes with saddle heights and pedals he wanders around letting more and more air out of our tyres. He runs just over 10 PSI in his tubeless tyres and he lets our tubed tyres down to similarly squishy levels. You need soft tyres to glide over the sand, and there’s not much to puncture on, maybe a driftwood plastic bottle. It feels weird.
We roll onto the beach and it’s about 10 times harder than I thought it might be. Ideas of effortlessly skimming over hard-packed sand are immediately mental flotsam as any let off from full power results in an alarming reduction in pace. There’s going to be no freewheeling here, every power pedal stroke has to count, and it doesn’t take long for my legs to feel like they’ve already done 50 kms. Just because it’s flat it doesn’t mean it’s easy, what the beach lacks in gradient and curves it more than makes up for in wind, stiction and sheer toil.
Expert advice comes in the knowledge that the sand nearest the surf is often the firmest, and therefore fastest to ride on, but that comes with the added hazard of oscillating waves, and maybe getting caught the wrong side of one of the water-bars that stretch along the beach. And much like a traditional cyclo-cross or mountainbike race it makes sense to pay attention to the variety in terrain, riding in the softer sand really makes a difference, kicking your speed harshly in the nuts, so keeping a keen eye on the landscape of the beach is worth doing. We muck about on the bikes, practise banging our heads into the wind, ride through the soft sand back up to the prom and down again and get briefly familiar with the bikes for tomorrow while the sun goes cold and the temperature plummets.
Race day for sure
Come race-day Sunday morning the Noordwijk seafront is full of every kind of bike, there are a lot of Beach Racers, which is a bit of a shock for a bike that you thought might be too niche to sell any at all, but there is a series of beach races to compete in so it makes sense to the serious some. The majority of bikes are mountain bikes though, a lot of 29ers for their big rolling wheels, and an awful lot of old mountain bikes brought out of retirement that don’t matter so much when they get destroyed by the salt and the sand, with more than enough that raise an “haven’t seen one of those in a while” eyebrow. Every single last one of them has slick tyres on. Not your average MTB race, not your average race, full stop.
The SRAM Beach Race at Noordwijk is 52 kilometres long. I’ll say that again, 52 kms. On a beach. That’s a lot of sand. It’s an out and back race, 26 kilometres along the shore, turn around, sprint for home. Except today it’s a headwind all the way back to the finish, any experienced cyclist knows that’s just plain poor planning. Still, although it’s a grey day it’s a balmy 7 degrees, which is okay for December by the North Sea, the addition of cold and rain could have made it worse, a lot worse. Just the bothersome wind will have to do for now.
The start is a sprint down the boulevard, which because of the lack of air in the tyres is less of a rush and more of a comedy bounce before we turn right up and over the dune that separates the beach from the bars and hotels and thus onto the sand. Above the tide line it’s deep and loose and requires a lightness of touch and of subtlety power to float through it but I’m so nervous about the different barely controlled directions the crowd around me is going that I don’t pay enough attention to what I’m doing myself and crash. Awesome start there. Twat.
Back on the bike I hit the flatter firmer sand and immediately slot into a group of riders. For the first leg of the race should be easy with the tailwind, in theory, but in practice it just means that everyone can and does go full gas. It hurts. I’ve had a minimal warm up and my whole body; legs, muscles, hamstrings and lungs are screaming at the effort. I hang on to the group I’m in for a while until the elastic snaps and drop back to the next bunch who aren’t far behind. Still it’s too much and I drop back yet again into a more manageable group.
I look up from at my complaining legs and the beach has an endless string of cyclists streaming up ahead, I look back over my right shoulder and I’m towing at least fifteen riders behind me. I flick my elbow. Nothing happens. A smaller group slowly overtakes on the right and I latch on, hunting to find somewhere – anywhere - to get a slipstream, everyone on my tail follows me and we get some sort of group dynamic going. There is a constant ebb and flow of racers coming past and riders to overtake, the group I’m in mutates and evolves as people push the pace at the front absorbing other cyclists while others spiral off the back, catching other groups offers a brief respite to catch the breath before pushing on again. A tandem flies past like a bomber running for home and I try to tag onto its wheel. There is absolutely no chance.
Painful time passes, the beach carries on into the distance, inexhaustible, there are riders, a dog runs across my path causing a second of panic, we pass the aftermath of crashes, we slowly over take a land-yacht, that’s a first for my bike racing career, my absolute pain eases or maybe I just get used to it, but I seem to have settled into the usual basic race hurt, but without any moment of respite. I am in more of a lonely bubble of pain than any other race I’ve been in. There are no points of reference to focus on, no trees, no corners, no verges, no race tape, no moment of fun freewheeling a swoop round a corner, just pedaling hard, just a wide featureless spread of beach on the right, just the wide grey flat nothingness of the sea on the left, just the enveloping noise noise noise of wind, surf, breath and internal screaming.
Its quite a contact sport, combine tight peloton riding with soft tyres, variable sand conditions and strong winds and it can be an unstable muddle of cyclists, it’s good to remain unphased by a buzzing rear wheel or nudging body contact. It stays a compact group until the sand goes soft and the group splinters and expands as it bobbles its way over the section, each rider struggles to find a safe line as the sand dictates its own course. Still, there’s the odd crash, I hear shouting and flesh-and-metal noises a bit behind me on more than one occasion and we go past the aftermath of a few interactions, surreal and silent in the rush of the wind. At one point there is a rider sat right behind me, and when I say right behind I mean I can hear his breathing in my right ear, it has a German accent. It’s worryingly intimate. My thigh touches his bar-end every three revolutions, we should get a room really but he doesn’t take kindly to my glaring at him to do a turn at the front so the relationship would never last.
Without a computer on the bike or a watch of any kind I am clueless to distance or time, but up ahead I see an insurmountable finger of harbour arm reaching out into the sea on the left which must mean that the turn-around is soon and this is reinforced by the fact that riders already on the return stretch start appearing, coming straight towards us. There is no red-and-white stripy tape of any kind delineating the route so come the turnaround riders are free to take any path they feel and there is a large amount of crossing of paths, which is interesting in a race context.
I get off the bike and flail through the deep choppy sand around the turn-around island, grab and glug a bottle of water and remount in a thick terror, I absolutely have to get into a group for the return leg into the wind or I’m a dead man. The melee of cyclists that’s been created by the turn soon merges into a small peloton and I gratefully join in. I’ll be with these guys for a while, with the strength of the side headwind coming uninterrupted off the North Sea there will be no breaking off the front going on here. I had thought a lifetime’s experience of battling into the headwinds of Brighton seafront would stand me in good stead here, but no, even with my best experienced gritted teeth it’s horrific. Turns out that racing into this block seaside headwind, on sand, is a little different to pedaling back from the shops and it makes the recent exhausting effort of riding with the wind seem a giggle. This isn’t racing any more, it’s surviving to the end.
To add to the endless torture we’re trying to stick to the hard sand which is right by the water’s edge and that edge isn’t a convenient straight line to follow, nor is it even a static one as the waves ebb and flow in and out, so there’s enough splashing through the waves to make it brutally unpleasant when you’re following a wheel. Belgian Toothpaste has nothing on this. Great tides of salt water and sand splatter into the face, I’m still clearing grains of sand out of my ears a week later, and I’m incredibly glad I have to give this Beach Racer back for someone else to clean, it’s making some very expensive grindy noises.
The group I am in is a good thirty strong and up ahead there’s another similarly sized peloton, a fuzzy line in the surf haze, and there seems to be the intention from the keener members of our bunch to catch them up although it seems a mostly futile venture. I do my bit at the front to show willing and it’s like pedaling into a wall, count to 22, peel off and try to recover whilst still pushing the pedals as hard as you can, searching for a gap in the bunch to slot into, with no-one letting you in. Get it wrong and you can find yourself a bike length adrift out the back, and it requires everything you’ve got just to catch back on. It’s like road racing but fifty times worse. I make that mistake just the once. Even huddled in the wind shadow of another rider there really is nowhere to rest from the perpetual struggle.
Even if you’re at the supposedly less effort tail-end of the echelon life is ridiculously hard, the front of the group could be riding in what might be called relatively easy firmer sand but as the nature of the beach changes as it moves away from the shore it can mean that the back of the echelon might get the minuscule benefit of the wind block but then suffering from have to wrestle through soft slow sand or crunching over carpets of razor-clam shells. It takes permanent shiftings of position and alert awareness to make sure you don’t get unshipped, it is intense, constant, exhausting thinking racing.
I look up from concentrating on the green tyre in front that belongs to the dangerously erratic rider and in the sea-sprazy distance I see a tall thin structure, I think it’s the lighthouse that stands proudly on the boulevard at Noordwijk, not far to go now then. Thank god. A minute or so later I realize it’s not the lighthouse but an aerial elsewhere, bollocks! Not there yet then. It’s some lung-burning time later before the fuzzy lumps of the seaside town buildings appear on the left of the horizon signaling that’s it’s only a little bit of an eternity till the finish.
It’s at this point that there’s a proper concerted effort from the front to catch up with the group ahead, I make no effort to contribute to the surge, I can’t, it’s enough to simply hang on. Slowly but surely we bridge, the two groups morph together and it all gets a little bit large and unwieldy so I make the tactical decision to move towards the side and front for safety reasons, but it’s not for long as we’re now approaching the finish to swing left up the beach onto the promenade. The peloton evaporates as we hit the deep soft sand and I jump off the bike to run which is when my legs pretty much stop working, I stutter hopelessly up the dune and briefly remount to flop over the finish line. Bloody hell.
One hour fifty minutes for me, a fat 18 minutes down on the leaders and 266th, so not last by a long stretch, but I’d have liked to have done better, I know I could. As with any cherry-popping experience I’ve learnt a lot. Beach racing is right up there as one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, ever, the constant speed and effort and tactical thinking of road racing combined with the constant speed and effort and bike handling skills of cyclo-cross, combined with the constant pedal-grinding pain of a winter mountainbike race, into a headwind. Wind. Lots of wind.
My legs are completely broken and I don’t know why. It might be the constant seated pedaling for almost two hours with no freewheeling or downhill respite, actually I remember freewheeling - for two seconds, it might have been that every single pedal stroke was done on full gas. It’s an incredibly painful and stiff-legged wincing pigeon-stepped walk back the couple of hundred metres to the hotel, climbing one flight of stairs causes agony and getting into the shower takes an awkwardly long time. I drop the soap and leave it there. I’ll pick it up next year.
Thanks, I think, to www.koga.com, for inviting me to ride their Beach Racer at a, um, beach race.
Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.