Wales isn’t a bad place to ride a bike, the country is stuffed to the edges with hills and mountains over and around which to pedal. There’s Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons if you like it big, and if you need to be told where to go events like the Etape Cymru and the Dragon Ride cater for roadies, whilst there’s a glut of trail centres to pick and choose from if you’re into your mountainbikes and are scared of unsigned muddy hillsides devoid of a cafe. So why 300 people have deliberately turned away from the hills towards the inaugural Howies “Battle on the Beach” and race bikes on a very flat bit of Wales is a mystery.
But they have, with enthusiasm; Battle on the Beach sold out within three days, so far from being just some weird niche Euro thing there seems to be a keen appetite for beach racing over here, or maybe it’s just the thrill of something different. Either will do. Battle on the Beach is brought to you thanks to the hard work of Matt Page, he’s a mountainbike racer who’s ridden enough and won more than enough races to know exactly what a rider wants in an event, he doesn’t disappoint.
The battle was pitched inside Pembrey Country Park just west of Llanelli in the shadow of the Gower Penisula and around the corner from Pendine Sands where Malcolm Campbell set the land-speed record in Bluebird and more recently Guy Martin broke the UK speed record for a slipstreamed bicycle. There’s eight miles of golden sands at Cefn Sidan to play with but as Battle on the Beach only managed to secure a couple of those so the rest of course included dunes and woodland singletrack to make a 12.5km loop that riders would lap three times, making it a little different to your standard out-and-back beach race. The course was designed to be rideable by all bikes, from mountainbikes to cyclocross and everything in-between, which as the race also doubled as the first ever Fat Bike UK Championships meant those comedy tyred freaks as well.
After much anguish and tyre choice hand-wringing I’ve decided to ride my 29” mountainbike with a grippy tyre up the front and the slickest tyre I can find in the shed out the back. I’ve dismissed the cyclo-cross bike because of fears of getting bogged down in any soft sand and having trouble in the more mountainbike friendly sections of singletrack away from the beach. Ideally I’d like a Koga Beach Racer, having ridden one in my one previous beach racing experience I know it would be perfect with its wind-cheating long low dropped-bar position and sand floaty fat tyres. But I don’t have one, yet.
At the mass start there’s every kind of bike you’d imagine lined thin tyre to fat tyre. Cyclo-cross bikes, 26” and 29” mountainbikes, 29+ and fat-bikes - it’s a harmonious example of ethnic diversity that the world could do well to emulate, or something. The melee weaves around the tarmac of the country park for a bit to allow things to string out before riders hit the beach, but there’s still enough speedy elbow-out action to keep things interesting, the different handling characteristics of such a variety bikes making for an exciting mix.
Turning right onto the 3.5km open empty beach section riders were instantly punched in the face by a stiff headwind with nowhere to hide. Of course there was a headwind. This is where road bike tactics came into play and echeloned groups of riders formed to survive into the solid expanse of wind. The lead group of about 20 riders held the experienced KMC-Koga trio of Stefan Vreugdenhil, Martin Schuttert and Karen Brouwer all invited over to race the UK version of their favoured discipline. Several Belgian riders were also present in the front group, along with some of the best British mountainbike racers.
The Pembrey sand is consistently smooth and hard so no-one is tempted to veer towards the surf where it’s traditionally firmer pedaling, which is a good job as it appears to be a long way away over there somewhere. I take a half second break from Frooming my stem to look left and take in the view, it really is a very pretty part of the world, at least on this warm and sunny, if a little blowy right now, spring day. There is nothing but the empty noise of wind, breathing, shells popping under tyre and the throbby rumble of a fat bike somewhere in the group I’m in.
The way off the beach is a bike shoulder up an ankle-deep sandy cliff that’s steep enough to offer the help of a rope up the left hand side, it leads to a messy bottleneck and amusingly sized wheels in faces. A sandy slope off the dunes takes riders into Pembrey forest and the more mountainbikey section of the course, and the first of the puddles. Oh, the puddles.
Thanks to the unprecedented level of rainfall the country’s had over the last few months, you may have noticed this, the course is water-logged in parts and certain sections of the original race route have had to either be cut out completely or re-routed around the damp bits to avoid the worst of the puddles, but some are unavoidable and it’s a bit of a worry that the one’s we’re bow-waving through are the manageable ones.
The first pair of puddles are relatively easy, despite being bottom-bracket deep they’re flooded over concrete track so it’s just a matter of ploughing on through, and it’s a good way of cleaning sand off the bike. The next one however required concentration and vigilance. Dubbed the “Puddle Of Doom” it was very large with no cheats way round the edge and headset deep, or if you were foolish enough to get off and run through, well up to your waist. It was also big enough to play host to a duck hunt, with 25 little yellow bath-time ducks swimming on the surface, each one linked to a spot prize provided by the sponsors if you pocketed one.
Those pedalling fat bikes have real problems with the big puddles as those wide bulbous balloon tyres are a proper struggle to push through water, I see more than one hit a puddle at hopeful speed and stop dead, inelegantly launching the rider into the gloop. Although I don’t get off totally scot-free in the whoopsy stakes as a large wheel-sized hole hidden in a puddle that had been avoided the previous two laps nearly has me over the bars and only instinct and almost ripping myself a new arse with the saddle keep me upright.
Although the majority of the course was through the woods that bordered the beach, with lots of very mountainbike friendly twisty undulating fast singletrack you were on the right bike for at least some of the race, and the wrong one the rest of the time. The firm sand of the beach and fireroad sections through the forest favoured the narrow tyres, dropped bars and speed of a cyclo-cross bike, the twisty trails through the trees allowed the mountainbikers to play their hand and the short section of soft sand onto the beach meant the fat-bikes could show off. At one point I find myself on my mountainbike sandwiched between a CX bike and a fat-bike, battling it out across the variety of terrains, so I guess there’s some kind of pithy “not about the bike” comment to be made here.
Riders were reminded of Pembrey’s past as an M.O.D munitions factory when they raced through some of the tunnels, avoiding crashing on the rail-road tracks and taking in gasping lungfulls of lingering cordite filled air. And then more tangibly when rounding the corner to the beach for the last time to nearly crash into the flashing blue lights of the Royal Navy Bomb Disposal Unit as they responded to reports of an unexploded bomb on the beach. The race was almost stopped but allowed to continue when the bomb was discovered to be an old buoy. That’s a first for a race then.
With the mix of beach and trail race tactics had to change to suit. In the singletrack other riders are the enemy, a slower rider in front can severely impede your progress and need to be passed as quickly as possible, traffic can be a hindrance, attacking out of corners to gap the man on your wheel needed at times. But on the beach other riders are your friends and pacts have to be made, no-one wants to fight into the wind on their own, working together helps everyone, you need allies. It forces intelligent racing, on the trails leading up to the beach riders look at each other and there’s that unspoken understanding that happens at races.
For the last lap I’m alone on the beach with Jason Miles, he’s quite handy, having won lots of solo endurance mountainbike events but he’s on a fat-bike which slows him down enough that I can keep up with him with only one lung hanging out over the handlebars. We’ve stuck together for the last few minutes through the trees and now on the beach we work together into the wind, if him doing the lion’s share is working together. Up ahead is Mel Alexander riding on her own, she’s also quite handy in XC MTB races, Dave and I slowly reel her in and she grabs a helpful wheel. I appear to be with really quite good cyclists by mistake but we all take or turn at the front and as soon as we’re done with the beach they both piss off ahead, leaving me the used and spent dead wood that I plainly am. That’s racing.
Ninety minutes of effort for the winners and we’re all done. Sprint finish hands are shaken, random prizes are given out for pretty much everyone that crosses the line, ice-creams are had in the sunshine. The Koga beach racing team sweep the podium with Stefan Vreugdenhil and Karen Brouwer taking the Open Men and Women wins, each taking home a £250 cash prize and large trophy that might exceed their carry-on luggage limit. In the Surly sponsored Fat Bike UK Championship event the UK’s George Budd becomes the inaugural male winner and Fiona Walker gets the ladies crown.
The race was such a success that the 2015 Battle on the Beach has already been announced; it will be at the same venue on March 22nd, a date when the tides suit. And if that’s too long to wait Pembrey will host the Howies Tide to Tide race, a 2 or 4 person 6-hour relay event run from High tide (3pm) to Low tide (9pm) where the option of cyclo-cross bike, mountainbike or fat bike is once again up to you.
For an event with such a mix of bikes and terrains it really shouldn’t have worked, and at least some cycling faction should have had a really miserable time on an inappropriate bike. But that didn’t happen. Well, there was the couple from across the water who threw all their teddies out the pram because it wasn’t a traditional flat, boring, mud free beach race and they crashed a lot in the woods during their pre-race recce, but the overwhelming consensus was that it was like a beach race, but different, an unique event with fantastic racing. Even the flat bits are fun in Wales.
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.