Battle on the Beach 2016 is an extraordinary cycling event. It’s open to all bikes of all shapes and sizes, set in the beautiful Pembrey Country Park, South Wales, and, well, the beach therein. Our man on the ground Stu Taylor gave us his take on the weekend’s events:
Word and pictures by Stu Taylor
The format of the main race was 3 timed laps – 5km on hard packed beach, 5km on singletrack, 5km on double track and 100m on soft sand. This year’s event also introduced a Leyzne sponsored fun race – Battle in the Dark – on Saturday night, which was a 10km single lap time trial; a shortened version of the main race. The UK Fat Bike Championships were also being held within the race, so after recently catching the fat bike bug, I was compelled to pit myself against my fellow fatties – of whom a hundred had entered. My bike of choice was a Trek Farley 5 equipped with huge 4.8″ wide Bontrager Barbegazi tyres.
Saturday saw the start of the kids’ races, open to all U8s, U10s and U12s. My two boys were both some of the youngest in their respective categories – Zach (age 6) raced in the U8s and Reuben (aged 8) was in the U10s – racing a sandy woodland loop as many times as they could for 15 minutes and 18 minutes respectively. All the kids taking part were brilliant and loving being involved in their own event. Zach managed to grab a 3rd for a place on the podium (as he said he would!), and Reuben came from the back of the field to claim 8th behind some fast mini CX league boys. Everyone who took part got a BOTB medal which brought a big smile to the their faces, and it was great to see kids getting involved in the event to make it a great family weekend of racing.
The Battle in the Dark instructions were to meet at 7pm sharp on the beach; riders set off at 15 second intervals. It was dusk when I arrived and this was my first chance to see the vast array of bikes entered into the event – skinny wheeled drop-bar CX bikes, single speed hard tails, some very funky fully pimped out fat bikes, full suspension enduro rigs and I even spotted a klunker. No two bikes were the same.
By the time my 15 second countdown was called it was dark and cold. With my lights on full I was straight into first section, a short tarmac blast onto 100m of soft sand, which my 4.8 tyres had no problems dealing with – straightlining right through the middle. The 5km stretch on the beach was a different story though. Pedalling hard, the buzz of the tyres on the sand, and the cold air – this was a proper lung buster that seemed to go on forever. Turning off the beach onto the sandy trail the fat bike came alive, cleaning steep loose climbs where others needed to push, and monster trucking the undulating woodland singletrack. I hit a huge puddle at speed sending what felt like a tidal wave of muddy water over my head. This was a “fun race”, but everyone seemed to be going for it, so crossing the line I was gassed (which was a bit worrying given this was just one short lap, with three longer ones still to go the next day!). A great night race! I was fairly pleased with my time of 27:50 minutes, finishing 30th out of 138 night riders. Also as bonus prizes were given to every 10th decimal place finish, I won a set of Lezyne lights and bio friendly bike wash cleaner – result!
Race day came, and for the main BOTB 2016 the weather was cool and cloudy with blue skies beckoning. The last time I was lined up for a mass start race was 3,300m above sea level ready for the Mega Avalance, with euro dance music pumping out of the speakers and a helicopter flying round our heads; this time was at sea level lined up alongside 850 riders, a lot of them clad in Lycra. I did see a someone in a pink tutu and another in a kilt though. It was amazing to see the different bikes racing, everyone ready to attack the sandy expanse stretch of beach.
Starting on the soft sand, racers were busy talking tactics: how to attack from the off; was it bikes on shoulder and run for the CX guys? Plough through the sand for the fatties? Or just try to ride and if we fall off just push for everyone? I went for the plough through option, and as soon as the tape dropped I was cranking on the sand passing lots of riders who were either running or pushing. It was short lived though, and on the hard-packed beach the skinny tyres ruled. I was getting passed from all angles as the drag on the big rubber showed its weaknesses. Whilst drafting in a fast group two riders went down hard at high speed, resembling a crash from the Tour of Britain (hopefully the riders were OK).
In hindsight I set off way too quickly and in no time my legs and lungs were screaming – this was only the first 5km. Coming off the beach at speed onto a soft sandy section, I crashed into one guy who had abruptly stopped right in front of me – the deep sand had swallowed his skinny rubber.
During the daylight you could really appreciate how good a loop this was, with at least some terrain to suit all bikes. On certain sections the fat bike was king, only to be spanked round the corner on a fast doubletrack stretch by the more slenderly rubberised. I’ve never passed and been passed by so many riders in one race; it made the race fun, with plenty of action and banter going on. The wooded singletrack was the best section for me and once I’d made those fat wheels flow through the trees at speed the grip was amazing. There were a couple of steep climbs to deal which felt much steeper than I recalled from the night race though. Lots of other riders opted to run and carry or push their bikes but I felt I had no choice but to grind up them – and after all that’s what fat bikes are good at.
The beach runway on lap 2 now had a slight head wind which was just what I needed to go with the rolling resistance. Cue screaming legs and lungs again – for me this was the toughest section of the race. I was really feeling it on the final lap, and I had to dig deep to keep the big wheels moving. Quite a few riders were beginning to pull up with cramp or just having a quick breather at the side of the trail as the race took its toll. Approaching the finish (giving it a final flourish) I was done – and relieved to cross the line.
I had hoped to finish in under 2 hours, but with the race way tougher than I had appreciated and having had so much fun, finishing in 02:21:48 didn’t seem like a disappointment. Such a fun event, and such a variety of people and bikes – bring on next year! I’ll be back, fat biking once again and this time with an eye on that 2 hour target.
For full race results click here.