What is Battle on the Beach?

It's a 45km race which starts in the sand dunes of Pembrey beach, and has 800 people sprint down to the hard pack sand for 5km down the beach into 5km of single track interspersed with 5km of double track/fire road. The race has been run for 3 years and now has legend status as entries open on New Years Eve at midnight and sells out within days.

How on earth did I end up racing Battle on the Beach? A drunken New Years Eve in Cardiff with friends. Midnight ticks by and suddenly there are lots of crazed drunken cyclists frantically entering Battle on the Beach.

I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

I had spent the winter racing cyclo cross and everyone kept telling me this was just an extended un-missable CX race. Great, my type of event as I clicked “Confirm” and received my entry email.

I joked about how much food a Cardiff JIF team mate had in his rear pockets. This came back to haunt me later on.

I promptly forgot about this until maybe 3 weeks before by which time it was too late to do any event specific training. I just kept muttering to myself “it’s fine, it’s just a CX race”.

The week before my boyfriend was showing me YouTube videos of the event from 2016 and discussing which bike, what tyre pressure, race tactics! I went quiet .. Oh my, this just got serious, it isn’t just a CX race.

I did a shorter recce lap on Saturday afternoon when the sun was blazing and it felt like we were in Colorado. We didn’t see another soul out on the course and life was good. I came away confident, thinking how bad can this be? I can handle that course, it’ll be running nice and fast as it’s so dry.

Oh how wrong I was!

Race morning came around quickly and we were treated to glorious blue skies (a first for this event) with the weather forecast predicting 15 degrees and a rare tail wind down the beach.

At event HQ the atmosphere was rising, mainly due to the excitement of the tail wind.  We had been pre-warned that you needed to get to the start at least half an hour before kick off if you wanted a good start, as only 60 riders (previous podiums and pros) got gridded.

Within 10 metres my heart rate was sky high, my legs were screaming and I wanted to stop!

The other 800 of us were left to a free-for-all, so we joined the crowds in the pen. As I looked around I noticed there weren’t many people on cyclo cross bikes … it was mainly mountain bikes or fat bikes, with camelbaks on show. I saw a team mate from Cardiff JIF and made a joke about how much food he had in his rear pockets. This came back to haunt me later on.

I'd planned to carry 2 bottles of energy drink on my bike, deciding it was ample due to the terrain. But I had no food or emergency gels.

Ten minutes before the start, they moved the pens and everyone filtered up the beach and lined up. I ended up on the 3rd row. I turned around to see rows and rows of people queuing behind me - at which point I felt sick.

The atmosphere was mounting, music was blaring, the crowds were baying on the beach, and the racers were edgy. We were given a count down and before I knew it the hooter went and the kamikaze start began, 800 people running over soft sand which wasn’t rideable from a standing start on a CX bike.

Within 10 metres my heart rate was sky high, my legs were screaming and I wanted to stop!

I realised I had already forgotten my CX remounting skills as I tried not to crash into people but finally off I went down the beach at 20mph in a pack, ducking and diving around the debris left behind by the sea... I felt like a riding goddess - although not for long!

At this point I realised I had seriously underestimated the race.

Weirdly I was glad to see people dismounting and running into the dunes. Isn’t it strange how your mind works? - "yes there's a bottle neck I can have a break”.

Alas, this wasn’t to be as it turned out to be the toughest part of the course: sand dunes. Rolling double track and a block headwind made it rough on a CX bike, and it was here that the MTBers came into their own.

It was so hard to find any kind of rhythm on the hard ground - up and down, in out of the saddle. I quickly realised that my shorts/saddle combination was going to cause me some serious discomfort - something I’m still ruminating about 4 days on!

The mix of surfaces (double track, lots of fast flowing singletrack, and some deep sandy singletrack that I made really light work of in the recce) turned my legs to lead as the race went on.

Lap 2 began and I was seriously suffering.

Fran's top picks for doing Battle on the Beach

I hit the beach and luckily a team mate from JIF came past and towed me along. I stared as his rear wheel wondering why I had entered such a crazy event. Pumping up and down the dunes thick sand, dismount, run, remount!

I finally found a use for my big ring on the fire roads as my lungs entered my mouth… Lap 3 I was solo down the beach trying to keep a constant pace and thinking “thank goodness the end is nigh”.

I came off the sand and felt relief that it was nearly over. At this point I realised I had seriously underestimated the race.

I was beginning to bonk, I had no food or gels and was cursing the fact I had joked with a team mate on the start line about how much food he was carrying. Oh how I'd have given my right arm for just a sliver of his energy bar.

I nursed my throbbing legs and weary upper body across the finish line to be met by a chirpy boyfriend grinning from ear to ear and gushing “How was it? That was bloody awesome”.

The printable part of my response was something like “Never again... or at least not on a CX bike!”.

 

So, after all that, what did I learn from Battle on the Beach:

  • There is no “right” bike. There were more fat bikes than CXers, with the majority of the field on MTBs. At 26 miles, it’s the better part of 2 hours and so the “ideal” bike would be a light weight 29er hardtail.
  • Nutrition and hydration are key. I had 2 bottles of energy mix but only consumed one due to the technical nature of the course. I can understand why people use Camelbaks and carry food. With 2 hours of hard effort you need to refuel.
  • Test your shorts and saddle combo for the event. Do not wear a pair that are slightly too big and move around a lot!
  • Keep smiling all the time - remember we do this for fun!

More importantly will I go back and race again? 

It was a hard race but brilliant fun. The atmosphere was incredible so I’ll be there on a mountain bike next time (did I really say that!?) unless it’s a headwind down the beach.

In which case I’ll spectate.

If you fancy giving Battle on the Beach a go in 2018, the official website for entry is here. Go on!