Well, it’s year 3 for Battle on the Beach now and it’s getting bigger and better. It’s my second year at the event and it makes staying up till midnight on New Year’s Eve to book your place on an event that’s now selling out within a day very much worth it. It’s perhaps the biggest of A Cycling’s really rather unique events calendar and it’s one that has seen them recently win a tourism and leisure award as well.
The organisation of this event is one of the smoothest, yet still relatively relaxed and low key, of all of the events I’ve attended. This year was a real step up in terms of manufacturer presence and saw the entire event sponsored by Assos, along with Surly, Schwalbe and Lezyne to name but a few. Assos isn’t perhaps the first name you think of when off roading but their relatively new MTB trekking range sees them trying to gain a foothold into events of this type. But this remains resolutely an event unencumbered by corporate interference and remains all the better for it.
For anyone unfamiliar with the event it’s held at Pembrey Country Park, close to Llanelli in South Wales, on a weekend towards the end of March each year. It’s a kind of hybrid event. Think of it as monster cyclocross single track off road racing. Equipment is varied. There are fat bikes, this race being one of the rounds of the UK fat bike championship. There are cyclocross bikes but many fewer this year I thought. The overwhelming weapon of choice appears to be the mountain bike in all its multitude of forms. Tyre choice is also varied ranging from the massive knobbly fat bike tyres to the almost pure slicks run by the Dutch on their beach racers. Some bikes and riders get an advantage on some bits, and other bikes and riders on other bits. The Dutch boys and girls just destroy everyone. There’s always something for everyone to admire in the equipment being used, this year there was even a fat bike tandem. That takes trust to another level in an event like this.
There are 3 laps of the course weighing in at around 28 miles. And what a course it is. It starts on the beach with a massed start, there’s a bunch sprint (on foot if you’re not on a fat bike) to make it to the hard sand and then across the beach you go. It’s at the point that you really want the weather to be with you. You really want a tailwind. Cefn Sidan beach is no place to be in a headwind, however weak it may be. After a few miles it’s off the beach to enter the main section. And here it’s very varied indeed, single track, the occasional gravel path or fire road and sand, lots of loose sand. Once you’re back to the start it’s time for lap 2. It’s generally a dry course regardless of the weather as the drainage is excellent. The beach is virtually concrete hard and very easy to cycle on with the right choice of tyres.
This year I’d decided to make a weekend of it and camp on the Saturday afternoon into the Sunday. That meant entry not only to the main event on the Sunday but also to the inaugural Battle in the Dark on the Saturday evening.
There as a bit of agonising over kit choices. I’d tried very hard indeed to blag a fat bike to review for the weekend but, sadly, it never came to pass. So I used my trusty Planet X XLS instead with its 1x drivetrain. Tyre choice is always an interesting thing but since the Schwalbe G-One’s took me about an hour to install they were staying on and deflated to a sensible level. If I punctured it would all be over given how tight the rims are.
I arrived a bit later than my riding partners as I’d decided to see how many points Wales could put on Italy’s third team in rugby. With that all over I drove the 50 miles to the campsite to see where I’d be sleeping and to prepare for Battle on the Dark. My mate Mike had texted me on the way to inform me that he’d flatted the battery on his van listening to the rugby so there was some added stress to the weekend for him. But a massive shout out here to Gavin at Sunset Cycles in Cardiff who came to our assistance on the Sunday with some jump leads.
At around 6.30 pm we started gathering for the Battle in the Dark event. Riders would be sent out at around 20 second intervals onto the beach.
By the time we started, just after 7pm, it was a hell of a lot darker than the conditions pictured above. I’d decided to wear my Parentini Mossa jacket, K-dry bib tights and p.5000 gloves given that the temperature was hovering at around 3 degrees. If I got lost or fell off I wanted to be warm. Just after 7pm I set out along a rather spooky beach and headed towards what could only be described as runway landing lights set out some distance down the beach. It’s a fairly surreal experience and not something that you’d necessarily choose to do if you weren’t doing an organised event.
After exiting the beach it was then a sprint through single track, mud and sand back to the starting point, a total distance of around 6 miles. It doesn’t sound like much but in terms to the technical nature of the singletrack it’s quite demanding! My Cateye Volt 1200 put out a brilliant spread of light and I didn’t once worry about seeing where I was going. I was totally comfortable in my kit. And I got home in about 33 minutes for 6.1 miles averaging 11.2 mph. Not bad, but my chest and lungs were pounding. I was pretty happy with my effort and was passed by only 2 other people along the entire lap. When the times were totalled I’d come 73rd of 114. Given that, clearly, the most hardcore (insert winky smiley) attempted this part of the event I was pretty pleased with that. Robby De Bock was home in a staggering 22.04 minutes and over a minute ahead of his nearest competitor. That man has some legs (and lungs). Would he repeat the victory the next day? Karen Brouwer came home first lady in 24.16 a time which would have placed her 7th overall. The KMC mountainbiketeam had put a massive challenge down for the next day. Could anyone stay in touch?
After that, recovery mode. A short trip into Burry Port for chips and, according to Mike, one of the world’s dodgiest rissoles. Then off to the Cefn Sidan Bar and Cafe to watch England put in comprehensive performance to snatch their first Grand Slam in many years. Well done to them.There was a small but muted English presence who cheered respectfully at the final whistle. Let it out lads, we don’t mind!
After that back to the tent. And it was cold. So very cold. Indeed, let’s not do this again. I struggled to get to sleep worried about my steaming breath and by now rattling chest. I woke up around 3 am and spent the next 3 hours worrying about whether I should pee or not. When I finally decided to do so I tripped over outside and took out two guide ropes on the tent. A fitful sleep followed interrupted by the dawn chorus. I managed to get a few good hours in the end though nothing like the 12 hours my sleep tracker claimed.
A hearty full Welsh breakfast followed, fuel for the main event. I was a little worried about my rattling chest at this point and beginning to feel a bit apprehensive. Would I get round? I remember struggling from about lap 2 last year and it’s not a nice feeling to have. It was still utterly freezing so kit choice was quite difficult. I decided to eschew sunglasses due to the overcast conditions. In the end I opted for dhb’s rather superb Aeron long sleeve roubaix jersey and seamless base layer partnered with Assos’s Tk.607 bib knickers. I was really happy with my choices overall and was comfortable throughout. I’ve still yet to write a review about my very basic Shimano XC51n all weather shoes but they are, frankly, brilliant. I’ll be sure to write something about them in due course.
Before the main event there was a children’s Battle as well. Indeed, kids featured quite heavily over the two days, which is something that I’ve always found that cyclocross does so well. It’s great to see A Cycling getting kids involved at an early stage. Indeed, my son fancies a crack at the event next year and I will be only too happy to get him involved.
And then it was time to mass on the start, look up to the aerial drones and take in a rather odd mega mix of Welcome to the Jungle, Thunderstruck and Blur’s Song 2 blasting through the giant speakers. Then, at 12 pm, the massed start set off along the beach.
(I’ve since learned that you too can experience the mega rock megamix, click here to listen to it in all it’s glory! Mega Mix )
It’s at this point that a few things are true. The racers will reach the end of the beach a long time before you. And, depending on your equipment, you can gain or lose many places here. Specifically, on the beach, CX bikes rule. I probably passed a few hundred people on the beach due to the better positioning on the bike, better tyres but, crucially, better gearing. Indeed, I felt that my 1x set up of 42t front and 11-36 rear was perfect. No issues with front mechs catching sand and mud and enough top and bottom level gearing to suit all parts of the course. Naturally, when we reached the “off road” section the speed benefits of CX bikes fall away a little and the grip afforded by bigger tyres along with the security of those tyres and/or suspension tips the balance back in favour of the mountain bike crew. Though, it has to be said, not perhaps as much as you might think. After all, most of the singletrack is single file only and once you’re back out onto the “open road” then the CX bikes do have a bit more acceleration.
After exiting the beach and what seemed like miles on a grass roller coaster section it was onto the gravel and fire roads. Here the G-One’s were superb, robust and fast. I don’t know if the organisers added “Puddle of Doom number 1” themselves or if it’s just a left over from all the rain but it did add a rather icy blast to the chamois! After a tight right hand turn the still bunched field exited to the first twisty bit of single track. And then, quite quickly, come to a shuddering halt. It’s traffic jam time in the forest. This is the section that saw difficulties last year. The sheer number of riders arriving to a small sandy hill inevitably means a bit of waiting. So you stop, shuffle forward and, eventually, get clear. It was promised to be better this year, arguably it was a bit worse. But it’s ok, and it happens, and it’s difficult to see how to avoid it. The initial grass roller coaster seems to have been an effort to string out the field but I’m not sure it really worked. What I would say is that there were less prima donna’s trying to shout “rider coming through” than last year which is to everyone’s credit.
Soon enough came “Puddle of Doom 2”. And what a puddle it was. I’d first experienced it in the Battle on the Dark the night before. I’d figured that there were no real obstacles underneath and that you could keep your feet dry by keeping the cranks above 90 degrees. And this is all fine. It works, but falls apart rapidly when a fat biker comes haring through beside you and covers you in water. Hey, it’s all fun in love and war and quickly laughed off. A nasty but mercifully short muddy section followed before entering the dunes. It’s here I thought I might struggle with the G-Ones. But they were ok on the mud and absolutely fine on the dunes. Indeed, given their 35c width arguably better in their profile than the Vittoria XG Pro 33c I’d used the previous year. With the dunes despatched there then followed a bit more of the twisty stuff and a small hill lined with spectators offering typically cyclocross levels of enthusiasm and support. Each time I attempted the hill I hit the soft sand at the bottom and just powered to the top. Once again my gearing choice was good and the G-One’s held traction well. Finally, a last bit of twisty single track spits you back out into the main arena and the last section to get back to the beach.
And then it starts all over again. Lap 2 is quite a mentally difficult place to be. You just have to get through it. You worry about having energy for lap 3 but you want to make a good effort of it. I’m glad to say that this year’s lap 2 went very well. I took out quite a large number of bigger tyred and lesser geared bikes on the beach section before settling down for a war of attrition on the twisty bits. I felt pretty strong at the outset of lap 3 and put another good shift in down the beach. The legs were, by now, fading a little but nothing horrific. I chatted briefly to a fat biker with a single speed before haring off down the fire roads again. (Kudos to anyone who does that beach section 3 times on a single speed). Everything on this lap was just that bit more demanding but I got there in the end. Wrists shaken to pieces, legs getting a bit jelly like but bloody glad I’d once again entered and got round. Despite the 3.1 mile addition to last year’s course I was only 10 minutes slower overall and had a much better average speed. My finish time was a shade under 2hrs 30 minutes and my placing in terms of riders quite a few places up on last year (as far as I can work it out!). For some reason it appears that I stuck myself in veteran this year rather than open male as well. Hey, it’s the truth!
Perspective? Ok, the winner did it a bit quicker. Robby de Bock couldn’t repeat his performance in the dark (though he did still come 4th overall), the event instead going to Richard Jansen of Team Imming finishing in an astonishing 1hr and 35 mins. Meanwhile the top lady was once again KMC mountainbiketeam’s Karen Brouwer finishing in 1hr and 49 minutes.
And with the race over I collected my medal and set about dismantling a tent, loading up the car and hoping that Mike’s van would get jump started. Again, thanks to Gavin, that little worry was negated.
Will I be back next year? Sure I will. I’ll be up late on New Year’s Eve making sure I get my place. I’ll probably avoid the camping next year, it’s not the best warm up for the event. I’ll put a bit more training in to see if I can get sub 2.15. I’ll try and get my son involved but I’ll be there. A massive shout out to Matt and Nia Page of A Cycling for putting on this excellent event. It’s real value as well at a time when open road sportives are pushing £60. The price for 2 days camping and entry to Battle in the Dark and Beach was a mere £33. That’s fantastic in my book. It’s a great race and looks like becoming the one to book in the calendar so if you’re up for it next year don’t delay. Stay up and get it booked, I reckon it will be sold out by New Year’s Day morning.
Oh and, one final point, that medal below. Bottle opener. Genius.