Battle on the Beach

botb

When you’ve got a whole country to drive across, you hope that getting out of your home city will be the easy part.

Alright, so we’re not talking North American distances here, but 250 miles is a long trip in a van that tops out at 60 mph with a tail wind, and it’s especially arduous when the first 10 miles of your trip takes 2 hours. North East London on a Saturday afternoon is not a good place to be if you want to get somewhere in a hurry (unless you’re on a bike, of course).

Me and Federico, my Hackney GT teammate, finally hit the open road as the sun began to go down, heading west for what would prove to be a very chilly night of camping under the stunningly star-studded skies of South Wales.

Sunday morning dawned clear and bright and we got our first chance to scope out the terrain that we had stumbled through in the dark the night before. Frost-covered vans and tents surrounded us in our tucked-away corner of the race venue and the smell of bacon and coffee wafted across the campsite. Time for a big breakfast and pre-race bike fettling – the perfect way to start any day.

Howies® Battle on the Beach is only in its second year, but it has already become a firm favourite amongst off-road race fans in the UK and beyond. As its name suggests, a large chunk of the race takes place at low tide on a wide expanse of smooth, fast sand just west of Llanelli in South Wales. Throw in some gravel fire roads, some sand dunes and some sweet singletrack and, to my mind, you’ve got some of the best terrain for a cx/xc race that the UK has to offer.

But there’s a big question on a course like this: What do I ride?

These days, I’m a cyclocross racer through and through and, with the CX season only just done and dusted, it felt like the only option was my Major Jake. Shod with some Challenge Chicanes (which hadn’t seen the light of day since September), me and the Major lined up with 600 other hopefuls, most of whom had other ideas about what was going to be the right tool for the job. There were 29ers everywhere, although there was a super-sized helping of Fatbikes too, many of whom were serious contenders for the title of British National Fatbike Champion – a title which is rolled into the BotB event as well.

The gun/whistle/claxon sounds and off we run, dashing across the deep dunes as best we can, in an effort to hit the beach with or near the head of the bunch, seemingly the only place to be if you want to stay at the sharp end of the race after the first windswept 5k sprint along the sand.

My start was good and, to my great surprise, I find myself heading the peloton as we blast through the spray and the surf. Last year’s winner is here from Holland with his team of dedicated beach racers, and there is a stellar cast of other likely winners, so I grit my teeth and keep my wits about me as we weave across the sand towards the first forest section, hoping that I can stay close to the mountain bikes as the going gets technical.

As the singletrack kicks in, the mountain bikes begin to edge away and I know that I’m going to be in for a tough race. I think about the next 3k on the beach and hope that I won’t have to ride it on my own. For now, though, I’m feeling good and enjoying the trails, trying to keep something in reserve for a race that will be twice as long as my last ‘cross race.

The end of lap one went from disaster to delight in one easy move, after someone decided it might be fun to remove one of the course markers, sending everyone went the wrong way. I’m not sure how badly I went off course, or how much time I lost, but I wound up finding my way back to the lap with another lost soul and we hit the beach together for the second run – a much better prospect than riding that long drag on your own.

Halfway through the second lap, though, and the wheels began to come off.

A missed pedal led to a cramp spasm that is never a good sign and by the end of the lap I was 100 yards behind the nearest rider on the beach and a prime target for the riders behind me. As we hit the woods for the final time I was overtaken by three riders who I’d dropped on lap one, and as the lap progressed I dropped from 3rd placed veteran to 5th, making simple mistakes as my concentration wavered.  The stars of the previous night were now swimming in the periphery of my vision as legs, lungs and heart began to fail.

I cross the line in 20th place overall and 5th in my age group. So disappointed not to have ridden at my best, but feeling that next time… next time, I’ll get it just right. I seem to be saying that a lot these days.

Thanks to the organisers of BotB 2015 for a great event, one that every off-road racer should have on their to-do list for 2016.

Next up: Etape 2015