With my heart jumping out of my chest, all around me are people in the same state of shock. As we tussle for the wheel in front to get out of the wind and onto the long echelons forming across the beach. With a mass start of 850 riders, it’s a good thing there is plenty of beach to go around, it must look some spectacle to the outsiders looking in, as a group of cyclists hit the hard sand and their biggest chainring and race off into the distance.
Me on the other hand, chugging along on my fat bike, watching rider after rider fly by. I look down at my bike computer and read 178 beats per minute from my heart rate monitor, and question whether I can keep this up in my first race back since crashing out of the Paralympics in Tokyo 6 months ago. The answer was obvious, it was no.
Battle on the Beach takes place in South Wales on one of the country’s most stunning beaches, Pembury Sands. The beach is a golden ribbon of sand stretching for 8 long miles. At low tide there must be a wide enough strip of sand to house the M6 with all its lanes, making it a great drag strip for a bike race. The race HQ is based in the Pembury Country Park which is a perfect place to contain racers, their families and supporters. The main area hosts the registration marquee tent, making sign on and getting the all important race number and timing chip a breeze. Along with a number of event sponsor’s tents, and your standard food, beverage and port-a-loo trimmings. With over 800 entries, the event felt surprisingly small and welcoming. Even though you have Dutch superstar beach racing pros, elite mountain bike racers, cyclocross mastery wizards and everyone else in between, including a ginger disabled bloke (my eyes being the disability, not the ginger hair!)
Saturday night hosts the Battle in the Dark, a short fast event that starts after the sun goes down. The short course is taken on by riders one at a time, being set off only 10 seconds apart, in time trial fashion, making the race itself super-exciting. I sat this one out, due to my eye sight, which with speed, trees and darkness is never a good combination. However it was a great atmosphere in the main arena as folks raced to the line trying to fight those precious seconds from slipping away!
The main event started at midday Sunday, sharp! The first 200 riders are gridded in a holding pen on the beach. These guys and girls have the advantage of untracked soft sand before they hit the hard stuff and race off down the beach at top speed. The rest of us, have to queue up in a separate pen, which is about 100m back from the start line. The pen isn’t very wide so it stretches a long way back, so it’s wise to arrive early to get up front. I was lucky to have my good friend and training partner Charles to give me the top tips and secrets of his experiences in past races to help me out. So at 11am we were close to the front of the second holding pen, one full hour before the race was due to begin. Not ideal for a solid warm up, that’s for sure. The riders who are gridded can arrive 15 minutes before the start of the race, making it perfect for a warm up, then head to the front of the race and wait to go. At 11:45, the pen gates are opening and we raced down to join the folks in the front pen and the start of the race.
At 12 sharp, the whistle goes and carnage happens! 850 people with bikes start what would appear to resemble a rugby match more than a bike race. The main issue is getting from the soft sand where you start, to getting on the hard sand, where you can get on your bike and start chasing the race leaders. For those leaders at the front of the group, its clean sand to get across, and the best guys and girls can ride it. For everyone else, it’s ploughed up soft sand which brings its own challenges. Even on a fat bike I chose to run across the soft stuff and jump on my bike once I hit the harder sand, but by this point the race leaders are long gone! Which was okay, as I was racing in the fat bike category, but the mistake I made by running so far would prove costly in the final result, a classic rookie error!
Once the race is going there is a mad dash down the beach, until the end where you exit the beach via the dunes. This is the second challenge, again crossing the soft ploughed up sand. But this time, my friends, I have speed and fat tyres on my side, and I mange to ride right across to the bottle neck exit point. I jump off my bike and run/wait/walk through the bottle neck and then it’s back on the bike and full gas through the next section and onto the gravel forestry track. All the gravel bikes I’ve just gone past get their own back as they catch and overtake me on their speedy machines. I pay the racers price of fat tyres and low gears, but I push on as hard as I can, chasing, chasing, always chasing!
After a fast section of gravel we hit the single track, which again is a bottle neck as racers push and shove to be the first through. At this point the race leaders are completing their first lap. Not a bottle neck in sight as they hit the beach for the second time! Meanwhile I’m off my bike stood in a line waiting for the blockage to clear before I can remount and race on. I made up some places riding wild lines around bottle necks, the joy of the fat bike I guess. Back out onto the beach for my second lap, my heart rate still sky high, and there was no letting off. With the field spread out now, racers finding their own pace, I found myself on my own pushing into the head wind up the beach. I had been told there was another fat biker 30 seconds ahead of me, and I knew at this point if he was with a group, I had my work cut out over the rest of the race to catch them. But I put that to the back of my mind and focused on the job at hand which was getting to the end of the beach without giving myself a heart attack!
Back on the gravel I was joined by a couple of mountain bikers who drove the pace, and I yo-yo’d off the back of the small group. I’d often get dropped, only to catch them back up in the sand traps that I could ride with my 4 inch 45nrth Vanhelga tyres. But this advantage would soon be lost as their skinny tyres rolled past mine once again. One thing I feared before the start was the single track. With my limited field of vision, I gave up riding single track long ago as it often ended with me over-running a corner and colliding with trees. In fact I gave up mountain biking for a while as I just deemed it far too dangerous. But then I fell in love with fat bikes, which seem to give me the confidence that I still could have fun riding, just not single track flat out. But yet here I was 10 years on from that diagnosis, fully invested, committed to chasing down that group of mountain bikers through the narrow weaving forested tracks without a second thought of “what if?” Which is my safety voice of reason when things get on the spicy limit of what my eyes can handle. But not today!
Caught in the traffic jam, pushing. Picture Credit - Battle on the Beach
In hitting the beach for the final time with this group I was already a great deal faster having the wheels to follow and I knew I had to hang on. As we hit the hard sand and the pace went up, I struggled, pushing as hard as I could to hang on. My saving grace was other riders joined the group and it got bigger, so as I was slowly going out the back to be dropped yet again, other riders would fill the gap. I had to make two huge efforts to close gaps down on my own, and the third was one too many. With 200 metres left of the hard sand the group was gone, and my legs and lungs couldn’t take it any more. But it didn’t matter it was a short time before I cut across the soft sand for the last time and caught the group back up, and even managed to ride past the tail markers. I knew I had to go all out, and the chances of catching the leader were all but gone, but I had to try. As we peeled off into the finishing lap course, the racing was not letting up. The group of mountain bikers were still driving hard, the single track flew by and I tried desperately not to get dropped. As the single track flowed and we caught and passed riders who had run out of puff, their lungs and legs calling it a day early, I feared mine weren’t far behind, but onwards I drove.
Wanting the finish to be around the next corner, I encountered my first problem with the bike. My bike had run super smoothly up until this point but now the SRAM AXS gearing was jumping like crazy! Every time I stood up to power over a small rise, chasing the wheels in front, my gear would jump up and down. I screamed ‘COME ON’ out loudly at one point, frustrated by the problem. I figured a stick must have bent the hanger causing the problem, so I kept on driving, and they kept on jumping. I found out at the finish, the gear issues I was having were due to a loose mech hanger. Totally my fault for not checking when I built the bike earlier that week. I was thankful in the end it never fell off and ended my race so close to the finish. Those last few minutes were some of the best riding and maybe racing I had ever gotten out of myself. Everything was screaming at me telling me to stop, “it’s pointless, you’re not going to win.” Yet I continued to push as hard as I could. Sweat stinging my eyes, gearing jumping, muscles aching, racing through tight trees, but none of it was enough for me to stop, until I dropped out of the woods and crossed the line.
I wondered after Tokyo about retiring from racing, hanging up my wheels and calling it a day. After all I’ve never really considered myself ‘a racer’, certainly not like the guys and girls on the team who love it, it’s what they live for. For me it’s always been a love/hate relationship with racing. And I wondered after hip surgery and 4 months off the bike if I still had the desire to go real deep, put myself through that hardship again, and in this race I found the answer.
Second place it was for me in the fat bike category, at Battle on the Beach 2022 edition. A bittersweet result, but one I can take on the chin. And looking at the winner Lloyd’s split times, I had no answer, just admiration for his efforts, a worthy winner. It’s never fun losing, and in my position, people expect you to turn up and win everything you enter. That comes as a curse, with a gold medal or two in your back pocket. But I like that, it makes me try hard and get the best out of myself, as I don’t like letting people who think so highly of me down. But the great thing about losing, is it brings wisdom, lessons learned if you are willing to explore them, for the next time. And I really hope there is a next time. Oh by the way. My average heart rate was 171bph for the 1:35 minutes the race lasted for me.
Riding into the sunset after a great race. Picture Credit - Caroline Bate
Thanks so much to the guys and girls at Battle on the Beach. A truly enjoyable well organised event with a brilliant relaxed family atmosphere. Do give it a go, you won’t regret it!
To the team that stands behind me in the way of support and sponsorship, allowing me to not ride the trodden path of a normal professional cyclist and find my own way, often with fatter tyres than needed, I thank you from the bottom of my heart, I really appreciate your belief and support.
Finally, to everyone else who sends wishes, follows me on social media, those who come and say hi at events, you guys rock. Thank you.
Onto the next one!