A successful contest between MTB, Fat-Bike, and ‘Cross bikes on a gem of a course where the venue offered something for all types of rider, spectators and families.
South Wales’ Pembrey Country Park rightly deserved to be brought to wider attention; the place is beautiful. Arriving via Llanelli, little tarmacked lanes wound their way through grass fields which would be ideal for kicking a ball on, throwing a Frisbee, or having a picnic. An extensive pine forest divided the grassland from the beach, the trees sprouting from sandy hillocks. Finally, a long, long beach sloped gently out to sea, low tide revealing many acres of sand.
The race car park was a happy place. Everyone was smiling, excited to be part of something new, the spring sun welcoming us to the routine of signing-on beside the cafe. It felt a bit like an XC MTB race from 20 years ago, possibly because of the wide variety of people and bikes, and that sense of newness. I looked for my Alpkit team-mate Scott, but quickly got distracted by other old friends and getting ready to race.
Matt Page, the organiser on a quad-bike, paced the 300 riders from the arena to the beach at 11am, and as we hit the beach the race was truly on. I’d been well positioned in the bunch behind the quad, thanks probably to luck, and maybe based on some experience of races like the 3 Peaks Cyclo-Cross. Soft sand above the high water mark was the first challenge, and thankfully I had a clear run at the bit I wanted, so I made it across to firmer stuff in about 10th. Four or five riders had charged clear, but some strong guys were left behind so a good pace line formed to quickly bring things together in an increasingly large bunch charging down the beach.
We would complete 3 laps of a 12km circuit. A long straight beach section, into the wind, then a mix of tracks and paths, up and down, splashing in some puddles, through the woods to the finish arena in a grassy field, and then just a little more through the forest before being back on the beach.
The best fat bikers were in the lead group having had a swift ride over the soft sand, but they were suffering on the firmer sand into the strong headwind. Dan Treby looked to be at the limit, but was doggedly tracking George Budd. I tucked in behind George at one point and marvelled at how much power he must have been putting out to shove that fat beast along, creating a great hole in the air for me!
Many of us knew the exit from the beach was a crucial moment to be well positioned for the narrow trails ahead, so the speed rose as attack after attack built the pace. Again I got lucky and followed the right wheels to the foot of the sandy scramble up a dune and off the beach in 7th place. The rider ahead had a problem remounting in sand, which is a difficult skill, and allowed the first five to get clear. So as the tracks opened up I saw we were in the second group, covering places 6th – 10th! This was amazing to me; I’m not race fit, and I had hardly prepared for this event. Surely I was going too fast? I decided to consciously ease off a bit. George Budd was in the second group as leading fat biker, and it was no surprise to me when the tattooed legs of Dan Treby sprinted past in pursuit as I dropped back.
Someone caught me and promptly punctured as we completed the first lap. That was pretty hard luck for him. Then I was soon back on the beach with a long view ahead to Dan Treby again. I paired up with the leading woman and another guy on a ‘cross bike to share the work into the wind, winding Dan in slowly. Once we reached the other end of the beach Dan would be pulling away again and I’d see no more of him.
Sand in my gears caused an incident where they slipped and dumped me down on my back. I saw the leading woman just the once more as I looked up from the ground saying ouch. Then things really started to unravel for me; my brakes were wearing down fast. I had to ease my effort before corners to try and reduce the need to brake, hopefully preserving them as long as possible. No way was I going to quit this though, even if I had to jump off for every downhill or brake with my foot on the tyre!
Starting the final lap, I was alone. The beach was a long slog into the wind, and only at the very end did a pair catch up and share the work – one of them was Belgian, which reminded me I was still fairly well placed! My brakes gave up completely on the first descent after the beach, and from then on I could be seen sticking my foot against the tyre, jumping off, and having some spectacular crashes. I survived the tumbles, and a puncture, to get back to finish 14th.
Of course I engaged in the post-race ritual of talking through the race with riders from neighbouring cars while getting into my nice Alpkit down jacket to keep the chilly wind off my tired body. I think there was universal approval of the whole experience. Certainly, I’ll be back.
Thanks to Anthony Pease for the great opening photo. You can find more of his work at Anthony Pease Photography