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Redbull meets FIASCO

Battle on the Beach race report.

April 3rd 2022. DISTANCE 40KM. ELEVATION 150M. TIME 1h 25M

By Sam B

In my constant quest to find new places to ride, and new events/races to enter, a search on Google ended up with me registering for Battle on The Beach. I had never seen an event like it in the UK.  The website described the race, held in Pembury, Swansea as a 3 x 15 km lap race, with 5km on the beach, 5km of sandy single track and 5km of fast fire road.  It was the prospect of racing down a beach in a potentially 800+ rider mass start that was most appealing. In addition to Saturdays main race event, the sub £50 entry fee also entered you in to the Friday night Rotor Battle in the Dark, a 10km time trial held on the course under the cover of darkness.

With entry fee paid, and having failed to convince my wife to join me, I had to find some lodgings for the overnight as camping is never on the agenda.  A local Air BnB was secured so all that remained in the lead up to the event was weeks and weeks of researching bike set up.  In truth, given I don't own a gravel/CX bike and was going to be riding my full suss XC MTB, only two things had to be decided upon, those being tyre choice and gearing. 

The concern on the latter was spinning out down the 5km of hard packed beach.  The previous year the race clocked over 60kph down the beach thanks to a massive tailwind! With this in mind I ditched the standard 32T chainring and went for a bigger 36T up front.  I figured that this  larger chainring could get me up to about 55kph if needed.  Most of the preparation time however was spent looking at tyre choices.  Given the vast majority of the field would be on gravel bikes, I wanted to get the least rolling resistance I could, with minimum worry about grip i would need.  In the end I decided to go for a 2.25" Schwalbe Thunder Burt up front, and a Continental Race King on the back.  I was pretty happy with this as a fast rolling setup.  Upon reflection, I think you could go Thunder Burts front and back as traction was never an issue on the course. With tyre choice made the weeks counted down and finally it was time to pack the bike in the car, load all my kit and head off to Swansea.

The drive down the M4 and across the Prince of Wales bridge into Wales gave me time to assess my expectations for the event.  I love bike racing, and am realistic on my lack of skills and speed.  That said, I always want to give my all in any race.  With utterly no idea of what I was letting myself in for I decided that the only approach would be to go all out, finish as high as I can, with the main goal being to have a great time, rather than focus on time/position.

As always I arrived at the race venue way ahead of time, and I mean way ahead of time.  I have a thing for being late. There was a small event village, sprung up around a huge Red Bull circus tent type thing.  I used the time I had (literally hours and hours) to register, eat some more race food (aka junk food) and go for a ride.  It was the first time I had properly ridden along a hard packed beach.  It was fantastic.  The tide seemed about a mile away, the sun was out and I was surprised at how fast it rolled, you could really fly down the beach.  I knew then that this was a great investment and the race was going to be a huge amount of fun.

As the sun set it was time for Rotor Battle in the Dark.  A good number of riders had arrived by this point, and the 'optional' evening time trial had 175 people risking life and limb.  Some riders didn't seem to have enough lumens about their person to give this a good go.  I had a SECA 2500 lumens light on my bars and an exposure light on the Scott helmet.  Plenty of light.  With riders going out in about 15 second intervals my time came round pretty quick, I was about 100th out the start.  The plan - its only 10km, so go as hard as you can and don't worry about tomorrow's race.  This almost immediately went wrong as the start led down a slight grass bank into a sharp right.  I had way too much speed, locked up the rear wheel on the wet grass and nearly stacked it skidding/sliding into the crash barriers less than 100m from the start.  At least it got a few 'oohhhs and ahhhs' from the spectators.

The TT course was fantastic, despite it not using any of the beach section as the tide was in.  The fire roads were super fast and a far better surface than I was expecting, while the sand sections were nowhere near as bad as I had feared.  I overtook a good number of riders and did my best to give them all fair warning I was approaching and tried to give everyone some encouragement, or at the very least a thank you as I went by.  After an extremely hard 24 minutes I crossed the finish line and immediately collapsed off the bike, trying not to throw up.  The volunteer handing out free beer at the finish line got some

inaudible response as I stumbled past, eyes no doubt wide with a crazed look in them.  After a bit of a regroup, I decided dinner was going to have to be eaten at the event village as it was pretty late in the day, so I went for a pizza from the mobile van. 

That was about as hard as I have even ridden, which got a finishing place of 15th overall (5th in vets age group). Whilst I was extremely happy with the result, the drive to my overnight accommodation left me to question quite why I had gone so hard given I had a full distance race in about 14 hours time.  Oh well, too late now.  Given how late in the day it now was, and the remote location of said lodgings, the evening consisted of rubbish TV and several packs of Jaffa cakes and cereal bars.

Race morning brought an early start as excitement and a foreign pillow meant I couldn't sleep properly.  The tyre choice immediately was in question, it was raining.  I had packed some Vittoria Barzos, so planned to get to the course with plenty of time to give it a quick test and decide on any changes then.  Thankfully by the time I got to the event village the rain had stopped, the sun was out and the tyres were back to being an inspirational piece of kit choice.  A flat white and breakfast bap was purchased and consumed then I headed off for another pre ride up and down the beach. Big smiles all round as it was now glorious out.

One of the best warm ups ever.

Numbers were now swelling, with lots of riders out warming up. The only point of notice on the 5km beach section was a rocky outcrop about halfway down.  To the right of this the sand was deep and un-ridable, so the racing line was left.  The highlight of the warm up was on my way back up the beach (against the race direction) past this rock section.  I stayed on the water side of the rock, on the packed sand, and watched as a group of four or five out on a pre ride hit the soft sand at speed, with the lead guy flying over the handlebars.  Better now than in the race I guess.

Back in the car park, getting ready, either side of me two fat bike tandem crews were preparing their incredible bikes.  I had never seen such bikes and had a chat about the logistics of it all.  Both teams reckon they could ride the whole lap, which i thought was impressive.  It turned out they ride the same Frensham Pond sands as me on their local rides.

Wanting to give myself the best chance at the start, I got down to the start line an hour before the midday start time.  I was one of about 10 there already, we were held back from the start line to allow the seeded riders through in front of us.  The seeded riders were the pro racers and those who finished in the top 75 last year.  Most the seeded riders were in by about 11:50, so the tape holding us back was lifted and we could all nip down and pick our starting spot.  I opted for a place in the middle, and was about three rows back from the front.  

Mad scenes on the start line

I started to doubt my choice almost immediately.  I figured being in the middle I could avoid any early crashes with escape routes left and right.  However, the course went almost immediately to the right down the beach, so I figured all to the right of me would have the advantage of undercutting me. The grid was now completely packed so changing position at this stage was not an option. 

The start is like nothing I had experienced before.  The terrain for the first 50 metres is deep soft sand.  The choice to be made before even starting is whether to ride or run these early metres.  I had decided early on it was a running start.  Having ridden enough of the aforementioned Frensham Ponds sand, I was all too aware how hard riding through it is.  Then out of nowhere the countdown begun... then the start gun went off.

The calm before the storm

It was absolute chaos. There were bodies and bikes all over the place.  Those in front of me that had chosen to cycle almost immediately toppled over or became bogged down.  Some of the runners tripped over their own bikes that they were pushing.  Other runners tripped over other people and bikes lying in the sand.  Carnage.  Without doubt running is the way to start, and I managed to navigate around/over a few bodies before mounting my bike and trying to get in a fast group.  The opening few minutes of the race are totally bonkers and a complete adrenaline rush.  The chaos of the sand and the desire of all to get into a fast group for the 5km blast down the beach just adds to the incredible experience.  I was one of a handful of MTB riders up near the front as I joined a good size group who started to hammer along the beach.  Almost as soon as I thought the chaos had calmed, a massive crash happened about 20 riders up from me.  I saw a bike catapult into the air, and then an instant parting of the wave as the peloton split left and right around the fallen riders.  Better to hit the deck at 40kph+ on sand than tarmac I guess.  

After averaging over 40kph along this opening 5km long section, the only real technical issue of the lap appears.  Riders need to come off the beach into the dunes and to do so need to cross the deep sand again.  It was a scaled back version of the start line chaos.  The pack split up all over the place as people got off early, some pedaled as far is as they could, others went way left thinking it better while some turned much earlier.  I decided the sensible option was to get to the point where it was a 90 degree turn, then ride until speed plummeted.  Running/sprinting across this section after the blast down the beach was much harder than I had assumed.  Bike remounted and leaders lost up the road it was a case of forming a group on the fire roads and pushing as hard as we could.  The rest of the lap was as expected; hard riding, record hitting heart rate, sketchy moments and general good fun. 

Some fared better than others through the dune's single track

Crossing under the start line Red Bull banner took us back through the deep sand.  This time round though we had the advantage of speed and the years of riding local sandy trails helped me blast through this section, while some others floundered.  I jumped onto a group along the beach, which almost immediately split, with me in the dropped half of the group.  I waited about 10 seconds too long before deciding to make the jump across to the faster group.  Complete disaster.  I rode in-between  two groups, trying to bridge across for what felt like 10 minutes (was actually one).  I got within two bikes lengths of the group ahead, and then suffered a complete power fade.  It was at this point I had little choice but to pull the plug, dropped at least 10kph in speed and begun the shameful return back to group two.  The guys in the group welcomed my return with some amusing comments and some welcome comradery telling me to make sure I got back on and didn't get dropped by them as well.

Flying down a beach in a huge pack at 45kph is a complete blast

I rode the second lap in a good group that included a guy on a fat bike and a guy on a single speed.  I was continuously impressed at the skills and power levels of both of them.  Towards the end of lap two I was questioning why I was trying so hard, I could just cruise the rest of the race. This is a common mental battle I face in races.  Thankfully I convinced myself that there was no point in trying so hard for two laps and giving up on the third, so I pressed on.  It was impossible at this point to gauge were I was in the race, another reason to just keep going.

Heart rate 170bpm, legs screaming, not even cycling... but still got a smile on my face

Lap three was another blast down the beach and then took a different path through the dunes and tress to avoid the back markers, and finish at the race village.  It was near the end of the final lap that I decided I might as well make the most of being on an MTB in a group of drop bar bikes.  On a number of the single track sections I left the regular track and took a more adventurous line through the grass and various bits of debris to the side, making up a few places each time.  Why I didn't do this on laps on and two I have no idea. We finally hit the grass and raced over the finishing line, 1h 25m of hell/fun completed.  An average HR of 164 bpm showed how hard this was.  I was completely spent but absolutely buzzing  My time was good enough for 90th place, 11 minutes behind the winner.  I was more than happy with that. 

All that was left was to collect my freebies, load the bike in the car and head off home via several service stations for various food stops.

Looking back, this was without doubt one of the most outrageously fun times I have had in a bike race.  The size of the event, the quality of it and the complete bonkerness of it just made it a great day out.  I intend to go back and will be working on bringing more of the Fiasco team with me for a truly unforgettable day in Swansea.

The 90th place medal


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