Battle on the Beach 2022. Race report by Steve Bate MBE
My heart is jumping out of my chest, and 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. To the outsiders looking in, it must look like some spectacle as cyclists hit the hard sand and their biggest chainring and race off into the distance. I, on the other hand, am 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. I question whether I can keep this up in my first race back since crashing out of the Paralympics in Tokyo six months ago. The answer is obvious: no.
Battle on the Beach takes place on Pembury Sands, one of the most stunning beaches in South Wales. It’s a golden ribbon of sand that stretches eight 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 in Pembury Country Park is a perfect place for riders, their families, and supporters. The main area hosts the registration tent, sponsor tents, and your standard food, beverage, and port-a-loo trimmings.
Even with more than 800 entrants, the event felt surprisingly small and welcoming. The roster included Dutch superstar beach racing pros, elite mountain bike racers, cyclocross mastery wizards, and everyone 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 and fast event that starts after the sun goes down. Riders take on the short course one at a time, setting off in time-trial fashion ten seconds apart, which makes the race super-exciting. I sat this one out due to my eyesight, which is never a good combination with speed, trees, and darkness. However, it was a great atmosphere as folks raced to the line, trying to fight those precious seconds from slipping away!
Photo by Steve Bate
The main event started Sunday at midday, sharp! The first 200 riders are gridded in a holding pen on the beach. They 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 about 100 meters back from the start line. The pen isn’t very wide, so it stretches a long way back — it’s wise to arrive early to get up front. I was lucky to have my good friend and training partner, Charles, help me out with the top tips and secrets of his experiences in past races. We’re close to the front of the second holding pen one full hour before the race start — not ideal for a solid warmup, that’s for sure. The riders who are gridded can arrive 15 minutes before the start of the race, making it perfect for a warmup, then head to the front of the race and wait to go. At 11:45, the pen gates open and we race down to join the folks in the front pen and the start of the race.
At noon, the whistle goes, and the carnage happens! 850 people with bikes start what resembles a rugby match more than a bike race. The main issue is getting from the soft sand, where you start, to the hard sand, where you can get on your bike and start chasing the race leaders. For those leaders at the front, it’s clean sand to get across, and the best riders can pedal it. For everyone else, it’s ploughed-up soft sand that brings its own challenges. Even on a fat bike, I choose 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! It’s okay, as I am racing in the fat bike category, but my mistake of running so far proves costly in the final result, a classic rookie error.
“All the gravel bikes I’ve just passed get their own back as they catch and overtake me on their speedy machines. I pay the racer’s price of fat tyres and low gears, but I push on as hard as I can, chasing, chasing, always chasing!”
The race is a mad dash down the sand until you exit the beach via the dunes. This is the second challenge, as you must cross the soft, ploughed-up sand again. But this time, my friends, I have speed and fat tyres on my side. I manage to ride right across to the bottleneck exit point, where I jump off my bike and run/wait/walk through the bottleneck. 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 passed get their own back as they catch and overtake me on their speedy machines. I pay the racer’s 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 singletrack and another bottleneck as racers push and shove to be the first through. At this point, the race leaders are completing their first lap. No bottleneck in sight as they hit the beach for the second time! Meanwhile, I’m off my bike and waiting in line for the blockage to clear before I can remount and race on. I make up some places riding wild lines around bottlenecks — the joy of the fat bike, I guess. Back out onto the beach for my second lap, my heart rate is still sky high, and there’s no letting off. With the field spread out now and racers finding their own paces, I find myself on my own, pushing up the beach into a head wind. I’m told there’s another fat biker 30 seconds ahead of me, and I know at this point if they are with a group, I have my work cut out over the rest of the race to catch them. But I put that in the back of my mind and focus on the job at hand: getting to the end of the beach without giving myself a heart attack!
Back on the gravel, I’m joined by a couple of mountain bikers who drive the pace, and I yo-yo off the back of the small group. I get dropped often, only to catch back up in the sand traps that I can ride with my 4-inch 45NRTH Vanhelga tyres. But their skinny tyres soon roll past mine again.
Photo by Battle On The Beach
One thing I feared before the start was the singletrack. With my limited field of vision, I gave up riding singletrack 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 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 flat-out on single track. But yet here I am, ten years on from my diagnosis, fully 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 voice of safety and reason when things get on the spicy limit of what my eyes can handle.
Hitting the beach for the final time with this group, I’m already a great deal faster since I have wheels to follow, and I know I have to hang on. As we hit the hard sand and the pace goes up, I struggle, pushing as hard as I can. My saving grace is that other riders join the group, and it gets bigger, so every time I slowly go out the back to be dropped yet again, other riders fill the gap. I make two huge efforts to close down gaps on my own, but the third is one too many. With 200 meters left of the hard sand, the group is gone, and my legs and lungs can’t take it anymore. But it doesn’t matter. I cut across the soft sand for the last time and catch back up with the group, even managing to ride past the tail markers. I know I have to go all out. The chances of catching the leader are all but gone, but I have to try. As we peel off into the finishing lap course, the racing is not letting up. The group of mountain bikers is still driving hard, the single track flying by, and I’m trying desperately not to get dropped. As the singletrack flows and we pass riders who have run out of puff, their lungs and legs calling it a day early, I fear mine aren’t far behind. But onward I drive.
“I cut across the soft sand for the last time and catch back up with the group, even managing to ride past the tail markers. I know I have to go all out. The chances of catching the leader are all but gone, but I have to try.”
Wanting the finish to be around the next corner, I encounter my first problem with the bike. My Salsa Beargrease has run super smoothly up until this point, but now the SRAM AXS gearing is jumping like crazy! Every time I stand up to power over a small rise, my gear jumps up and down. “COME ON,” I scream out loudly at one point, frustrated by the problem. I figure a stick must have bent the hanger, but I’d discover at the finish that the issue was a loose mech hanger. Totally my fault for not checking when I built the bike earlier that week. I’m thankful that it never fell off and ended my race so close to the finish. The last few minutes are some of the best riding — and maybe racing — I have ever gotten out of myself. Everything is screaming at me, telling me to stop. “It’s pointless, you’re not going to win.” Yet I continue to push as hard as I can. Sweat stinging my eyes, gearing jumping, muscles aching, racing through tight trees — none of it is enough for me to stop until I drop out of the woods and cross the finish line.
After Tokyo, I wondered 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 people on the team who love it — it’s what they live for. For me, racing has always been a love/hate relationship. And after hip surgery and four months off the bike, I wondered if I still had the desire to go deep, to put myself through that hardship again. I found the answer in this race.
I took second place 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’s split times, I had no answer, only 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 down people who think so highly of me. But the great thing about losing, is it brings wisdom and lessons learned, if you are willing to explore them, for next time. And I really hope there is a next time. Oh, by the way: my average heart rate was 171 bpm for the 1 hour and 35 minutes of racing.
Thanks so much to the people at Battle on the Beach. It was a truly enjoyable and 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 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, and those who come and say hi at events, you all rock. Thank you.
On to the next one!