Full gas in a full storm — welcome to beach racing

Egmond Pier Egmond, beach racing at its best

I scrub at the lens of my camera once more, searching for the t-shirt underneath my two coats and numerous layers, struggling with completely numb fingers that can’t feel the trigger of my camera. The engine of the 1958 Studebacker ex-US army truck to which I am furiously clinging onto strains as we hit another deep section of sand. As I struggle with this limited dexterity I mutter to myself, ‘It’s January, this is the Northern Dutch coast, why did you say yes to this shoot you idiot? What else would you expect from a beach race?’ then put my negativity into check with the thought that I should be glad I’m not riding, as the once large groups slowly self-destruct from the relentless wind.

2.5 km into the race and the headwind has already done its work, the line of groups as far as the eye could made me rather happy I was not racing

Shooting bike races can often be glamorous: mountain passes, leaders’ jerseys, and the joy of getting paid to follow and document the best sport in the world, Often it’s so enticing that I wish it wasn’t me behind the eyepiece, but on two wheels instead. But sometimes it’s grim. Sometimes you have to grit your teeth. And sometimes, just sometimes, you’re really happy you’re not riding it. Today was certainly one of those days, as I tried to keep shooting in what felt like a force 9 storm.

Two of the faster groups tackle the headwind. It was amazing to watch the race from the truck; think about the best elements of any Spring Classic, then condense it and transplant it to the Dutch coast. Tactics are vital in beach racing

Egmond-Pier-Egmond is the Netherlands’ largest mountain bike race, except it isn’t really a mountain bike race in the typical sense. It’s a beach race really, and it falls on the first weekend in January, about mid-way through the season for the beach racing community.

When we threw the idea around the office, we knew Philipp Schwedthelm — our long-distance Transcontinental-famed rider and UK Sales Manager — would naturally jump at the opportunity, as did European Mountain Running Champion, journalist and photographer for Gran Fondo Cycling Magazine, Emmie Collinge. But at this moment, I was struggling to spot their lolly red sturmPrinz-clad forms in the endless pelotons of riders emerging from the greyness.

Lone riders on the sand. As the riders turned, getting their long awaited tail wind the race really took place, seeing the huge groups of the first part of the race blown apart by the fast pace

Philipp was sold on the idea of a 36 km out-and-back race along the beach, seeing it as a way to stay motivated over the Christmas season. We sourced two fit-for-purpose bikes from Wikkit Cycles, relying on their beach riding expertise where our experience was lacking. It’s a small brand with a shop in Egmond aan Zee that hand-make all of their beach bikes

To classify this as a mountain bike race isn’t actually true; yes there are similarities–the tires are fat and the frames are sturdy–but this is a different sport in its early days. It has its own intricacies, frame and bike set-ups and top riders and is certainly its own distinct discipline within cycling. The similarities with the days of Clunkers that heralded the creation of mountain biking are evident to anyone who digs deeper into the world of beach racing.

A gaggle of beach bikes

Beach Bikes: an explainer — It is hard to define what a beach bike really is, unless you’ve seen or ridden one. At their core they are not too dissimilar to a 29 inch, rigid mountain bike, but they have been adapted to take on racing over soft sand. Slightly longer, volumous width slick tyres run as low as 0.8 bar, road Q factors (allowing road gears), with either Dutch (mustache) or dropper bars (think a road bike bar with a wider spread to the drops) and you’ll be getting close. A result of the unique demands of this sport, soft sand at the entry and exit to the beach, hard sand by the water’s edge, headwinds (meaning low speeds) and tail winds (seeing speeds as fast as 75kph), all call from something a little different. Think of them sitting in the gap between cyclo cross and mountain bike.

Emmie and Philipp make the final tweaks to their bikes and clothing in the shelter of the Beach Bastards store

Having two ASSOS-supported riders in the masses meant we got first-hand tips on finding that all-important winter weather sweet spot: what to wear on a cold day when you’re riding full gas; what to wear when your body is running at max temperature yet you need to be protected from the elements. With a fierce wind, driving rain and low temperatures for the first half of the race (and the unavoidable wait on the start line), the sturmPrinzes were naturally out. Yet once the riders turn at the halfway point, that headwind becomes a tailwind, the wind chill drops, body temperatures rise and the clothing conundrum gets even more complex. Riders don’t want an over-sized, billowy jacket in race conditions. The requirements are stringent on days like these: aero, lightweight, breathable but still providing essential protection from the cold. This is where ASSOS clothing steps up.

Philipp gets ready, note the dropper bars, they give you better weight distribution so you float over the sand, rather than sink in

Philipp eventually settled on the tiBuru shorts, kneeWarmers, an early winter skinFoil baselayer and sleeveless falkenZahn. The tiBuru feature the blasenSchutz, an overlooked essential on rides like this, which adds a windproof membrane to the crotch and abdomen for vital protection on sensitive areas. His kneeWarmers give the same essential protection without the bulk of a full tight, which would absorb the spray from the beach. More sensitive to the cold, Emmie went for a winter 4.4 skinFoil, the intermediate jacket, s7 laalaLai shorts and legWarmers.

Philipp post race, artistic soft focus thanks to a very wet lens

As I blow on my fingers to warm them up after the finish, enviously watching locals tucking into pea soup, our two riders give a blow-by-blow debrief of the ride. Schwedthelm spent the first fifteen minutes jumping between groups with the taste of blood in his mouth before sitting in and saving himself for the tailwind. Emmie spent most of her time jumping from group to group, starting in the slower riders meant she had a tough day riding in the winds.

Two photos show how weather-dependent beach racing is: the first taken on a training ride two days before the event, the second sums up ‘full gas into a full storm’

You couldn’t wipe the grins from their faces as we all retold our stories from the race over a hot coffee, tucked up in one of the beach cafes of the now less windswept Egmond aan Zee. The conclusion was, whether on a bike, or hanging to the back of a truck, the uniqueness of this event, mixed with the insanity of willingly going to the Dutch coast in the depths of winter is something that we’d all come back for, but hopefully next time we’ll get a little less wind, rain and soft sand, but then again with the right clothing we don’t really mind either way.

Rinsing off the sand and dead star fish

Egmond-Pier-Egmond:

Location: Egmond aan Zee, the Netherlands

Date: Early January

Distance: 36 km

Fly to: Amsterdam Schiphol, 25 minutes by train.

Special thanks to Beach Bastards and Wikkit Cycles for their help.

Beach racing is now recognised by the UCI, with the inaugural European Championships haven taken place recently. Right now, Belgium and the Netherlands are the epicentre of the scene, but Denmark and the UK are entering the action. This website gives a calendar of what’s on. www.beachracing.nl

For more info on the rider’s outfits and ASSOS of Switzerland head over to www.assos.com