Tide to Tide MTB Race
I haven’t done much mountain biking over the past few years but a number of things prompted me to sign up to the Tide to Tide race in Pembrey Country Park.
- I had a new mountain bike.
- I had recently serviced my full-suspension bike.
- The race was associated with Round 3 of the Welsh Cyclo-cross league that I was doing (even though Cyclo-cross was a new thing for me.)
- It sounded like a slightly different race with a few challenges of it’s own.
- It was a good excuse for a camping weekend.
Camping at Pembrey Country Park
We were all going to go camping and leave fairly early on Saturday morning. However, at the last minute Morgan decided he didn’t really want to come and managed to arrange to stay at a friends house instead. So, before we could leave on Saturday morning we had to drop him off. It also meant that we had loads of extra unnecessary camping kit such as the huge family tent, Morgan’s camp bed, extra chairs and such like already packed in the car.
It was a nice easy drive down though with just the two of us and no one asking how much further it was every few minutes. It was raining all the way and had been raining heavily all night too but the forecast was for better weather later. In fact, by the time we entered Pembrey Country Park the sun was shining. I’d already paid in advance for the race entry and for camping so we were waved on in and told where to camp. Anywhere in fields 10, 11 or 12, all of which were huge flat grassy fields. We pulled onto one of the empty fields and soon had the tent up and ready to go. Somehow it was easier without a third pair of hands ‘helping’!
A 6 man tent with a large awning just for the two of us was a little bit of overkill, but it’s actually quite nice too. As usual though we were a little envious of those with camper vans. During the day a couple of vans pulled up over the other side of the field and one guy with a tent was at the far end of the field but it was pretty quiet. Pembrey Country Park itself is massive. The campsite was huge, the toilets and showers were nice and clean, and were actually being cleaned every few hours. The camping fields were good. They are backed by Pembrey Forest which contains a massive network of trails through the trees and into the dunes beyond. The park itself also has loads of attractions, from ponds in the forest complete with bird hides to more unlikely finds such as a dry ski slope, toboggan ride, crazy golf, pitch and putt, train rides, adventure play area, and an equestrian centre.
All of this is bordered by the huge expanse of Cefn Sidan sands. It wouldn’t be long before I’d be riding my mountain bike through all of this.
Tide to Tide
Once the tent was up we headed over to the race HQ, signed on and got my number and timing chip. We stopped off for a burger on the way back to the tent and then got ready for the race which started at 2pm.
The race itself was a fairly simply format. Most people were doing it in tag teams of three or as pairs, but this year there was a new solo category as well. I was riding solo. The race started at 2pm, weaved it’s way through the forest, up and down the dunes and out onto the beach and finished 6 hours later at 8pm. As I hadn’t done any long distance riding for a while or any real mountain-biking my plan was just to pace myself well, take it easy and complete the full 6 hours in fairly good shape. I had even planned to probably stop for something to eat at some point but at the race briefing we were told there was a pit area for the soloists so I quickly decided that maybe I needed my extra water bottles, lights, spares etc in the pits which Anna soon organised for me.
We lined up ready for the start. Typically there was a huge downpour just before the start but as we waited under starters orders the sun came out again so my jacket was quickly taken off once more and shoved into a pocket.
3-2-1 We were off. Well, a few seconds later we were as I was towards the back of the field so it took a while to get going. There was then quite a bottleneck into the forest as we headed out onto the first lap.
The Tide to Tide Course
The course was brilliant with a bit of everything and interest all the way around. There was nothing too hardcore or extreme, but plenty to test your skills. Once out of the main start / finish arena there was a little rooty rise and a short climb along forest single-track before we dropped down a short slope. Here you could choose one of two different trails, a slightly easier but slightly longer descent or a steeper, rootier route. Haha, “routier route”, I like that, the route that is more rooty is a rootier route – these are the sorts of things that your brain starts dwelling on when riding for 6 hours! I opted for the easier route on the first couple of laps but soon realised that the ‘rootier router’ was shorter and quicker so took that from there on in.
We then weaved our way through the forest on slightly muddy trails before coming into more open pine forest on what were once dunes. The trail therefore weaved it’s way through the upright tree trunks whilst plunging down and back up short steep slopes. We then came out briefly onto a gravelly road before heading into the soft sand of the dunes proper. I managed to ride this little section up into the dunes on every lap but lots of people seemed to struggle with it. We then descended a flight of stairs before emerging onto the massive expanse of sands that are Cefn Sidan Beach. There was of course soft sand at the top of the beach that required some concentration but further down the sand was hard-packed and fast to ride on. At least it would have been if it weren’t for a vicious head wind!
I had to make a bit of a decision here on most laps. As a soloist the main aim was not to go too hard at any point and keep pacing myself for the full 6 hours. Of course, many people were doing it as part of a team so were doing fast laps. I therefore had to decided to pootle along at a nice easy pace not exerting myself too much, or jump on the wheel of someone else who was flying along. Jumping on their wheel and staying there meant more effort but it also meant twice as much speed. If I could I tended to go for the latter, followed by a bit of recovery once I was off the beach. Getting off the beach was quite a slog though with a push / carry up a big steep dune that was unrideable.
Once off the beach we once again found ourselves weaving through the dunes and off into the forest. Unfortunately on the first lap there was a problem with some of the route markers and most of the field went the wrong way. We were lost in the woods for about 15-20 minutes but eventually found our way back to the course and continued on. Thankfully by the second lap all was fixed and it didn’t happen again. The correct route was much more interesting as well, taking us up and down little rises, past a lovely pond complete with lily pads, along some longer stretches of sticky, muddy grass, through some puddles, up a couple of short steep climbs and through some tricky muddy sections. There was also one fast descent with a little bush to whip you each time you rode past it at 30mph. Finally we emerged onto a paved road for a few hundred yards before entering the main race arena and the start finish line where we headed back out for lap after lap.
I was taking things easy, aware of the fact that it would be a long day in the saddle. Other than the first lap where we went the wrong way, I was circulating in just under 25 minutes. I stopped briefly in the pits after lap 4 to swap water bottles. A lap or two after this Anna was there again to check that all was OK. I said it was but that I could do with a coffee. Sure enough, next time around Anna was there in the pits with a nice mug of hot coffee for me. It was a little too hot so I had a few sips and left the rest there for the next time around.
Off I went once more through the forests, up and over the dunes, into the raging headwind along the beach and back through the soft sand and slippery mud. Another quick pit stop for coffee and off again into the sunset and the fading light.
All the while the tide was coming in. At some point in the late afternoon the tide was deemed too high to ride along the beach so instead we had a rollercoaster ride through the dunes parallel to the beach. There was still a steep section that require a jump off the bike and a push / carry and there were a few bends with loose sand on this new section but it was nice for a change and quite a relief not to have to ride into the headwind of the exposed beach.
Gradually the light faded so into the pits I went to put on my rucksack containing my light battery and to fix my light to my helmet. Yet again I headed off into the gloom as night fell. By now I’d lost track of how many laps I’d done but as darkness enveloped us the course once again felt different keeping the interest levels up. There was no problem riding at night of course with decent lights and I’m quite used to it. It just adds to the fun. Mind you, I thought my lights were quite good, but having seen some of the shots from my Go Pro at night I’m beginning to think that maybe they need upgrading. The clip below illustrates quite clearly how bright other peoples lights are compared to mine!
As the finish time of 8pm came ever closer it was time to start calculating how many laps I could get in. I was still going around at somewhere in the 23 minute range but it was difficult to tell as there had been a few stops in the pits. This wasn’t helped by the fact that my watch was set to auto-pause and was therefore stopping when I was in the pits and also on some of the really slow sections. As I came around to finish what I thought was to be my last lap I asked Anna how long I had left. 20 minutes was the answer. I’d been pacing myself well, so maybe, just maybe I could pick it up for a lap and put in one last fast one. I may as well give it a go so of I went with just a little bit more effort for one more lap.
As it turned out I didn’t quite make it. The extra bit of effort on the last lap was balanced out by the increasing fatigue and the darkness and it ended up being about the same time as most of my other laps so I crossed the line 3 minutes after the 8pm cut off. The final lap hadn’t counted, but at least I got my money’s worth and rode right to the end. Of course, if we hadn’t gone off course for 15-20 minutes on the first lap I would have easily have made that last lap. Maybe the organisers will take that into account when the results are released?
And with that, it was all over. Anna already had my trug from the pits and a delicious mug of hot chocolate for me so we just headed off back to the tent. I had a shower and then we sat there under the tent awning eating dinner and chilling in what was now a lovely evening. It was getting chilly though so we soon retired into the tent and into our sleeping bags for a night recovering ready for a cyclo-cross race the next day.
All in all, a brilliant race with an excellent course. I loved every part of it on every lap and had a great time. I think Anna quite enjoyed it too and managed to have a relaxing day in between making sure I was well looked after. I’d survived it, and so had my bike. Although it does need a very good clean, the headset needs tightening and the drive-chain will need some TLC after riding through sand for close to 60 miles!