In the gentle glow of a pre-twilight November morning, not a soul stirred across the tent city of the Bundanoon pony club. Condensation insinuated its way through nylon and canvas, as riders dreamed of flowing singletrack (or, in this case, smashed around in subconscious anxiety with the prospect of the race ahead).
Juxtaposed against the backdrop of this tranquil scene, there came the sonorous resonance of bagpipes invoking the tunes of Scotland the Brave. The heart stirred with all the melodrama of Mel Gibson pretending to be Scottish, with the spirit of bloody-minded Scottish mongrel on the riders.
It could be nothing else but the Highland Fling.
The Highland Fling has become a hallmark event on the Australian mountain bike calendar. With 60, 110km and 165km options, a Saturday night dash race, a fantastic “vibe” and sense of community, and supported by a mountain bike club whose passion is imbued into every aspect of the delivery – the Fling delivers an awesome (if painful) mountain biking experience.
The 110km is the main event. It attracts a stacked field, and some stunning racing. I was fortunate enough to witness some of this as it went by. The 60km is a speciality for the shorter distance racers, and a few loonies raise their hands for the 100 mile option.
The Fling has been an eventful race for me. In 2012 – despite my own best efforts of taking wrong turns – I had a great race and a solid win, only to be accused of cheating shortly thereafter in an allegation so absurd it was, appropriately, tabled on an internet forum. In 2013, I was spared e-drama but given real drama, snapping a chain then coming down to a sprint finish with a flying Andrew Hall. Andrew and I would be lining up against each again in 2014. He’d just returned from a storming performance at the Croc Trophy, and would either be flying fit, or barry buckled.
While this Fling was sadly lacking in an inappropriately clad event director Huw Kingston, it promised many things in abundance. The course had been modified to incorporate more climbing, a little more singletrack, and was generally significantly longer, slower and less road-race-ish than previous years.
Starting with a BANG
Like all good races, it began with a BANG, and riders streamed out across the fields of Bundanoon. I soon found myself on the front and decided my token effort of pulling a turn would best be dispensed with early. Mike Blewitt soon came around to the front with a much better turn, which soon had some elastic stretching. On the first hill, Andy’s first probing move soon came. Flying fit, I soon realised, watching what I’m reliably informed are now referred to as watt bombs being dropped on an unsuspecting field.
The pace was never too frenetic, but soon, the open/master’s full flingers and 100 milers had been wittled down to a small group. Rolling some turns with Andy, I soon realised his intention was mainly to drop all of them before hitting Wingello. However, the terrain this year seemed a little tougher in the first leg, with significantly more climbing, and we mellowed the pace a little for the roll into Wingello through rolling forest hills, the occasional creek crossing, and even a glorious paddock bash or two.
Already, the day was heating up: hydration strategy would be crucial. Accordingly, I was racing a hardtail with capacity for two bottles – a little rocketship 650B XTC, with a disturbing willingness to go up hills. Coming through Wingello, it was time to grab multiple bottles, and get ready for the long Shimano stage, featuring the bigger climbs and longer singletrack sections.
This beginning of this section was markedly different to previous years, with slower, pinchier, tighter riding. On the pinching climbs, I decided it was time to test the waters a little, and wandered off the front a little. Andy was riding well though, and I knew testing him would be tough. This soon led to the first singletrack sections, and I eagerly leapt in to enjoy some trails. I reached the end and noticed my main water bottle was sadly absent. This immediately presented a massive issue, as I’d have to slog to the water station on a single, smaller bottle.
However, Lady Luck had other things in mind for me. As little as you’d ever wish a mechanical on any rider, Andy’s chain dropped heading up the precipitous Wall, which allowed me the merit of a small gap into the singletrack. With 120km still to race, it was a risky proposition to try to capitalise at this point – but that decision had to be made.
Pushing on, the singletrack soon shot by in a blur of green leaves, forest undergrowth, and pinchy climbs. The aid station eventually rolled around and I sculled some fluids and rapidly refuelled, already sensing the danger. The aid station also promised the start of the real hills. On Halfway Hill and the Kick, I felt the first signs that things were going rather wrong and my body’s electrolyte balance was completely shot. Mentally, this was a picture of implosion: with my body showing weakness, my mind capitulated with the melodramatic absurdity of the French army. Suffering, I though – this is pure suffering.
With my head slipping out of the game, I soon lost the wheel of a charging Minter Barnard and went through a terrible time on the rougher terrain of Outer Limits and the Wild West. The climbs seemed endless, the rhythm was gone, and my hamstrings were beginning to lock and cramp at any sign of a hill. I put my head down and pedalled – this was the only solution in any case.
Heading back on the open, windswept roads of Lawyer’s Lament, I soon saw the leading 110km riders coming up behind me in the form of Mark Tupalski and Brendan Johnston. Mentally, it was inspiring to watch the pace and control they were riding with, so I hopped on the train for a while and even pulled an extremely short token turn of pace-setting. This didn’t last long and I soon fell back and grovelled into Wingello.
This is how the worlds ends – not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Coming into Wingello, it was an ideal opportunity to take on as much fluid as humanly possible, and restructure my race. The absurdity of it was not lost on me : off the front with a good margin, and yet scrambling to have my body in a condition to make the remainder of the race. I knew this would comprise two components: the physical and the mental.
The physical was a game of patience: do everything right, drink, drink some more, keep drinking, and slowly bring the electrolytes back. To accommodate the cramp-happy legs, I backed off the pace to the tempo best described by the inglorious state of chug. Ah yes, to chug – to roll along without thought of speed, focussed only on rhythm and sustainability. Drinking steadily and selecting easy spinning gears, I looked to the long game: with hours left to race, there was time to turn it back around.
Of course, this fluid consumption brought its own challenges, with bloating and stomach cramps soon following. Forcing myself to eat, I knew that it would pass soon enough and things would eventually improve. The head game was a little more deft however, as I went reaching into the good ole’ fashioned bag’o’tricks.
Such beautiful singletrack! thought I, taking the time to be mesmerised by the flow of the turn and the feel of tyres drifting and biting through the divine dirt. Immersed in magnificent landscape! as the ferns shrouded the trails beneath towering gums, with views to the expanses of Morton National Park occasionally peeking over the rise. You could be at work right now…. I reminded myself while grovelling up a climb. This soon led to another realisation: it’s madness. Go with it. This is the best part of living.
Embracing a bizarre form of serene lunacy within, I found the appropriate headspace for chugging along, enjoying the challenge ahead of me and the slow realisation I was digging my way back out of the hole. Focussing on rhythm, sustainability, and just how awesome it was to be riding a bike completely blown, I found my path soon wending its way back on the road to Wingello. With just thirty kms to go, it was time to let a little adrenaline slip into the thoughts, and relish the remainder with the sort of loony grin best internalised and never blogged about.
The transition came and went in a blur of drinks, bananas, and a couple of gels. Barrelling out into the headwind once more, I calmed a little and focussed on the task ahead. I knew Andy couldn’t be far back, and the distance was still sufficient to warrant sensible, sustainable pacing and solid hydration. With this mind, I set my tempo to Chug Plus and focussed on finding rhythm. I relished the climbs and cherished the descents, bombed through the creeks and tried to have a jolly old chat with everyone I saw – the Fling was delivering the awesomeness all over again. Challenges, and redemption and bike.
This mental state was soon disturbed by the depressing realisation I’d lost another full bottle, soon confounded by the realisation the race would actually be closer to 170km. Through the punching singletrack of Boundary Rider and Rollercoaster I tried to stay smooth, consistent, and look after my bike. Brokeback Mountain soon passed without much trouble, and I found myself on the road to the finish. It was time to push on, and enjoy the remaining distance, the final rockgardens of your call, and bombing down through the paddocks to the line.
I ended up only a few minutes ahead of Andy, who came home strong and fresh, with Mr Sam Moffit performing a masterful ride for third and even donning a kilt for the podium. After a tough day, it was surprising to cross the line oddly fresh and chipper – and I supposed that the cramping had limited the possibilities to absolutely bury myself on the course. And, as a plus, I’d finished without any snapped chains, and (hopefully) no crazy allegations of cheating!
And thus, this blog ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper.
There are, however, a few people I need to thank:
- Onya Bike Canberra – when my hardtail didn’t turn up in time, I was offered a fantastic loaner for the race in the form of an Giant XTC 27.5 Advanced. It was splendid and performed immaculately.
- Hammer Nutrition – once I used the stuff properly, everything worked remarkably well 😉
- Wild Horizons for hosting an excellent event. A huge thank you to to the numerous volunteers, marshals and SES out on course – a superb job and performed with great pride.
Riding bikes is fun!