It is a promising spring morning on the Highlands, and the early morning light is gathering around the edges of the horizon. Birds sing lightly in anticipation of the jocund day.
In the midst of this serenity resonates a single clear dulcet tone, stirring the heart of every red-blooded (and likely haired) Scotsman – the bagpipes.
It was an appropriate beginning for a race set to a musical theme: the 2016 Highland Fling, this year a Wild Fling.
While Googling “wild fling” may lead to grand hopes of the sort of debauchery and depravity so publicly exposed with the Ashley Madison scandal, the age of middle-aged men abandoning their families to pursue silly bike races appears to be drawing to a close. However, as the tag line went, a good Wild Fling could certainly make the heart sing.
The Highland Fling is held between Bundanoon and Wingello, and combines a variety of events on the Saturday and the Sunday, including a frantic 6km “dash” with a fantastic hill-top finish, the immortal Roll-off World Championships, a trail running race around Bundanoon, with the town shutting down and gathering around the event. With the whole race camping out on the grounds of the Pony Club, it somehow captures a spirit and camaraderie of adventure.
The race itself includes multiple options: the 60km Half Fling, the 110km Full Fling (indubitably the main event), and the 100 mile Fling, for those a little more sadistic. I’ve come to love the miler – the race is epic and grand on a whole obscene scale, and I’ve enjoyed many a great battle and imploded on numerous occasions around the track.
Lining up once more the 100 miler, I had mixed feelings. After an amazing 24hr (to toot my on trumpet), I seem to have struggled just to stay healthy with flus continually relapsing. On such occasions, sometimes one is just happy to be on the start line of the race, and able to enjoy a day out in the sun.
The race began with a jovial roll-out behind Huw Kingston pedaling the beer trike. The first pace soon came from Martin Wisata, doing the Euro thing. There are two things I’ve discovered about Euro cyclists: a) they love getting naked and b) they love smashing a good flat fire-road. Fortunately this occasion was more about b) than about a), and we were soon off and bashing through the paddocks.
From the sickness, I really had no idea how my general fitness and form would be tracking. Over the course of the first 10km, I began to test it gently on the hills. Not well, soon came back the answer, and I caught myself clinging to the coat-tails of a group of Full Flingers and counting down the kms to the transition.
Barrelling across the fire-roads of Penrose State Forest, we were soon heading into the farms at the back of Wingello. Here, we ran into the rougher paddocks, and my elastic began to stretch a little. I’d been concerned that, while distance would be doable, intensity would be akin to setting the “implode” button on my respiratory system, and was struggling to go into the red.
Eventually, we rolled around into transition with a good little group, and enjoyed the advantages that come from a neutral transition. Already, the day’s wind was picking up, and the sun was driving hard, demanding good hydration.
You Make My Heart Sing
Heading out of transition and into Wingello State Forest, the pace ramped up again, and we swapped turns on the fire-roads. Soon, we were diving into the gorgeous, flowing singletrack of Wingello, with soft trails carved with delightful, loving flow in the native forest. It was truly an environment to make the heart sing beneath an increasingly painful scream of ITB friction from my right knee.
Bombing through the early trails, we were soon up for one of the memorable features of the Fling – the great Wall, a 20% brute that sneaks up around a blind corner. Scrambling up in our smallest gears, hearts were soon singing in a different way. Stinging legs were soon appeased by the appearance of more flowing singletrack, and we headed through the impressive Wingello trail network, the flow of Tangles, and out towards the hills, with a rude blast of headwind to greet us.
Heading through the aid transition, I’d committed mentally to refilling my major bottle, with the aim of keeping hydration levels at a conservative high with unsually high demand post-flu. After years of racing, I’ve finally when to sacrifice 20-30 seconds on such occasions in order to save minutes down the road – conservatism trumps the necessity of the moment.
You Bent my Chainring
Chasing back on to the group, I possibly went a little bit red on the subsequent climb. As Cam Ivory and Trekky came flying past on an epic race in the Full Fling, our group scrambled to make the junction and take a ride for a bit. Struggling with the intensity, I failed to bridge and was left watching on Halfway Hill. As the immortal tester over the years, Halfway Hill has been both a friend and a foe. In this instance, it led to some slow and grovelling suffering in my smallest gear. With a hefty blast of headwind, the powdery steeps of the Kick soon followed.
Many a Flinger has previously made the mistake of getting through Halfway Hill and the Kick and thinking they are mostly back to Wingello. This mistake can be extraordinarily costly, and ploughing into the wind in a small group with Dan McNamara and Jason Chalker, we were all soon struggling a bit on the rough climbs through Outer Limits and the Wild West through drier, scrubby bush.
Opening up on to the wild, open fire-roads of Lawyers Lament, the chase group of the Full Fling caught us. Playing silly buggers with each other, their pace consisted of violent surges and lapses. With the wind now functioning as an epic tail wind and my concentration a little shot, I soon tailed off the back, and found myself plodding into Wingello on my own, with the prospect of a second loop.
I think I love you baby…. but I wanna know for sure
Heading out for a second loop of the long Shimano stage is always an exercise in commitment. There is no pairing up with other riders and hiding from the wind – you are truly on your own for a long time in the bush. Hills that hurt the first time become leg amputation in repetition. Negative-splitting the second lap is almost mythical, and hasn’t been done in long time.
In having said that, it’s also an opportunity to dig deep into the riding love. To find the flow on the trails, enjoy the sunshine of the day, and find your own rhythm. To test the riding love, and find something happy on the other side. Riding on ploddy, chuggy, intrinsic motivation, I realised I certainly wasn’t fast, but didn’t seem to mind too much – finding flow in the corners, eating and drinking to a set regime, and enjoying the fact that my body hadn’t actually fallen apart in a hilarious episode.
I started to tick the harder sections off: the Wall, Halfway Hill, the Kick, all past by mildly enough, and I even felt better the second time through on the climbs.
You Brought Your Headwind
Heading into the open forests the second time through, the wind was vicious. Cowering into the depths of my stem, I plodded on, slowly passing the back-markers and attempting to yell encouragement over the cacophonous trumpeting howl. Eventually, plodding on perilously, I reached the open road with the tailwind. Violent turbulence transitioned to the growling grumble of grippy tyres over loose dirt and I chugged back into Wingello.
You Make Everything Groovy, Wild Thing
With a transition behind me, a belly full of food, and a chain re-lubed with Squirty goodness, I was soon trundling off onto the final leg. With a very restricted and the realisation of the actual speed of the previous long leg, I was now focused purely on bringing the race together and home in the least messy way possible.
The final 30km of the Highland Fling starts innocuously enough, with a flat fire-road blast, a scoot down across the river, and some great singletrack leading back into the pine forest. A second wade through Free Bike Wash (and oh, the cold water is bliss on a blown knee) and the end truly feels nigh. However, such easy finishes wouldn’t be fitting for the Fling, and the last 15km is genuinely tough.
Heading into the singletrack of Boundary Rider and Rollercoaster, I now know much more what to expect – with a series of violent punches and pinches carved into the hillside next to the creek, slowly wending up the hill. Forcing off cramps and trying to shift gently on the tired bikes, these trails feel like a test in restraint, patience and planning. My strategy was to avoid the Garmin, forget the distance and time, and enjoy the punchy trails in their own right. Swooping around and across the gullies, I was soon across the creek and climbing the slopes of Brokeback mountain to the accompaniment of a howling westerly.
If you sing into a howling wind, at least no-one will have to hear it. With this in mind, I was soon belting out A Candle in the Wind, but without the delicate respect or snipes that made its use so famous. Now laying into the caffeine gels, I was definitely feeling the groove.
Bouncing my way through Baker’s Delight, I hit the final fire-road stretch towards Your Call and the Finish. The realisation that caffeine overdose may have done funny things to my body soon eventuated and the final climbs passed in a bizarre state of pumped-up weakness with a pounding heart and busted legs. Perhaps, indeed, my heart was singing, after nearly 8 hours, 160km, and en epic day out on the bike.
There are a few people I’d like to thank for helping with my Wild Fling:
- Phil for the emergency last-minute brake replacement
- A race sponsor – Maxxis tyres – I’ve had no racing flats all year and I can’t think of better tyres to run for a happy balance of grip, weight, and reliability
- Onya for keeping the XTC 650 hammering away
- Wild Horizons, the amazing volunteers, and the Bundanoon community, for putting on an amazing weekend out in the bush
- A big congrats to Max for smashing to 2nd place on the SS – stomping ride!
And while I’m sure racing sick will bite my severely this week, I’m happy to have had a Wild Fling!