I am sure Bundanoon was a popular search location for all the weather websites last week and despite checking at least 4, they were all in agreement: The 8th running of the CamelBak Highland Fling was going to be a wet one and possibly for the first time in the events history?
Saturday’s events escaped the change in climatic conditions, all taking place under a warm and sunny sky. It wasn’t until the night that the clouds rolled in, temperature dropped and rain started to fall. As dawn sprung and riders were waking up you could be mistaken for being in the UK, which as a visitor to Australia would probably suit me quite well. It was rather disappointing to see riders who had made the effort to enter and travel only to pack up and go home before even riding a single kilometre. Riding in a bit of rain won’t kill you or your bike, contrary to what many might believe. I should emphasis the “bit of rain” as it was nothing more than drizzle and certainly not the “epic conditions” that some people have suggested and temperatures were hovering around 10 degrees, which is by no means baltic and needs an extra layer at most to stay comfortable.
At 7:20am the non-elite full fling and 100 mile fling got underway and it wasn’t long before the pace was red hot with Andy Hall and Ed McDonald mixing it up with the fastest full flingers. 100 miles or 160km is a long way and I thought and hoped they had started too fast. With a haze of constant drizzle falling I found it curious that so many were choosing to walk through a perfectly rideable creek crossing. If the bike is already wet and your feet are getting wet anyway, why not ride? The fast start had strung the field out and times on the “Ground Effect” stage for the front bunch was actually faster than the Elite Fling, which got under way at 8:05. A whole host of big names ready to battle it out in what must be the most prestigious marathon event in Australia.
The “Shimano stage” proved to be a fun and challenging loop with the Wingello singletrack holding up very well in the conditions, the sandy surface draining water instantly leaving a surface with grip to spare. “The Wall” lived up to its name, bringing many riders onto their feet and left Ed McDonald’s chain snapped in half. A swift repair and fast restart left him trailing Andy Hall but with 110km remaining at least he had plenty of time to close the gap!
The second half the Shimano stage wasn’t as much fun as the first but still proved to be a challenge with plenty of climbing to weaken the legs. In hindsight it was nice to be riding with other riders, with the end of the Shimano stage also came the split for the Full and 100 milers. Having to take that right hand turn knowing I had another 52km of tough and undulating terrain with just myself for company was not much fun, but as a 24hr racer at least I am used to my own company and I am sure that Ed and Andy up the road felt much the same.
At some point during that second lap the Elite fling was coming to a close and with any number of riders capable of winning it was all to play for. An early attack from Mark Tupalski saw him alone for much of the race with a group chasing behind, led by Andy Blair and Brendan Johnson. A decisive moment in the race came at the level crossing leading on the “GU stage” where Andy Blair left a little before the gates had lifted and later incurred a 30 second penalty. Still riding with Brendan Johnston the pair closed the gap on Mark Tupalski and despite Andy crossing the line first, it was Brendon Johnston who took the win with Andy 2nd and Cameron Ivory taking 3rd spot. In the womens race it was Peta Mullens who dominated, taking the win with an impressive time of 5hrs 5min.
With the Elite fling already wrapped up us 100 milers were still battling it out and after a lonely 2nd lap of the Shimano stage it was time to start the “GU stage”, which I really should have done some homework on. It turns out that this is by no means an easy ride to the finish as I was expecting, the final 30k or so was a never ending squiggle of singletrack with some horrible grassy climbs thrown in. It was during this stage, after 150km of riding that Ed McDonald closed the gap on Andy Hall. With neither rider knowing how long each other spent in transition it was all to play for and spectators at the finish line had a second sprint finish to enjoy, the pair had a fair wait to find out who the victor would be. 17 minutes after the lead duo I crossed the line to take the final podium spot after being soundly beaten on each section of the race by the lead two. The 100 mile winner was finally crowed at the prize ceremony with Andy Hall beating Ed by the narrowest or margins. There was only one woman brave enough to take on the 100 mile race, a great performance from Charlie McCabe saw her finish in a time 9hrs 30min. While the 5 minute stops are perhaps the only solution to the issue of the level crossing it does make for a strange finish as the first across the line is not always the winner, which was the case for both major male categories today with tactics and luck both playing a part.
My experience at the CamelBak Highland Fling was a very enjoyable one and the 100 mile race can certainly be placed as one of the toughest single day events that I have done, a fact backed up by the fact that 1/3 of the 100 milers did not finish! Superb organisation with great attention to detail and a fun, friendly atmosphere give me a clear understanding of why this event has become so popular with racers and riders alike.