Photos by Zoe Binder and Richie Tyler
The Australian marathon mountain bike calendar has swollen to bursting point, and not every event cuts it. But the Highland Fling has always been amongst the biggest and the best in the country. Rolling into Bundanoon yesterday afternoon, it was easy to be reminded why. Racers and their families and friends were milling around the small town in the Southern Highlands, enjoying a late lunch at the cafes, or grabbing a coffee, picking up a deal from one of the event sponsors stores, or just people watching and hefting other riders bikes, offering complimentary noises or comments. The Fling isn’t just a race – it’s a social gathering.
But the Fling isn’t just one, race, it’s actually a whole weekend of racing, with the Bundanoon Dash and Roloff Champs on Saturday. But while the Dash is an excellent place for the sport’s elite to strut their stuff in front of a large crowd, and the Roloff Champs are some fun and games – Sunday’s event is the true drawcard.
The Full Fling
The numbers in full distance races is often waning. And the Highland Fling is the same. It’s hard. It’s long. At times it can be quite rough, and on days like today, it can be quite windy. As with many challenging events – they can be quite a challenge to complete.
And for some people, they’ve realised that’s not what mountain biking is for them. They’d prefer a little less time suffering, and a bit more time sipping an ale in the sun post-race re-living the moment of abject fear when they nearly overshot a corner in the race, but knew deep down that they ‘had it’.
And that’s fine. The Highland Fling has a Full Fling race, a Half Fling, a Some Fling, and of course a 100 Mile Fling for those who need to feel more pain to really scratch that itch.
In my mind, the Fling is about the Full Fling and the Elite field – despite the Half Fling be overwhelmingly the most popular category.
This year’s race had a great line up. Not the strongest ever, but not lacking in quality either, with two current National XCM Champions in the field, plus a couple more past National XCM Champions, and some other very talented cyclists. Still, there would always be a few stand outs who would vie for the win, as Andrew Blair explained earlier this week.
Jumping in to the deep end of the Highland Fling
I have only ridden the Highland Fling in the Cyclocross class in 2009, and in the 100 Mile in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014 (although I didn’t finish that one). I’ve never done the Elite Fling. I’m not a true elite rider, mostly there or there abouts. And the Fling is hard, which is ok, but just too hard for me in Elite. I preferred a category with less stress – even if it meant riding on something not meant for mountain biking (a cyclocross bike) or doing 100 miles. But this year, with less training than ever, I opted for the Elite Fling, with Imogen Smith also joining in for Elite Women. She’s got a whole lot more training under her belt though.
To my surprise, the start was very civil, for at least a kilometre, until Andy Blair headed off, with Marc Williams giving chase, then Peta Mullens lifting the tempo… and then about everyone else. Soon enough the field had split, mostly in to men’s and women’s elite fields. Which is a good outcome.
Except for me. It meant I was at the back floating around, with Declan von Dietze and James Downing. After a couple of kilometres, we were a solo trio off the back of the elite field, until we saw Blair stopped with a ‘material problem’ on the side of the course. He’d back soon enough.
Declan has a broken vertebrae so soon was distanced, and JD and I rolled into transtion at Wingello Oval, where super feeders and photographers Zoe Binder and Richie Tyler went into overdrive.
Much of the front group had been together, with Johnston and Ivory sitting neatly in the bunch, as two of the likely winners. Peta Mullens came through later as the leading woman, with Imogen in 4th, grabbing a Camelbak for the next long stage of the race.
With 5 minutes to kill use to get across the train tracks, I rode out with Declan. No one was close up the road, so company would be better, right?
For the most part, it was good. Except I was suffering. Declan was bombing, and while it was fun, I knew it wouldn’t be fun for that long.
And it wasn’t. About 45-50km in I was toast. I probably hadn’t eaten enough, but kilometres in the legs, and pressure through the pedals in the past 6 months just haven’t been adequate. My mind wandered, my head hurt, and my bike handling went from questionable to ‘give a wide berth’.
Mountain biking is an awesome sport, but for about 20km out there it was the last thing I wanted to do again. Outer Limits was apt, I was certainly at the outer limits as I got there. This punishment was something I wouldn’t wish on anyone!
On the plus side, earlier than this I did ride a section of trial with my cousin Meaghan, and saw Peta Mullens, then Briony Mattocks, then Lucy Bechtel come through in the women’s race.
Somehow I made it back to Wingello, to our awesome support crew, and soon enough Imogen came in, too cooked from a PhD submission to devote herself to a bike race. We jumped into the Subaru Levorg, which coincidentally is ‘grovel’ backwards. It seems apt.
We made it back just after the men’s finish, where Brendan Johnston had won about his 100th major race for the year, about 3 minutes ahead of Cam Ivory. Michael Potter took 3rd place ahead of Jason English – not bad on his longest ever mountain bike ride or race.
I caught up with Cam Ivory on the finish line, who’s had a super run of form in his off-season, with 2nd at the Noosa crit, and a big win at the Wollongong crit the past weekend. But I wasn’t sure how many Flings he had in his legs.
“This is my 4th or 5th full fling. I used to do some of the halfs when I was younger. Now I’m older I can handle the longer kays.”
I saw little of the race, but it had appeared the front group was together to Wingello. Cam confirmed as much.
“Most of us were together until the first transition. But then Shaun Lewis and Reece Tucknott had a small gap, probably not even a minute. We were happy to let them sit out there – at least the Specialized and the Trek boys were. It was good for Brendan Johnston and I. We sat in the bunch and waited for the singletrack.”
While it was a good elite men’s field, there was still plenty of differences in the calibre of riders. The cream was due to come to the top.
“Trekky made a move and we managed to make a gap from the rest of the field. Coming into Halfway Hill, I was digging deep to hold him up there, and he got me on The Kick just after the climb. I just couldn’t hold him.”
He had just over 2 minutes on me at the final transition, and then he took another minute out of me on the last section.
“I was trying to dig deep to catch him, but look over my shoulder to make sure the bunch wasn’t going to catch me. It was such a tough day, it was so windy this year, so not having anybody to work with or sit on for that last 60km was pretty tough.”
After a little while, and plenty of Full and Half Fling finishers, Peta Mullens was making her way into Bundanoon. As the buzz died down, I asked her about her past few weeks. We had both been racing at Cape to Cape, where she was just back on the bike after a break.
“I felt pretty sluggish after Cape to Cape and got sick again. I went on antibiotics and actually had a pretty big week on the bike this week and managed to fit a bit of motor pacing in, and felt alright. I wasn’t climbing that well today but just tried to use my power on the flatter sections and just ride up the climbs per se, as I know it’s always a really long day out there.”
I’d heard the gap went after the first creek crossing, and Mullens confirmed it, really it just happened, and three of the women were at the front together.
“We sort of toyed with each other and Briony went of the front by 50m, and I went hot through a corner to catch her and Lucy came across, and we all rode together for a bit. Lucy was playing the “I just want to get a break on the rest of the girls before the singletrack” card, but we all had intentions of riding together for a little bit. Our strengths and weaknesses are all so different that it didn’t work out that way. We broke up on a rocky fire road descent only half an hour in.”
“When I went I thought ‘what am I doing?’, I really wasn’t confident for staying away the whole day. I was looking over my shoulder the whole day as Lucy just motors along, I probably went a bit easier in the singletrack to recover and even then would have put time in her just because she hasn’t done much mountain biking. So it was a bit of an advantage for me.”
Peta has mixed road and mountain biking for many years with great success – but with Lucy Bechtel and Em Viotto moving to dirt, I had to ask – is this the new path way?
“There are a lot of female roadies coming across, and the environment in Canberra really allows for that – I think it’s great.” Mullens also explained how well mountain biking complements a road season, especially with events like the Fling being well-placed for a build for Road National Championships – her next major goal in January.
Briony Mattocks took an excellent 2nd place, with Lucy Bechtel in 3rd.
The wash up
Well there wasn’t even any washing. I saw my cousin Meaghan finish as the fastest non-elite woman (although she might have been about 4th or 5th in elite if she had entered that category), we piled our gear into the Levorg and made a bee line to… Bernie’s in Moss Vale, for burgers (or more burgers, as I still used my included burger voucher on my number plate, even though I didn’t finish), chips, and chat. Cruising home, we all relished the approach of summer, a chance for long training rides, shorter races, and some time to build towards 2017.
Will I race the Highland Fling again? Yes, no doubt. Is it long and hard – yes. Is that ok? Yes, that’s ok. Will I race the Elite Fling again… only if I make a proper effort to train, and not be so worn out by November, which has been the pattern of the past 3 years.
The Highland Fling is a premier event in Australia, and visiting again after a year away was a great reminder of that. If you haven’t been for a while, come next year. But if you’re not fit, do the distance that suits!