The Highland Fling has, over the past 13 years, become a staple and a classic event on the Australian MTB calendar. The 120km jaunt through the singletrack, forestry roads and farm tracks of NSW’s Southern Highlands has attracted tens of thousands of competitors from around the country and the globe over its existence. Due to a changing landscape of the Australian MTB event industry the promotion company behind ‘the Fling’ announced earlier in 2017 that this year’s edition would be the last running of the Highland Fling.
1200 mountain bikers from across Australia converged on the small highland Hamlet of Bundanoon over the weekend to bid farewell to not only a classic but arguably the most difficult XCM race on the Australian calendar.
Many of the big names of the Australian mountain bike scene have enjoyed success in this event including Andy Blair, Shaun Lewis, Dylan Cooper, Ben Mather, Peta Mullens, Jason English and Australia’s most successful XCM racer Brendan ‘Trekky’ Johnston. The event has always offered a generous cash prize pool, this year in discussion with the elite field Wild Horizon’s made the decision that the $10 000 prize money allocation would for the final Fling be donated to the Save the Children charity organisation. So it was pride and honour on the line for the elite field.
Lining up to duke it out in the men’s field was defending champion, current and 3x national champion Brendan Johnston. Challenging the man of the moment was notable former winner and national champion Andy Blair, Australian representative at this year’s XCM world championship Michael England and former winner of the Epic in Queensland James Downing. Early on the split in the field occurred with what would become the 3 protagonists Andy Blair, Brendan Johnston and Michael England. By the end of the first long section of singletrack in the Wingello forest Blair (who has competed in every single one of the 13 Flings) made his move in an attempt to stamp his authority on the day, opening up a gap of 15 seconds on the chasing Johnston and England. Johnston however closed the gap on the long climb at the 61km mark and then continued his push, proving why he is the most decorated XCM racer this country has ever produced. By the final feed zone Brendan had put 4 minutes into Blair which he continued to extend, until winning by 4 minutes 10 seconds to a satisfied Andy Blair in 2nd. Johnston said it was a “very brutal day” in the Southern Highlands, but was pleased to take the final spot on the honour roll. Johnston commented that he was “stoked to play a part in the history of this great event”. Michael England arrived in 3rd proving his trip from Gladstone, Queensland was worthwhile. That capped off a successful year for the former road professional England, who finished on the podium in national XCM series, and rode a consistently all year including a credible ride at the world championship in Germany.
Masters National XCM champion Meaghan Stanton was the first female across the line, proving her strength, stamina and experience was enough to take home the spoils. In the non elite it was perennial hardman, local and former holder of the Perth-Sydney cycle record time Richard Vollebregt who proved strongest. Member of the Australian U23 XCO team Luke Brame took home the victory in the ‘half fling’ 60km event ahead of U19 rider and World XCO Championship top 10 finisher Matthew Dinham. Full results available here.
As well as a world-class level of trail and competition, this event has offered an opportunity for the Australian bike industry to get involved at a grass roots, personal level with their customers. Many brands have been involved with the Fling over the years including Vaude, Camelbak, GU, Shimano and FOCUS. This year Maxxis tyre’s from BikeCorp provided support to riders with mid race chain lubing and prize packs for every finisher.
This was my fourth attempt at this iconic race. Each time I have been completely obliterated by the course, but there is something about this event that get’s you very excited and often leads to burning too many matches in the opening 30-40km. Yesterday was no different for me, after feeling good riding with James Downing in 4th position the wheels came off my race with a flat, a broken spoke and then seeing some very, very dark departments of my capability during my attempt to chase back. I subsequently exploded into smithereens as I have on each previous attempt and struggled along the closing sectors of this race questioning my sport choices in life and why I put myself through so much pain on a sunny Sunday. Such is the masochistic appeal of XCM racing, and already 24hours later I am so glad I pushed on through to the finish.
This race encourages and demands you to ‘leave it all out there’, not many competitors will be very functional at their day jobs today… at least not if they raced this race as it is set up to be raced. It will be sad to see this event missing from the domestic calendar in the years to come. It has been a premier race and really encourages each athlete to give their absolute best, which leaves one with an odd feeling somewhere between satisfaction and complete exhaustion, but I would not want it any other way. This style of racing has been the beating heart of the development of our sport – encouraging the athlete to give their absolute best for the purpose of the sport and of competition. It is HARD but oh so good. MarathonMTB wishes all the best to Huw and the team at Wild Horizons for the future pursuits and will miss attending the Fling.