Racing the Highland Fling

By Tim Robson 1 May 2013
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The Briars Highland Fling is a mountain bike marathon with a relaxed reputation. Tim Robson gives a run-down on the 2012 event.

THOSE WHO DISMISS the Briars Highland Fling as “just a fire-road mountain race” are selling the eight-year-old event short.

The Fling winds around the NSW Southern Highlands town of Bundanoon – the first town in Australia, and possibly the world, to ban the retail sales of bottled water – and through the famed forests of Wingello.

Preparing for the Higland Fling

The race is available in three flavours of pain, depending upon your constitution. With long stints across open fields and double track winding over ridge lines, it also features several very technical interruptions and a heart-rending row of short, steep pinches that reward the skilled as well as the strong.

The Fling has a well-deserved reputation as one of the more relaxed races on the calendar. Occasionally too relaxed.

For the second year in a row, having to queue up for more than 30 minutes to sign on for race entry on the afternoon prior is again a common story, despite a wide window of opportunity to register.

The small township of Bundanoon does provide plenty of opportunity for other halves and families to await your post-registration arrival in comfort, though, with top marks for the coffee at Ye Olde Bicycle Shoppe.

I elect to stay out of town in 2012 (tip: book early for accommodation), thereby preparing my bike and food at leisure before setting off for the venue. My smugness instantly evaporates with the realisation 10 minutes into the trip that my food and helmet aren’t in my car.

A hurried start on the Fling

Frantically adjusting my Camelbak and stowing jelly snakes as my rider wave rolls across the start mat, I tag onto a group expected to finish the 55km trek in four hours.

Towards the front, the pace is a little hotter. The likes of Shaun Lewis, Trent Day, Dylan Cooper, Andy Blair and veteran stager Matt Flemming are contesting the 100-odd kilometre stanza, while Jenny Fay, Rebecca Henderson, Jodie Willet, Peta Mullens and Jenni King ensure the women’s race will be run at a similarly manic pace.

A few hardy souls line up for the 100-mile version – hats off to those beautiful lunatics, because 165km at race pace around here is going to hurt. A lot.

On longer races, race-long rivals reveal themselves at about the 10km mark; you’ll pass them on a downhill, only for them to breeze past as you trudge up a climb. Words are seldom exchanged, but all it takes is the odd glance to know you’re in a battle for the day.

I know that the back end of the race doesn’t suit my skill set – I don’t ride up hills where I can avoid it, hence I suck at climbing – so I settle into a nice pace, picking off riders down dale and losing a few uphill.

Riding into trouble

In any long race, riders with mechanical maladies are more frequent than you might imagine, but most are capable of solving the issue, be it a flat tyre or a broken chain. And, as mountain bikers, we always ask the question of stricken compadres: “You right, mate?” At 18km, a guy with a Trek dually replies, “Well, if you’re a mechanic…”

We quickly ascertain that his chain is too rooted to repair, so I help him fit a spare quick-link I have buried in my pack and set off. It’s a 10-minute stop, but that’s what you do. Just after I set off again, though, I feel it – after crouching down to fix the bike, the fronts of my quads are glowing a bit more than they should at this point in the day. Uh oh…

The Fling’s mid-length race, while not sporting any monster grinders, has enough elevation over the day (more than 1000m) to make your legs sit up and take notice. My pace really drops after the 27km rest stop and, worse still, I start to feel hungry. Diving into the bush, Bear Grylls-style hungry…

Getting flung on the Highland Fling

Not long after that, the dirt and I make our acquaintance. I’d rallied through the technical trails to gap a guy who’d been shadowing me for a while, only for him to roll right back past as we tackle the nasty rollers in the Penrose State Forest. Finally, the trail points back down, I settle in for the run…and somehow I’m on my face, cursing loud enough to render native species of wildlife infertile.

The edge of the track, while looking as intact as the rest of the trail, patently isn’t, snatching away my front wheel and dumping me like recycling on a Wednesday night. I wash a nasty hand wound and patch it, pick up my stuff and roll away – only to forget my prescription sunnies. You should have heard the swearing then.

The adrenaline did give me a kick for the line, though, and some five hours after I set off (four hours and three minutes of riding time), I roll across the finish line, crossed-eyed with tiredness, but having managed to keep the cramps at bay the whole way.

My personal goal was three and a half hours riding time and four hours total, so it looks like I’m heading back to the hills in 2013…