Monday, November 12, 2012

Highland Fling – 2012 – The most anticipated race on the XCM Series

Without a doubt the Highland Fling was the most anticipated race in the Real Insurance XCM Series. Apart from being one of the most highly coveted races in its own right, the overall series had a handful of players who had a vested interest in a good result in order to nab a good final points adjustment. With a heavier weighting of the points algorithm for the Fling it was going to be apparent that everyone would bring their ‘A’ game.

As usual when the entrant list was released earlier in the week, much hype was made to the fact that this was arguably the strongest Elite field ever assembled for a single race in Australia. Over 50 top riders had put their name into the hat for the chance to battle it out over the 4 or so hours.

It was impressive to see all of the twittering with the #highlandfling hash tag getting a lot of attention. With over 1500 riders the event itself is definitely one worth being on your calendar.

For me, the Highland Fling is an hour and a half up the road from Canberra. This made for a pretty chilled drive up. First stop was Wingello. Here I did a bit of a recce of the 2nd stage (Shimano Stage). I noticed a couple of changes in the course from last year. I also drove a bit of the other sections of fire road to familiarise myself with some of the sections that I would be faced with the next day.

Arrived (photo Kylie Webb)

At registration it was good to catch up with some familiar faces and talk some crap whilst waiting in line. There was the usual crap talking that goes along with a race like this, as well as the nervous mumblings of form analysis and talk about the course.

Waiting in line at registration

I have now done the Fling twice, and I have to say, the course is tough. Slight understatement for sure if you have done this event. The inclusion of what seems like a hundred kilometres of grass paddock (slight over-exaggeration no doubt) is one that strikes fear into the heart of many a mountain biker brought up on a steady diet of groomed single-track and I dare say, road riding on smooth tarmac!

There is also what seems like an endless supply of hills, be they rolling, steep, up and down. There is probably only a couple that are hard to ride, but they endlessly just keep getting thrown at you. The single-track is really quite varied. You have the slightly sandy twisty Wingello trails, and then the more loamy trails through the back 20km of the race.

In mountain biking, everything is a compromise. At the fling, you need a race weapon that can handle everything that is thrown up at you. A 29er hardtail seemed to be the bike of choice for most of the Elite men. A few were running dual suspension bikes, and I am pretty sure that Dylan Cooper was the only one on a 26er hardtail.

Waiting for a mountain bike race for me is like the feeling I used to have as a kid in the lead up to Xmas. It is full of anticipation, anxiousness, nervousness, excitement and a million other emotions that come into play based on what sort of race is coming up. I seriously could not wait until Sunday morning. Saturday night’s sleep was pretty standard for a mountain bike race. Lie awake for what seems like hours trying to get asleep, trying to get the brain to slow down. Then getting smashed over the head with the alarm at an early time in order to get food and travel to the event centre sorted.

Finally, we were there! After dropping the esky off at Wingello with food, drinks, spare gloves, glasses and other stuff, we were getting the bikes sorted and heading off for a cursory warm up. I rode around with my training partner, Andrew Hall and Kylie Webb just rolling the legs over seeing what they felt like and just opening the pipes a little.

At 7:45am we were corralled into the start chute and the countdown began.... Skip forward 20 minutes, the gun went off, and so did the bunch. I remember actually smelling the gunpowder smell as we left the start line, clearly showing that the senses were pretty switched on today.

The bunch took off with a few little scurries going off the front. My main objective was to just conserve as much energy in the first 5 minutes because like I learnt last year, the first stage was so crucial for positioning. As soon as we rounded the corner into the farm, it was on. It was as if someone gave everyone electric shocks. The pace went from medium red up to maximum red (well at least for me anyway!) – At this stage, it was about burying myself in the place that is known as the box and clinging on for dear life. During this stage, I chewed the stem as hard as I could, and sucked in a lot of dust. A select group of about 12 in the full fling, and 3-4 from the half fling formed and proceeded to tear up the paddocks.

The dynamics of the racing were really interesting. Andy Blair had to pretty much beat Shaun Lewis to take the series title. Blair is pretty bulletproof when it comes to racing. Like most at the pointy end, he has a lot of natural ability and a hell a lot of experience. Lewis is the same; however, the difference at this race was that Lewis also had a lot of teammates helping out. Dylan Cooper and Troy Glennan were in the mix to basically steal points, or tactically change the dynamics of the race.

In the first section Troy was doing the latter and rode off the front and gained a 20 second lead. This forced the other contenders to work, and Cooper and Lewis to ‘sit in’. The other contenders included Adrian Jackson, Ben Mather and Brendan Johnston. Trenton Day had formed an alliance with Andy Blair and tactically was working for him in the middle stages of the race.

After going through the transition zone in a shade over 52 minutes, we were treated to the 5 minute break and I headed straight to the esky. I grabbed two fresh cold bottles and energy gels were stocked up on as we made our way to the other side of the railway tracks (hence the untimed 5 minute grace period) to where the race restarted.

Last year, everyone waited the full 5 minutes and rode off as a group. This year the dynamics were vastly different. Glennan and Jory took about 3:18. Trenton, Johnston, Mather, and Jackson took off after only 3 and a half minutes or so. Cooper, Hughes and I took off after only 4 minutes. Lewis and Blair marked each other so closely that they took 5 minutes and five seconds. The tactics being played out here were going to shape the course of the race for the day.

In the train with Cooper and Hughes we had the front bunch in sight and kept the pace line rolling through in order to keep the pace up at about 40km/hr along the flat prior to the climb up into Wingello. After about 15 minutes of this, I knew that I had better back off as I still had 80km to go! I let those two go and just got into my own rhythm after achieving the first objective --- get to the first transition with the main group.

When Lewis and Blair came along, I jumped on this train, pulled a couple of turns then when we turned right into the pine needle climb, I let them go. Blair took off from Lewis up this hill putting a fair bit of distance into Lewis and myself. At this stage we were starting to hit up the remnants of the earlier starters and as we were coming up to the single-track, traffic management was going to play a bit of a part in the race as well.

The single-track through Wingello is pretty awesome. Ideally you would get your flow on and rail through what seemed like the endless corners, switchbacks, sweepers and occasional rocky sections. The single-track was broken up by fire road sections. In these sections it was an opportunity to eat, drink and burn up the kilometres in a straight line. The flat sections were drilled, the climbs ground out, and the descents done fully tucked in order to just keep the pace as high as possible.

Pretty soon ‘The Wall’ appeared. I knew where this was going to occur after the previous day’s recce so had dumped the gears a fair bit – pretty much going from 40/11 to 27/36 in the transition from down to up. It was pretty awesome to get encouragement from those walking up who had started in the earlier waves that morning. I think the wall is pretty much close to 20% in some parts – it might even be more. It’s pretty tough to say the least!

The next 30 kilometres followed the pattern of up/down fire road and twisty single-track --- repeat. I saw Blair on the side of a fire road after suffering a flat tyre. That would ultimately be a really expensive problem. Half an hour later he came past me riding like a man possessed. He knew he had a truck load of time to make up and was motoring to try and limit his losses.

The number on my computer I was looking for was 70. 70km was where we exited the forest onto the 8km of graded dirt road back into transition. There was a slight headwind along here, and I tried to get as aero as possible in order to go as fast as I could (sensing a theme here?) and ultimately get to transition as I needed to restock on fluids and gels. I took the opportunity to take in every last remnant of gel and fluid left in my collection and sprinted to the timing mats. Objective two complete. Get to transition two with not too much damage done to the system.

At transition I stocked up on more fluids – 2 bottles, gels – a fair few, fresh gloves and wiped the dirt off my arms and legs for the last transition. By this stage my computer said 78km. I rounded it up to 80 based on the course mappings, and the mental calculations reminded me it was now 32 km to the finish.

As is the case with racing any marathon event, having other to work with can be handy. However, since the 33 km mark I had been pretty much going in ITT mode. Every 20 minutes or so I would look back to see if anyone was coming along. Nothing up until the 2nd transition. Suddenly looking back I could see the form of someone who looked good on the bike. My initial thought was that it looked like Blair. That meant to me that he must have had the longest 2nd transition. Sure enough, he soon motored past me and I feebly tried to get on his wheel. Sure enough, he had taken 7 minutes 40 in the 2nd transition sorting a rear wheel issue. Sometimes luck is not on your side.

The back 32km takes in some pretty nice single-track. This would be pretty fun to ride if you were fresh. At this stage of the race with over 3 and a half hours of the hardest racing already done, it is merely a matter of getting through it, riding as smoothly and efficiently as possible. The hard granny gear pinches did their best to sap every last remaining bit of energy out of the legs and by the time I got to Brokeback Mountain it just seems to laugh at you. However, for me, I laughed back because I knew it was the 2nd last climb to negotiate. Well, I tried to laugh, but it was more likely just a whimper that came out. To be honest I enjoyed some of the next bit of semi-technical single-track that included a few bridges, rock rollovers and other unique things that kept the mind stimulated and just tested out your other abilities on the bike.

Huw Kingston is probably a voyeuristic masochist in putting this course together. The inclusion of a couple of massive mirrors in the last section allows you to sneak a look at how awesomely smashed you look after having ridden for 4 hours and about 100kms. The drummers on the side of the hill also bombard your senses and allow you to push through the pain and get up and over the hills. The sound of the helicopter above filming the lead group alerting me to both the position of the front runners (way far ahead) and how the importance of the series and the sport has risen since the CycleNation crew have taken the initiative of setting up the XCM series.

The descent down off the hill over the grass was a sweet feeling. From here it was just “Your Call” – yep, take the left hand route, the long blue groove descent, a short pinch, then the final run through the farm. At this point Kylie, Jase and Garry were waiting at the corner before the farm and cheered me on. I gallantly got out of the saddle and tried to show that I had heaps of power left in the legs. Having raced this race correctly, I didn’t have much of anything left in any of my bits. But, up ahead, I spotted Troy Glennan. Here I tried to summons the last 0.05% of reserve energy to reel the big horse of a rider back in. Down, the hill, under the bridge, watch the rocks, get up the grass hill, around the barricades sprint to the timing mat. Bugger still couldn’t catch him.

Everything was gone. No more energy. Thank god I had my bike to prop myself up on. At the finish I caught up with Simon and Gorge from Cannondale, Kylie was there with a fresh drink. Race stories were swapped, crap was talked. The fling was done for another year. The body pretty much wrecked from 4 and a half hours of racing.

After the race: Photo courtesy Kylie Webb

Results..... Top 10 for me in a stacked field - the top 20 alone are all guns.

Some random stats and stuff:

Full bottles consumed: 5 full large bottles – electrolyte drink (just enough – probably could have gone a bit more)

Gels consumed: 14 – Science in Sport mixed flavours.

Bike ridden: Cannondale Flash 29er at a shade over 8kgs --- with comfier saddle mainly for the grassy sections. Tyre pressure 22/24 on Stans Race Gold Wheelset. Big thanks to Cannondale Australia’s Alastair Burgess for hooking me up with arguably the most technologically advanced bike on the market. F1 technology in the MTB world. Even when I feel ordinary, the bike has my back.

Total Distance: 108km on my GPS – through the forest it doesn’t pick up the satellites all that well.

Average HR: 170bpm – a hard race, and for me, the heat plays a part in this. My arms and legs have copped a fair bit of sun and this Ranga does not tan all that well!

Average Speed: 24.86km/hr – slightly surprised at this – with all the climbing it feels like you are crawling all the time. The payback is the fire road hauling-ass zones.

Elite field: Huge stacked field. The best represented field in racing history for marathon racing.

Canberra riders: 5 in the top 10, 6 in the top 15. 5 of these from the 2602 postcode!

Half Fling: big shout out to my girl Kylie Webb for taking out the Female Half Marathon Series for the second year running, but more importantly realising a life-long dream of winning a massive prize cheque!

The Cyclery Canberra: Trev and the crew always sort me for all my parts and nutrition needs. I can always rely on things being in stock, and if I need something for a race, I know I can get it. THE best support for the hardest sport in the world!

CycleNation: the Real Insurance XCM series ---- to say that this has re-energised and lifted the profile of MTB Marathon racing in Australia is an understatement. Huge props to Theo, Aryana, Damo and the crew from CycleNation – thank-you for making the sport I love even more awesome!

Wild Horizons: Huw and the crew from Wild Horizons put on a kick-ass event with the best race atmosphere going. This alone makes up for all the grass we have to ride across!! The course itself is so varied and unique in that it tests a mountain biker’s full ability. There is no hiding on a mountain bike. At the Fling, you just have to have it all together to just finish the race, let alone do well. The free food voucher was also awesome for the after race refuel.

I'll put some more photos up as they come in!

Friday, November 9, 2012

Highland Fling time

The countdown is almost complete to the most anticipated marathon event in Australia, the Highland Fling. On Sunday the 11th of November over 50 Elite racers will join the 1500+ strong contingent of keen mountain bikers to battle it out across the fields and hilsl around Bowral.

For me, it is my 2nd attempt at the Fling. Last year was done on the trusty Cannondale Flash 26er hardtail. This year aboard the 29er Flash I am hoping to float across the rough stuff in the first hour of racing.

Tomorrow I will drive up, register, and check out a few spots around the course to open the legs up a bit. Then come Sunday 8:05am, the racing will commence with a bang.

Only time will tell if the form and the cards fall well on the day. There are a couple of races within the race. Firstly the overall title is between Shaun Lewis and Andrew Blair. The fight to be the last one on the podium might also be tight, with myself, Andrew Hall, Anthony Shippard, Dylan Cooper and potentially Ben Mather all capable of sneaking into the top 5 over the injured Jason English who unfortunately has to miss this race after a run in with a car in far north Queensland.

Top 15 in the Elite XCM rankings - 5 riders in the top 15 from the 2602