The 2011 Highland Fling is done and dusted and it’s been a surprising one. Since doing it as a last minute thing in 2006 and finishing 2nd behind Shaun Lewis, I’ve always wanted to give it another crack. I really enjoyed the course and the event as a whole, despite having to end that race with a trip to hospital to get stitches from a run-in with a barbed wire fence. So I was keen for this year’s Fling.
With not much training or racing over the winter, 2 weeks off the bike with a virus leading in, then just a few days to get my strength back and get my legs going again, I felt nervous at the thought of doing 110km of hilly off-road racing amongst plenty of fast guys who were also keen to take this one out. Especially Matt Flemming and Ben Mather, who were up for the Real Insurance XCM Series too. I had to beat both of them and I knew that’d be tough, even if I was going well.
After feeling sluggish and stale in the Bundanoon Dash (finishing 4th) on the Saturday evening, watching Dan McConnell smash everyone up the final climb, I was even less confident about even finishing the marathon. I tried to rest up and keep fresh though, so my legs were good on Sunday morning. With a gourmet meal and premium country style accommodation at the Herne’s nearby, pre-race prep was as good as it could’ve been.
The start was cruisy and gradually built up. But without having warmed up my legs kept seizing and I had to hurt just to keep on the front group. There also seemed to be a few team tactics going on, so gaps opened unexpectedly and that made it harder and more important to keep on the ball. As the tougher sections came, more riders popped off the back. I was surprised to see Flemming was one of them. He seemed to be off form, which I’ll admit I wasn’t sad about. Mather was on the front a lot, trying to split it up and open gaps before the first transition. I just tried to keep it cool and do the minimum, as I knew I’d blow up at some point. It just depended on how soon.
By the first transition, Mather go a little gap on us and that gave him a small time advantage. He was confident and clearly had form. I tried to drive the front of the group to minimise his time advantage though, then it all came back together. After a couple of singletracks and ‘The Wall’ the front group split up even more. With all the tactics and action going on around me, I realised I’d hardly eaten or drunk. And at the feed I grabbed one less bottle than planned. This all cost me later when I started to get dizzy and weaker before the KOM climb. So when everyone hit that hard I had to decide on whether to give my KOM leaders jersey away and avoid ‘redlining’ or maintain my own pace and lessen the impact overall. I chose the latter (not that I particularly had a choice), backed off and just kept the front 5 guys in sight, with some help from Shaun Lewis who seemed to be in a similar boat to me. He even dropped me when we hit traffic on some fast and loose descents and I ended up on my own for the rest of the race.
With about 50km remaining I was sure it was all over. Me alone versus 5 guys on fast open fire roads, no chance. But for some reason I kept pushing. I guess I know it was good training and if I kept in 6th I could get 2nd in the series. But it seemed Mather was doing all the work on the front anyway. I kept my own pace on the fast roads and in the end I actually made time on them before the second transition zone. They were only 15 seconds ahead!
Then I stuffed up. Being dehydrated and ‘hunger flat’ I was too vague to work out how long I had in transition before the 5 minute time limit. All I wanted to sustenance. So I downed a heap of Gu and Em’s Power Cookies, lubed up and had a toilet break. And when I turned around the front group were out of sight. They’d left a minute and a half before me, so I didn’t get to hop on the train. “Damn! More solo time.”
Having stayed 1 minute too long, I lost more time to the group. So again I thought my race was over. There’s no way I could keep up their speed. So I rolled off without urgency and rode at my own pace. It was all fast stuff early in the third stage, which wasn’t good for me. But as the stage went on things got better. My food and drinks started to take effect and I was feeling more energetic. I started to produce some power on the climbs and wasn’t seeing double any more. Bonus! I started to enjoy it more too, as more single track sections came along. I was tired, but had energy to push through the fatigue and pain. So I did. Then on one long straight I caught a glimpse of some of the lead riders. Dan McConnell had started cramping and was dropped from the group. He was my pick for the win, so that was bad luck for him. But he told me the others were just up the road. Lewis was only a few seconds ahead and I got him on a climb, knowing he had nothing left. Marc Williams, who was also going strong, had crashed and had a mechanical too. I kept pushing through the traffic riding the last main technical single track feeling good. I had a feeling I’d make time on that and I did. As I popped out of it I saw Mather and Blair up the road. I didn’t hammer up to them, instead cruising to recover, but still catching up.
With 7km to go I knew I had plenty left, but didn’t want to attack them in case they sat on me. So I kept it cool while we all cruised at what seemed an easy pace to the end. We were all keep to just make it a sprint finish at the end. I didn’t think I’d win it, given I got a time penalty in transition, but I wanted to cross the line first anyway. Going into the spring I stuffed up my gear changes – too hard, too easy, unlock forks, lock again… until I got locked, loaded and in the right gear as we came around the last bend, then I was away and jumped away for the win. A fun end to a tough day (mentally and physically).
With a bit of a wait until the official time splits were finalised, I reflected on the race. I had a pretty smooth run and didn’t stuff anything up except for the lack of food and water early on, plus the lost time in transition. But with no crashes or mechanicals I did alright. Then I found out I won by 0.1 of a second! Thanks to Huw’s choice of timing using transponders and timing mats, they were accurate enough to split us up. Lucky I didn’t hang stuff around for a second longer, literally!
In the end, a win in the race I’ve been wanting to do and win for years, plus a win in the inaugural Real Insurance XCM Series. Not a bad weekend. It was an impressive event and a great series to be part of. I’ll be back for sure.
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