The Briars Highland Fling, now in its eighth year, has a certain air of prestige about it. It attracts a massive field of over 2000 entrants, at 112km it’s longer than any other marathon in the calendar (there’s even a 100-mile option for those who require a bit more punishment) and the widely varied course is tough from start to finish. Needless to say, to win here is to notch up a truly notable victory. This year, the stage was set for a incredible battle. The Fling is the final round in the Real Insurance XCM series, and the big guns were all in attendance to sort out who was boss.
But before we get in the serious business of racing, it’s not-so-serious side of the Fling that also makes it such a great event. The vibe is fantastic, and the whole community of Bundanoon embraces the thousands of mountain bikers who descend on the normally sleepy township. The town is decked out with silver painted bikes, local business owners don costumes for the Battle of the Businesses, and the main street is shut down, giving the whole town a festival feel.
The inaugural Rolloff World Championships saw riders playing tactical warfare to extract the last microns of momentum on the tarmac outside town. Slick tyres, high pressures and aero helmets were all busted out, but in the end sheer mass proved the winner with Glen Leechburch taking the victory on board full knobby tyres at off road pressures.
Saturday afternoon also saw the traditionally frenetic Bundanoon Dash take place. This 10-minute blast around town finishes with a sprint up the cripplingly steep Constitution Hill. Andy Blair sent a message, stomping the climb to take the win. Once again, the vibe was unreal, with locals and visitors alike packing the side of the road and screaming like it was the upper slopes of Alp d’Huez at the Tour de France.
The sound of bagpipes divides opinion like religion at a dinner party. But love them or loathe them, the wail of pipes at a 5:30am leaves you in no doubt that you’re at the Fling! Riders emerged from tents and campers to frosty air but blue skies – perfect racing conditions for the battle that was to play out.
All eyes were on the elites this year, and the depth of talent that had turned up to race was terrifying. In the men’s field there was Shaun Lewis, Dylan Cooper, Adrian Jackson, Andy Blair, Trenton Day and Matt Flemming, just to name a few. The women’s field was equally stacked; Jenny Fay, Rebecca Henderson, Peta Mullens, Jenni King, Jodie Willet… the front row of the start looked like a National Champs.
The 100 Miler category had some big names too, including none other than Jess Douglas, and alongside her, Naomi Hansen. The battle between these two would shape up to be one of the stories of the weekend.
Few people expected Jenny Fay to be seriously challenged in the women’s field. With five XCM wins this year already under her belt, the overall Real Insurance XCM series was as good as hers. Fay looked comfortable and confident the day before the race, saying “I know what I need to do. I don’t want to win by 10 seconds.”
The men’s overall series competition was a different kettle of fish. Shaun Lewis had a slight lead over Andy Blair, but with the Fling having more series points on offer than the other rounds, there was potential for Blair to snatch the series title if he could take the win. Lewis was keeping it cool, “Blairy’s definitely the guy I’ve got worry about,” he said, “I’ll be marking Blairy, and if it comes down to a sprint finish then that will suit me.”
Ultimately, the race panned out a little differently. Jenny Fay did manage to hang on and take the win in the women’s but not in the comfortable manner to which she has become accustomed. Perhaps the toll of a big year of racing finally hit home? Fay was first across the line, but Peta Mullens was right on her heels. There were a few anxious and emotional moments for Fay while the un-timed transition sections were taken into account before she was finally announced as the deserved (and very relieved) winner. “I’m actually happy it ended like this,” said Fay, “it justifies that my win in the series wasn’t about a lack of depth in the field. I had nothing in the legs, so I just had to ride with my head, and I did that.”
The men’s race was a tactical battle. Adrian Jackson, Mr Consistent, got away with the ever-aggressive Dylan Cooper and the on-form Brendan Johnston. Behind them, the battle between Blair and Lewis was playing out. Lewis: “A few things went my way tactically – the bunch split and it was Andy and I at the back, so he had to take the initiative.” Lewis, still on the mend from injury, admitted that Blair was “super strong” but soon after Blair was hit with the first of two flat tyres and his day was done. Despite sleeving his damaged tyre with gel wrappers and even a borrowed $10 note, Blair suffered a second flat and ultimately had to borrow a wheel. Lewis finished in fifth, with Blair in six with Jarrod Hughes bagging a commendable fourth, a huge result in such esteemed company. The mechanical dramas cost Blair in the series standings too, and he slipped from second to third overall.
The top three spots of the Fling podium were occupied by Jackson, Cooper and Johnston. Jackson’s performance was no surprise to those who’ve seen his consistency all year. “I’ve been competing solidly all year and maintaining good fitness just through racing,” AJ said, “but today was hard – there are climbs the whole way, and no big descents you get a rest on.” Brendan Johnston was admittedly “wrecked” after grabbing third. “Dylan was just driving it in the singletrack, and that really hurt me,” he said. Dylan Cooper was also paying the price, cramping up hard as he crossed the line.
In the 100 Miler category, Ed McDonald on his first race for Trek/Anytime Fitness, took the win. Naomi Hansen was able to hold off a rapidly closing Jess Douglas in the women’s, coming across the line just seconds ahead after 165km of racing. Douglas was eager to continue the battle, claiming “the motor was just getting warmed up!” but Hansen was, wisely, not having a bar of it.
And so it ended, the Fling was flung once again. A fantastic event in all respects, just remember to bring your ear plugs if you don’t like the sound of bag pipes at dawn.