Overcoming Obstacles at the Briars Highland Fling

Bundanoon, home of the Highland Fling, is a beautiful part of the world.

On the calm side of the finish line at the Briars Highland Fling riders are quick to tell anyone and everyone their tale of woe from the event. Cramps 30kms in, flat tyres (plural), dehydration following bad fluid calculations, feeling amazing then blowing like a volcano…. We’ve heard them all, but when it happens to us out on the track it dominates our short term memories of the event.

Sometimes this post-race throat clearing is just whining, but often there’s something else going on as well. Getting to the finish line in the Briars Highland Fling isn’t like getting to the pie shop at the end of your regular Sunday ride. It’s about overcoming whatever obstacles are thrown in your way.

When riders chat with each other about what went wrong during their race, they’re also chatting about what they did to get through it – how they pushed forward when goals were shattered, bodies hurt, bikes had mechanicals or the weather took its toll. How people deal with the challenges events throw up is one of the most interesting parts of racing for me. I even wrote a PhD on it.

I started the 59km Half Fling comfortably and enjoyed pedalling along at a speed somewhere between riding hard and racing. My equipment was working perfectly and felt hand picked for the job. My fitness felt solid and I knew I’d have no problems making the distance in a quick enough time. The singletracks were enjoyable and I knew I could ride anything they threw up.

Then the track threw up a stick. On a short pinch. Mid-way through a powerful pedal stroke.

As I got off my bike I wondered how badly my derailleur was damaged and if it had broken anything else on its way into my rear wheel.

I had all the tools I needed to fix the problem and felt (almost) smug as I pulled a spare rear tip out of my saddle bag – I’ve been carrying it around for three years. What I hadn’t thought about was whether or not my multi-tool had allen keys that were the same size as the bolts.

Sram’s new X1 drive chain.
We replaced the hanger, but the other end of the broken one was too warped to be able to get it out of the derailleur.

A friend pulled over and we overcame obstacle by obstacle during the repair job, eventually performing a tidy singlespeed conversion. I got back on my bike and my whole race had turned a corner. Riding this new 1×1 set up the remaining terrain challenged my flow, skills and momentum in the way I’d been longing for earlier in the race. I began to pick new lines through and around any technical features, pedalled efficiently and kept rolling where I could.

In this last 10kms I had so much more fun than I had for the previous 50. I had new goals, new problems to solve, and new ways to engage my mind. It’s not that the rest of the race was missing something, it’s just that I was. After a big year of amazing ride experiences, I’ve arrived at November with some mental race fatigue. Losing my gears was the secret ingredient I needed to refresh my thinking and make the familiar strange.

I was 45 minutes further back in the field as I rode the final roads into the finish straight. At this late stage in the race I was surprised to hear so many riders comment on my sudden burst of speed. As I looked around it struck me that for these riders, tired but determined and ticking over the ks, it was making the distance that was their own challenge to overcome. And they were doing it with gusto.

The challenges people overcome in the Fling says a lot about who they are, how they ride and what they enjoy. This is what makes the Fling so many things to the 2000 odd riders involved. Enormous thanks to Wild Horizons and the Dark Side for an impeccably run event, and for putting together a course renowned for motivating people to achieve new personal bests. To Rob, who gave up his own goals to help me fix my bike, I don’t know how you thank someone enough for that sort of kindness, but I hope it comes back tenfold. Thanks also to Brendan for the biggest and best roll of gaff tape which came to the rescue soon after I discovered that pipe cleaners, while they may look bright and happy, are not the number one choice for tieing a derailleur to the chain stay. And to my teammates racing for Subaru-MarathonMTB.com, well done on some great racing, inspiring riding, and thanks for sharing more tales of different ride experiences after the event.

Cloning would have been another option, but I didn’t come up with that idea ’til later.

Photos: Kath Bicknell, Gaye Camm.