A Vision for Making American MTBO Competitive

MTBO is a MTB race first

BURKE, VA — In just two weeks, the United States of America — via the nation’s recognized orienteering federation, Orienteering USA — will launch its second attempt at the World MTBO Championships with a full team of seven athletes in Rakvere, Estonia beginning on August 26th, 2013. This cadre of American riders are certain to face a series of unknown challenges competing in a sport few Americans even know exists. Their efforts could put the United States on the World MTBO map; or they could be just another footnote in MTBO history. Regardless of how they endure, they are by far the trailblazers that future riders will look up to when they decide to pick up the mantel these pioneers will leave behind in Estonia.

But how do we, back here in the United States, plan on helping future American MTBO riders prepare to follow the path of 2013 US MTBO Team? The answer is by being truthful with ourselves about the work that needs to be done.

The Plain Truth
Those who care about MTBO are all in agreement that serious infrastructure work needs to be done before MTBO will be competitive in the United States. It is no mystery that we lack the national attention required for World-level MTBO competition preparation. There is no team training, no competitions, no national or regional vetting process, and little financial support for MTBO. Additionally, there are no MTBO youth programs, no competition-based team selection process, no sponsorship or vendor outreach, and no thought of sending athletes to USA Cycling mountain bike or International MTBO training camps. So in comparison with other national teams, we are still at the experimental stage of something still considered a pending pilot program.

Where to Start
So where do we start building this American MTBO infrastructure of the future? We believe this work needs to start at the club level. If orienteering clubs — or possibly the creation of independent MTBO clubs — begin to learn about MTBO, create their own events, and get the national support need to properly plan, manage, and execute sanctioned MTBO A-Meets, we may begin to build the environment the United States needs to send World-level athletes to the World MTBO Championship.

1. Define the Sport
Foot Orienteering clubs have been historically unsupportive of non-traditional orienteering disciplines. They have reluctantly allowed ski orienteering to take a small hold, but still treat MTBO — that many clubs still call BIKE-O — as foot orienteering with a bike. If we are to build support of mountain bike orienteering within orienteering clubs, we need to first agree on what it is and is not. The World according to the International Orienteering Federation (IOF) calls it MTBO — MounTain Bike Orienteering — not BIKE-O. Additionally, as demonstrated by the MTBO World Cup, World MTBO Championships, European MTBO Championships, and Australian MTBO Championships, MTBO is a serious mountain bike racing discipline that simply utilizes orienteering skills. That makes MTBO’s connection to foot orienteering more like cousins than siblings.

If we are going to be serious about sending American athletes to the World MTBO Championships, then we need to start calling mountain bike orienteering MTBO.

2. Build the Courses
MTBO is not bushwhacking, adventure racing, or rogaining. It is mountain bike racing where the course is defined by a map, a series of controls, a network of trails, and the best route choice and/or judgement of the rider. Unlike foot orienteering where a control could be hidden by terrain and well off the trail, MTBO controls are found along the trail or in the open. Route choice and speed are the major factors within MTBO. This is why some of the top professional European mountain bike riders use MTBO as a training venue in preparation for UCI World Cup mountain bike racing. This means that to be more competitive in International MTBO competitions, we need to consider that MTBO has a special relationship with mountain bike racing. If we design courses based on foot orienteering standards where controls are placed without consideration over the ridability of the course, route choice, or difficulty in finding controls, we unintentionally take away the draw MTBO has within the MTB community.

If we are going to be serious about sending American athletes to the World MTBO Championships, then we need to start building MTBO courses just like everyone else.

3. Change the Culture
One reason orienteering club’s do not create effective MTBO competitions is a culture focused only on foot orienteering education and events. MTBO is a very different animal in terms of event management, course setting, map design, and even demographics. Because of this, club’s still do not know how to deal with the increasing number of members asking about how MTBO events can be included onto their seasonal calendar. This is why MTBO education needs to be a future goal of any organization planning on changing the existing infrastructure into something more in favor of MTBO events creation. The collation of MTBO-interested members is still too small a segment of the national orienteering membership to provide any immediate policy shift. However, once clubs have the educational resources to create their own MTBO events — and national guidance to fall back on — the culture could being to shift in support of including the circuit of MTBO A-meets needed in the coming years.

If we are going to be serious about sending American athletes to the World MTBO Championships, then we need to start educating our clubs about MTBO and cultivating talent from national events.

Unfortunately, change is not a is not a trivial task and does not happen overnight. The culture within orienteering clubs is still very foot orienteering-centric. One club president stated that the reason they don’t like MTBO is that it takes away from their volunteer support by creating too many events in a given season. Another voiced concern that MTBO events are too difficult to organize (based on permits and insurance needs) and that the do not see enough interest in it to make it worth their while. Even some within the orienteering community at large have a serious problem with just mountain bikes alone being on the same trails as foot orienteers. Regardless of their hesitation or distrust of MTBO, all of these concerns can be alleviated by an agreement on definitions, a need for infrastructure, and development of a national MTBO voice.

The next generation of orienteers may be the ones that make mountain bike orienteering — not foot orienteering — the top discipline for years to come. But we cannot even start to consider that possible future if we do not begin laying the foundation needed to create the best possible MTBO racers in the world today.