BURKE, VA — The sprint distance mountain bike orienteering (MTBO) course is a spectator favorite. Not only is it quick, but it also allows fans and friends to watch a few of the route choices as they happen. The break-neck speed of the sprint MTBO racers can even bring about a near photo finish as riders attempt to best each other at the finish. However, when a sprint distance event is being considered, most often the term “mountain” in mountain bike orienteering gets the most attention. Mountain bikers are known for not using the pavement, instead preferring the soft, squishy climbs and corners of the forested trail. In the mountain bike world, “roads” are for “road bikes”, not mountain bikes; and never the twain shall meet. Unfortunately, this cultural construct over proper environments for this bike or that bike leaves the spectator out of the argument. In mountain biking, onlookers are seldom considered important except around the start/finish line area. They are there to cheer on their rider at the gun, and then resigned to wait in bored silence as they disappear into the treeline, only to emerge tens of minutes or even hours later. And if you have ever been a spectator, that kind of waiting really, really sucks!
No Trees Required
Events like Short Track MTB racing and Sprint Distance and Relay MTBO were designed to get the spectator back into the event. By limiting the trails and trees still considered part and parcel of any mountain bike race, spectators are finally allowed to enjoy all the drama that comes from seeing your rider at the back of the pack on one lap, then seeing them fighting into the middle on the next. The same is true for sprint and relay MTBO, especially when you can see riders hesitate to look at the map while another rider makes the move to the control. These close-quarter combat style races allow spectators to set up at different location throughout the course where they can watch how an orienteer attacks the long leg, then move to another segment or return to the finish to watch them come in. This freedom to move around the course has never made a cowbell more happy.
“Ok, MTBO America”, you say. “We get that short track and sprint races are spectator friendly… so what?” So what? The point of all this has to do with a three part MTBO formula for developing MTBO in a way that has never been tried before. This formula includes:
1 — Untapped Venues
Over 100 American universities have over 800 acres of land each. Some have spreads in the thousands of acres — 6 in Virginia alone — all built upon a network of paths, walkways, and roads that spider every campus like the cracks in a broken windshield. There are buildings that sit a weird angles, sidewalks and paved trails that meander through sections of campus without rhyme or reason, and even elevated bridges or subterranean tunnels that connect on part of a university to another by going over water or under highways. There has never been a more complex system of routes and nooks ever created then the university sidewalk. These campus landscapes are a pre-made collegiate trail network just waiting for a MTBO minded individual to exploit.
2 — Fine-Tuned Format
According to the IOF MTB Orienteering Competition Rules 2014 (Appendix 7: Competition Formats), the sprint distance MTBO race is an orienteering event that requires (a) a terrain that includes a very dense track network (check), (b) a landscape that can utilize a urban area (check), (c) require “constant contact” with the map (every been on a college campus for the first time? Double check!), (d) have a course comprised of a majority of short legs with 1-2 long legs thrown in for good measure (check), (e) and require the athlete’s full concentration (watch out for those stairs – check again). Just by applying the IOF sprint distance MTBO format rules to a moderate sized American university campus, you get all the making of a venue that almost screams to have a MTBO event held on it!
3– Potential for Growth
The secret to growing any sport — especially an emerging American sport like mountain bike orienteering — is to infuse it with youth. As may not so respected marketers of fast food and sodas would say, “get’em while they’re young, and they’ll be customers for life!” In sports, this type of thinking is the cornerstone to any national level development program. Mountain bike orienteering can be a middle-aged man or woman’s game, but without a strong core of young talent to enter into the competition, the sport will die before its has had a chance to live. Football does this. Baseball does this. Basketball does this. Soccer does this. Hockey does this. Track & Field does this. Heck, even archery and bowling does this! But cycling? Mmmm… not so much. Orienteering? Foot Orienteering is starting to get their junior orienteering legs underneath the sport. But considering how new American MTBO is to the scene, we haven’t even had a chance to cultivate young talent; let alone “collegiate” talent.
Igniting the MTBO Wildfire
By combining the untapped venues of American university trail networks with a fine-tuned MTBO racing format almost designed to be used on them, you get the potential for a collegiate event that could ignight a MTBO wildfire. Don’t believe us? If you ever have the opportunity to visit a nearby college campus, put your MTBO course designer’s hat on and go on a walkabout. Chances are you will not only see the incredible, pre-made network of paths sprawled out before you, but you may get the opportunity to experience one other little tiny detail we forgot to mention: the number of bikes on campus! Literally hundreds of bikes crowd the stands in front of classroom buildings and dormitories throughout the property. What’s more, some of these bikes will try to run you down if you’re not careful.
Short Format, Long Impact
If the formula holds that a campus can be converted into a sprint format MTBO course, then the resulting theory is that all these college bike riders could be exactly what MTBO needs to fuel a sport revolution. Just imagine the fire of MTBO being carried to other colleges in the area. In just a few short years MTBO could be part of university club sports programs, they could form their own collegiate conferences, and maybe even begin to produce champion level athletes. Then local orienteering clubs would have to carry that fire forward with their own MTBO events, or be pushed out of the MTBO business altogether by pure MTBO clubs with their own members and own events. Heavy investment in young athletes within collegiate and interscholastic cycling is working to grow like-minded organizations like USA Cycling and NICA; why can’t it work for MTBO?