The First Elite American MTBO Athletes

VESZPREM, HUNGARY – The United States Mountain Bike Orienteering (MTBO) team consisting of Sue Grandjean, Rebecca Jensen, and Abra McNair are no longer three American women who happen to race in the World MTBO Championship: they are now the first Elite American MTBO Athletes… EVER!  Although they were unable to medal at this years event in Veszprem, Hungary, the fact that this was the United States first official attempt at any MTBO medal — in an event that is only been part of the International Orienteering Federation since 2002 — has not been lost on the mountain bike orienteering community at large.

In the final days of the competition, Susan “Sue” Grandjean led the team with a performance that placed her above her teammates, Rebecca Jensen and Abra McNair, and was in contention to at least have a running shot at competing in the Long Distance Final after being the only Team USA rider to qualify.

However, after finishing in 56th place with a time of 2-hours flat, just in front of last place Kano Naoko of Japan with a time of 2h:02m, Grandjean was out of contention by almost 45-minutes off the leader, Laurila Susanna of Finland. And even at a distance of 5,300-miles, it quickly became evident after Day 2 that both the World MTBO Championship promoters, and the elite European MTBO riders, did not see the Americans in any position of threatening them out of their medals. With very little press, and almost no event coverage of the team’s participation, you may have not even known that the United States of America had even sent a team for the first time to the World MTBO Championships.

Despite the disappointment, it was exciting to have had at least one American in place to compete in the Long Distance Final. But if the United States wants to have athletes like Susan Grandjean in a position to medal, then more development needs to go into training, competition, and selection of US MTBO team athletes.

Unfortunately, MTBO is not the only sport to cause American’s to wince when their athletes get crushed by the European competition. Take the sport of biathlon for instance. Since its inclusion into the Olympics in 1960, the United States has never won an Olympic medal in biathlon. While the several athletes have made valiant attempts to make the podium, the best efforts have only amounted to a 13th place finish in the pursuit competition at Salt Lake City in 2002. Although US Biathlon Team expects 2014 to be a great year for American Biathlon medal hopes — especially since theiri 2012 season was the US Biathlon Team’s most successful ever with four athletes finishing in the top-6 in World Cup races — the 2014 Winter Olympics only makes it 54-years without a single medal.

If you bring this full circle, no one expected America to dominate MTBO right out of the gate, nor should anyone expect us to. At present, we still treat MTBO as an orienteering adoration, without any real support behind it. Are local events are an after thought to primary billing of foot orienteering, we have no regional or national competitions, we have not way to rank or vet MTBO athletes, and our only team had to pay their own way. When you match all those obstacles up with the rumor that European Olympic and UCI-Level mountain bike racers enjoy the World MTBO Championships for the pure “training aspect” of the competition, this makes what Grandjean, Jensen, and McNair did particularly important to the future of MTBO in America. Yes, they had the odds stacked against them, and yes, their competition was far more experienced and prepared. However, despite these challenges… THEY STILL WENT!!!

By simply GOING, this team gained invaluable experience, lessons learned, and blazed a trail that hopefully many other future American would-be MTBO athletes will follow. We now have the necessary MTBO intelligence — thanks to the pioneering experience of our first MTBO elite athletes — to model all training and level of effort when it comes time to field a team for the World MTBO Championships at Rakvere, Estonia in 2013. But hopefully this time the next team will have some REAL national support, decent funding, and a full team. It is hard to image that these women competed in an elite competition without the assistance of coaches, managers, or any support from the very organizations who’s mission is suppose to be dedicated to just that: supporting American athletes in world competitions! Their by-the-bootstraps approach just goes to show that when American’s want to do something, we always find a way.

Needless to say, success takes time to develop. Not a single mountain bike orienteering athlete can look at the efforts of Grandjean, Jensen, and McNair and say they “did not do well” and “I can do better”. Why? BECAUSE THERE ARE NO ELITE LEVEL AMERICAN MTBO ATHLETES EXCEPT FOR GRANDJEAN, JENSEN, AND MCNAIR!!! Think you can do better? Then step up to the plate, buck-o! Show your club… NO… FORCE YOUR CLUB to start hosting mountain bike orienteering races — REAL RACES! Stop calling it BIKE-O, stop treating MTBO like its some kind of alien form of Foot Orienteering, and stop pretending it’s orienteering WITH mountain bikes. The US MTBO Team found out very quickly that MTBO is most certainly mountain bike racing WITH orienteering. If you don’t believe that it is, then just ask Rebecca Jensen, who wrote in her team’s blog that “[MTBO requires] quick decisions, quick execution […] and quick pedaling”. Funny… that’s exactly how Jeremiah Bishop, two-time USA Cycling mountain bike national champion, talks about how you excel at elite mountain bike racing too. What a coincidence.

The next US MTBO Team will owe much to the first elite American MTBO athletes through the door: Sue Grandjean, Rebecca Jensen, and Abra McNair. We may not know everything there is to know about creating elite American MTBO athletes, but what we do know is that we must step up our game, start developing this sport into something more serious, and pick up where these three women left off by making their sacrifice mean something more than a footnote in world MTBO competition. Otherwise, the United States of America will always remain a footnote within MTBO history, rather than the next masters of MTBO history.

Nuff said.