BURKE, VA — Mountain Bike Orienteering in the United States is a unique sporting event. There are few that have ever raced in a MTBO event (that wasn’t an Adventure Race), even fewer that can call themselves experts, and even fewer still that have raced in an officially sanctioned IOF World MTBO Championship. With so few Americans with actual MTBO experience, it stands to reason that most everyone else racing in an upcoming MTBO race is literally a BEGINNER! Google defines beginner as, “a person just starting to learn a skill or take part in an activity.” This would mean that if MTBO beginners are just starting to learn, then in order for learning to take place, there must be a cadre of MTBO veterans out there available to teach them. But what happens when EVERYONE in MTBO is a beginner? Unfortunately, it means that MTBO beginners have to “take part in [the] activity” and gain experience the old fashion way: they have to earn it! The good news is that as American MTBO grows as a sport, the so-called “experts” (this author among them) will start to become more and more available. We will also start sharing our knowledge (like we do here at MTBO America) to those of you who don’t want to go into a mountain bike orienteering event blind.
So in the spirit of teaching MTBO beginners, we’ve complied three (3) quick tips that we think every beginner should know before they ride in a MTBO race. There are a lot more tips to consider than just these three, but these should get you through your first race without suffering too much. Enjoy!
Tip #1 — Conditioning
You and your bike need to to be able to ride double the distance printed on the map without dying. Your bike should have air in the tires, grease on the chain, and seen the inside of a bike shop sometime this century. This is why mountain bike racers always get seasonal tuneups; one tune up in the Spring to get last years dirt out of the mechanisms, one tuneup right before they start racing in the Summer, and a final tune up in the Fall before they put their mountain bike into storage and start working on their cyclocross skills. If this seems like too many tuneups to you, then your bike is either ancient, or you’re not that concerned about having your bike fall apart in between controls #7 and #8.
The other side of conditioning is your physical shape. MTBO can be ridden by orienteers looking for something new or out to have a nice morning in the woods. But if you are looking to “race” a MTBO event, you should probably have ridden your bike a few times prior to getting your map on race day. Most courses will have hills and most course designers will find a way to make you ride those hills more than once. This is why you should invest some time in riding your bike on… wait for it… hills! Dirt roads, single track climbs, or even a hill like Evitt’s Revenge (a notably nasty hill hidden within Rocky Gap State Park in Flintstone, MD). The point is you should do some riding before you do MTBO racing. Even if you’re not competitive, riding MTBO for more than an hour will sap your strength and cause you to start making mistakes. Counter this by giving yourself an 8-week head start prior to an MTBO event. Start riding easy parks in the first few weeks, then work yourself into some of the tougher MTB trails towards the later weeks. If you spend 8-weeks riding before your MTBO race, you will be surprised how much better you preform and how much more focus you will have.
Tip #2 — Attack Focus
You need to know which control comes next and think of nothing else. MTBO is not kind to multi-taskers. Controls (or checkpoint depending on your flavor of orienteering) in a mountain bike orienteering event come in a set order. HOW you choose to attack each control is up to you (e.g. route choice), but WHICH control you attack should be a no-brainer. However, time and time again, you will find beginner MTBO riders (and even some experts too) going after control #10, and instead zero in on control #11. The end result? Mis-punch. This happens the most on controls with really long legs (e.g. 1-2 miles apart). See, as you attack a control on a long leg, the phenomena sometimes referred to as “long leg hypnosis” takes affect. North becomes South, this trail becomes that trail, and you begin to loose track of where you are. The end result is you forget which control you were attacking, and instead, attack the one just next to it. Bang! Mis-punch! But you will not realize you have made a mistake until you’re all done. “What place did I take?” “You didn’t. You mis-punched!” That’s when the tears and gnashing of teeth takes place.
But hold on! This can be avoided with a few tricks. One trick is the magnetic map board. This sucker uses magnetic pucks to keep track of which control you’re going after. Another trick is the infamous grease pencil. Attached to a string connected to your map board, you can check off each control as you go by writing on the plastic cover. Then you can erase it off the cover at the end of the race. But the more unconventional way to keep track is to use mnemonics: memory tricks to keep you focused on your target. The mnemonic trick goes like this: Find the control number you are going to attack; think of word that rhymes with the number (e.g. one is fun, two has shoes, three by the trees) or a rhyme you know that has numbers in it (e.g. “the ants go marching one by one, hurrah, hurrah”); repeat this rhyme until you have the control! These tricks should keep you from ever mis-punching again (or ever)!
Tip #3 — Route Choice
Not all trails are created equal and sometimes the best route between two controls is not a straight line. This is especially true on courses that have a strong network of single-track trails mixed with fire and paved roads. MTBO map creators like to connect all the control points on the map with lines. If you look at all the trails that lead from where you are to where the next control is, it would seem like a simple task to just follow along, pick the right trails, make the right turns, and waa-la: you found it! However, the reality of the map is not the same reality of the environment you are in. Plants and trees grow, fat trails become skinny trails, and trails that should be fire roads (back in 1984) are now goat paths covered in grass and weeds. The route choice you thought was “the fastest way there” has now turned out to be a nightmare of missed turns, uncertain trail locations, and a slow crawl through confusion.
So how do you combat the problem of bad route choices? Easy, don’t get sucked in to what “looks” easy. Case in point: if you took two mountain bike riders of equal skill and told one to take the longer route that included using a paved road, and the other to use the more direct way through a mess of single-track trails, the rider that took the paved road would arrive at the finish first! Why? Ironically, the shorter way requires far more thinking then you may have originally considered. All the trail connections that look easy to navigate become very difficult to judge when you are actively riding your mountain bike. Unless you memorize your route (left at the second trail, then first right, then first left, etc.) you will have to stop — possibly multiple times — to make sure you picked the right turn or right trail. Meanwhile, the rider that took the longer way that included the road can do something you cannot do: drop the hammer on speed!
The military calls this concept “high speed avenues of approach” in which the path that provides the highest rate of speed is often the fastest route versus a route that is narrow, requires navigation through terrain, or has obstacles. This is especially true if you do not know the park or have a suspicion that trails on the map are not representative of the trails you are riding on. Plus the added bonus to using a high speed avenue of approach — beyond just speed — is having the opportunity to ride part of the race without thinking! Do not underestimate the advantage that resting your mind during a MTBO race can have on your overall performance! Additionally, the use of large roads may help guide you into other controls by becoming an major feature or backbone to the park (a fringe benefit). On many courses, these types of features can be used more than once to provide direct, high speed access to parts of the park that single-track trails just cannot create. So when in doubt, do not try to bulldoze through the woods, thinking that your straight shot route choice will buy you any time. Chances are you will be arriving at the control long after another newbie has already moved on to the next one!
About MTBO America
It is the mission of MTBO America to bring Mountain Bike Orienteering to the forefront of American orienteering competitions and build a competitive environment that will allow athletes to compete in the sport both regionally, nationally, and internationally. Learn what you can do by visiting MTBO America today!