This is a sport that has been around for a while but is rapidly gaining popularity. It's easy to see why as it combines mountain biking and orienteering and makes for a fun and energetic day out.
Put simply it is a race (2-5hrs) around some great mountain biking terrain. At the start of the race you get a map with about 30 controls marked on it. The controls are worth differing points- this is shown on the map. You have to pick your own route to visit as many controls as possible to maximise your score and then make it back to the finish in the time allowed. You can normally do it solo or as part of a pair.
Map reading is an essential skill for any Mountain Biker, but you don't need to be an expert map reader unless you want to win. Obviously it helps, but for many, these events are a learning experience in terms of map reading / route planning. You should know the basics of map reading though: Compass orientation, contours and the like. If you have never read a map before then buy your local Ordnance Survey map 1:250000 and a basic map reading book. There are some good online resources too. See info table at foot of page.
Usually the events have a full spectrum of beginner riders right through to the top racers. The atmosphere is pretty laid back and for most it's a fun day out rather than a full on aerobic frenzy.
I've done lots of events so far, and I find it a great chance to push myself physically and mentally. It's always good fun and I get to ride in new places that I probably would never see otherwise.
Where to find an event?
There are many local events around the country, typically these are 2-5 hours. Also there are the "Adventure Race Weekend" style of events, which often will have an MTBO event included (alongside other events). Some links are provided in the table at the footer of this article.
What gear do I need?
If you are a regular mountain biker, then for your first few events you don't really need any special gear, although a map board makes it easier to navigate.For all rides you need:
- A Mountain Bike. Any MTB will do, obviously the Pro's use lightweight ones, but just take your regular bike, it will be fine.
- Bike helmet is required.
- A "Dibber". The dibbers are usually supplied by the race organisers, but some people have their own. This is an electronic tag that you use to record that you have visited the controls. At each control you insert it into a small device that updates your dibber to prove you were there. At the end of the race these are downloaded by a race official. This is how your points / timings are worked out.
- Water. Obviously depends on course length and the weather. I take a 1/2 litre for 2 hour rides and 1 litre for 4 hour rides. If it's over 20 degrees I'll take a bit more. Make sure you are hydrated before the start. I use a 1 1/2 litre Source water bladder . This is easy to clean and means I can drink on the move.
- Food. For the shorter rides I just take a few jelly babies or an energy bar. For the longer rides I take more bars and a sandwich. The racers won't stop for a sandwich but I generally have a 5 minute sit down at some point on a 4 hr race. It's a good time to study the map.
- Map board. It's a bit annoying stopping all the time if you have your map in your pocket. A map board fixes to your handlebars and allows you to simply read your map. The better models rotate so you can orientate the map to match your heading. For your first event I wouldn't bother, but once you are doing them regularly they are really useful and save lots of time. 90% of riders will have one. The top brand here is Miry.
- Clothing. Depends on the event duration / terrain and weather. Usually just some bike shorts and a base layer for a warm day. If the weather is fine then I might just take that and put a lightweight windshirt in my pack. If the weather looks variable then I pack a light weight waterproof and maybe a thermal top. If it looks really cold then I'll take some leggings too and a helmet liner / buff to keep my head warm. I always wear gloves. Depending on the weather I'll take my lightweight ones, or my insulated gloves (if it looks to be below 5 degrees). I have a set of waterproof socks that are reserved for the really cold and wet days. Otherwise I wear some lightweight merino wool socks and my usual MTB shoes.
- Spares. Well things might go wrong with the bike so I take : Spare Tube (or 2 for long events), Pump, Chaintool, MTB Multi tool and some spare chain links.
- Compass. A basic one will do, I just use mine for rough orientation. (Is this NE etc) rather than exact bearings.
- A watch. You need to time your return to the finish.
- Basic first aid kit. A few plasters and a couple of bandages should do in case you have a crash.
What to expect?
- Turn up at least an hour before the race starts. You need to register and then get your kit sorted. I try to eat a sandwich before the start.
- At registration you normally get issued with a dibber, a race number to pin on the bike and a control sheet. The control sheet helps you pinpoint the exact control points. More about the control sheet in the tactics section.
- At the registration area there are normally maps available to view. These maps are the same as the ones you will get at the start of the race, minus the control locations. You can therefore study the local terrain and work out possible routes.
- You then get you bike ready and roll up to the start. At the start you "beep" your dibber and you are given a map. The race is on!
- The temptation is to race off, but spend some time looking at your map. You need to plan a route that will bring you back to the finsh at the right time. This is almost impossible to decide upon exactly at the start, but you can make a rough plan. I generally make a circuit that I can revise at the half way point, either to bag a couple of extra controls or to omit a couple if I am behind schedule. I like to pick a route that has the easier bit at the end so my return is more predictable (so I would ride into wind first, or uphill first). Generally they finish it in the valley but read your map carefully so you don't end up with a big unexpected hill at the end.
- I always know where I am on the map. If getting from point A to B I will memorise a maximum of 2-3 navigation features such as "Down track to junction. Turn left. Take right turn after forest." I then recheck my map, reorientate myself and get the next 2 features. At first don't be afraid to stop regularly and make sure you are on the correct route.
- Controls are generally worth 5,10,15,20,25 or 30 points. You want to plan a route that takes in as many of the big scoring controls as possible. I see the lower scoring ones as a bonus if they are already very near my circuit. I would not go out of my way to just get a 5 point control. If a big control is not on your circuit then carefully weigh up the time and effort required to get it.
- Be flexible about your route, you can add extra controls later if you are ahead of time, and drop some if you are behind.
- Getting lost. Well it happens a lot. Don't panic. Study the map, sometimes back-tracking helps. Look out for other riders, they can often give clues.
- When approaching controls it is worth checking the control sheet you get issued with at the start. This gives a rough written description of the control, eg "#25, North side of Bridleway / Footpath juction, on tree." This helps you find the exact location after finding the point marked on the map.
- You need to get back on time. There are big point penalties for getting back late, so don't risk that.
- That's enough basic tactics. Ride a few races, learn the format and chat with other riders and you will soon improve both your map reading and your race tactics.
So what are you waiting for. Find a local event to enter. Turn up and ride. You'll get lost, muddy, tired and wet. You'll ride some great trails and meet up with a great bunch of people who just love to ride. Your map reading and fitness will improve and you can have some great races against your mates.