The sport of mountain bike orienteering (MTBO) is a mountain bike race where riders use a map and compass to navigate the course by finding orange/white flags (controls or checkpoints) in the correct order. The goal of any MTBO racer is to be the fastest rider to find all of the controls (in the correct order) faster than anyone else. If you do that, you win!
Unlike a typical mountain bike cross-country (XC) race that requires you stay with a lead pack, MTBO riders can be all over the course with no one knowing how far or near they are to first place. Adding in the mental challenge of having to read a map, paying attention to which trail is which, and making good route choices is what makes MTBO both physically and intellectually satisfying. MTBO is more than just a being a good mountain bike rider; it also requires you to be a good thinker and decision maker. Map reading, navigation, and quick decisions can actually make you faster on a MTBO course than a rider who is in better shape than you. However, when you mix natural speed (based on a good physical foundation) with excellent navigation skills, you create an athlete that is both fast and smart. This is why MTBO America’s slogan is “Fast brains make fast bikes”!
What does it take to produce a user experience that tests a mountain bike riders brains and brawn? Surprisingly, it takes just about the same level of effort as it does to set up a simple mountain bike race. The only differences exist in the orienteering department. Otherwise, a MTBO race is a mountain bike race with a cool orienteering twist! But if you’ve never produced a mountain bike race, that might not make much sense to you, so let’s dig into the key steps in building a MTBO event.
The first step you need to consider are the core elements involved in the creation of a mountain bike orienteering race. They include a bit of creativity, basic event management skills, some planning, a few orienteering related supplies, a map, and permission of the property owner. None of these core elements are difficult to learn, buy, or manage by themselves, but to forget or overlook any one element will make your MTBO event difficult to pull off.
Step #1 — Bit of Creativity
Your event needs a name. Not MTBO “Enter Park Name Here”, because although it’s functional, it’s kind of boring. No, if you want skilled MTBO riders AND curious classic MTB riders to show up, you need to capture their interest with something with a little more flash. MTBO America held first MTBO events in the United States under the name “Tomahawk Tumble MTBO Race”. We played off the Native-American heritage of the venue, found a stock illustration of some crossed tomahawks, and the rest was history! Name YOUR race with the same enthusiasm by making it’s name something that riders will remember. The first year may not have a large turnout, but word of mouth will carry a cool name into year two much easier than something you have to look up. It might not come to you right away, but once you get into your planning, often a cool name will come to you organically.
Step #2 — Some Planning
You cannot get around the planning part of a MTBO race. And when we say planning, we mean course evaluation and testing! Not all parks are created equal. Some are a maze of trails that go every which way, making MTBO course creation a breeze. Other parks only allow the mountain bike riders to go one direction and only have big, bold loops. These kind of parks are not so good to use. The trick is figuring out what works, and what does not depending on the size of course you want to build. Does the park paved roads allow you to pull riders out of the forest and put them into another area that a trail will not? Then use it! Can you hide controls of side trails or in grassy clearings just off the trail? Consider it as an option. Most parks have grass areas that allow riders to cross, others have powerline green zones that can be used to connect trail sections as a network instead of just some juxtaposed loops. You can even use some of the course design elements that International MTBO events have used like three (3) controls very close to each other as an accuracy check, incorporate cyclocross style dismounts that make riders have to push or carry their bikes over an obstacle or up a steep hill, or just keep the race short and spectator friendly by having relay teams going after a handful of controls at top speed. The point is to use your environment to your advantage, but test your course by riding it multiple times to work out the bugs and find new attack points you can use to make it interesting.
Step #3 — Basic Event Management Skills
Every MTBO race has elements that require you to make some decisions about how the event will be managed. These usually include where you plan on putting the registration table, how and where you want to launch riders, where you will put results, where you will put refreshments (if you provide them), if you will or will not have music, how maps will be issued, if you will or will not have an award ceremony, and how many people will you need to setup, operate, and tear down the event. All these management decisions need to be made by a single point-of-contact, a race director who decides what to do and when to do it. You have to think about your schedule and how you want your event to occur. Just like an opera or theater performance, there is a beginning, middle, and end to every event. If you write your event plan with those parts in mind, you should be able to craft a simple game plan for what comes first, second, and so forth. Then you start to add the other parts that fill in your “just in case” risk management plan. These would include what to do in an emergency, phones numbers of important contacts (Fire, Police, Medical), and special rules that the park wants you to enforce. You decide how strict or loose you want the control of your event to be, but you at least have to have it written down and in your back pocket before you move forward. Chances are that the property owner is going to want that same information, so doing it now is better than at the last minute.
Step #4 — A Few Orienteering Related Supplies
Mountain bike orienteering requires supplies that are used in most mountain bike events. This would include boundary/survey tape to block restricted trails at intersections, temporary construction fencing for start and finish shoots, and bib numbers. However, you will also need a few orienteering specific supplies like control flags, passports, passport punches, kite string (for hanging controls), saw horses and/or planter poles (for open area controls), loaner compasses, and loaner MTBO attack boards/map holders. Your race announcement and registration rules can require riders to provide their own map holders, and most riders will either have their own map boards or use the same map bags as adventure racers. But there will be a group of course riders that will have no idea what to use and may need your help to start their first race in style! Financially, you can get away with a minimal load-out of orienteering gear. Approximately 15-20 control flags and matching punches, along with a pack of about 100 passports (what a rider uses to prove they visited the control) can get you by at under $300.00. Additionally, survey tape and kite string is less than $20.00 at the local hardware store. Add a few tables and chairs from one of the big box stores for under $100.00, and you can host your first race without anyone else helping you out! The bonus to having your own gear is that you only really need to buy it once. If you hold three (3) races, your first race might be all you need to pay for your supplies, making everything else profit.
Step #5 — A Map
The map is a strange animal. Most orienteering clubs will tell you that you need their maps to do any orienteering. Yet, they jealously guard those maps allowing only few to control its production and dissemination. But since the Internet, there are plenty of online map producers and open-source mapping projects that you can use. To develop you race, Google Maps is a huge resource for planning control locations and testing courses. For a small fee, you can produce Google Maps for your event, or get another map producer, MyTopo (www.mytopo.com) to create simple topographic maps. You can also take your Google Map drafts to a local graphic designer to produce a illustration of the map (for a small fee) that will include your branding and event name too! When it comes to maps, you don’t need your first event to be an International Orienteering Federation (IOF) Mountain Bike Orienteering approved map design with all the strange colors and codes. You can make grass-root maps, get your audience use to MTBO rules and courses, and grow into more official maps as you go.
Step #6 — Permission of the Property Owner
One of the most important elements of any MTBO event is having permission to use the property the event will use. Most parks have a process for asking for permission to host events, especially mountain bike events. The advantage you have over classic XC events, is that your riders are going out one at a time, not in packs. This creates some safety elements since there will not be a ton of bikes coming at a hiker all at once. One or two bikes every few minutes is manageable, creates less impact on the trail, and limits any congestion problems that cause accidents. If you volunteer to do some trail maintenance days on the parks mountain bike trails before your event, property managers are even more then willing to get your application approved. The trick here is the have way more information then a property manager can possibly ask for. By presenting a very well planning and scheduled event to those who make the decision, you give a property manager confidence in that you know what you are doing. Reputation is everything with park authority, and it is always good to lead with your best effort, control your event, leave the venue better then you found it, and make them want you to come back again!
Step #7 — Sell Your Race
Get the word out to every mountain biker you know when you plan to have your MTBO event! You can get the word out to adventure racers and orienteers too, but mountain bikers are going to be your bread-and-butter when it comes to registration numbers. Go to where they ride, shop, and hang out. Also reach out to local clubs, other events, and social media. Often you can support a local race for a few dollars and get your race advertised by other race directors. Advertising 2-3 months in advance is the key so that you can generate some buzz about your race in time to get enough riders to show up to break even. Also make sure your event is not conflicting with other local events. Nothing hurts a new MTBO race like another MTB event just down the street. You want to sell, sell, sell, any chance you get! If you’ve done all your planning, and have your permits, you really have nothing left to do then to get people to come to your race.
Once you have pulled all these steps together, the last part you need to do is execute your event. Race day is a big deal! It is where all your creativity, planning, and hard work are put into the real world for real people to use. It may not be perfect, and it may have some problems, but until it is forced to be used by actual mountain bike orienteers, your MTBO event is only fictional. It HAS to be pushed into the real world for you to witness its birth, learn from its flaws, and build upon the experience.
Race day will also help you discover that each one of the the seven steps can be improved in one way or another. You can change out orienteering punches for electronic punches. You can stop creating your own homemade maps and have a professional cartographer or graphic design company build you branded, waterproof maps. You can even co-produce other events along side a MTBO event to inspire classic mountain bikers to try MTBO for the first time. All of these things are possible, but not until you get that first MTBO event into the real world.