Mountain Bike Orienteering (MTBO) can consist of several styles of race formats that include three distinct categories: Competitive, Alternative, and Experimental.

Here is an introduction to the finer points of alternative MTBO race formats.

Alternative Race Formats
Alternative race formats (or sometimes referred to as Alternative Distances) are racing styles specifically marketed to attract more mountain bike orienteers (MTBO) to competitive events. These formats include (but are not limited to) Relay, X-Short, and Ultra-Long distances, and serves to make MTBO events more interesting to spectators and future competitors alike. The following is a brief description for each of the standard types of Alternative Distance race formats:

The MTBO Relay race is recently becoming a standard Competitive Distance Format for both National and World Championship events. However, since a Relay Distance category can include 2, 3, or 4 (or more) competitors, and consist of Short, Medium, or Long distances, it has become the most popular alternative format. A competitive MTBO Relay event most often consists of a team of 4 competing on a Short Distance or Extra Short Distance (X-Short, see description below) course.

MTBO Relay races begin with a mass start with each member of the team is required to visit controls in number order (1, 2, 3) before returning to “hand-off” the course to the next team member. Some races require the returning team member to e-punch into a final checkpoint before the next team member can begin. Other races require the returning team member to touch or “tag” their next racer, or pass their punch card and/or e-punch to the next member in a hand-off zone before they can begin.

Often, the relay team is not allowed to view the team’s only course map until one minute prior to race start (not unlike individual competition races). This means that the map is always with the team member on the course, requiring the returning racer to hand-off the map to the next team member. One map per team not only keeps an MTBO Relay Distance race highly competitive, but also creates a level-planning field between teams who may be composed of fast riders, skilled orienteers, or a combination of the two. Other race formats give each team member their own map, punch card or e-punch, and only require the returning racer to punch-in prior to the next racer starting their leg of the race.

In official IOF MTBO Relay Competitions, there are 3 or more courses with approximately the same leg distances and number of controls. Teams are randomly selected to race a particular relay course making no one course or route superior to the next. This layout attempts to make the competition as fair and competitive as possible, while still requiring all teams to ride over the same approximate terrain.

Extra or Very Short Distance (X-Short)
The X-Short distance, often combined with the Relay format, provides drama to a race that might otherwise remain uninteresting to spectators. By drastically shortening the course, the X-Short distance relay brings racers back to the spectator area at an accelerated pace, creating excitement and a visible sense of competition. Some events (the advantageous terrain) have been created to allow spectators to view racers during their entire run through the course, increasing the spectator appeal to the event.

The X-Short Distance is an MTBO alternative distance race format that describes a course approximately 1mi – 2 mi (1.6 km – 3.2 km) long that includes between 4 – 6 controls (average 3 controls per mile). The X-Short Distance race format takes competitors between 10 –15 minutes to complete.

National and IOF World MTBO championship relay competitions have been designed with multiple interlocking X-Short Distance course formats that all have the same approximate distance. This type of race design is specifically intended for team MTBO relay competitions where multiple mass starts are possible. However, by setting up several identical distance courses, course designers can maximize the venue for a championship event that may require multiple heats before a winner can be determined.

Ultra Long, Endurance, or Adventure Distance
The Ultra Long-distance describes an MTBO course designed to seriously challenge the more endurance-based MTBO racer. The Ultra Long distance is one of the few MTBO race formats that transcend both classic cross-country mountain bike racing and mountain bike orienteering formats by making checkpoints almost mandatory between the two. However, the differences begin to become apparent with respect to route selection since MTB races have a fixed course, and MTBO races do not.

The competitive version of Ultra Long Distance is described as a course approximately 20mi – 31 mi (32 km – 50 km) long that includes between 12 – 20 controls (average 1 controls per mile) visited in number order (1, 2, 3), and takes competitors between 120 minutes – 240 minutes to complete (competitive international times range from 120 – 140 minutes for men, 100 – 120 minutes for women). Over the past few years, IOF World MTBO Championship have included Ultra Long Distance races in their events and have acknowledged the Ultra Long Distance format as an acceptable competitive design. This is most likely due to the recent popularity of MTB Marathon distance races being produced by the International Cycling Union (UCI) and the demand from racers for more difficult courses.

Surprisingly, the Ultra Long Distance MTBO race format is the only type of MTBO race being produced in the United States in any consistent form. Commonly called “Endurance” or “Adventure” distance races, these endurance events require a combination of both teams and solo riders to transverse between up to 50, 62, or 70-miles (80, 100, or 112 km), often with an 8,000’ to 12,000’ elevation gain, in a 6 to 12–hour period. Endurance and Adventure distance races usually have the same basic designs as IOF Ultra Distance races with the exception of some allowing racers to cut-off their race at any particular checkpoint. This allows racers to be ranked against only those other races who achieved the same distance, providing additional podium opportunities to those who may not be as strong. This format of racing also provides a potential channel into regional and national level U.S. Adventure Racing events that almost always include Long and Ultra-Long Distance MTBO disciplines in their races.

Check out Part III for more MTBO race formats!

Posted by Tommy Dauntless

Dauntless has been mountain bike racing, adventure racing, and orienteering for over 20+ years and has been building and directing mountain bike races for the better part of two decades. He was the first race director to design and direct MTBO races in the United States in 2010, and help launch the entire Orienteering USA effort to send athletes to the World MTBO Championships. His love for MTBO comes from competing in MTBO in Australia and wanted to bring the sport of MTBO to America.