Are Mountain Bikes really that big of a threat to the American orienteering establishment?

MTBO America was recently asked the following question from a racer in Utah:

“Is the way forward for mountain bike orienteering to get already existing orienteering clubs to incorporate MTBO or do you think separate MTBO clubs need to be set up?”

Interestingly enough, this question inspired a huge conversation out here on the East Coast. Some agreed that the best way would be to change orienteering clubs from within, the same way XTERRA has started to gain acceptance from triathletes. Others took a more rebellious — albeit very American — viewpoint that supported the “go it alone” approach, not much caring what the orienteering establishment has to say about it. However, before we can truly identify which way would be the best way to bring mountain bike orienteering to America, we all agreed that we must first understand why it’s not here in the first place.

I believe the reason has to do with two very unique issues: (1) the rise of proven race templates, and (2) and the reluctance of the American orienteering establishment to embrace the mountain bike.

Race Organizers Know Best?
The first issue has much to do with the popularity of the Adventure Racing format. Since MTBO disciplines are built into typical adventure race productions, MTBO has taken a back seat to better marketing. Race organizers find it easier to sell registration slots to adventure races (or any variation of it) — and since most race organizers are small businesses working towards a profit — they tend to stick with what is popular at the moment. Trust me, if MTBO was popular in the US right now, race promoters would be advertising it like mad! But like most alternative sports in the United States, it takes organizations and grassroots interests to establish precedence before private interests risk money on it. You would think that a governing organization like the US Orienteering Federation (USOF) would be leading the charge to bring MTBO to America. Unfortunately, the USOF does not appear to have any serious interest in supporting MTBO, leaving smaller groups like ours to “blaze the trail” for them. Organizing our own races, educating the racing community, and making MTBO competitive are just a few ways to create the type of demand that will entice race organizers to support MTBO events in lieu of (or possibly alongside) adventure races.

The Orienteering Establishment
The second problem has to do with the negative attitude local orienteering clubs have against mountain bikers in general. For some time the mountain biking community has been at odds with hikers, trail runners, and foot orienteers, not to mention just about every other outdoor and environmentalist group out there. Whether warranted or not, it is the MTB community’s own fault for letting this problem get to where it is today. In numerous incidents over the past 20 years, mountain bikers across the nation have been accused of everything from rutting out hiking trails, bushwhacking unwanted trails, and destroying habitats, to purposely clashing with park authorities, scaring off park visitors, and basically making a nuance out of themselves. National and state parks have closed large portions of their land to mountain bikers especially due to the unyielding persistence of this version of the stereotype. If that wasn’t bad enough, environmentalists have even gone as far as to press the US Congress into passing laws that outright prevent mountain bikes in some parks by grouping into the same restrictive category as off-road motorized vehicles like ATVs and Jeeps!

Fortunately, those of us in reality-land realize that this unjust reputation is the direct result of a few ruining it for the whole. The irony surrounding the whole debate, especially true over the past few years, is that the current makeup of the mountain bike community now embraces the very environmental ethics of those who dislike mountain bikers so much in the first place! However, we have found that many US-based orienteering club leaders still share this generalize negative perception of mountain bikes and mountain bikers. By maintaining the paradigm that all things “mountain bike” are bad, they reject the inclusion of mountain bike orienteering into the American orienteering family. Not because there isn’t any demand — we’ve found that there IS a growing interest by orienteering club members to have MTBO events offered by their clubs — but because a majority of the club leaders will not dedicate their limited resources into what they consider to be the un-pure dark horse of orienteering variants. This leads clubs to rarely consider holding any MTBO events during a given race season, and none of them consider MTBO events for future seasons as well. I suspect it is also the reason why most orienteering clubs ignore adventure racing as well.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
This is the fundamental challenge to bringing MTBO to America; repairing the image all those evil mountain bikers created among our “greener” friends and increasing the general racing community’s overall exposure to MTBO by convincing race organizers that there is a potential market to be had. Not a simple challenge, but not an impossible one either. Skateboarding had this problem — now Tony Hawk is a superstar. Snowboarding had this problem too, and now Shaun White is winning gold medals at the Olympics in something called “Slopestyle”. MTBO “can” become a marketable racing choice in the United States, but we must first win the hearts-and-minds of the American orienteering community, and then prove that it can be a sustainable racing format that will fill any race organizer’s pocket with heaps of cash.

A Time for Champions
This is why we few MTBO enthusiasts need to go it alone and leave those with the paradigm paralysis to follow or get out of the way. We cannot wait around for orienteering clubs to lose their resistance to any attempt to “orienteer-from-a-saddle”, nor can we hope race organizers will suddenly support the MTBO racing format. This leaves only one recourse available to us: we must do the heavy lifting ourselves! The downside to this is, of course, is a lack of support from the only orienteering authority in the United States: the US Orienteering Federation. However, I believe that the only way to break through the obstruction that is preventing MTBO from coming to America is to prove to the existing orienteering establishment that this sport has the chops to be successful, competitive, and profitable. I know the existing orienteering clubs and race organizers will see the potential of MTBO (like we do) and come around to acceptance… eventually. But at this moment in history, MTBO needs to be championed from the outside in order to shake up the status quo.

Then, and only then, will the USOF start to take Mountain Bike Orienteering seriously (as a sport), and MTBO America seriously (as an organization).

This is why we formed MTBO America. We realized that until that day comes, we few MTBO enthusiasts are on our own. But we don’t need to go at this alone! By organizing, educating, and acting in the best interest of MTBO, we can end this blockade and establish a new era of orienteering in the US. Hopefully, this will allow us to one day (in the not so distant future) to look back say, “I remember when Mountain Bike Orienteering didn’t exist in the United States.” Wouldn’t it be grand if that moment were right before sounding the starting horn of the first MTBO World Championships to take place in North America!

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.