THIS IS WHERE IT STARTS TO GET DIFFICULT!
Four months after my first Mountain Bike Orienteering (MTBO) event, the time has come to review my progress to date and share a few of the key things I’ve learnt in a short period which has encompassed 9 events.
MAP READING & NAVIGATION
MTBO has definitely sharpened up my map reading. Almost by definition, you are always trying to find a spot on a map, namely a control. Find one and you’re straight on to the next. There is a constant need to know exactly where you are, tracing every curve in the road, every junction and every wood, river and building.
In many ways this is a very different technique to map reading whilst walking or cycling, which generally involves infrequent references to the map, usually whilst stationary.
In MTBO, every second spent stationary is a second less of riding time, so it soon became clear to me that I would have to learn how to navigate on the move. Experienced riders I spoke to told me to sort a decent map-board and reinforced the need to develop the ability to map-read and plan on the way.
I also started using the Strava App, which tracks your route via mobile device GPS and then pops it on a website for later analysis. Strava has provided me with detailed mapping, route and pace analysis. However, it’s actually a simple stat called “moving time” that actually revealed the most. If you start and stop the app promptly before and after your ride, the difference between the full elapsed time of the ride and the “moving time”, (i.e. the time you are in motion), gives a good guide to the amount of time you actually “waste” during an event.
Above: Strava’s post-ride readout gives lots of info
Of course, with controls to visit, gates to open and close – not to mention the occasional call of nature and random traffic lights – there will be some stationary moments in every MTBO competition ride. But as I’ve got slicker and more polished, I’ve managed to reduce it to as little as 2-3 minutes per hour of riding.
Returning to the actual process of map reading, the priority is doing it effectively and accurately whilst actually moving. This is obviously easier said than done, but I’ve gradually evolved a system which basically sees me doing the majority of my map reading whilst going uphill, on road.
Descending and riding off road whilst map reading are currently outside my capabilities and I would suggest are generally unnecessary (not to mention unwise) if you take full advantage of better opportunities to catch a brief glance at the map.
It has struck me that MTBO map reading has more similarities with following the instructions of a satnav system, than with traditional map reading. As with the satnav, MTBO map reading is based on a steady stream of information about the route ahead, with long-term planning and detailed monitoring of the current location seamlessly intertwining. Instead of the satnav’s vocalisations, you have the internal instructions as your brain analyses the map and plans accordingly.
My point is that the information comes to you in a linear stream, rather than the occasional information-rich chunks you get with traditional stop-start map reading. And, as with all the best satnavs, when it’s working well, you’re always aware of what’s just ahead and nothing catches you by surprise. Well, that’s the theory, anyway!
Here’s an area where I can certainly improve. It’s all well and good knowing where you are and where you are heading. But, if you are not making the best possible speed through the landscape, you are not going to fulfil your individual potential.
Two key examples have caused me problems, in particular. Firstly, the actual visit to a control and secondly my passage through gates.
In theory the visit to any control is simple once you have found it. It’s just a case of dib-in and get on your way. But, in practice, it’s all too easy to waste time. For example, by stopping a bit too short of a control, forcing you to improvise, scooting the last few yards, or dismounting in a tangle of bike, legs and arms just to reach the box.
Equally, it’s easy to forget which direction the next control is in and whether you are going to be riding uphill or down once you are underway again. Precious seconds are burned as you clumsily turn your bike and then struggle to engage a suitable gear, perhaps even having to dismount and run if the gradient is too steep.
You must plan ahead and tackle each control accordingly. Work out which way you need to be facing to begin the ride to the next control. So, make sure you stop at each control pointing in the best direction to make a swift getaway. Check that you have engaged a low gear, too. This will enable you to make a swift acceleration, whatever the gradient. As you roll up to a control, make a careful assessment of where the SPORTident box is and decide if you need to dismount to reach it. Again, look to align you bike ready for off.
I’ve rolled up to a control full of the excitement of having found it, only to stall just out of reach of the box. Having failed to “leg” my bike closer, I’ve then wasted valuable seconds putting the bike down, walking to the box, dibbing and then returning, re-mounting and setting off again.
In most cases, it’s possible to roll right up to a control, dib-in, and be underway, in the right direction, in one seamless movement. Make a mess of it and you may only lose 15 seconds, but multiply that by thirty controls and suddenly you have a total loss of over seven minutes. That’s enough time to ride a couple of miles and perhaps visit another control or two. Given that I’ve already missed out on at least two wins by a margin of less than five minutes or ten points and you’ll see how crucial technique really can be.
Gates offer similar time-wasting opportunities. I’m currently favouring dismounting at all gates that are shut on a latch. This allows me to tackle the gate unfettered by my bike. Despite moves in the right direction in recent years, there is still a bewildering array of different gate fastening methods and only a few of them move as easily on their hinges as they should. Again, assessing where the gate’s latch is, how it works and which way the gate will open as you approach will allow you to position your bike and body in the best possible place to make swift passage and getaway.
Add together visits to controls and passage through a number of gates and you have the potential to save ten minutes or more over a three hour event, which is a big margin and one which you would probably struggle to make up for by improving your fitness, for example.
It’s fairly obvious you need to be physically well prepared for MTBO events. I’ve ridden and raced off-road for many years and one of the things that attracted me to MTBO was the way that high levels of physical fitness are not nearly as critical as they are in pure racing disciplines.
However, to succeed, it’s clear you still have to be able to maintain a decent pace for three hours or more. Three hour events have seen me regularly topping thirty miles of riding and 3,000 feet of climbing. So, we’re not talking about a stroll in the park.
Interestingly, I’ve found that as my other MTBO skills have improved, the pressure on my fitness has increased, not lessened. As I blundered about during my first couple of events, stopping regularly to check the map, my body was able to take regular breathers.
But, now that down-time is gradually being eliminated and my map reading and general navigational skills have improved, I’m able to travel faster for longer and I’m finishing events with not a lot left in the tank. Happily, my previously mentioned experience in racing means I’m fairly good at metering out my energies over whatever timescale the event is being run under.
Having said that, I have been aware of how physical fatigue has a connected effect on my mental state. Push your body hard and your mind will similarly find itself prone to tiredness. And this leads me neatly to the area of MTBO I find most difficult: mid-event decision making.
MTBO is clearly as heavily reliant on mental skills as it is on physical fitness and strength. Add to this the concentration needed to ride over constantly varying and probably unfamiliar terrain, plus handling all the gate-opening, control-visiting and other myriad calls upon your mental resources and you’ll see that this sport is played out as much in the mind as in the body.
During recent events I’ve noticed a couple of pressure points, where the mental requirements of the sport tend to peak: firstly the first 15 minutes or so and secondly sometime around about the mid-point of the event.
The tense few minutes when you make your initial route plans and more specifically identify the first couple of controls you will visit, naturally provide a spike of anxiety and stress. Adrenaline is running too and so it’s important to begin your ride with your thoughts fully collected.
Generally, event organisers allow you a couple of minutes to preview the map before you have to “dib-in” at the start control. From then on you are riding and navigating against the clock. I’ve found that in those couple of minutes, the most important task is to identify the first control you will visit and the route to it. With that logged in your mind, you give yourself breathing space with which to start planning further ahead, whilst settling the nerves.
Critically, at this point you also need to make a rough assessment as to whether you think you can get around all the controls within the time limit. If you think you can reach all the controls, the aim is to plot the quickest possible route around them all.
However, in many events you soon realise that a complete set is out of reach and the focus of your planning becomes visiting as many of the high value controls as possible.
I’ve been advised by one experienced rider to make myself a piece of string which is equal to the scale distance I can travel in the duration of an event. Using this in conjunction with the map, he maintains you can rapidly and reliably decide whether or not you can do a clean sweep or whether you have to concentrate on a compromise route, aiming for the best score available in the time. It’s an interesting suggestion and one that I am considering.
Against that advice, terrain and weather conditions can radically effect how far you travel within a set time, so the string method can only be a guide at best.
My experiences in recent 3-hour events illustrate this issue nicely. In both cases, I set off confident that I would get round all the controls, only to find mid-event that this was not going to be possible. In both cases, the delay in my realising this cost me dearly as I visited a number of low value controls that, with hindsight, I should have ignored.
This is the area of MTBO where I feel exposed by my lack of experience. The ability to rapidly assess a map and the related ability to make a mid-event decision to change strategy are both real weaknesses. Experience will doubtless help, but I’m a bit of a control freak and generally want to find instant solutions.
For now, I plan to combine the “piece of string” method, with better time awareness.
For me, the fascination of the sport of MTBO lies in the sheer range of skills you need to deploy to achieve success. In an earlier piece I wrote about an evening sprint event, I likened it to a round of golf, where you are looking to minimise errors and where one bad “hole” can spoil an otherwise excellent performance.
In a recent event I failed to find a control after reaching its apparent location. Wrongly assuming I’d made a mistake, I wandered a couple of hundred yards up the road before returning to find the control exactly where it should have been. At home, afterwards, using Strava I was able to pin down how long I wasted. I was almost exactly 3 minutes. Guess what? When the results came out, that just happened to be exactly the time gap between myself and the winner.
But, as well as minimising errors, you also need to be positive and proactive. Just as the golfer must not be consumed by caution, but must hit long and hard where necessary, in MTBO you need to ally quick and effective decision making to energetic yet controlled riding.
Like all the best sports, it’s not just about winning, either. It’s also about doing the best you can within your own limitations. And it’s about building the skills that reduce those limitations to the minimum. Bring together fitness and skill and add in clear thinking and decision making and you’re in with half a chance of doing well.
Mountain Bike Orienteering
Phil Ingham tries his hand at an evening mountain bike orienteering event and finds himself caught in a winter storm.
Well, it wasn’t the start I’d been looking for! Foolishly trying to read the map by the light of my head-torch, whilst descending an unlit bridleway, I found myself projected in a gentle arc over the bars and towards a water-filled ditch. As luck would have it, I was still zonked from the hurried drive from work to the event and, in my semi-catatonic state I didn’t tense up as the accident unfolded: instead, I somehow looped my legs over the bars, over the map holder and over the now stationary front wheel and landed pretty much upright. My boots were muddied but otherwise I was unscathed.
If nothing else the incident woke me up and a dart of adrenaline ran round my body, energising my previously sluggish limbs. I wrestled my bike from the mud – it was buried up to the front axle – and five minutes late I’d “dibbed” in at the first control and was slogging back up the track to the road.
Mountain Bike Orienteering is the two-wheeled equivalent of the more familiar “on-foot” version of the sport. The principles are the same: armed with a map, you have to navigate around a series of marked “controls”. The aim is to visit as many as possible and arrive back at the event HQ within a set time limit.
In some events it is possible to visit all the controls within that time period, in which case the rider with the fastest time wins. In others, where collecting a full set is not possible, you have to pick and choose which you visit. Each control is allocated a points score and as a rule, the further from the event HQ a control is located, the more points it is worth. The most remote controls are worth twenty-five or thirty points, compared to a little as five for a control near the start. Strategy comes into play as you try to target a big score but still get back without incurring time penalties, initially just a point a minute, but rapidly becoming more severe if you are over 10 minutes late.
Putting my “it could have been a lot worse” crash behind me and having picked up my first points of the event, I was up and running and the next two controls, came and went in quick succession. Three down, seventeen more to go!
Ahead of me now lay the first big terrain challenge of the night. By the light of my head-torch I could see from the map, spread on a small board mounted on my handlebars, that the road leading to the next control was crossed by a number of closely spaced contour lines. A hill-shaped black shadow reared up ahead of me, telling me this was a climb, not a descent. Overhead a faint orange glow from the distant streetlamps of Huddersfield under-lit the low clouds which scudded by, driven by a brisk wind.
I flashed my head-torch from side to side as I neared the point where the next control was located. The map showed a red ring just before the summit of the hill. Each control is marked by a small red ring and the control is supposed to be located at the dead-centre of the ring.
Each control consists of a battery powered SPORTident dibber box, about the size of a cigarette packet, into which you insert a wristband-mounted “dibber” which records your visit. In night events, there is also a small reflector next to the box, to help you locate it. Sure enough, ahead and slightly to the right a small bead of reflected light caught my eye.
After a quick glance behind to check for traffic I scooted across the road, pulled up at the foot of a footpath “fingerpost”, located the box, fastened by cable to the post, and rapidly inserted my dibber. A distinct beep indicated that my visit had been recorded and I was immediately underway again.
I’d already made a quick assessment of my route to the following control so, as I accelerated into the darkness and settled into a rhythm again, I began to make frequent glances at the map to check its exact location.
Map reading is perhaps the single most critical skill of the sport. You are presented with your map just two minutes before you start, so it’s impossible to take in and memorise all the control locations there and then. I tend to try to get a general overview of the distribution of the control points and come up with an outline plan of action, before identifying the first two or three controls I’ll visit.
The two minutes flies by and from the moment you “dib-in” at the start – a control box located at the start which records your departure time – you are left with no alternative but to navigate on the hoof. I find that my route generally evolves from there onwards. Apparently some top riders can plan their entire route in that short space of time before the start, but not blessed with a photographic memory, it’s an ongoing process for me.
Another feature of the start is the absence of the melee that accompanies the opening moments of most bike races. In orienteering events you usually have the freedom to register and start anytime within a window of an hour or even two. This means you can set off when you are ready, which is a very pleasant change from the nervy count-down to a traditional race start.
Meanwhile, back to the action, and cresting the unlit road over the hill, the sky was suddenly lit by a huge flash of lightening. Etched onto my retina was a vivid image of wet road, dry-stone walls, dripping telegraph poles, fringes of snow on the verges and, towering massively overhead, the concrete tower of the Emley Moor TV transmitter. Seconds later another flash was accompanied by a crash of thunder, then came another and it dawned on me that the transmitter was acting as a focus for the storm’s electronic energies.
That was a relief as the rain and sleet notched up a level and the spray ran down the frame and forks of my bike. I didn’t fancy ending the evening as a lightening rod and though that thought made me a little uneasy, I put it out of my mind and returned to the task in hand.
I was now approaching a three way road junction, with a control located perhaps half a kilometre down each road. The next nearest control was then perhaps a further kilometre away down the left-most road of the three. I targeted the control down the right-hand road, which I reached inside a minute, finding it on a fence post at the side of a small car-park.
I quickly re-traced my route to the junction and repeated the process going to and from the second control before heading down the third road, picking up my seventh checkpoint – fastened around a telegraph pole beside a remote farm this time – and riding on toward my eighth. I was almost half way through the controls and I’d been riding for 45 minutes.
From there I was heading off in a fresh direction. My initial thrust had taken me virtually straight North, but from then on I was describing a rough semi-circle heading clockwise. The wind was increasingly unpredictable, whipping around the small hilltops that characterise this area of West Yorkshire, nipping along the valleys, before breaking like invisible waves over roadside walls and from behind buildings. It was cold too, but the effort of climbing and battling the wind was keeping me warm.
With a thin, slushy layer of snow decorating the road surface and lightening still shooting its random stills onto my retinas, I was glad that there was virtually no traffic about to add a further complication to my choppy progress through the elements.
Orienteering course planners are a fiendish bunch. They place their controls with the aim of disrupting your natural progress across the landscape. They force you to make difficult judgments and often sacrificial decisions: if I go for that remote, outlying control will I have time to get back and reach the finish? Do I drop down that steep hill to pick up that control now, or do I pick it up later when I’ve crossed and re-crossed that ridge ahead? Do I try to maintain height and take the road route, or do I take the shorter but hillier cross-country option down that potentially muddy bridleway?
All this has to be computed as you ride, change gear, clock-watch, drink and eat and monitor your overall progress. It’s multi-tasking on a grand scale: physical and mental demands coming at you thick and fast. It’s all too easy to lose track of time or overshoot a control whilst thinking about something else, like your burning lungs, or that slippery surface that’s threatening to whisk your wheels from under you.
Knowing exactly where you are at any given moment is central to maintaining an inner calm. The moment you realise you are lost is the cue for panic. I’ve even gone as far as counting walls and gateways as I work my way along a pitch-black bridleway looking for a control. Half a mile of nothing but monotonous walls and fields on either side can make it terribly difficult to identify the exact location of a control wrapped around the trunk of a small tree. But, to get it right, and find it exactly when and where you expect to, is deeply satisfying.
Mid way through the evening I was faced with one of the classic decision-making moments that define orienteering. There was a single control some four kilometres away from any of the others, on the extreme edge of the event area defined on the map. It was worth only five points. With the wind still battering me and rain and snow alternating with occasional clear spells in which the moon shone down from a sliding window in the clouds, it was all too tempting to ignore it and hope that all my rivals would do likewise. But, what if they didn’t? “Sod it” I thought, “in for a penny, in for a pound!”
So, I turned southwards and committed myself to finding that five-pointer, out there in the darkness somewhere. This is the time when your thoughts can wander. I briefly nodded off and it took several minutes to re-locate exactly where I was and moments later I came upon the isolated control. I’d been seconds from riding right past it and, more importantly, straight down a hill that would have made re-tracing my steps doubly painful. Relieved, I motored on, another fifteen minutes passing as I battled with the gradient and elements – both of which were now set against me.
A couple more controls, one down a dead end path, another by the roadside, left me only a three of four kilometres from the finish with five controls packed around the centre of another small village still to find. A quick check of the watch gave me 20 minutes and I reckoned I was on for a full house and well within the two hours.
But panic lurks behind every wall, at every road junction and after each control. Occasionally even the best organisers misplace the location of a control on the 1:50,000 Ordnance Survey maps they use. My penultimate control was marked at the bottom of a small side-road in the village centre. But it was nowhere to be seen when I arrived.
Organisers provide riders with one other aid to finding the controls: as well as the map, they give you a small sheet with written descriptions of the controls’ locations. In this instance, it read “telegraph pole in front of gym.”
I retraced my wheel-marks to make sure I was on the correct road and then set off again along it in search of the elusive control. The road ramped up steeply and my by now aching limbs sent messages of mild distress to my brain, which was indeed close to panic. In truth I’d had a pretty good run so far. Was I about to have my hopes of a perfect score dashed by a control I simply could not locate?
Suddenly, a single-storey building emerged on my right, and a wave of relief swamped me as I noted the “gym” sign on the wall. And the control was there, on a telegraph pole. A quick dip of the dibber, a beep and I was on my way again.
The final control was a routine find, on a lamppost a few hundred yards from the finish. Seconds later I dibbed a final time at the “finish” control outside the event HQ, a welcoming looking pub, and I was finally able to relax.
The first priority was to change out of my soaked riding kit and then to stow away my bike. Then it was into the pub to hand in my dibber to the organisers, who use a special interrogator to download the contents and print off an instant score-sheet for my ride.
Other riders and runners (some organisers run mixed events) awaited me in the pub and over the next hour or so the remaining competitors came thought the door. All were grinning, despite the cold and wet. Stories were exchanged, tales of success and failure, especially centred on the location of the gym control. The bar snacks thoughtfully ordered by the organisers dwindled and disappeared and the bar did a steady trade in beer, coke and crisps.
Scores were compared and, although there was a winner, no-one seemed all that bothered. It was that kind of evening: just to have been out in the wind, snow and rain, whilst the rest of the world huddled round their soap operas of choice, was enough to have produced a collective buzz that only competitive exercise can bring.
As I drove the short journey home, the roads empty and half-flooded in places, I mused on the unique nature of this off-shoot of the sport. There was something nagging at the back of my mind: a sense that I’d been through something similar in the dim and distant past. Then, as I drew away from a traffic light in the centre of Huddersfield and the obligatory white cab cut me up as it dived for the front door of a nightclub, I realised I knew what it was – golf!
A dalliance with the ball and stick sport a decade ago opened me up to the unique challenge of a round of golf, where a birdie could easily, or perhaps inevitably, be followed by a visit to a water hazard or pot bunker. One’s success or failure, though teased out a hole at a time, did not become fully apparent until all eighteen holes had been tackled. Then, and only then, could the sliding scale of success and failure be truly balanced.
And so it is with orienteering: a smooth and untroubled run around the controls can all be undone by a moment’s inattentiveness that leaves you lost or miles down a steep and testing hill, with no alternative but to retrace your steps in the sure and certain knowledge that your final score and time will both have suffered. It’s that kind of sport – one where the moments of success when you locate controls have a transitory sweetness to them and the true savouring of a job well done can only come at the conclusion of the whole event.
And like a round of golf, no matter how well you perform, there’s always somewhere something you could have done better during your ride. Upon such challenges are human obsessions built and I am well and truly hooked by this branch of cycling where the mind plays at least as important part as the body.
Fancy having a go?
Most of the events I have ridden so far have been promoted by Organic Adventure: http://organicadventure.co.uk/
The governing body website has a big calendar of events: http://www.bmbo.org.uk/