Guest article: An introduction to mountain bike orienteering racing

Guest article: An introduction to mountain bike orienteering racing

Tom Puzak of Team USA punches in at the “Go Control,” the last control before an all out sprint to the finish. The orange and white flag is called a “control bag” and is used in every discipline of orienteering.
(Photo: Abra McNair)

Here at BikePortland we love bicycling in all its forms. A few years ago we shared a reader’s story about the fledgling (in the states at least) sport of mountain bike orienteering. With a local event this weekend out at Stub Stewart State Park, we felt now was a good time to share more about the sport.

— by Abra McNair and Sue Grandjean

“Orienteering is a navigational sport where you race against the clock using only a map and compass to reach checkpoints in numerical order, sort of like a sanctioned scavenger hunt.”

Ready for some adventure, mental challenge, and a little fitness this weekend? Then plan to attend Columbia River Orienteering Club’s (CROC) second annual mountain bike orienteering (MTBO) race this Sunday at Stub Stewart State Park.

Sure, you’ve been mountain biking, but have you mountain biked while making a split second decision about which turn should be next? Is it faster to take the longer route on the gravel road, or should you drop down that lightly dotted trail that might be well-maintained (this could mean anything from boggy marsh conditions to a rutted out herd trail)? On top of that, make sure to look up from your map long enough so you don’t collide with oncoming racers concentrating on their own route choice while riding at top speed. MTBO is like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book…but on a bike.

Orienteering is a navigational sport where you race against the clock using only a map and compass to reach checkpoints in numerical order, sort of like a sanctioned scavenger hunt. MTBO is one of the newest orienteering disciplines, with the most common and oldest variation taking place on foot (Foot-O). Having started in the late 1980’s in Europe, there have only been 11 world championship events to date. It’s a fun addition to the sport as you tend to move faster than most other disciplines (especially Canoe-O!) when on bike, making map reading and route decisions that much more challenging.

Portlander Sue Grandjean competing at an MTBO event
in Estonia last year.
(Photo: Diane Ashley)

An example of an MTBO map from the World Championship training camp in Estonia last August.
(Photo: Abra McNair)

Maps used in orienteering are very detailed when compared to a US Geological Survey map, and typically use five colors to represent terrain details, like vegetation thickness, man made objects or water features. Here’s an example of a recent advanced Foot-O course from a CROC event at Mt. Tabor. Zooming in will give you an idea of how detailed the maps can get — right down to drinking fountains and light posts.

Rather than stopping along the trail to have a glance at a crumpled trail map from a back pocket, mountain bike orienteerers use rotating map boards that attach to their handlebars, ideally enabling an almost seamless transition from finding one checkpoint to planning out a route to the next. Speed and quick thinking are key. In elite competitions you are handed your map one minute before your start time. In that 60 seconds you must orient yourself to the map, attach the map to the map board, then be mentally ready to explode out of the start gate with an idea of where you’re headed. It’s not nerve-wracking at all.

Orienteering by bike is a family sport too.
(Photo: Columbia River Orienteering Club)

There are many other variables to consider and practice for MTBO racing: maintaining balance and a steady hand to ensure you punch in and hear the digital “beep” at your control, double checking the control number you’re seeking so as not to get confused and “mispunch” at one from another course, recovering quickly from a navigation mistake to not waste time standing and looking at your map, and most importantly, focusing on your race to avoid being distracted by other riders. It’s tough to not break concentration and wonder if they’re on the same course as you, if they are passing you, or wondering why they’re going that way?

While MTBO is young worldwide, it’s in the infant stages in the US. You can probably count the number of events held stateside on your hand. There are strong orienteering clubs dotted across the nation, and although Foot-O events tend to be the main focus, Orienteering USA’s (OUSA) most recent strategic plan looks to increase MTBO events and participation in the coming years. A long-term goal would be to host a World Cup race somewhere in the not-so-distant future.

MTBO is so much more than a bike ride with a map and compass. It’s an adventure and mental challenge rolled into one. Come out and give it a shot this Sunday, June 1st at Stub Stewart State Park. Registration runs from 10:30 am – 12:45 pm, with interval starts from 11 am – 1 pm. Free instructional sessions on reading the map and more will also be available from 11 am – 1 pm. Mountain bikes are recommended, but routes can also be done on cyclocross bikes. To find out more about MTBO, start with Orienteering USA’s website. Questions about Sunday’s event? Visit the CROC website or contact race organizer Sue Grandjean at

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