Mountain Bike-O

August 3, 2000

by Steve Gregg, meet director

I was a little surprised when Evan Custer brought up the idea of holding a mountain-bike orienteering event at Sierra 2000. Animosity between hikers and mountain bikers runs high in the San Francisco Bay Area, and in the past several members of our club have made it clear that they disapprove of mountain bike orienteering on principle.

But I did not hear a single objection to holding such an event at Northstar (probably because Northstar opens their entire ski area to mountain bikers in the summertime, and there are very few hikers sharing the steep trails), so my only problems were figuring out how to run the best possible event, given the limitations of the terrain.

Map and Courses

BAOC has never held a serious mountain bike orienteering event before, so I started my planning completely from scratch. Question #1: What map to use? Would our foot-O orienteering map be sufficient, or would I have to do a little extra mapping on my own? Fortunately our foot-O map proved to have enough terrain for the mountain bike O event, and so all I had to do was spend a couple of days field-checking the trails to bring the map up to the new IOF specifications for mountain bike orienteering.

Every trail was given both a width classification ("wide" or "narrow"), and a riding classification ("easy", "slow", or "difficult"). The thickness of the line on the map indicated the width of the trail, and the pattern of dashes indicated the ridability (a solid line for easy, long dashes for slow, short dashes for difficult). As a result I felt that fairness in route choice was accomplished, and we ended up with a very handsome map as well. Our club could probably make money selling this map to mountain bikers during the summer, since the map Northstar gives its riders is pretty awful. I helped several lost riders find their way around when I was field-checking the area before the event.

Due to the steepness of the area and the relatively sparse trail network, I also decided to have few controls on the courses (the advanced course, for example, covered 14 km and had only 8 controls) and to not require the controls to be taken in any specific order. I felt this would introduce more route choice decisions into the event and prevent it from being just a mountain bike race with a few required stops along the way. Although it turned out that all the courses had a fairly obvious "optimal" route, it did make the post-mortem discussions more interesting than would have been the case with a more normal point-to-point course.

Stiff Competition

On to the competition! I had ridden all the courses ahead of time to make sure they were of appropriate length and climb, and to try to establish rough winning time estimates. What I discovered is that a lot of orienteers are much faster and crazier on steep descents than I am!

Only on the "Easy" course, with little technical descending, did the winning time meet my expectations, with Nik "The Ringer" Weber from BAOC taking first place in 37:15. Meanwhile, the "Intermediate" course was being blitzed by elite foot-Oers Graeme Ackland and Andy Dale in times of 46:20 and 46:56, respectably, and the "Advanced" course was won by BAOCer Doug Stein in 73:34. And in what was probably the most impressive ride of the day, adventure racer extraordinaire Annabel Fernandez-Valledor from San Diego was right behind Doug in a time of 77:56.

I was very pleased with the narrow spread of riding times and the fact that the courses turned out to be appropriate for riders with a wide range of fitness levels and bike handling skills. Only two riders out of 49 DNF'd, and only four riders had times over two hours.

It was also interesting to see all the contraptions people came up with to try to read their maps on the fly. Most were homemade, with lots of clever engineering feats in evidence to keep the map oriented at all times and not flop around too much. I wish now I had taken pictures of some folks' bicycles at the start, to show off the cleverness of the orienteering community.

Lessons Learned

So what went wrong at the event? In order to set a relatively flat but navigationally interesting "Easy" course, I felt I had to have both the start and finish at the top of the ski lift, instead of at the bottom. A few hardy souls got a good warmup by riding their bikes all the way to the top, but the more sane riders took the lift to the start instead. Fun and scenic, yes, but Northstar charges $12 to take both a person and a bicycle to the top of the lift! Awfully expensive by orienteering standards. I apologize to those of you who reluctantly paid that fee, but hey, what do you expect at an event held at a fancy ski resort area, anyway?

Some people also complained about the gearing on their rental bicycles being poorly adjusted. I take some responsibility for this. My guess is that 99.99% of the bicycles that Northstar rents are used for downhill riding only, and that when they set up their bicycles, they don't worry too much about the low gears engaging correctly. I should have warned the bike shop employees ahead of time that yes, these people will be using their low climbing gears quite a bit today, so would you please make sure they shift properly!

I should also have made it more clear that riding off-trail is strictly prohibited at mountain bike orienteering events. The exception to this rule is when a trail leads into a small dot clearing on the map, and then comes out the other side. Most of the time in this situation the trail actually does go through the middle of the clearing, but to improve map legibility the mapper decides to leave the trail off the map as it passes through the clearing. I tried to indicate this situation on the map with a little picture and the legend "Clearings, OK to cross". Unfortunately, though, several people interpreted this to mean that ANY open area on the map was OK to ride through, including the steep downhill ski slopes!

Charlie Shahbazian provided the craziest example of this misunderstanding, as he decided to return to the finish not on a trail, but on a steep downhill ski run directly above the finish area. All of a sudden we were confronted by a huge cloud of dust and a rider sliding down the final steep cliff on his butt, trying to hold on to his bike on the way down. Surprise, it's Charlie! His comment, "Well, I was sure it would be quicker this way than taking the trails all the way around."

It may be quite a while before BAOC puts on another major mountain bike orienteering event but I enjoyed organizing this one. It was a fun change of pace from our regular foot-O events.