by Fletcher Hamel
Have you ever jumped into an activity with both feet only to find yourself nearly drowning?
For me, it happened this summer at the World Mountain Bike Orienteering Championships. Through a self-nominating application process earlier in the spring, I was one of seven athletes named to the US MTBO team and quickly began training & packing for Estonia.
Now let me back up and explain the sport a bit…
Mountain bike orienteering (MTBO) combines brains & brawn: high speed mountain biking racing with map reading and quick decisions about the best route choices. The sport attracts both orienteering and mountain bike enthusiasts. Understanding detailed topographic maps and memorizing routes are key orienteering skills needed. Extremely good bike handling and the ability to cope with steep slopes are also an absolute must. Mountain bike orienteering is the newest of the four orienteering disciplines administered by the International Orienteering Federation. In the last 15 years, the number of countries holding national championships has exploded from less than 10 to more than 60. The annual MTBO World Championships attract riders from over 30 countries – including the USA as of 2012.
As you can tell, it takes the best of both tradition orienteering (map and compass navigation) and mountain biking (handling technical descents and punchy climbs) just to hack it in the sport.
As I trained back here in the US, I felt comfortable and confident in my abilities – winning all local MTBOs, foot Os, and ARs I entered up to my trip to Europe. This only lulled me into a false perspective of the mind and the team’s chances of making a splash at our first coed entry to the world stage.
Once I arrived in the host town of Rakvere, Estonia, by way Chicago-Stockholm-Tallinn, I was surprised by the foreboding way my teammates who had attended the training camp spoke of some of the international competition as almost Gods of the sport.
It didn’t take long for me to understand. The first event was a sprint (~9k/5miles) of riding on the “perfect” route. This, I knew, wouldn’t be my best event, as I was and am currently invested in training for expedition length (3-10 day) multisport competitions, but I was not expecting the results I got. Not only was I one of roughly 75 racers to mispunch (punch out of order – or the wrong checkpoint), but I wrecked, DQ’d (out of bounds) and finished with nearly twice the time (half as fast) as the winner of the first event…Humbling.
We then did some site seeing and competed in several more races throughout the week. And although I continued to hover at the bottom of the leaderboard during the remainder of the competition, I didn’t resign myself to defeat. I was learning a lot, never mispunched or DQ’d again and was still having a great time (it helps when you have such awesome teammates). We all returned to the states with tons of lessons learned and with a hope and desire to grow the sport on American soil. Plan on seeing the US back at World again next year and then in 2015, watch out!
To learn even more about the sport of MTBO or orienteering in general, visit: www.orienteeringusa.org/
Or check to see if your local orienteering club is putting on an event!
See you on the trail (or where it ends),
Fletcher Hamel – member of 2013 US MTBO team