2014 marks my 8th year of racing in MTBO. I rode my first event, the annual December Military Challenge (or Around Aldershot as it used to be known) in 2005, and another in 2006. I rode on a battered second hand Giant Boulder and found riding for 3 hours incredibly tough but rewarding. (8 years is counted from March 2007, as this was the first event I actively attended entirely of my own freewill!)
Over several blog articles, I will chart my progress from complete MTB novice, to European Champion and vice World Champion in MTBO.
From 1999 I was a foot-orienteer. Never very good, but always good enough to be selected for BOF summer tours and the GB Start Squad. I represented GB at EYOC in 2006 (and selected 2007), and England at various international races. But over the winter of 2007 I overtrained. Mentally. I was desperate to go to JWOC in Australia, and was training 11hrs a week, mostly running, but to build hours I was cycling to Sixth Form several days a week or taking a longer ride at the weekend.
Physically there was nothing wrong, but I just couldn’t face running anymore. It became a chore and boring. I was flicking through old issues of Compass Sport one evening and came across an article about MTBO, written several years previously. I thought it sounded fun (and a good chance to try to beat the likes of Helen Winskill and Heather Monro), and MTBO has often been portrayed by foot-orienteers to be ‘easy’, so I thought I could do well. I spoke to my father about driving me to Cannock at the end of March 2007. His response was ‘No, got other plans. But you can take the train’.
So I did. After several hours I arrived at Cannock station and from there rode to the event. I had one of those cheap plastic mapboards that simply clips on to the handlebars but has a propensity to rotate and slip forwards while riding. I had never seen an MTBO map, and had no idea of the rules (shortcuts were taken) but I finished 6th on the women’s course. Back in 2007, Helen Winskill, Heather Monro, Janine Inman and Karen Poole were still in the sport so naturally I finished behind, but not by a big margin. It was a bit of a wake-up call that MTBO wasn’t just about orienteering skills, but in fact relied heavily on bike fitness, speed and skill. I loved the race and the speed of navigation, and found it more challenging than foot-orienteering due to the higher speed with significantly less time to think, and technical bike challenges along the way.
Different skills are required for MTBO and Foot-O, and the two shouldn’t be directly compared. MTBO relies on planning ahead – the full leg. There’s no opportunity to slow down at the control, bending over the map while exiting and correcting direction with the compass. Route choice is critical too, often athletes have to look a long way from the line to find the fastest route. There is no mid-route adjustment, once you choose and start a route, you have to commit. Furthermore, it’s a skill to be able to ride the trails without having ever seen them before. Often there can be challenging obstacles, rocks, roots and drops. Sandy areas or steep climbs. Being able to ride these well is crucial. And finally, there is the actual execution of the leg. Think sprint foot-orienteering, only faster. Every decision is made instantly and instinctively. The speed is high, and map memory is important.
From the first event I was hooked, and dragged my father along to the next event on Cannock a month later. My parents even bought me a new bike for my birthday, but I wasn’t allowed to ride it until then, despite the event being 4 days before! Just from these two races, I was selected for my first international event in MTBO. I am not sure what the selectors thought of a junior wanting to race, but I am pleased they gave me the chance.
The European Junior Championships in Italy (2007) were a massive learning curve. I had to learn how to take a bike apart, pack it in a bike bag, and then rebuild it at the other end to a state it can be raced on! The dismantling took 3 hours. The rebuilding took longer, but luckily the GB men are good with bent disc brakes (and fixing gears, brakes and wheels)!
In my first race I had no idea what to expect and had to wait for the GB elite team to start, so I was waiting around for about 4 hours. From foot-o I had brought with me a desire to be at an event many hours before my start time. Luckily I’ve kicked the habit now. The GB team had time to finish, and ride 30 mins back to the car park and give me some advice about the course. Things like ‘it’s steep and muddy’ didn’t put my mind at ease, but other advice did. I had spent the evening before looking at the 2006 results and had a feeling I could perform well.
I was leading the race for a substantial number of controls, before skidding on the wet road at the penultimate control and hitting the tarmac. I had a 30 second lead before this, but the shock of the crash saw me lose gold by a mere 3 seconds. I was over the moon to take such a result, and the race remains to this day one of my favourites. Every decision I made was good, and I rode all the steep muddy downhill sections which had stumped a number of elite class riders earlier. My time was even good enough to take 20th place in the elite class.
After this I became more nervous and put more pressure on myself and thus my performance suffered. I took a 5th and a 6th in the middle and long. Ironically, I was on track for another medal in the middle distance, but I had no idea what the ‘pink line’ symbol on the map meant. Well, I did, I thought it was a gate. I didn’t appreciate that the symbol meant obstacle: fallen tree, gate, deep ditch etc. It was close to a junction on a path I needed to take me to the control. For 5 minutes I hovered at the junction, riding 100m up and down the track, but not taking it because of the tree obscuring the junction and path. I had never been more than 20 seconds from the control.
Later in June was my first British Championship weekend, again on Cannock Chase, where I took 5th and 6th. From this I was lucky enough to be selected for the World Championships in Nove Mesto na Morave in Czech Republic. None of the girls who beat me were able to attend, so I was heading into the most major competition of my career, as the best British woman. I chose to use the races for experience; always a bad move. I don’t think using an event for experience focusses the mind much, with more attention being put on everything around the race, rather than the actual orienteering aspect.
The WOC competition used for two of the races, a ski and biathlon stadium. The freshly laid looping tarmac provided a fantastic beer relay course, but also allowed the courses to cross over the bridge and really create a spectator friendly event. The arena is now famous in XCO and XCE circles for hosting the UCI World Cup, and in skiing circles for hosting various major international events for XC ski and Biathlon. I would love to return to this arena one day to be able to ride the new technical features on the World Cup circuit, and the extra trails probably make an even better sprint and relay location now.
I took a 40th in the sprint (the first WOC sprint) and then a 35th in the middle. I often ponder over this middle course now, and wonder if I took the best routes. It’s hard to know. In the actual race, I was overtaken by Christine Schaffner, and was very impressed by her speed and strength. I couldn’t even ride at that speed, let alone keep up. It’s been a moment that’s remained with me for many years and really made me realise how talented and well trained the top athletes are.
I opted out of the long final as, at the age of 18, I felt I lacked bike strength to race for 2 hours, so instead I played Team Supporter for the day.
A few months later I went to Sheffield Hallam University to study Physiotherapy. I was already hooked on MTBO, but had a big decision to make: MTBO or Foot-O. I still felt pressured to race foot-o and the Future Champions Cup to get selected for foot-o JWOC, but I didn’t really feel motivated for it or actually want to do it. It took a few months before I decided I wanted to focus on MTBO, so I set myself the goal of getting 3 JWOC MTBO medals and 3 EJOC MTBO medals.
Part 2 will cover 2008 and 2009, the rest of my time as a junior and will be published soon (ish).