Ever since bikes were invented people have been riding them off-road. However, it’s our North American cousins who can claim to have invented Mountain Biking in the 1970’s when, in Marin County, a group of friends started racing road bikes, retrofitted with beefy brakes and fat tyres, around local mountains. Some of these (Keith Bontrager, Gary Fisher etc) went on to become household names in the industry.
Today mountain bikes have generated a form of their own and Cross Country is the most popular discipline within Mountain Biking.
Most riders do so just for pleasure and get out on the vast range of tracks and bridleways that the UK has to offer all year. However, for those wishing to compete there are a number of different disciplines and competitions to choose from.
XC Racing is, as the name suggests, a race. With mass starts and in fairly challenging terrain, races are usually a set, marked, course which riders must complete one or more times against each other.
As well as being an Olympic sport now, XC Racing is also tremendously popular as a leisure sport with races held up and down the country. Most races are held outside winter months, although many cyclo-cross events in the winter allow mountain bikes to enter. MTB races cater for the complete range of abilities and races are split into categories from Elite riders, at the top end, to Fun categories where everyone can have a go. Racers are split into groups of broadly similar age, ability and gender.
Although entrants are generally allowed to ride whatever machines they like, these competitions are all about speed across a given terrain so low weight is usually more important than suspension travel. Some racers ride stripped down machines with no suspension and even no gears (singlespeed) relying on outright fitness and skill to succeed rather than fancy machinery.
Some good local events are run by Simba (although they’ve been quiet lately) and an annual race at Lightwater Valley theme park near Ripon, run by Rowels Rotary Club.
Those wishing to take the sport more seriously can compete at National level, in the National Points Series (NPS), or internationally.
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The Marathon and Enduro categories of events have been around since 2003. These are run on similar grounds to XC races but over much longer distances, from 25km up to 24 hours or more, and are a mixture of on and off road riding, although predominantly off-road. Events range from International Competitions to hugely sociable weekend festivals of mountain biking, aimed at weekend riders, and have huge fields of entrants. They’re as competitive as you want to make them but you’re really just challenging yourself. They’re like MTB Cyclo-sportives.
Also, events are often held in some of the most picturesque parts of the country (Cumbria, Scotland, Wales etc) so they’re a great way to explore huge areas of the countryside and meet similar groups of riders.
Want to know more? Try MTB-Marathon
Mountain Bike Orienteering (MTBO) is a relatively new sport world wide, holding its first ever World Championship event in France in 2002. It is a navigational event involving riding a Mountain Bike between checkpoints, either in the numbered order that they are marked on a map, or in an order chosen by participants, depending on the type of event.
There are a few variations but they broadly fall into either the Classic or Trailquest (Score Event) camps. Most events in the UK are currently of the Trailquest variety.
In a Classic MTBO event there are about ten to fifteen checkpoints, or controls, marked on a map. Bikers have to visit them in order, using the track information marked on the map to find the best route to each. Participants start at intervals, and the fastest to do the course is the winner, like a time trial. These events tend to be more about the racing and less about navigation.
The trick to doing well in a Classic event is about finding the fastest way to get to each control point, riding that way as fast as possible and not to make any mistakes on the way. The challenge here is in the making optimal route choices in a limited time frame.
A Trailquest (or Rogaine) is about navigation and strategy on a bike. Trailquests are usually ridden individually or in pairs. Each participant is given an orienteering map with anything up to 50 control points marked on it (or sometimes instructions to mark your own), showing where "checkpoints" are located. Participants visit as many or as few checkpoints as they wish, in any order and by any route, within a time limit from 2 hours, to 2 days (in the case of a Polaris). Results are broken down into categories so you’ll score against people of same age group and gender.
Much of the challenge of a Trailquest is the strategy of planning an optimum route to suit the individual’s, or combined pair’s, ability. Scoring points depends on the number of checkpoints visited and each checkpoint is worth a number of points depending on distance and difficulty of getting to it. There are stiff penalties for returning after the time deadline. Think of a trailquest as a timed ‘treasure hunt’ and you’re not too far off. They’re as competitive as you want to be so can be great fun for all abilities.
Control points in all MTBO events are easy to find, as they are all on or beside tracks. A standard orienteering map shows how easy or hard the biking is on all the trails, and how steep the country is. It is up to the riders to choose the best route for them between control points and these legs can be ridden at any pace the participants choose depending on how competitive they wish to be. Once control points are found, riders prove that they have been there either by clipping a card or by punching an identification card into an electronic box at the control point.
We’re really lucky in York to have 2, well organised, local leagues, run by North Yorkshire Mountain Bike Orienteers (NYMO) and Cleveland Orienteering Klub (CLOK). Slightly further afield there are events run in the Peak District, by Dark & White Challenge, and in the Pennines and Cumbria, by Mint Cake MTB. The Polaris Challenge events tend to be held in the North of England too and often pop up in North Yorkshire somewhere, although locations are kept secret until the last minute. So there’s plenty to choose from in the region.
We have a set of Hints and Tips for Trailquest
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If Trailquests appeal to you, and you also enjoy running, then Adventure Racing is another activity that might be worth a look.
Events are multi-discipline; typically running, mountain biking and navigation. Sometimes canoeing, rope activities and other disciplines are included too. They last between 3 hours and 10 days and are usually mixed teams of 4, although often pairs / solos too. Formats vary wildly from continuous races to separate stages with a break.
Again, we’re lucky in the North of England as Open Adventure organise a range of events, with varying difficulty, to suit most abilities.
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There are of course many other forms of mountain biking competition (Downhill, 4X, Dual, Trials etc). However, the list above tends to cover the main competitions that are run where the beginner or ‘average’ mountain biker can enter without specialist machinery or taking it too seriously.