MTBO, or Mountain Bike Orienteering, is as hard or as easy as you want to make it: that’s why its the perfect weekend jaunt for those of us who need to balance the thrill of riding with the need to show up for work in one piece on Monday morning.
Adele Mitchell reports from her local event.
Peaslake in Surrey is, at first glimpse, a chocolate-box rural village: it has a primary school, two shops, a church, a pub and a village hall. It’s the sort of place people used to motor out to on a Sunday afternoon for a cream tea and a bit of peace and quiet.
However it also happens to be surrounded by acres of wooded hills that offer some of the best natural mountain bike trails in Southern England.
Every weekend – and much to the despair of quite a few locals, but that’s another story – this sleepy idyll transforms into an unofficial trail centre, heaving with riders. The bus shelter doubles as a meeting point, the village shop does a roaring trade in cheese straws and sausage rolls, while the other shop is one of the UKs most successful Santa Cruz dealers.
So when, in 2007, a group of mountain bike-loving dads at Peaslake Village School were tasked with fund raising, a local MTBO event seemed like a good idea. They were right – and Peaslake MTBO now takes place twice a year with more than 150 riders taking part each time.
So, what’s the secret of its enduring appeal?
Here’s the thing: in an ideal mountain bike world we’d all be shredding the trails in Moab on a daily basis, or nailing the fiercest downhill that Wales can muster while enjoying a perpetual 21st birthday backlit by an endless sunset.
The truth is – and look away now if your feeling a bit world-weary – that most of us are middle-aged and middle-skilled weekend riders…with maximum responsibilities for the rest of the week.
We love our riding, do as much as we can and push our limits as far as we dare. But we also know that a big crash and a broken collar-bone will go down like a lead balloon when we have to ring in sick on Monday morning.
So, if you’re a responsibility-laden mountain biker who – like me – is old enough to have Morrissey albums, reading glasses, and young mouths to feed, and you’d like to finish an event in a fit state to enjoy a burger rather than via the minor injuries unit…then a cross-country-with-a-bit-of-singletrack MTBO event could be for you.
Not that MTBO can’t be a challenging: “we have 21 markers to find over 12 miles with a three hour time limit,” explains says current organiser Charlie Alexander, “and we usually have just 2 or 3 riders who manage to clear the course.” It is, he explains, as hard or as easy as you want to make it. “Most riders go all out to get the best score they can but others turn up with friends to ride somewhere different, and families can choose a shorter route.”
And that’s the joy of it.
Like any mountain bike event, it is not without risk of course. When my friend and I won the women’s team category I had tried so hard that I went over the handlebars in an effort to avoid time penalties. It is however the only cycling event I have ever won: so naturally, I’m a big fan.
Others also appreciate MTBO’s appeal. Matin Cade is a local rider who has helped run the event in the past.
“It’s a ‘give it a go’ event that is accessible to anyone who rides.” he enthused, having completed it with his son. “For me it also captures the spirit of mountain biking: I think it harks back to the original ethos of riding natural trails on whatever bike you had to hand, just for the thrill of it.”
And because MTBO is about navigating from marker to marker cross-country, it’s also a chance to spread your wings.
“I usually come to the Surrey Hills and just ride the well-known trails” one rider told me. “It’s been great today because I got to explore. I never realised there were so many different places to ride here”.
Start times are staggered so you have no idea of where you are placed until every rider is back. This enables a very social post-ride vibe where riders share ‘war stories’, puzzle over where they went wrong or what worked well and consume vast quantities of tea and home made cake while waiting for the results to come in.
In short: MTBO may not be quite up there with a second home in Moab and eternal youth – but its way more achievable and a lot of fun.
The next Peaslake MTBO http://www.peaslakemtbo.com is in October.