Despite the unpredictable weather, mountain bikers are busy dusting off their rides, pumping up their tires and getting ready to hit the trail.
What if there was a way to combine outstanding scenery, a great bicycle ride and navigational skills? There is, thanks to Spokane Trailquest. The organization will launch its spring series on April 26.
Spokane Trailquest is a series of mountain bike orienteering events launched two years ago by Spokane resident Ken Bell. While teaching in several Department of Defense high schools in England, Bell discovered this sport was very popular in Europe.
“My wife says it’s like a scavenger hunt on bikes,” he said. But there’s a bit more to it than that.
Competitors start at a central location and are given scorecards, maps and compasses. Twenty-four checkpoints are marked on the map, and the riders have three hours to locate as many as possible and return to the finish. The checkpoints are designated by large orange markers.
“They look like jack-o’-lanterns,” said Bell.
Each checkpoint has a point value determined by distance and difficulty, and riders must be sure to punch their scorecard at each location.
When Bell retired and returned to Spokane, he was surprised that while many forms of orienteering, including running and skiing, were gaining ground in the U.S., no mountain bike orienteering events existed.
With the encouragement of his old running partner, Bloomsday founder Don Kardong, Bell organized Spokane Trailquest. The group hosts a spring and a fall series of three races, with events held in a variety of locations including Hayden, Newman Lake and Williams Valley near Deer Park.
Bell said mountain bike orienteering is for all ages and abilities. In fact, most of the top riders are women. Competitors may ride solo or as a team. He tries to map out rides that are challenging, but not too taxing, and incorporate both gravel roads and bike trails. If competitors reach every checkpoint, they will ride about 32 miles. However, Bell said it’s pretty rare for riders to do that in the allotted time.
There is no mass start.
“You can start whenever you’d like,” said Bell. “You plan your own route, and that’s the challenge. You pick your route and gauge your riding ability.”
The group holds a luncheon at the end of each three-race series where yellow jerseys are awarded to the winners in each class.
When David Fuller, a teacher at Chase Middle School, heard about Trailquest, he decided to give it a try.
“I did a ride near Deer Park,” he recalled. “Three hours went by so fast I couldn’t even tell how exhausted I was. You’re constantly making decisions. It’s really exciting!” He enjoyed himself so much that when the next event came up he talked his 26-year-old daughter, Emily, into doing it with him. “She was the navigator,” Fuller said. “It was even more fun making the decisions together.” They don’t plan on missing a race this year.
Indeed, Trailquest is becoming a family event for others as well. Charlie Vandeventer, 65, enjoys the rides with his 32-year-old son, Jeff. “My son and I both mountain bike,” he said. “But my son’s kinda crazy. I gotta slow him down.”
Vandeventer calls the competition great mental and physical exercise and a fun combination of two things they both enjoy – biking and problem solving.
Even highly competitive athletes enjoy mountain bike orienteering.
Dave Gerard participates in Adventure Racing, a combination of several disciplines that may include navigation, running, paddling and mountain biking over a period of several days. He heard about Trailquest from a friend and decided to enter a competition.
“I won the first race I did,” he said.
He encourages novices to give it a try.
“Don’t be afraid of the orienteering part,” he said. “It’s like a nice bike ride with a purpose.”
As far as Bell knows, Spokane Trailquest is the only mountain bike orienteering organization in the U.S., but he’s dreaming big. “I’d like to see it grow,” he said. “It’d be really nice to send someone to the World Championships.”