Trailquesting - Bike Magic

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Trailquest arose out the desire to put a competitive edge on the trail skills required when riding in a new or unknown area; a combination of the cerebral skills of navigation with the altogether more physical requirements of cross country riding. The number of Trailquest events that now clutter the calendar is a testimony to how popular this new sport has become.

It’s not difficult to see why, the attractions of the format are considerable: you can race individually or in a team, you create your own route to checkpoints, you choose how fast you go, you get up to five hours riding for your money, and, perhaps best of all, local organisers make sure the event takes in the best bits of their turf. Thus wherever the event you get to ride stuff you might miss without a guide.

So, supper-fit navigational robots with an in-built compass can get their fix at the same event as cross-generational teams out for a bit of a spin and a lunch stop somewhere with a view. The categories, delineated by age, gender, number and family association are sufficiently varied to mean anyone with competitive urges can find their level.

In a normal, non-foot-and-mouth-ravaged year, there are events almost every weekend including winter. Some are large national events, some smaller regional or local events. Typically they last five hours, although increasingly two-hour competitions are held in tandem with the main event for the less committed.

How it works
Prior to starting competitors study a map of the area with between 20 and 30 checkpoints marked but, crucially, with no values assigned. The latter are only revealed after the start which may be anytime, say, between 9-11am. Riders take their time constructing a mental picture of the terrain, its features and the possible routes between checkpoints. Only when they are ready to start and the clock is ticking do they get to know checkpoint values. There then follows the critical period of route construction where riders attempt to create a loop that will amass the most points in the five hours allowed. There are severe penalties for every minute beyond that period that they are riding. It’s far cry from the frantic massed charge of a cross country race or the self-absorbed focus and explosive effort of downhill.

The advantages of competing in a team aren’t just social if the two riders are evenly matched. Since much of the route will be on fast tracks or roads drafting is possible. Valuable seconds can also be gained by dividing tasks: one rider getting the card stamped while the other plans the route etc.

Getting started
Fount of all Trailquest and mountain bike orienteering knowledge is the Trail Cyclists’ Association web site Not only is there a full calendar of events and contact details there is also an exhaustive tips section answering pretty much every question you might have (and plenty you haven’t thought of yet) about preparing and competing in Trailquest events. A first port of call for beginners and the experienced alike.

Lisa Welbourn, last year’s Senior Womens’ Champion and TCA results secretary, recommends beginners try out some of the shorter events, typically run during the winter months, before diving into full length events. She also advises riders new to competitive map reading to practice riding with a map of their local area to improve their estimation of distance covered. Riding while navigating, and with a map board on your bars obscuring your view of your front wheel are also skills she advises a novice to learn.

Permanent courses
There are a few permanent mountain bike orienteering courses set up by the Forestry Commission around the country. Roll up, buy a map and off you go.
Leanachan Forest Lochaber Forest District: 01397 702 184
Kirkhill, near Aberdeen Kincardine Forest District: 01330 844 537
Kielder Keilder Forest District: 01434 220 242
Cannock West Midlands Forest District: 01889 586 593
Thetford East Anglia Forest District: 01842 810 271
Glentress Scottish Borders Forest District: 01750 721120

Clothing company Polaris saw a gap in the market for a two-day, Trailquest-style event with overnight camping. The event is now a relatively high profile with an expenses–paid-for trip to the world finals for the winning team over the three events.

The principle differences between this and TQ events are the distances covered, the amount of stuff that needs to be carried (tent and food on top of emergency kit) and the fact that the Polaris is a team event (two riders) taking place only three times a year.

The seven-hour days and the often adverse weather (Polaris’ take place in spring, summer and autumn) make this the ultimate test of mountain bike orienteering and endurance but, once again, the format allows the less fit or competitive to take part and enjoy the event.


There isn’t much more to carry than you would for a normal day out in the hills. Having a perfectly functioning bike and the ability and tools to deal with the most common maintenance problems comes at or near the top of necessities. Foul weather gear, emergency blanket and whistle are often essential items stipulated by organisers anxious not to have a fatality at their event. A small first aid kit, with dressings sufficient to staunch the flow of a bad cut may also be stipulated on the same grounds.

As mentioned, a map board will drastically improve navigation on the move and a computer, set in kilometres, is another essential tool. Spare tubes and patches almost go without saying and – particularly in wet and gritty locations – spare brake pads are advisable.

Food and drink, tyre choice and mudguards, (hardly lifesavers, but do make riding in slop that little bit more bearable) are other important but personal decisions. And don’t forget your compass.



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