Navigating on the move

The bike map board is probably the best investment one can make to a serious race effort. With a map board mounted to the handlebar, one has the map viewable, hands-free, all the time. Rotating map boards have the distinct advantage of being able to be oriented to the ground or compass.

Wisdom dictates that checking of maps should only be done when completely stationary. In fact, any good map board allows one to study the map while on the move at low speeds on smooth terrain. Pedaling slowly uphill on a wide tarmac section in open terrain, with prominent landmarks visible, presents a good opportunity for a map check; as opposed to a high-speed, rocky singletrack through dense vegetation.


Apart from periods of extreme fatigue/over-confidence, most avoidable navigation mistakes happen during change of light – dawn or dusk. It pays to slow a fraction and be extra alert of route choices and directions during sunrise or sunset, until the eyes grow accustomed to the changed lighting conditions. Which brings us to our next topic….


Into the night

The principle of night riding is simple: the more light you have, the faster you can ride (as close to daylight riding speed as you can). In terms of light output, the best systems are the High-Intensity Discharge (HID) varieties. They are incredibly bright but also incredibly expensive. If the team budget allows, HIDs are the ultimate weapon for blitzing a bike section at night. Alternatively, a selection from the present generation of powerful, Light-Emitting Diode (LED) headlamps may be a better choice if the budget is controlled. Lightweight, durable, delivering pure white light emissions with long burn times, LEDs are currently the weapon of choice over older, heavier halogen systems.

Choosing between a helmet-mounted and handlebar-mounted light depends largely on your riding conditions. In general, helmet lights are superb for narrow, technical sections with lots of trees and blind corners.

On the other hand, handlebar lights preserve your night vision much better in dusty conditions, in rain, and in night-time mist or fog. This is based on the simple principle that the further the light source is from your eyes, the less light is reflected back directly into your eyes by airborne particles. Having a light lower to the ground also produces better contrasts and shadows, allowing you to read lumpy terrain and perceive hidden drop-offs better.

Having a primary source of light on your helmet and a secondary source on your handlebar (or vice-versa) gives you the chance to adapt to variable conditions. The secondary light (I use a AAA-powered trekking headlamp cable-tied to my handlebar) also serves as an all-important back-up light source in case the primary light decides to pack up.

Rear blinkers are essential, but only a small one is required. Those powered by a single watch battery are perfect: visible enough to prevent bike-on-bike crashes in foggy or rainy night conditions, but not so bright as to compromise the night vision of one’s teammates.


Team tactics

All the usual road tricks will work in an off-road adventure, provided the team can stick to a game plan, or keep within striking distance of a rival team. Pace-lining always works if the overall race speed is sufficiently high, weather conditions generally mild, and all team mates feeling good. Even on gravelly, unsealed roads, be sure to take turns pulling the rest of the pack, especially when heading into a stiff wind. If you pass a team who appear to be checking directions, or are stuck with a team who seem to be going in the same direction, at least be aware of what they are up to and any decisions they make that are different from your own.

Sustained climbs, sections with thick vegetation, and blind corners are all good places to attack or to build a lead over other teams. If being chased, keeping out of sight is crucial, so thick vegetation and winding singletrack will be good places to push the pace.

Compared to running/hiking sections – where approaching people are easily heard even from quite a long way off – movement on bicycles can be surprisingly silent, even in technical off-road bits. Lots of distance can be gained – or lost – in an adventure race, if a team knows how to decisively overtake another team, particularly in singletrack sections.

A tow line is a highly effective means of getting the team to cycle at a speed faster than the slowest member can achieve by himself, particularly when pace-lining is impractical. Early tow systems consisted of a PVC tube or radio antenna attached with a hose clamp to one of the saddle rails, with a length of bungee cord strung through and secured to the rail.

Nowadays, most teams with adequate DIY skills will opt for a retractable doggy leash secured to the seatpost or saddle rails with several heavy-duty cable ties. A loop of bungee cord dead-knotted to the end of the leash cord helps take up the slack and absorb shock. In a pinch, the cord can also be used to pitch tents, as a clothesline, or cannibalized to effect repairs.

To conclude, if there is only one thing you can take away from these articles, it is this: learn how to ride with no hands. Eating, drinking, navigating, towing, signaling vehicles or team mates, and adjusting lights or clothing becomes that much easier if, by second nature, you can handle your bike with only one hand – or no hands – on the handlebar.