Saturday, December 27, 2014

MTB Orienteering season 2014: A lot to celebrate!

Denmark, Sweden and Poland: three focal competition points in the Mountain Bike Orienteering season that has just ended. It was there that the world Elite met in large numbers, where the key outcomes were concentrated. From Birkerød and Skåne to Białystok and Supraśl, here is a look over the best that happened in 2014, in a discipline where spectacular performances and long-lasting excitement are both sides of the same coin.

By Joaquim Margarido

Beginning with the first of the three major international events of the season: the MTB Orienteering World Cup headed to Denmark for the opening round of the 2014 edition. The great moments of the European Championships and World Junior Championships in 2009 were still present in many riders' memories, along with the recognized organizational quality and the challenge of the terrain around Birkerød. The natural anxiety that comes at the beginning of each season was clearly apparent, with the first “real” cycling giving everyone the chance to see the effects of their winter preparation. Expectations were running high!

In winning the Sprint, the Russian Anton Foliforov and the Finn Marika Hara opened the season in the best possible way following their overall victories in the 2013 World Cup. The Long Distance stage had the Finnish athletes Pekka Niemi and Ingrid Stengård as the big winners. Victories certainly tasty in both cases, being the first by Niemi in a World Cup stage, and for Stengård a return to the highest place of the podium, something she was away from for almost two years. Marika Hara, Pekka Niemi and Jussi Laurila won the Mixed Relay for Finland on the last day of competition, with France second here, alongside Gaëlle Barlet, Cédric Beill and Baptiste Fuchs are emerging in a dazzling way.

But the story of this World Cup MTB orienteering 2014's first round is completed by other names and not only the winners. The Norwegian Hans Jørgen Kvåle and the British Emily Benham, the Russians Svetlana Poverina and Olga Vinogradova and the Dane Erik Skovgaard Knudsen deserve to get a mention in finishing a little step from the gold. With the advance of the season, some would confirm their good moment and get higher placings. Others, not so much …

A new participation record

In the second half of July, 16,000 orienteers from all around the world took the route to northern Europe. Only a big competition like O-Ringen (Sweden) has such power and charisma, strengthened this year by the fact that it was celebrating its 50th anniversary. Side by side with its "sisters" Foot and Trail Orienteering, MTB Orienteering appeared prominently showed itself prominently in the programme, being the first discipline to “take the field” and also in having three stages counting for World Cup ranking. In addition to the 124 athletes entered in Elite classes, we should reflect on the 644 participants during the three days of open competition, making the O-Ringen MTBO 2014 the competition with the highest-ever participation in MTB Orienteering history.

Anton Foliforov took a giant step towards renewing his victory in the World Cup overall in winning the Middle Distance and Long Distance stages. The big surprise in the men's competition came from Estonia, with Lauri Malsroos clearly beating Hans Jørgen Kvåle to win the Sprint stage and get his first-ever victory in the World Cup. Winning everything there was to win, Emily Benham was the common denominator of all stages in the women's class. By clear margins in the Middle Distance and Long Distance, but only three little seconds over Ingrid Stengård on Sprint, the triumphs of the British athlete took her to the leadership of the World Cup and transform her into the main favourite for the world titles, five weeks before the competition.

Russia's great year

The month of August was headed for its end when, in Poland, the 12th edition of the World Mountain Bike Orienteering Championships took place. With all attention focused on Białystok and Supraśl, the competitions would find the new World Champions in the Middle, Long, Sprint and Relay distances, all of them also being stages counting in the World Cup 2014's final round.

After a Mixed Sprint Relay prologue won by the Russians Tatiana Repina and Ruslan Gritsan, the real competition started with the most exciting outcome in the history of the World Championships, with an epic Sprint crediting Hans Jørgen Kvåle and Anton Foliforov with the same time and thereford both awarded gold medals. After her silver medals in 2009 and 2011, Marika Hara won her first world title in Sprint, clearly beating the Russian Tatiana Repina. With four male and three female athletes in the first seven positions on the respective lists of results, Russia showed itself firmly determined to avenge the previous season, in which Russia got no gold medals at all for the first time since 2004.

Ruslan Gritsan then took the gold medal in the Middle Distance, a victory that allowed the Russian athlete to regain a title that had escaped him for nine years (!). That makes him currently the male athlete with the most gold medals in the history of the World MTB Orienteering Championships with six individual world titles, overtaking the Australian Adrian Jackson, World Champion five times. In the female sector, the Swede Cecilia Thomasson asserted herself again as one of the greatest current MTB orienteering experts, winning the world title in Middle Distance after winning the Sprint gold medal in the 2013 World Championships.

But it was in the Long Distance, the classic race of the Championships, that Russia showed itself at the highest level, with Anton Foliforov recovering the title he won in 2010 and Olga Vinogradova being crowned World Champion for the first time ever in her career. Vinogradova came back to a prominent place in the results on the last day of competition by winning, along with Tatiana Repina and Svetlana Poverina, the world title in Women's Relay, achieved only once previously by Russia in the distant year of 2006. With a superbly ridden last leg Tõnis Erm, the twice World Champion (Sprint and Middle Distance) in 2013, brought Estonia its first gold ever in the Relay, climbing to the highest place on the podium beside his team-mates Lauri Malsroos and Margus Hallik. Finland took the silver medals in both men's and women's classes.

Foliforov and Benham won World Cup overall

The event in Poland also decided the 2014 Masters and Junior World Champions 2014 and received incorporated another edition of the European Youth MTB Orienteering Cup. The Junior victories of the Swedes Kajsa Engstrom (Middle Distance) and Oskar Sandberg (Sprint), added to Cecilia Thomasson's gold, allowed Sweden to affirm itself as one of the powerful countries in the MTBO panorama worldwide. Another outstanding Junior performance came from New Zealander Tim Robertson with the gold medal in Middle Distance and silver in Sprint - after having won, a few weeks before, a Junior world title in FootO! The Czech Veronika Kubinova won the Middle Distance gold medal, while the titles in Long Distance went to the Austrian Andreas Waldmann and the Finn Ruska Saarela. Russia in the men's class and the Czech Republic in the women's class took the Relay titles, with Kubinova named as the most successful rider of the Championships.

The World Championships results, counted into the MTB Orienteering World Cup points, left Anton Foliforov and Emily Benham holding the top positions. A little short of expectations in terms of results, Emily Benham ended up with two World Championships medals - bronze in Sprint and silver in the Middle Distance. However she stoically defended herself in the World Cup standings from Marika Hara, the winner of the World Cup in the three previous years. Winning in five of the eight individual stages scoring for the World Cup 2014's ranking, Anton Foliforov was unlike last season a strong winner, renewing an achievement that rewards regular performance at the highest level.

A number of smaller Mountain Bike Orienteering nations have strong individual athletes – the Lithuanian Jonas Maiselis and the Portuguese Davide Machado are just two exemples - and they are starting to challenge the established order in the results. No longer are the results dominated by a select group of countries; racing is more exciting, more unpredictable and more challenging. The speed and skills of the top athletes are reaching new heights each year. The future is bright and promising for MTB Orienteering.

Turning the attention to the rest of the World

The first “fight” in 2015 it assigned to Miskolc in Hungary at the beginning of May. After that there is the European Championships in Portugal and the World Championships in the Czech Republic. For 2016, the International Orienteering Federation has had the greatest number of applicants for World Cup rounds since the World Cup started in 2010. While only two of these could be chosen – and Portugal will host the World Championships - hopefully IOF will continue to have many applicants each year. This would not only allow a wider choice of terrain, but also regions. Is a World Cup in the USA or South Africa, in Indonesia or Brazil, a possibility in the future? MTB Orienteering has developed well in Europe, and now perhaps it's time for the big events to get out into the rest of the World...

[Photo: Nigel Benham. See the original article at Published with permission from the International Orienteering Federation]

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