In April I was lucky enough to join Polly at Mountain Yoga Breaks in guiding a group of beginner mountain bikers around the Elan Valley. It was a brilliant weekend, with gorgeous weather, lovely people and a couple of beautiful bike rides. And, for me at least, it came with a whopping sense of achievement, for this was my first weekend working as a professional mountain bike guide.
It was exactly a year before that I went on a Mountain Yoga Break as a guest, joining a group of riders for an awesome weekend of testing climbs, beautiful descents and very satisfying yoga. So how did it come to be that I was now out the front, leading the pack of excited, new mountain bikers in this wonderful part of Wales?
It all started, as these things so often do, with a pie in the sky idea and a casual conversation about that idea. It was while I was riding along, chatting to Polly on that sunny day in April 2017, that I first spoke out loud about my notion of becoming a mountain bike coach or guide. The response I got from Polly was so overwhelmingly positive that when I got home I headed straight to the British Cycling website to get a better understanding of what ‘becoming a guide’ would actually involve.
And so it was that I found myself joining British Cycling, and booking on a two-day training course with the superb trainer, Dave ‘Windy’ Windebank of Wye MTB . The training itself was a really brilliant experience. I was there with a group of six chaps, most of whom were already outdoors instructors of some sort. I was definitely the novice of the pack – perhaps not in terms of my riding, but certainly in relation to navigation and group management. The first day started with some classroom-based activities, including learning what is expected of a guide, how to go about ensuring you have the information you need to run a successful, enjoyable ride, and then some practical learning about trailside maintenance and bike checks.
The afternoon saw us head out for a ride, to get to grips with navigation and risk assessments on the move. We got to observe Windy managing the group as we went from roads to brideways, steep climbs to descents. He tested us every now and then to see if we could find our place on an OS map, with no gadgets but a compass to help us.
Day two dawned and we met at a trailhead car park in the Welsh countryside. Today was all about putting into practice what we had learned and observed on day one. The group took it in turns to lead sections of a pre-planned (but not pre-ridden) route, getting feedback from Windy and the other riders as we went. I realised then for the first time just how hard a guide works throughout a ride – hats off to all those wonderful guides I’ve ridden with over the years! It’s a constant brain game, making sure you’re on the right track, your riders are all happy, that no one is too far out in front and in danger of missing a turn, and no one is too far behind and feeling disheartened. There are ongoing risk assessments, as the weather changes or you ride new terrain, and there’s keeping people engaged and motivated throughout. All the while, carrying a heavy pack with all the supplies you may or may not need. It’s no mean feat. At the end of the day, Windy gave us each our own feedback and a tailored plan to get us ready for assessment.
From there it was a case of get out and practice! I needed to build up a log book of long rides on different terrain, in different parts of the country and not at trail centres. I needed to practice route planning, navigation, and giving clear instructions. I needed to practice riding with a big bag of stuff! I took part in shadowing, observing practiced guides running successful rides. Oh, and I needed to take a two-day first aid course, specific to outdoor environments.
After three months I felt ready to take my assessment. I could have taken up to 18 months before doing it, but I didn’t want to drag this out! I booked back in with Windy for my assessment, and joined three other wannabe guides for a day-long assessment in the Brecon Beacons. We had time first thing to study our route, making note of sensible re-grouping points, looking out for anything that may cause difficulties on the ride, understanding when we’d be going up and when we’d be going down and generally trying to familiarise ourselves with the area. Then it was time for maintenance checks on a rigged bike – finding the problems and putting them right – a check of our guiding packs to make sure we had everything we needed, and a car park exercise for getting to know the group and making sure everyone was happy on their bikes.
And then….it was time to guide! We were each given a section of the 30km route to guide the rest of the group around, treating them as if they were guests booked onto a ride, not fellow candidates. Windy would stop us regularly to make sure we could show exactly where we were on a map (no gadgets allowed!), and giving us no indication as to whether or not we were getting it right! I was so nervous – I hadn’t realised just how much I wanted this until right then, when I was having to prove I could really do it. It was a nervous wait once I’d completed my section, trying to guess if I would pass or not, while showing Windy that I could fix a chain on the fly!
I did pass. In fact, Windy said that he decided I was more than capable within the first ten minutes of my section, and I got all my map locations right too! I was thrilled. I still am thrilled. I can’t believe I can now be paid to ride my bike, and to share adventures with all sorts of new people! Polly asking me to come onboard as a co-guide for a number of weekends in the Elan Valley really was the icing on the cake!