So you want to be a guide?
For many visiting MtbRoutes.com, Mountain Bike Guide is the dream job. Endless days in the saddle probably somewhere nice and hot, doing what you like to do best and getting paid for it to boot. Well, in the summer of 2003 I pulled it off - I got that dream job. So what does it take to be a Guide?
It's early April up in the Rocky Mountains near Denver, Colorado and I'm pissed off (or just 'pissed' as they say around here). To cut a long story into a more palatable chunk, I've spent a night on the floor of Toronto airport at the height of the SARS scare, my luggage is in Calgary and I'm plodging through a blizzard in my 'airline upgrade-friendly' smart (and thin) clothes to meet a guy I've only ever spoken to on the phone a couple of times. Oh, and I'm two days early. I'm in Breckenridge and I've travelled 7,000 miles for a job interview.
It all began a year earlier on a typical bored lunchtime visit to bikebiz.co.uk. I was perusing the jobs-board and happened upon the advert - 'Dream Job - bike guide in the Colorado Rocky Mountains'. A few phone calls later and I had an interview in London arranged and the forms filled in for six months unpaid leave from work. It was perfect! I was 30 years old and wasn't quite sure if what I was experiencing was a mid-life crisis or not, but whatever it was I felt a compelling urge to get away from the 9 to 5 grind that was my job in IT. I had no dependent (or significant!) others to hold me back and my work was actively encouraging people to just go away and go easy on their wage bill for a bit. A few weeks later and my plans were in ruins - I came third for two jobs. Bugger.
Not one to give up easily, I got back on the phone to company HQ and generally made a nuisance of myself for the next eight months or so. Politely of course, and with carefully timed intervals so as to walk that fine line between reminding them of my existence and bugging the hell out of them. Anyway, after establishing contact with the new staff (the bugger who got MY job!) I managed to invite myself over 'just to hang out' for a couple of days, tagged on the end of a snowboarding trip I was planning to Calgary.
Well, I never did make it to Calgary - ice-storms in Toronto and an aircraft de-icer shortage put paid to that, and the only way out was to Denver. So here I am, cold, tired and hungry (any It Bites fans reading?), and just generally not at my best. Jason (the Stateside boss) answers the door. No-one told him I was coming, and he's rather surprised to see me! Anyway, I'm found a bed and half an hour later I'm dead to the world for 12 hours straight.
From then-on, things get better. I meet James (the bugger who got MY job) and eventually my luggage arrives and I get some boarding in. Breckenridge is fantastic - the snow is great and the pistes are really quiet as it's the back-end of the season. I seem to get on well with James and the place is very laid back. An impromtu interview happens one afternoon, but they're not letting much on. Eventually, on my last full day, I'm summoned to the office. They're impressed with my persistence - the job is mine!!! Get in...
I could write loads on that summer's adventures, but I'll cover here in general what it means to be a mountain bike guide. What did I learn makes a good guide? What's it really like to ride your bike every day in some of the most fantastic scenery in the world? What are the down-sides? Would I do it again? Of course I've only done it for one season and there are those with far more experience than me, but here's what I think anyway...
The first thing to realise is 'a good rider doth not necessarily a good guide make!'. Or something. You can be the world's s**t-hottest rider, but if your attitude stinks and you can't get on with a diverse bunch of people you'll be on the plane home before you can say 'Dude, where's my lycra?'. The relationship with the guide can ‘make or break’ the holiday for many punters. On the other hand, no point being a friendly, knowledgeable, helpful and popular guy/gal if you get dropped by your guests on the first climb. Yep, ideally you need all of these attributes and to be fit too. This is where working in Breckenridge had a great advantage - it's at 9600 feet and generally most guests were sea-level dwellers. For the first few days of each new holiday group the effect of altitude means the resident has a considerable advantage!
A bit of 'life experience' helps a lot. Remember, your guests are going to be looking to you if anything goes wrong (and go wrong it will...oh yes!) If you're acting on like you're barely out of short trousers yourself it's not going to infuse them with confidence. A cool head, quick decision-making, adaptability and a cheery persona are essential. A good sense of direction and competent map-reading are mandatory. If you're the kind of person who tends to throw their bike in the nearest bush in a hissy fit should something go pear-shaped you'll soon be weeded out.
Always remember you're there to do a job and not to ride for your own satisfaction. With any luck those times will present themselves reasonably often when you can let go and just rip, but for every ten minutes of that reckon on fifty minutes of sweeping behind weaker riders offering encouragement and making sure they enjoy themselves too. It can be difficult when you have a wide spread of ability levels to satisfy everyone and it's not always possible to split up groups into separate rides. Divide your time between everyone if you can. Hopefully for larger groups there will be more than one guide - take turns leading and sweeping. Remember if you're sweeping you're the last one no matter how frustrated you feel behind that painfully slow rider. If you're leading and you're up against the next Lance Armstrong, decisions need to be taken. Can you safely let them go ahead without fear of them getting lost? Are they bothered that they're not going full whack? Do you think they're just trying to show off and may 'blow up' before the end of the ride? This is where your judgement and experience of the terrain comes in. You'll most likely end up letting them go ahead for some sections and insisting you lead for others. You have the whole group to think of - you can't lead a ride properly if you're a mile in front going head to head with Mr Competitive.
As a Guide you have a target on your back. Some people want to shoot you down, prove they're better than you, take your scalp. How do I suggest handling that? Well...let 'em. You will undoubtedly meet some truly excellent riders who will impress you with some aspect of riding that you don't possess. Learn from them, be open-minded, offer praise when it is due and be modest about your own abilities. Accept that you're not necessarily The Daddy. You'll improve and grow as a rider and human being, and you can share the karma of shared souls in pursuit of trail-inspired enlightenment. On the other hand, sometime you will meet the obnoxious type who talk a good game and are full of it. Lure them into false security then crush them like ants!!! :o)
Which brings me on to how you ride. You can't ride at 100 percent every day for five months - something's gonna give. Do you feel you have something to prove on every ride? You need to chill out! It's up to you to regulate how you ride and keep your body in good working order, so that means staying off your bike on your day off and making sure you're eating properly etc. You have a duty to go easy on the alcohol the day before a big ride too, though of course if all your guests are drinking with you, you can be excused! The odds of stacking it and getting injured at some point are also pretty high given the time you'll spend in the saddle. Know your limits and ride within them, especially if you're guiding solo. You can't legislate for everything though and accidents will happen, so minimise the risks where you can. This could mean regularly wearing pads for technical riding for example (though beware, you can easily spook guests if you come out clad head to toe in Dianese!) The one ride I forgot my elbow pads on our regular Fruita ride I washed out my front tyre on a sandy river bed and mashed both elbows. I wasn't pushing it and I knew the trail well, so remember the Law Of Sod - if it can go wrong it will go wrong. A bad injury could see you flying home as a guide that can't ride isn't much use to your employer. Later in the season I had a freak accident while competing in a local race. I stalled on a climb due to chain-suck and fell sideways, my shoe stuck in my pedal and as I went over I impaled myself on the handlebar end. I was out for three weeks with rib / cartilage damage and it's still giving me a bit of gyp. There's nothing I could have done about that one - I must have fallen over sideways a million times and never done myself in like I did then. Oh yes, did I mention medical insurance? Get it. It’s also likely your employer will insist you have a first aid qualification. What about a guiding qualification (eg. OTC)? Well, it’s certainly going to improve your chances and some, though definitely not all employers, may insist you have one (I didn’t).
So that’s the guiding. I found it very rewarding and met some great people who I’ve stayed in touch with now I’m back home. Depending on your own situation you may find yourself riding the same routes over and over, but to be honest I seldom got bored with the riding. Each time was different whether due to the weather, the company or just the crashes! Of course riding some of the best trails in the world helped. Porcupine Rim near Moab, Utah remains my favourite trail in the world so far, and doing it the seventh time was every bit as good as the first. Probably better. I also found the development of my own fitness very interesting; at about the seven-week mark everything just seemed to click into place and I was suddenly cruising every ride. A few weeks later though and I hit the dreaded ‘mid-season fatigue’. I’d been leading every ride for weeks on end as my guiding buddy wasn’t quite strong enough and eventually my body shouted ‘enough!’. A few days’ rest though and I was ok.
FlipsideThe downsides? There are some - the pay for one! It’s a desirable job and you’re not going to get rich. Expect your accommodation to be arranged, then you may or may not get fed, plus a bit of pocket money on top. In the USA the company encouraged tipping from the guests (when in Rome etc). In reality though Brits just don’t really ‘do’ tipping, and with a few exceptions, well, they sucked at it! The other downer may well be your other duties - are you expected to look after your guests? Cook? Clean? You’ll probably have at least some of these duties and you’ll soon get to dread ‘changeover day’! For me it typically started at 7am saying goodbye to the guests, followed by a day of cleaning (yes, including toilets) and sometimes going on until 3am the next day if the new guests were late in. No matter how you feel though, you’ve got to be able to put on that cheery welcoming face. (Oh yes, and never judge a guest by first impressions - they’re always grouchy after a long journey!). The other killer was our 5am campsite starts in Moab arranged so that we beat the heat of the day. Guiding and hosting is definitely part show-business: make sure everything appears cool all the time (even when it’s not!). Your guests don't need (or want) to know what's going on behind the scenes. Start moaning about your cleaning duties and you’ll get short change from guests who see you as a jammy sod with the best job in the world. And they’re right!
Would I do it again?
Where's my passport...?