A few people have asked about the various hoops I had to jump through to get out here in the first place, so I’ll try and outline what I had to do to get from customer to guide, I’ll expand each point below:
- Find a guiding company stupid enough to employ you, in an area you want to guide in…
- Get 6 months unpaid leave
- Get a guiding qualification
- Find a place to live
- Find a suitable vehicle
- Insure against all possibilities
- Financing the trip
- Have sleepless nights wondering if you’ve done the right thing
Find a guiding company stupid enough to employ you, in an area you want to guide in
This was probably the easiest step. I had been coming to SW France for holidays for many years. Prior to my mountain biking passion I went through a bodyboarding phase and had a little holiday home on the coast at Hossegor, about 25 miles north of where I am staying now.
As soon as I found out that Basque MTB existed I booked up a 2 week trip to stay with Doug’s company followed by a week surfing in Hossegor. The 2 weeks were outstanding. The trails were amazing, as was the scenery, culture (a night out in San Sebastian is a must), accommodation and just the whole vibe of the holiday. The riding ranked as good as, if not better than anywhere I had ridden before (Alps, Italy, Wales) but the holiday added up to more than the sum of its parts. So much so that within days of returning to the UK I had got in touch with Doug to hear about how he’s made the transition to life running a mountain bike company.
I really just wanted to drop everything and move out immediately, but common sense and a well paid job stopped me doing anything too quickly. A plan was hatched to ask my employer for a career break, Doug considered and agreed to taking me on as a guide for the following season. Job done? That was just the start of a long and painful process…
Get 6 months unpaid leave
This was by far the hardest step. On the face of it, this should have been a simple step. My employer has a ‘process’ for applying for a career break. So I duly filled in the form and submitted it in October 2011. I asked for 5 months off – May to September. I expected a reply within a few weeks… How wrong I was.
I won’t bore you with the details, but I had to wait 7 months for a decision. This was an emotional roller coaster as I made more and more preparations and commitments to the trip, always knowing that it could be canned at any moment at the whim of one of my managers. I sent several pleading, grovelling emails, and finally my request was passed to the CEO of the organisation for a final decision. I sweated for several days before I finally got a decision in May of this year. The trip was postponed until July 1st, returning to work on the 3rd December.
There were several considerations to take into account, pensions, share-schemes, lost salary, career progression etc. but it was still a no-brainer for me. They are under no obligation to give me my job back at the end of the break, but as they have to make me redundant if not, I’m quite cool with that.
Get a guiding qualification
One of the easier steps this one. There are several guiding qualifications/courses available in the UK – SMBLA, CTC amongst others. They generally award the qualifications in stages, in terms of the altitude you are allowed to guide at, and you have to start with the basic course and then progress. If you have mountain-walking/leader qualifications, you can progress to the higher qualifications more quickly.
I chose the MIAS course as my local council runs the courses very close to where I live in Hampshire. I booked a course for January and kept my fingers crossed that the weather would be reasonable. It’s the only course I’ve done, so can’t really comment on how it compares, but it certainly gives you the basics
The course was held over 2 days. Day 1 was held at Queen Elizabeth Country Park. There was half a day in the classroom spent learning about rights of way, legal aspects, bike checking, insurance etc. The afternoon was spent on the trails with a demo guided ride with the instructor leading and talking us through the basics of guiding and group management.
Day 2 was kicked off at a grid reference in rural Hampshire and consisted of a day’s riding with each of the students taking turns in guiding the group, with feedback and instruction from our instructor. We closed with a session on emergency response and bike repair.
In addition to the guiding course I had to sit and pass a 3 day first aid course in order to gain the MIAS qualification. I was awarded a level 2 qualification due to my previous riding and navigation experience. This allows me to guide groups on my own up to 600 metres altitude. I hope that the experience I am gaining with Basque MTB will allow me to gain a level 3 qualification (over 600m) on my return. We’ll see…
Find a place to live
Another tough one this one… I thought this would be easy. Although BasqueMTB is based in Spain, it is minutes from France by bike or car. My preference was to stay in France because it tends to be cheaper (to rent, but more expensive for everything else) and also because I speak some French, but no Spanish. Another goal of the break was to improve my French.
A quick trawl of the estate agents in Hendaye (the French town on the border with Spain revealed a plethora of apartments for rent at a reasonable rate (€500-€700 a month) but it wasn’t until I started making serious enquiries in the spring that I was informed that normal rental agreements in France are for a minimum of 12 months. Apparently you can sign for 12 months and then give a month’s notice to leave, but I didn’t want things to get complicated, so I started looking elsewhere.
I soon discovered www.appartager.com which is a French website for rooms to rent in shared houses. I made a lot of enquiries to no avail, but secured this place in Guethary with weeks to spare. People don’t tend to want to reserve rooms months in advance, so in retrospect I can see why it took so long to find somewhere… It’s worked out really well, I knew Guethary anyway and it’s a beautiful Basque fishing village with world class surf spots. The house is great and so are my roomies! Of course this is a bit cheaper too which saves a bit of the old hard-earned. And I have a ready made social circle!
Find a suitable vehicle
I wanted to help Doug with airport transfers, uplifts and also wanted to expand the number of guests we could run at any one time, so my beloved boy-racer Clio had to go to be replaced by a van.
I wanted a VW, as they are the coolest van by far, but they seem very overpriced and I soon came to the conclusion that the Mercedes Vito offered the best compromise in terms of price, space, practicality etc. (Much as I dislike Mercedes cars!)
I found a 2008 long wheelbase Vito at Pentagon Mercedes in Andover. They were great – special thanks to Keith Farley – he’s your man. Pre and post sales service has been faultless. It’s a 5 seater and I have fitted out the cargo area with racks so I can take 5 bikes. The first thing I did though was replace the crappy stereo with a top quality Alpine unit together with new speakers and a sub-woofer! It sounds awesome! The van is working well out here – no problems so far and it has come in very useful for uplifts.
Insurance against all possibilities
3rd Party Insurance
I get access to third party insurance with the ABCC (Association of British Cycling Coaches) through my MIAS qualification. £52 a year. This covers UK based guides and coaches, on trips abroad. But the emphasis is UK based, so if I moved here permanently, I would need to look elsewhere. This covers me should any harm come to one of our guests and I get sued!
Accident and Injury Insurance
For my previous MTB holidays I have used Sportscover Direct, so I approached them for cover for this trip. I had to be careful to spell out that the insurance was only for me, if I hurt myself while riding and nothing to do with liability or injury to guests. I got a competitive quote for the whole 5 months. And following my accident and broken thumb, I have to say they have been excellent.
It took ages and a lot of phoning around to find someone to cover the van for the whole 5 months abroad. Then I stumbled over LV‘s site. They offer 6 months EU cover as standard. Vans competitively insured. Mine was about £450 for the year, including EU fully comp, EU breakdown, protected NCB etc etc.
Financing the trip
The first thing to do was put the mortgage on hold. I had arranged to go interest only, however my lender Nationwide stopped offering that option earlier this year. Fortunately, I had been overpaying and had built up some credit, so I am able to reduce the payments right down and work off the credit.
I advertised for a lodger in my flat as early as last November – something I thought I’d never do. But this allowed me to pay off some debt before I left and pays me some income to cover the mortgage while I’m away.
I have put all my annual leave into the career break, so effectively the 1st month is leave on full pay, followed by 4 months off pay.
I cashed in a share-save plan. This is enough to keep the wolf from the door while I am here. Plus Doug pays my out of pocket expenses for running about on behalf of Basque MTB.
Have sleepless nights wondering if you’ve done the right thing
It was pointless. I have done the right thing. Even at the darkest lowest moment of the trip, I asked myself if I would swap my broken thumb, pain and misery for my desk, I decided I wouldn’t. Enough said I think.