Issue 85 arrives this week and here’s your customary sneak peek of a feature from within its nicely scented pages/pixels to whet your appetite.
UK Riding: “It’s all downhill from here. No, really!”
Do you really need a certificate to lead a mountain bike ride? If you don’t, then who does? Dave and Chipps investigate British Cycling’s new mountain bike leadership qualification. Words by Chipps and Dave, pictures by Chipps.
A year or so ago, British Cycling started to bring Scottish Cycling’s SMBLA qualification under its remit. As a result, it has just launched a new mountain bike leadership qualification aimed at getting more people out on the hills. Crucially, it’s been designed very accessibly and pitched at the regular mountain biker, rather than the grizzled adventurer. Chipps was intrigued enough to sign himself and Dave up for the two-day course with Cyclewise in the Lakes…
Like many mountain bikers, I enjoy showing riders around my patch. And, like most sensible folks, there’s an unspoken understanding that if you fall off and hurt yourself when we’re out riding, then – while I’ll do my best to get you help – you’ll accept that it’s just one of those things and that no one is really to blame. The same is true if I come and ride on your trails – we’re not part of that kind of society, are we?
But what if you fall off a mountain on that ride and seriously – or permanently – injure yourself? Or worse? Will your family accept that we have an unwritten rule? Reckon your mum or partner would be fine with that?
Perhaps that’s an extreme example, but the truth is there are hundreds of rides happening every week: shop rides, demo day rides, mountain bike club rides, where someone is showing people round some trails. The British Cycling qualification is aimed at the people who lead this kind of semi-informal ride, as well as those looking to guide professionally. BC isn’t suggesting that anyone leading a group of mates to the pub on the hill needs to qualify, but some riders might appreciate the experience of getting the award anyway.
The Level 2 Mountain Bike Leadership Award, in brief, will qualify (and more importantly, insure) you to guide groups of up to eight riders, in daylight and in any conditions short of midwinter, on trails that are 90% rideable by the whole group and where all obstacles are rollable. You need a valid outdoor first aid qualification (in itself usually a two-day course, though well worth getting) to get your British Cycling MBLA course completion certificate, which then allows you to be insured to accompany a qualified guide and gain the required 20+ hours of experience leading groups, before the assessment (a one-day ‘live’ exercise on the hill and a written exam). Once you’ve ticked all these boxes, you’re qualified to lead rides.
Perhaps surprisingly, you will be insured anywhere in Europe (whether the host country accepts the award or not) and to any altitude, provided that your clients have a UK address and that your route is within a 30-minute walk of an ambulance-accessible location. You don’t have to have ridden that route before. Once qualified, there’s then nothing to stop you charging people for your guiding services.
That is quite a qualification, and BC has argued to keep it accessible in order to encourage as many people as possible to take it up. More qualified guides means more people exploring the great outdoors on mountain bikes. So, armed with a camera and an oversized rucksack full of wet-weather gear, we went along to see what the fuss was about.
Dave takes up the tale…
Let’s start by saying that I consider myself pretty competent. I’ve spent a lot of time in mountains; I think my navigation is pretty good and up until recently my working life revolved around organising and leading groups, albeit not on a bike. So it came as a bit of a shock just how the thought of the course affected me. Admittedly I hadn’t had a lot of time to prepare, as the course was arranged while I was out of the country and I returned three days beforehand to find the course handbook sitting on my desk and without enough time to read it.
Maybe the faux-rugged image is all a ruse and he really is rugged…
This is where the little voice of self-doubt starts creeping in. Am I really as good as I think at navigation? What if I’m the least technically able in the group? Am I going to find myself surrounded by true rugged and windswept folk who spend all their time on bikes, who are more physically and technically gifted than me? What if I’m not as good as I think I am?
And most importantly: what if Chipps is better? He’s a dark horse; maybe the faux-rugged image is all a ruse and he really is rugged…
Day one dawns. We head up to Whinlatter and Cyclewise HQ for a morning of classroom learning. It’s here that we meet the others in the group and get the chance to introduce ourselves, while learning why the others are here.
The first surprise is the wide range of backgrounds of the people on the course. Henry is a young outdoor instructor working in the north-east with disadvantaged kids. He works at a residential centre and they’ve introduced mountain biking as one of the outdoor activities. While he has a whole heap of outdoor experience and is qualified to instruct and lead in several sports, he isn’t really a mountain biker. Steve is retired and a former caver, who now takes small groups out on rides around the Dales and thought it would be good to get a guide qualification to cover himself. Tom’s a British cycling coach, Sky Ride leader and keen bike advocate. Hailing from Kirklees, he sees the Tour de France coming to the area as an opportunity to get more people involved in riding, and is keen to be qualified to lead groups mountain biking. Nick’s a roadie with a place in Austria, from where he leads groups on road rides. There’s a demand from guests for guided mountain bike routes too, and he sees the BC qualification as the way forward.
And then there’s me and Chipps, the bike journos. Initially here in pursuit of a story, but who’ve come to realise we’ve got a certain duty of care when showing people round our local trails and maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to have the back up of a qualification in case something goes wrong.
The morning is spent going over the basics. The all-important bike-check to make sure your group’s bikes are actually going to make it round your route. A quick game of ‘change the rear puncture’ reinforces the importance of time planning as part of your route preparation. How much time is lost to a flat? Our results vary from five to 12 minutes and that’s indoors, in the warm and dry. Add cold fingers and rain – how will that affect your group out on a mountainside? How many punctures before you need to adjust the route plan?
Do you lead from the front, the middle of the group or from the back? How do you manage a group on road sections? Or one with mixed abilities?
The next session is outdoors and on the bikes. Repeated runs of a skills loop to practise riding badly, getting a feel for why it’s important to get clients’ bikes set up right and give some basic body position guidance so they can get the most out of the ride. Basic things that experienced riders take for granted, but don’t always display.
It is in this session that years of drunken post-pub singlespeeding suddenly become a useful skill. A square is marked out on the fire road gravel that we all have to stay within. It’s a game of balance and bike blocking to encourage the others to dab, and the last one standing wins. Also known as ‘the derby’. With body positioning and trackstand skills to the fore, it’s an easy win when there’s no alcohol involved.
A ride through the trails of Whinlatter deals with group mechanics, risk assessment and ride technique. We stop and review sections of trail to discuss if they’re within the remit of the award. Rollable to hub height? Is it 90% rideable (and by whom?). This pattern of ride and review is a taster of what’s to come tomorrow, when we’ll be out all day for real, each taking a turn at leading the group. Each session brings more questions to mull over. Do you lead from the front, the middle of the group or from the back? How do you manage a group on road sections? Or one with mixed abilities?
One final classroom session takes us into the evening; it’s time to look at what a leader should carry in their pack. Mine is stuffed to the gunwales with extra ‘leadership’ kit I’ve added for the course: first aid kit, survival bag, spare tubes, spare clothing, extra tools and food. I’m feeling pretty prepped until instructor Rich’s bag is unpacked on the table in front of us. Armed with it, he could deal with every emergency I can think of, and some I hadn’t even considered. Chipps and I are both collating new kit lists as we head back home for the night.
Day two is learning on the job. We’ve got a 20km route planned with a good mix of terrain and trails and at some point we all get the chance to have a go at leading the group. We start along the Sustrans C2C route, a converted railway line that leads out of Keswick towards Blencathra and beyond. There’s a black cloud on the horizon, though. Actually there’s a whole wall of black cloud on the horizon. A weather front is moving in which is forecast to hit at midday, and may just require an escape option off our planned route.
The weather’s closing in and the wind is picking up as we top out on the climb.
Henry and Tom get the short straw of leading first. They’ve opted for a ‘one at the front, one at the back’ group management style, and after a bike check we’re heading off towards the hills. At a couple of points we’re stopped for a bit of a rolling navigation check, ensuring we’re all estimating travel speed and position. Even on what we all consider to be a straightforward section there’s subtle navigation needed, and skills in not showing any uncertainty to the group.
Next, Nick gets the road section up through Threlkeld where group management, narrow roads and steep climbs all come into the mix. A different style of leadership is used that allows everyone to climb at their own speed without losing touch with each other. Regrouping at the car park, leadership is passed to Steve for the first of the proper off-road sections. It’s a doubletrack climb with rocky sections and a couple of swooping descents before a steep pull up the opposite valley side.
The weather’s closing in and the wind is picking up as we top out on the climb. It’s here that leadership is passed over to me and here’s where the pressure really hits home. The plan is to descend down the side on Lonscale Fell; it’s not a route I’ve ridden before so I’m leading blind, which immediately makes me feel uncomfortable. I’ve a group of riders with mixed abilities, it’s wet, there’s gusting wind and people are getting cold. There’s a decision to be made about where I place myself in the group. Lead from the front and control the speed of the whole group but struggle to keep an eye on the backmarkers? Or let the more technically capable riders go ahead and lead the struggling riders at the back?
It’s at this moment that the delicate balance of leadership is distilled. It’s your call, and your responsibility, so you’ve got to make the decision, all the while appearing confident and in control. Is it within the remit of the award? Rollable to hub height? Is it 90% rideable? You’ve got to make the decision and go: there are no ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’. Your group expects you to lead and that’s what you have to do.
Your group expects you to lead and that’s what you have to do.
It’s the most pressured half hour of riding I’ve ever done. I feel stretched and an overwhelming sense of responsibility. I can’t now remember the riding at all, just the moment-by-moment mulling over my decision and the constant checking of the progress of the group. The pressure to make the right decision, the one that allows everyone to enjoy the trail while keeping safe. I’m relieved when the leadership is passed on.
In the week after the course I’ll keep running and re-running that section of trail through my head. Exploring different options, questioning the decisions I made. It’s a powerful learning experience and I’m sure I’ve benefited from it. It’s also convinced me that I need to complete the course and assessment. From idly wondering if I’m as good as I think I am, I’ve now got a desire to qualify. I know that I can do this with a bit more practice along the way. I don’t actually want to be a mountain bike guide but I recognise the grey areas that exist in led rides and I’d rather have the reassurance of a qualification to back me up if things go bad.
It’s like the AA and the RAC, right?
British Cycling is not the only provider of mountain bike leadership courses. In fact, until recently, it wasn’t a provider of any mountain bike leadership courses at all, as Scottish Cycling had independently developed its own, highly-regarded qualification: the SMBLA (Scottish Mountain Bike Leader Award). Over the last couple of years, work has taken place to bring the SMBLA under the umbrella of British Cycling. According to BC: “SMBLA courses are still ongoing and (S)MBLA qualifications will continue to be valid. Existing MBLA Tutors will be invited to transition into delivering the new awards, through a process primarily based on qualifications and experience. There will also be a chance for existing MBLA Leaders to transfer over to the new awards if they wish to do so.”
As we mentioned, there are other organisations that provide mountain bike trail and technical leadership awards. The biggest of these is probably the CTC, which provides a Trail Mountain Bike Leader and a Technical Mountain Bike Leader Award, among others.
There are many similarities between the two organisations, and several important differences. The BC award lets you jump in at Level 2, whereas the CTC award wants you to work up from Trail to Technical Awards. BC insists on an outdoor first aid certificate, whereas CTC merely recommends one. The BC course is a two-day course, followed later by a written exam and a day-long assessment. The CTC course is nearer three full days and includes the assessment, so you can learn and qualify in one go.
Doing the BC course, you need to be a British Cycling member, whereas the CTC don’t insist on that. It also seems that the CTC course is more heavily geared to leaders where this qualification is essential to the person’s job, such as outdoor instructors and mountain bike guides. The BC ticket seems aimed more at regular riders who would benefit from the qualification and subsequent British Cycling insurance, such as shop ride leaders, club coaches and ride leaders, as well as riders wanting to start as mountain bike guides.
Both organisations admit that more led rides in the outdoors mean more people enjoying mountain biking and more potential happy (and safe) mountain bikers out there. And that’s got to be a good thing, right?
This story appears in issue 85 of Singletrack Magazine. To subscribe to the magazine, visit singletrackworld.com/subscribe.