Every now and again, you will happen across people that belong on a bike in the middle of nowhere. Chris Gibbs is one of those people.
Photos by Pete Scullion.
Having had a sample of Chris’ guiding at a rather wintery DMBinS conference this time last year, then following ‘The Bear’ through some of north west Scotland’s finest wilderness, there are few people happier and better suited to being miles from anywhere.
Pete had a chat with Chris once they’d recovered from their Coast to Coast adventure.
Who is Chris Gibbs?
I am a full-time mountain bike guide with H&I Adventures, and mountain bike instructor.
What was your first mountain bike?
The first bike I got really attached to as a kid was a Raleigh Max. It was sky blue with neon orange flashes! Back then it was all the rage to have those big plastic discs on the wheels covering all the spokes, so if you rode it in the wind or jumped a bit too high, the bike would disappear from underneath you. I’ve got a few scars to remember it by, and well, my taste in colour schemes hasn’t changed much since then!
What’s your background in cycling?
I am actually from a keen snow sports background, but I grew up in a small village where riding your bike was a lease of freedom and the only way to get out and adventure. That feeling has always stayed with me. Once I got a little older the idea stayed the same, but the bikes have become a whole lot bigger, as did the areas to explore.
What’s your background in the cycling industry?
From hanging out in bike shops, looking at fancy bikes and annoying the staff, I suddenly found myself helping to fix the bikes in the shop. I decided that I wanted to become a full-time mountain bike guide, and was lucky to have a local store help me out with kit. Then I made it my mission to get every qualification there was! It wasn’t long before I was invited to go riding with Euan and Tim from H&I, and looking back I’m pretty sure they were on a mission to break me!
We headed into terrain that blew my mind, with huge ‘hike a bike’ and long, super technical descents. I did everything I could to hide the fact that I was shattered after the ride, and was put into the guiding team. That year I rode every opportunity I could and tried to learn as many big mountain routes as possible, which resulted in me quickly progressing from an assistant into a lead guide position.
What’s your background in guiding?
I started out guiding for myself and then was introduced to H&I, becoming the first of the full time contract guides and I haven’t looked back since. I also teach mechanics and bikes skills, but I’m most passionate about being out guiding in big remote areas. I’m now starting to get involved with British Cycling as a tutor, training up new guides. Sorry, the official term now is ‘mountain bike leaders’!
Have you guided outside cycling?
Back before the French started arresting everyone for doing it, I was a ski guide, which basically meant skiing people from coffee shop to coffee shop in the Alps. It was there that I was introduced to some friends who ran an island exploration centre. We took groups of kids out and guided expeditions on totally uninhabited islands, and it was being there that really forged my love for wilderness and lead me in to working in the mountains. Now I specialise in mountain bikes, and everything I do is linked to adventures on bikes and guiding.
What do you think Scotland offers a mountain biker that other destinations can’t?
The fact that Scotland has such forward thinking outdoor access laws makes it really unique, making wild, remote and rugged terrain accessible. There are no sign posts, no lift access, and very rarely many other people.
I think Scotland has a particular kind of brutal beauty – there are always signs of how harsh the weather can be, and once you’re in the mountains every direction is photo worthy; the mountain areas of Scotland feel so dramatic. As a mountain biker, it’s a testing but incredibly rewarding place to put your tyres.
What’s your favourite route to guide and why?
For all of the reasons above, I love being on the West Coast. Fisherfield is a drama-soaked point-to-point not to be taken lightly, and I love some of the lesser known Torridon routes as well. Guiding those places is different every time, even when doing the same route. I like seeing how exhausted but totally blown away the riders we take out there are.
Best trail you’ve ever ridden, and why?
Ooft, I’m not sure I could pick just one! It’s going to be a close call between a few.
Heli-Pad in Nepal – I got there with Euan from H&I a couple days before the first international Yeti Tribe Gathering. We were straight off a plane and it felt like 2am in the morning to me, then we were suddenly chasing Nepal’s top downhill rider through a sandy gully! It was a bit of a life-affirming moment when the trail suddenly opened up to a hillside covered in prayer flags flapping in the wind overlooking Kathmandu.
I love the Tollie Path in Scotland. It’s a rollercoaster of rock, and I’ve never ridden the same line twice.
Lastly, there’s a route near Torridon that never fails to bring a smile to my face. It’s a super physical trail with lots of technical moves, but also loads of rocky, flowy fun. You’ll have to ride with me to get the name of that one though!
You must have seen some crazy things over the years, is there something that stands out? A favourite moment or when you wanted the ground to swallow you up?
The most memorable moment actually happened to me, whilst guiding at the back of the group. We were riding a fast piece of trail and the rider in front of me scared up a chicken. It flapped exactly to head height, and I hit it at full speed. In an explosion of feathers it took me off the bike… I caught up the rest of the group covered in mud, scratches and with feathers sticking out my helmet! Everyone still likes to remind me about it!
We must be doing something right as there haven’t been any major disasters, but of course there are the everyday ups and downs that keep things interesting. A knowledge of and healthy respect for the mountains helps, but there will always be small things out of our control. I’ve had clients break their bikes and had to give mine up and run 7km with a bike on my shoulders, crossed streams that have turned into rivers, given hugs to people on the verge of breaking down, and likewise told them to toughen up and get the job done.
It’s all part of the adventure! I caught my shorts on the saddle and ripped the entire back panel off and had to ride a full day with my bum showing not long ago… at the time that felt like a disaster, it was a breezy day!
What advice would you give to anyone looking to career in guiding?
It’s an exciting time to be getting into mountain bike guiding, as it’s still a relatively new and developing profession.
There is so, so much more to mountain bike guiding than just knowing the way. It’s all about people. I love getting to meet people from all over the world and showing them the places I’m passionate about. I like seeing how the groups bond together through the trip and step up to the challenges along the way. It’s hugely rewarding at the end of the trip to see everyone so stoked on the adventure we have had and to be part of the memories they take away with them.
One tip is to be knowledgeable about the areas you’re guiding, the local history, the environment and the culture. Knowing the details helps turn any route in to an adventure.
Also, always be nice to your local bike shop, you’re going to need their help and experience! And lastly, keep a sense of humour, you never know when you’re going to turn a corner and hit a chicken!
What did you have to sacrifice to get to this stage?
Time. Time with friends and family, and time with my girlfriend. I’ve missed a fair few social events, plenty of races I would have liked to compete in and lots of important dates! I wouldn’t change it for the world though!
High-end guiding means being away a lot, especially in peak season, and in between it’s a short turn round to decompress from the last trip and get ready for the next! I’ve learnt that it really is important to keep riding for yourself as well as for work, and to take the opportunities you have to open up the taps and blow off steam.
Did you have day jobs that you had to give up?
I have always been focused about making mountain bike guiding my full time job, so the things I have had to give up along the way were hobbies rather than jobs. I used to play a lot of rugby which didn’t go well with trying to stay fit and in one piece to guide!
Where next for you?
Right now I’m really happy where I am. There are still plenty of miles left in my legs and I love what I’m doing. I hope to be guiding for a long time to come, but with that being said, I’m excited to now be playing a part in training other guides and hopefully putting some of the experience I have gathered across the countless miles into helping mountain biking guiding to grow and improve as a profession.
Anybody to thank at this point in the journey?
I absolutely would not be guiding to this level without a lot of help from different people. My girlfriend Victoria is always amazing about me being away, and returning with the most obnoxious bag of laundry known to man!
Lindsay and Ben at Basecamp Bikes have helped me out over and over again with emergency bike parts, fixes and expert knowledge, and also dragging me out to ride and making sure I’m always having fun on my bike.
Jules at CyclewildScotland/BikeSchoolScotland – it was him that first made me think that there was a career in rolling up and down mountains and then helped me get through every hoop I’ve had to jump through on the way!
Lastly Cat and Euan at H & I Adventures – it’s been amazing to be involved with everything so far and I’m looking forward to every trip and adventure with them in the future.