The guys at Any Excuse to Ride sacked off their big city jobs to set up a guiding company in the Norwegian fjords, Pete had a chat to see where the idea came from.
One of the few, if not the only, guiding companies for mountain bikes permanently based in Norway, Any Excuse to Ride offer a unique experience of riding in the Norwegian fjordlands.
Pete sat down with Will and Klara from Any Excuse to Ride to find out what it’s taken to get themselves set up.
Who Are Will and Klara?
We are the two halves that make up Any Excuse to Ride Norway. Will is originally from Northumberland, UK and Klara from the Swedish West Coast. However these days we live together on the shore of Hardangerfjord in Norway. We met almost 3 years ago at a friends’ wedding in Sweden and moved in together not too long after.
We’ve both spent several years studying at university and working office jobs, Klara as a mechanical engineer and Will as an architect. 2 years ago we decided that sitting in offices 9-5 was not for us and set about creating our own business. We’ve been working for the last 18 months to create our own holiday and guiding business in the fjords of Norway.
What’s your background in cycling?
Will has been riding since a child, with early teenage years spent jumping crappy wooden ramps and finding the biggest stair set to drop. As soon as he was old enough he was off riding rocky trails in the Lake District, which is where his taste for big mountain riding and technical trails came from. Since those days he’s spent time living in Aberdeen, Grenoble, Slovenia and Norway, basically anywhere there are really big hills.
Klara only first started riding when we moved to Norway but has quickly become obsessed with MTB. She’s already ridden in the UK, France, Italy, Croatia, Slovenia and Germany. Because of where we live, she’s weirdly far more comfortable having a go at some big techy rock section than a small jump or series of berms.
What’s your background in the guiding and hospitality?
Will worked in Slovenia in an architecture office in 2012 for a year and spent a lot of time riding, there’s a big MTB scene there. During that time he met Jon, who was in the process of setting up Ride Slovenia. The year after he ended up working for him for the season. It was only Jon and Will, meaning they both did everything, driving, cooking, cleaning, guiding and all the rest. It was stressful but he learned a lot. We’re both still good friends with Jon and he’s always happy to give us advice and share experiences.
Klara has a lot of experience working in hospitality from various summer jobs at hotels and restaurants in Sweden as well as working on tourist boats that take people on trips around the archipelagos off the west coast of Sweden.
How did Any Excuse to Ride come about?
Will worked for a couple of seasons at Ride Slovenia. That is where the inspiration for setting up our own guiding company came from. Big shout out to Jon, he’s been a huge help and influence for us. However Klara has also had her own dream to open a business. Probably neither of us would have had the confidence or drive to set up a businesses on our own, but together it was a different story.
After we met and started to talk about our ideas, the plan to move to Norway and start our own business quickly evolved. Initially we talked about many elements we could add to the MTB business such as yoga camps, a cafe, sea kayaking or even selling handmade crafts, which may well happen in the future, but for now we’re starting out with the MTB holidays.
Because of the insane scenery. We bet you’ve got an image of steep mountains and cliffs crashing down into long thin fjords, lush green forests and little wooden houses? That is why. There are thousands of people who come here to just drive around and look at the scenery, and we thought it would be great to be able to experience that but from your bike.
There is also the fact that no one else is really offering these kind of trips in Norway. There are a couple of other international tour operator type companies offering trips once or twice a year much further up north, but no one dedicated to offering fully catered MTB holidays all season.
How did you settle on Kvanndal?
We knew we wanted to be in the fjords and we knew we needed to be within reach of an airport, so that meant either near Stavanger or Bergen. We did as much research as possible online about riding in both areas and it seemed Bergen looked like the better option. Yes that’s right, neither of us had visited the area before moving here.
Not long after, this house in Kvanndal came up online for rent. Will was living in London at the time and Klara in Gothenburg. After some phone calls to the owner, Will took a last minute flight early one Saturday morning, London – Bergen and then a 2hr bus ride to the farm to view it and meet the owner. The house advertised turned out to be a farm with farmhouse, barn, boathouse, orchard, land and an incredible view over the fjord. On seeing all of that we decided to go for it.
Followed by a swift 1hr bus journey, 6hr overnight train to Oslo, a quick nap in the airport before an early morning flight, Will was back in London ready to be at work on Monday morning (but the mind was now somewhere else…).
We knew nothing about Kvanndal itself but it turned out to be a great position in Hardangerfjord strategically and there is a lot of riding potential within striking distance of the house.
What sort of riding can you expect on your trips?
The region of Hardanger offers back country style riding with an incredible backdrop. That sums it up quite well. We’re quite remote out here and a long way from groomed bike park trails and man-made berms. We think there are people out there who want to get away from that and try some more adventurous riding.
None of the trails we ride were originally made for biking, they are either hiking trails or old access trails that we are repurposing for riding. They have a natural feel to them which generally means they’re quite technical.
To access the trails there’s a bit of a mix of van uplift and riding to the top, then to get to the best trails and views sometimes you’ve got to chuck your bike on your back and do a bit of hike-a-bike.
How did you go about finding existing trails or reclaiming older trails from nature?
We have spent countless hours ogling various maps, cross-checking with satellite photos and finally going out to look for them. Luckily Norway has a pretty great national mapping agency, they have detailed topographic maps, really high definition satellite images and they’ve even recently added a feature that allows you to find out who owns any section of land, perfect.
We have then spent countless more hours chasing trails marked on the map that don’t exist, or are too steep or too rocky, but occasionally we come across a gem that we can ride or can make rideable. Then we get excited. We are trying to do things in the ‘right’ way so it is then a question of finding all the land owners (there are many), and getting their permission to do work on a trail.
How many people make up Any Excuse to Ride and what do they do?
It’s just us, Will and Klara. Oh, and Nora dog of course. We both do everything. Driving, guiding, trail building, cooking, cleaning and all the general handyman stuff that comes with living on a farm in the middle of nowhere, like chopping wood for example. It is very intense work over the few months of summer that make up the season but it’s so much fun and very satisfying to be your own boss. We are both very hands-on people who like having a physical job.
What did you have to sacrifice to get to this stage?
The biggest sacrifice is probably living so far away from all our friends and family. But being from two different countries, that would have been the case for at least one of us no matter where we chose to live plus they do come and visit sometimes.
For example last summer we had both our parents come visit while the house was full of AirBnB guests so they just set up camp down in the boathouse for a couple of nights.
Another big sacrifice is the safety of a permanent job and steady income. It can be a bit scary to think we’ve only got the next couple of months of rent lined up in the bank for example. But we kind of understood this would be one of the challenges of setting up our own business.
Did you have day jobs that you had to give up?
We both had full time jobs that we left yeah, Will was working as an architect in London and Klara as a deckwoman after just having finished uni in Gothenburg. We both made decisions to leave them to pursue this project however, so it wasn’t so much a sacrifice if that’s what you mean?
Are you working alongside to make ends meet?
We rent the guestrooms out on AirBnB when we’re not having MTB guests. We are not so far from Trolltunga (the big Lion King cliff on everyone’s Instagram) so there’s no shortage of tourists in the area, this keeps a steady stream of guests coming to stay at the house. A lot of people criticise AirBnB for how it affects rental prices in the city, which can be true, but we would never have been able to live here without it.
Will also does a bit of architecture work and we both do some handy(wo)man type jobs now and then. This was all kind of part of the reason for starting this project, we didn’t want to have just the same profession for our whole lives but rather be able to do all sorts of different jobs and learn new things as we go.
How make or break is the idea for you?
We’re really determined to make this to work and that is our main goal right now. We have invested a lot of time and passion into this so if it does not succeed we would certainly be gutted. That said, it is also not a catastrophe if it fails. Compared to a lot of businesses we have not invested too much money, we haven’t taken out any loans and are not in debt to anyone so at least financially we’re not so ‘at risk’ if it doesn’t work.
If it turns out that the MTB holidays are not enough to keep us going financially, then we’re both of the opinion that opportunities always arise if you go looking for them, so we can always keep the MTB business going with something else alongside.
Did any previous you work did help with setting up Any Excuse to Ride?
Will working at Ride Slovenia was probably the biggest help, just understanding how a guiding company worked. What was involved, what people expected, the costs and possible things that could go wrong etc. There’s a lot of other small skills we’ve picked up that has helped for sure.
Such as knowing how to build a website or being handy with a camera and photo/video editing programs. We’ve both also previously done some construction and refurbishment work which has helped us in fixing up the farm.
Where next for Any Excuse To Ride? How do you plan to go about getting extra helpers etc. etc.?
Well the main thing is we’ve just opened for business. We’re taking bookings for 2019, we’ll see how it goes over the coming weeks and months with bookings but we’re hoping for a busy summer.
Before that we’ll be spending as much time as possible trail building. OK, right now we’re snowed in but once the snow melts we’ll be out digging and until then we’re doing work on the house. We’re also in talks with the local kommune, hiking and tourist associations about how we can work together to make Hardanger a mountain bike destination in the future.
Anybody to thank at this point in the journey? Long suffering spouses/parents/friends?
Our parents for sure.
We think many parents would be surprised or unsure if their kids stepped off the career ladder and launched into something unknown like we have. It felt like we had our parents’ support from the beginning, which really helps to give us confidence in what we’re doing and that we’ll make it work.
Big thanks to Joe at Starling Cycles as well who has been very supportive and generous to us.