Wise Words is our interview series talking to some of mountain biking’s most switched on people.
We’ll ask our short list of questions to a heap of influential, inspiring and outspoken people that we feel are driving the direction of mountain biking today. Some will make you think, some will make you laugh, some will be plain dumb, some will inspire you to better yourself and your riding. We hope!
Wise Words this week comes to you from none other than Chris Gibbs.
Chris ‘The Bear’ Gibbs is the guide who trains the guides. A veteran of the Scottish guiding scene and a man with a mighty diesel engine on him, think locomotive or naval diesel and you’re getting close.
Photos by Pete Scullion.
How would your closest riding buddies describe you to someone who has never met you?
I think this has changed over the years. All of us are constantly changing and evolving, but hopefully for the better.
Most people know me as the Bear. I used to play rugby and when I started guiding I somewhat stood out, as I developed a reputation for bending rear triangles and axles… These days I have a bit less timber and prefer just Chris, but the name stuck, and Ben at BC suspension is still trying to persuade me to have even firmer suspension.
Often I’m the one with the biggest rucksack and handing out M&Ms before pushing a group up one last hike-a-bike. I guess I’m the guy in the background of a lot of other peoples adventures. Imagine having someone photobombing all your ride photos, or hiding behind a rock to keep out of shot while someone else is being filmed, that’s me.
Over the last few years I’m the person training guides and encouraging others to to find their own secret ingredient. I have a philosophical take on guiding and would love to help others tap into themselves to guide in a way that only they as individuals can, and as such, collectively we can raise mountain bike guiding up as a profession.
Realistically how would my best riding buddies describe me? I hope as one of the hardest working. I realised a long time ago that I was never going to be the most naturally gifted, the fittest or the fastest, but what I could be was the hardest working. That’s a choice, and the harder I worked the better I became.
What thing or things have you bought in the last year that had the biggest effect on your life as a mountain biker / cyclist / person that works in the bike industry?
As a guide I do a lot of miles in rough terrain, so when you’re on a bike that much, being comfortable is a high priority. A few seasons ago I started using Sensus Meaty Paws and they made a huge difference to how my hands and wrists felt at the end of a long day.
Again as a guide I want my bike to be as reliable as possible. I don’t mind fixing bikes mid ride, I just really don’t want it to be mine. I used to be so resistant to carbon rims as I’d seen too many blow up and had epic missions of trying to nurse bikes home with rear wheels that like looked like they had been detonated.
However, this year I got a pair of Nobl TR38s and I’ve been so impressed with how they feel and ride. As soon as I put them on it completely changed how I interpreted trail, as they just seem to track the ground amazingly and let me get away with all kinds of lines.
I do have a tendency to ride with brawn over brain at times – I love a big, straight, burly rock line, and the Nobl Rims have taken everything I have thrown at them and are still asking for more.
Off the bike, my best purchase has been a book called Philosophy for Polar Explorers. It’s written by Erling Kagge and he was the first human to reach all three poles; North, South and the summit of Everest. The book isn’t about his achievements, but it’s about the the lessons and observations along the way. He writes about the mental strength needed to get out of a sleeping bag when it’s -40 Celcius outside and the things he notices about his everyday life with a changed perspective from the expeditions he’s been on. It’s a really interesting read that forces you to consider your own adventures and motivations and to look at them in a slightly different way. With everything that has gone on in the last few years, I feel like it was one of those books that I happened to read at the right time.
I often think that the real ‘adventure’ happens in the quiet moments between the obvious. It’s not always about the big adrenaline fulled descents or the gut wrenching climbs, but the memories that last the longest are formed somewhere in-between. A bit like water can coming crashing in or slowly seep its way into you, I think the latter has a far longer lasting effect.
What unusual habits do you have as a bike rider?
I’m sure I have millions. I used to do something everyone called the blowfish, where on a techy section or big move, I’d puff out my cheeks. Once I started to ride in more photos and videos I had to really train myself to stop doing it, it wasn’t my strongest look.
I’m not superstitious at all, but I always wear certain kit when I’m guiding particularly remote or challenging routes. It’s not a case of lucky socks, it’s more like knowing my bike and kit is the best it can be so I can concentrate on everything else.
It comes with the job, but I look at all the weather forecasts I can before a ride. I love it when we stop in exactly right spot outside of the wind or finish just as the weather closes in and everyone says ‘Wow, we were so lucky.’. There’s a satisfaction in knowing that you’ve paced the day and engineered it to be exactly like that. I often think you’re guiding best when no-one notices you’re guiding.
Also, I get accused of having a really slow cadence all the time. I like to ride with a lot of slow speed power. I think it comes from spending a lot of time in the Scottish Northwest and spinning slow between power moves in the rocks to get maximum grip, or, maybe I’m just slow?
What piece of advice do you think every mountain bike rider should hear? And what piece should they ignore?
Hear. Let’s put it in perspective. Most people are very quick to offer advice and opinions, but opinions are only useful if they are based on knowledge and experience.
When advice is being given, whether its solicited or not, it’s often from a place of wanting to help out. I try to ask ‘why’ more often these days and remember that one person’s favourite handle bar or best trail they have ever ridden might not suit you at all. Understanding the ‘why’ behind something helps me to form my own opinion, rather than just repeating what’s been told to me.
Equally, putting trail and features into perspective is really important. You might ride a certain feature on one day and not another, and that’s totally ok. It’s not a failure, in fact, that kind of decision making is often the sign of experience.
You don’t need to be the best rider in the world for your opinions and ideas to be of value. I recently learnt that the word ‘amateur’ comes from the meaning of ‘one who loves’. I know that I would always choose to listen to someone who truly loves what they do.
Ignore. “Just ride your bike.” This is so over used and such a cliche. I get the sentiment,- the more time you spend on the bike the more experience you get and the fitter you get blah, blah, blah. However, just blindly riding the same trails over and over making the same mistakes just leads to frustration. Go out with a focus, it could be something in your technique, or to try and clean a climb you never have. Simply looking for different lines can be the moment that changes the whole way a trail feels.
Last year I swallowed up some pride went and got some coaching for myself. Not only was it a really fun day, it was also the best money I’ve spent on anything bike related. A good coach can benefit any level of rider.
Personally, I’ve found that training off the bike has massively improved my riding. A bit of gym work around strength and mobility has helped me understand my strengths and weaknesses and to tap into a whole new level of fun on the bike. I guess it comes back to my ethos of trying to keep constantly improving and evolving, but I’ve completely fallen in love with getting my headphones on and going through a process in the gym.
You don’t need to be a racer to feel the benefits and whether you’re riding every single day, once a week or occasional weekends, a bit of thought and effort can completely change the way you ride, and there’s nothing more liberating than knowing someone else on the ride is hurting more than you are.
If you could go back and re-ride one day from your life so far, where/what/when/who would it be? Would you change anything?
Recently a big part of my work has been training guides. Not in the obvious skills but the lesser understood. I’m really passionate about the psychology of guiding and getting the best from groups, structuring our own mind to be 100% there for our riders, these are areas that really interest me.
A few years ago I was working with a guide team in Morocco. I had arrived late into Marrakech, a driver in a beat up Fiat Panda had driven me high up into the Atlas, it was pitch black and I had no idea where I was getting dropped off. The slightly perilous road ended with a very dark walk up a hillside to the Riad I was staying in. The next morning I woke up to one of the most amazing mountain ranges I’ve ever seen.
I spent that day riding with the Berber mountain guides, teaching them mechanics and talking through ideas around guiding on bikes. We rode up above the next village where the head guide lived. It was 44 Celcius and all I could do was think about my brain boiling in my helmet. Above the village was this incredible bit of singletrack carved out by donkeys heading to the top of the mountain. It was littered with rocks and tight switchbacks made their way across the deep red mountainside like a lightning strike had imprinted its shape there forever.
As the heat of the day gave way to an amazing sunset we sat on his rooftop looking up towards Toubkal, the highest peak in the Atlas. We drank mint tea and chatted in a mixture of English, my bad French and hand gestures. It was really humbling to be around them and to be treated as a friend, and it’s a moment that will stay with me forever.
What have you wasted the most time on in your life as a rider or bike industry career that you wished you’d given up years ago?
Comparing myself to others. There’s a pressure to make every single ride you go out on the best one ever, for all the photos to be all high fives, railing corners and sunset descents.
I’m just as guilty as anyone else, my Instagram is full of pictures in golden light having great times.
However, the reality of riding is not always like that. It’s ok to have a bad day on the bike. At times you’ll be taken to ride ‘the best trail ever’, but you’ll feel like you’re on half the speed of everyone else, and sometimes you’ll go exploring and find you’ve had your bike on your shoulders more than your wheels on the ground. We won’t all win a world series, we won’t all star in the next Red Bull film and we won’t all get our own custom pedals and matching bars.
A few years ago I did some videos with Katie Butler. She’s predominantly a road and gravel rider, and we did a few videos where she was being introduced to mountain biking. It was the first time I had worked with someone that was so open about their emotions and all in front of a camera. It was a real eye opener for me, and I came away thinking that being that open and honest required a lot more strength than muscling up any single track.
The thing is, when you get that feeling where you, the bike and the trail all seem to be working in perfect harmony, it is addictive, and even if its only once, it’s enough to keep coming back for more, and the more chance there is of recreating that feeling every time you get back on the pedals. If you’re doing things right, the good days far out number the ones that are less fun.
Mountain biking has given me the opportunity to travel and experience some incredible places and meet awesome people, as well as form lifelong friendships. I’m just as grateful for the tough days as well as the days that leave you feeling like a hero.
How do you motivate yourself when you’re struggling or lacking inspiration?
It’s particularly hard when the majority of your time is spent riding for others. Deliberately choosing the best pace and route to suit them and packing not just to look after yourself, but for everyone. It can get into your system when you look down at a bag weighing four times as much as anyone else’s and know you have to shoulder both the physical and mental pressure of being responsible for people day in and day out.
Don’t get me wrong, I really do love what I do and I’m super passionate about pushing mountain bike guiding as a profession, but I’ve learnt that when you ride for work, it’s also really important to ride for yourself as well. To make the time for your favourite trails and the people you like riding with the most. Guiding and riding are different, both amazingly rewarding, but in different ways, and I have to make sure to keep that balance.
I’ve been on a few rides where getting up early was a struggle, driving to trails and longing to find an open coffee shop on the way.
Every now and again I revisit the things that got me into riding and the outdoors in the first place. I loved the the Jeremy Jones snowboard films, Deeper and Further. There’s a scene I remember, and in the DVD extras there was more detail. They were all in these big, yellow North Face expedition tents waiting for a storm to pass – Dan Milner was there, the only guy with a British accent. At the time I was really into the early Trail Ninja series he did, and when I was working in a ski bar I would put those DVD’s on every night.
I remember them all stuck in these tents with the wind howling, surrounded by the most imposing and incredible mountains. As soon as I saw that I knew I wanted to be doing something similar. Every now and again I’ll go back to watch those films or the Trail Ninja videos, where they were riding somewhere that at the time hardly anyone had and I immediately have the urge to get on my bike or do something.
I’m really lucky in that there’s a handful of people that I know if I go riding with them, no matter the conditions and no matter how any of us feel at the start of the ride, we’ll all have had a good time by the end. It’s what I love about riding – it’s an individual sport, but it has all of the camaraderie and atmosphere of any team sport.
What single and specific thing about riding bicycles do you gain the most happiness from?
I think the bike is a amazing way to explore the landscape and to experience different cultures. I’m extremely grateful for the opportunities that simply turning pedals has given me. That feeling when someone is stoked because of the places you’ve taken them, or the fact they have ridden something they never would have without you is what keeps me putting the chamois cream on.
Now I’m planning bigger and bolder adventures for myself and taking the time to ride the routes and places I’ve always dreamed of. For me there’s no one single thing that gives me happiness from riding,’, it’s about the sum of all the parts along the way.
What single thing would you like to erase from cycling history from the last year?
Sadly there’s so many obvious choices right now; Covid, Brexit, instagram posing distracting from real riders, old school tutors and coaches refusing to evolve, the death of many bike shops, huge price increases, product shortages, inequality…
Sometimes it would be easy to feel like we are more divided than ever, however, I really do strongly believe the strength of mountain biking is in its community.
There’s not many other sports where you find groups of friends of all levels of fitness and ability encouraging each other and having a great time. You only need to have one night in Finale Borgo (Italy) when riders from all over the world filter off the hills above Finale for beers and gelato to realise we are all a very small part of something special and much bigger than us alone.
For that reason I’m going to choose to eliminate bike theft, myself and far too many close friends have been affected by high value bike theft recently.
It’s organised crime with shops and individuals being targeted. Once bikes are stolen it’s really hard to track and getting that bike back is highly unlikely. The thing is for so many of us, our bikes are our escape, they are the key to adventures and good times with friends. When some nasty thief takes a bike it’s not just wheels and a frame they are stealing, its part of us.
Having said that, it’s in those moments when I’ve seen the best come out of people, where so many people step up to lend a hand in any way they can and everything from components to complete bikes have been donated to get someone rolling again.
What single thing would you like to make happen in the cycling world in the next year?
I’d like to see mountain bike guiding grow as a profession. For it to be taken more seriously here in the UK like it is in other parts of the world.
That requires a number of things to happen, for the qualifications and the people behind them to continue to develop and evolve to stay in line and embrace the ever changing way we ride bikes.
However, most importantly, for us as individuals to hold our heads high and take pride in what we do. Something I started that I want to continue to embrace, is whenever I feel like I hit a plateau, to look for ways to continually improve and do better. To keep the fire stoked and forge ahead, both in terms of trying to better myself as an individual, but to be able to encourage and help anyone else along their own journey in mountain bike guiding as well.
Also, how many times have I referenced adventure? It’s so over used, everything these days is branded as an adventure. Adventure socks, adventure pens and any other number of mundane things trying to sound like it has even an iota of grandeur. Adventure has been hijacked by marketeers to appeal to our needs and desires to break free from normality, so from next year I’m no longer going on adventures, I’m going on quests.
Who else should we ask these questions to?
Ben Creed, Head of leadership at BC. Jules Fincham , Godfather of MTB Tutoring. Ben Davis, BC Suspension Jedi. Dan Milner, MTB Photographer and adventure pioneer. Tom Williams too, the main man at Tweed Valley Bikes.
You can keep tabs on Chris’s adventures on his Instagram feed here.
You can catch all our previous Wise Words interviews with the likes of Sven Martin, Manon Carpenter, Ric McLaughlin and plenty more here.