In the latest in our series of articles introducing British Cycling-qualified mountain bike leaders, we meet Tom Hutton to find out how he is benefitting from his qualification.
Tom Hutton has been a mountain bike writer and photographer for around 15 years, working mainly for MBR magazine to produce pull-out route guides and also writing guidebooks.
Part 1: The qualification
Why did you decide to become a mountain bike leader?
“I have been fortunate enough to enjoy some amazing riding all over the UK and am passionate about getting out into the mountains and exploring. After years of sharing these experiences via print, I wanted to become qualified so I got a chance to share them in person.”
What does being a Level 3 mountain bike leader mean?
“To me, it’s important to be as good at my job as I possibly can be and the L3 qualification has provided me with the training and experience to do this. I’m really proud of being one of the most qualified leaders in the country.”
You transitioned between the MBLA qualifications and Level 3 Mountain Bike Leadership Award; how was this and what were your motivations for the change?
“I really enjoyed taking the MBL award and the remit for an MBL is certainly sufficient for the type of work I do; but I felt that the Level 3 award delved deeper into many aspects of leading, particularly with experienced riders in the mountains or in remote terrain and I saw it as an opportunity to develop my leading skills further. It’s also great to hold the most up-to-date qualification.“
Can you tell us about the groups you take out and the environments you use to lead in?
“My customers are a mixed bunch but they are generally experienced mountain bikers that want to get out of the trail centres and into the mountains. They perhaps lack the knowledge, experience or skill to do this safely on their own.
"I lead both groups and individuals on everything from day rides in Snowdonia, where I live, to full, week-long trips in the Scottish Highlands, where we travel by mini bus and pick off a different classic trail every day.
"This type of trip stretches me most as it involves taking people into very remote locations, often well out of their comfort bubble, and making sure that they are safe and have a good time. It also involves sound decision-making in terms of route choice etc. based on the fitness and strength of the group on the day, and of course, the weather and trail conditions. It really is a test of my ability to think on my feet.“
What have you done since qualifying to challenge yourself and help your own development as a leader?
“The biggest challenge I have faced since qualifying is recovering from a broken C1 vertebrae and getting back on my bike! But other than that, I have recently attended a weekend seminar, organised by the Mountain Training Association to discuss safety management and emergency procedures in the mountains. And I have also spent time with a technical advisor, fine tuning my operating procedures and safety management systems. Oh! And when I get a chance, I just love riding my bike!”
Being a full-time mountain bike leader, what does your week usually look like?
“There really is no standard week – the joys of being a one man band! I try to mix office time – which involves route planning, which I love, as well as marketing and general admin, which I don’t, with bike maintenance, as much personal riding as I can fit in, and of course, as much time as possible with my customers in the hills.
"In a perfect world, someone else could do the admin and I would work five or six days a week just guiding and working with customers. This is how the Scotland weeks run and although it’s really demanding, I can’t get enough of it – there’s no greater reward than seeing how much people enjoy being out in this environment.”
Part 2: Life in the industry
What do you see as being the biggest changes for the industry over the next few years?
“I think we really need to bottom out the access issue once and for all. It seems to me that a substantial amount of the miles ridden by mountain bikers every week, are actually on trails that have little or no actual right of way. I can’t see how we can continue to develop a thriving industry on such a shaky foundation. Or if that’s too technical, there’s always the wheel size debate ;)“
What is the OpenMTB Advocacy Group?
“At the moment, OpenMTB is just finding its feet, but the concept is simple. The organisation itself will act as a hub to a huge network of mountain bike clubs and organisations. It will listen to the voices of everyday mountain bikers, and then represent those voices in discussions with land owners, governments, local authorities and anybody else that can make a difference to the future and enjoyment of our sport.”
If we were to sit in on one of the group’s meetings, what sort of things would be discussed?
"the moment, most of the discussions are quite internal – how the organisation should look, how it should communicate etc. Boring stuff really, but essential in the long run. But we have already identified and started working on a list of priorities, issues that really will make a difference to mountain biking in the future – the Trails for Wales campaign was the first of these. Sadly, as everybody involved is a volunteer and has a proper job too, we don’t get to meet as often as we’d like to."
You are involved in in Welsh mountain bike tourism, can you tell us about this?
“My main thing here is that we have some amazing ‘natural’ mountain biking, yet I don’t think we make enough of it as the emphasis from Visit Wales is always on the trail centres. These are of course amazing, but we have so much more.
"I think that if we made more of the ‘natural’ riding, we’d get even more MTB tourism, and more importantly, we’d get people into the mountains to see what an amazing country we really live in. Long term, people will want to look after what they love, so this will hopefully lead to greater protection for our increasingly vulnerable wild places.“
Does mountain bike leadership influence what you write about and photograph in your role as a journalist?
“Ha ha, definitely! The journalism is a little like leading except that you can’t actually see your customers (readers). I still feel a professional duty to make sure that they have a great time, that they are safe and well looked after. I also try to spread the all-important message about responsible access and minimising impact on both the environment and other hill users.”