In the latest in our series of articles introducing British Cycling qualified Mountain Bike Leaders, we meet Sean Howell who, after a massive career change and a trip around the world, made his passion his job and set up mountain bike guiding company, Marmalade MTB.
Part 1: Life before Marmalade
What did you do before setting up Marmalade MTB?
After leaving college I worked in manufacturing and mechanical engineering, starting out as an apprentice, then after 12 years I moved into the world of account management and training. This role gave me the opportunity to broaden my experience of business development and client relations: skills that would be really useful when I changed careers.
Have you always cycled?
Yes, right from schooldays; it was BMX as a kid then commuting to work. I’ve always had a fascination with all things ‘off-road’ and after a few years of mucking about with quad bikes and 4x4s I always seemed to gravitate back to mountain biking. I grew up with the South Downs on my doorstep, so mountain biking has been a part of my life for a long time. Through my twenties, my main sport was football but after taking part in a charity mountain bike event, I realised mountain biking was my main passion and hung up my boots.
Part 2: Learning to lead and riding the world
Why did you decide to take the British Cycling Mountain Bike Leader course?
I’m lucky that a lot of my school mates still live in the same area and are into mountain biking, so I organised a fair few mountain biking trips around the UK for us and tended to be the one who did the route planning, pre-ride checks and leading. They observed my obvious passion and love for the sport and suggested that I should look into getting a qualification and making it my full-time job. I looked at a number of course providers and was a little confused by how many there were but once I saw what the British Cycling award offered, it was the obvious one to go for.
What did you get from the course?
I really enjoyed it and the instructors were excellent! I guess, along with the practical skills, the main thing I took from the course was that it wasn’t the end point and I had to carry on learning and evolving as a leader. The instructors taught us how to plan rides and what to expect from different people but it’s only through then practicing those skills that you can really hone them.
Having got your qualification, you then headed off to mountain bike the world; any particular trails or countries stand out in your mind?
I took a year off to backpack but also wanted to cram as much mountain biking in as possible. I spent the first five months in South America and the riding in Bolivia was amazing. The High Andes is littered with trails that go right back to the Inca civilisation and riding with a guiding company there, I got to ride the best of them.
I also learnt a lot about guiding as the staff had a real knack for making sure that every client got the most out of their trip. It was also heartening to see that their guiding style and ethos aligned very closely to what I’d learnt on my British Cycling Leadership course.
Part 3: Making Marmalade
Once back, you set up Marmalade MTB; why marmalade?
There are a number of reasons: the short one is that I wanted a name that stood out a bit, plus I have what you’d describe as a strawberry blond complexion and a beard that’s definitely at the ginger end of the spectrum. Orange Bikes have been integral to the development of mountain bikes in the UK and the sport originally started in Orange County in the US, so that ties in, too. Finally, when people ask me why marmalade, I can just answer, “it’s all about the shred!”
How did you get started?
I designed and created the website myself which taught me a lot of useful skills, and I sorted out a logo and put a solid business plan in place. I also had to understand how social media works and what the best platforms are for my business. Before February this year I’d never been on Facebook, so that was a massive learning curve - but a lot of fun too. It was then a case of advertising via social media - putting up some rides - and it has grown from there.
What does Marmalade MTB offer?
Essentially, guided mountain bike rides on the South Downs, Surrey Hills and across the south-east. I offer basic skills, bike handling and bike set-up tuition, but also hold maintenance workshops to give people the confidence and essential knowledge to eradicate the fear that may have prevented them riding their bikes alone. My aim is to inspire more people to get out on their bikes and to love it as much as I do.
Who are your typical clients?
The majority of them have very busy lives with work, commuting and families so their limited riding time is extremely precious. They haven’t got the time to go out and get lost to find the great trails. With 2-3 hours spare a week, they just want to get out on their bike and know it’ll be an amazing ride - and I can deliver that to them.
What are your ambitions for Marmalade MTB?
In the UK I believe, despite our small size, we’ve got the best and most varied mountain biking in the world. We’ve got a historic network of bridleways and by-ways which are now complemented by trail centres and purpose built trails.
My main ambition is to take advantage of this and to organise biking trips all around the UK. I want Marmalade to become known as the driving force that raised the profile of mountain biking across the South Downs National Park. To achieve this I am working on building a strong cohesive network that together will create the ultimate mountain biking experience for the rider, whatever age or ability.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to set up a mountain biking guiding business?
Do it for the right reasons. You have to totally love the sport and if this isn’t the case, you won’t inspire and attract clients.