It’s been a long time coming, but as of last week I can finally rejoin the promised land, enjoy lovely trails with lovely people, and ride obscene switchbacks until my handlebars get stuck in that position – I passed the French equivalency test that allows me to legally guide and instruct bikes in France, join the French MTB instructor’s union, and even (I assume) join the national pastime by going on strike! This is a post about what was involved and my experience of the test, which I hope will be useful for folks who have seen these developments and are curious about taking the same route.
For British-qualified mountain bike guides hoping to work in France, things have been bleak to say the least over the last few years, with uncertainty, bans and even arrests making it clear that the legal grey area under which many UK guides had previously operated was no longer going to be tolerated. I spent a summer season working for Sam Morris at BikeVillage in the Tarentaise valley in 2011, although even then the Scottish Mountain Bike Leaders Association’s qualifications weren’t officially recognised by the French authorities. It was my first job as a guide, having sprinted through the MBL scheme quickly in order to get up to speed and open up the possibility of a fun summer job between university semesters. Since then, guiding and coaching have become more than a summer sideline, and now form the majority of what I do for a living. In the meantime Sam has quietly been hard at work turning lemons into lemonade…
The result of a lot of hard work and gentle pressure from people like Sam and from within the French system is an épreuve d’aptitude. Essentially, MBL and BC Level 3 holders can now apply (this is France, be prepared for form-a-geddon!) to have their qualifications recognised and be permitted to establish themselves as professionals in France. If that application is accepted the lucky candidate can then travel to France for the equivalency test itself, which is exactly what me and eight other UK guides did in late May.
The journey into the world of French bureaucracy began in autumn 2015 – you might have seen this press release on Singletrack’s site – and although the test dates were tentatively set for the first week of June, a running head start was needed in order to gather the mountains of paperwork involved, which needed to be submitted by late February. Doctors note, MBL syllabus, even the birth towns of my parents (all translated into French) were among the boxes to be ticked, but after some to-ing and fro-ing my application was complete. The trickiest but of paper to acquire for most Brits will be the one to prove a degree of competency in French (my degree certificate got a rare chance to come out of storage and be held up to the light!), but a language centre can sign you off after an interview or a course.
At this point, ‘ Team France’ still seemed distant and sometimes hostile in the amount of questioning, nit-picking and general faffing to allow us to into an assessment of skills we had already proven ourselves capable of through our respective UK qualifications, and frustration was mounting. To an extent it was down to unfamiliarity with the French way of doing these things, and I suspect I also wanted the process to fit with my own view of the French authorities as the ‘bad guys’ at the distant end of a fibre-optic cable. I imagined the worst, and had visions of mirrored sunglasses, clipboards and tight lips, so I was feeling nervous enough already when I arrived at Geneva airport, my work kit packed into the gaps around my bike inside the bike bag, to leaden clouds and rain. After missing a train connection due to a LATE Swiss train (!), I eventually rendez-vous’ed with Team BikeVillage – Ollie, Euan and Emily – in the small town of Culoz, where we glamped roadside-style and listened to the rain continue.
In the morning we continued to the small town of Rumilly, the unlikely venue for the test which would take place over the course of the week. First up, on a rainy Monday afternoon, was the…
Épreuve de Maniabilité (Balance test)
This was the strangest and funniest part of the test. Having met at the Maison de Vélo in Rumilly, we rode to a lone building in the middle of some woods, which was to be the venue for the balance test! I had imagined towering pallets and back-wheel hopping, so it was a surprise to be confronted by two ribbons of tape marking a twisty, turny course through tight trees and through steep gulleys on the forest floor in the middle of nowhere. There were ten 5m sections marked, in which we needed to stay between the tape and keep our feet off the floor to score a point. Failure to do so meant ‘nil points’ for that section. They do love a bit of competition in France, so it was all presented in super-serious style, full rules and regulations, which went so over the top that I think it eased the tension a little. The course was actually really fun, with tricky roots and surprise climbs to keep us on our toes, but plenty of sections that wouldn’t be out of place on your average natural trail back in the UK, and didn’t require elite levels of skill to comfortably pass.
Épreuve d’Orientation (Navigation test)
Next up was the navigation speed test, which combined reading the IGN 1:25000 map provided with an element of fitness to get around the 10km course within a specified time limit. We had five checkpoints to reach, with the route between them left entirely up to us, setting off at five minute intervals with our little orienteering score cards to punch at each balise. The terrain was mostly mae up of farm tracks, woodland singletrack and quiet roads – non-technical for the most part, but the constant rain had added Teflon mud and bottomless puddles on the rutted tracks to keep things interesting.
It took me a couple of legs to get used to the unfamiliar 1:25000 scale, but once I got into a rhythm the course was quite fun, although holding a mud-coated map-case between my hands and the bear brake made the rutted, greasy descents extra exciting. We all had different courses to complete, so some comedy crossovers and head-scratching ensued. There were plenty of small tracks not on the map, so some detective work was needed, but the navigation wouldn’t be unfamiliar to anyone who’s gone through the TCL or MBL awards, only with signature French time pressure added. It was a new challenge for me, but not entirely unenjoyable. There were a few stumbles, and not everyone made it round in the allotted time, having been caught out by the mud and the treacherously convoluted tracks in the forest, but three of us went through to the end of the first day with boxes ticked so far.
Gestion d’un Accident (First Aid test)
The next day was the incident management test, on a hillside above Lake Annecy. One of our three ‘clients’ keeled over dramatically and we had ten minutes to do what we would do to help them and the rest of the group, were it to happen in real-life. Again, nothing unfamiliar to any award holders in the UK who remember their first aid training, only in a slightly more formal setting. The challenge for us was the need to be able to communicate essential information to the emergency services in a simulated phone call, so our French skills were called into service then and during a quick question and answer session with the assessors once the time was up. On the plus side, it was over with nice and quickly, and it’s never a bad thing to make sure you’re ready to call all this information up nice and quickly were you ever to really need it.
Épreuve de Pédagogie (Coaching test)
Possibly the most stressful part of the test – unless you enjoy being handed a bunch of excitable French kids and being asked to coach them for an hour! We were ‘guest coaches’ for a meeting of the local kids mountain bike club, and in this section of the test were asked to take them on a small journey while coaching a specific skill. In 2015 I went through the UKCC L2 coaching award, and again what was being asked for was nothing unfamiliar if you’ve gone through a similar award.
My group were aged 11-13 years old, and from the moment one of them manualled into, across, and back out of the car park I got the impression it might be quite tricky to tech them something new. It was the biggest test of my French, and it felt very strange to be telling off misbehaving children in an unfamiliar language! French children tend to be used to a slightly more disciplinary education system, and I knew that strong group control was something the assessors would be looking out for, but at the same time we had great fun in the local park, setting up challenges and me trying my best not to stumble over the French for chainring and “Oi! Stop that!” The assessors seemed pretty happy with my session, their eyes definitely lit up a little when I cracked out the stack of cones… They wouldn’t give us our results straight away, so there were a few days of nervous waiting to endure, although luckily there were trails, cheese and pre-season BikeVillage house preparations to take our minds off it.
On the following Monday I got confirmation through that I had passed, and that a Carte-Pro was on the way! Good news indeed after a nervous few days, especially given that the June re-assessment would have been impossible for me to attend. Despite having worried about the whole thing for weeks beforehand, about the time and expense needed to get out there, the whole experience was a pretty positive one for several reasons. This is what I took away from the week in Annecy:
- French people like bikes too! The best thing, I think, was the humanising effect of Team Britain meeting Team France in the flesh, and vice versa. I don’t know what we expected, but it turns out the people that we had blamed for stopping us from practising our trade are just human, and they like riding their bikes just as much as we do. I think the feeling was mutual, and the French assessors got to see experienced guides that just want to take customers to ride their bikes in amazing terrain, safely. There were lots of smiles, a lot of friendly conversation and all the other great things about biking that cross language barriers.
- In France, being an mtb guide isn’t just a summer job. For them, it’s a ‘proper’ trade, like being a plumber or a doctor, that has it’s own union and commands a bit more respect than it does here in the UK. When I tell people what I do for a living, I’m often asked what I plan to do afterwards, when I get a real job. Although there’s a lot more red tape surrounding the profession in France, the upshot is that it is respected for the tricky job that it is, rather than just a way to ‘get paid for riding your bike’.
With those things in mind, the future looms a little rosier for UK bike guides in the Alps. Hopefully, more and more of us will be able to do the job we love in among the endless switchbacks and alpine meadows, and in doing so keep the folks who come to ride with us safe, while giving them an adventure to remember. If those things sound like they might float your boat, check out Sam’s website. See you there.
Bring on the croissants!