So You Want to be a Mountain Bike Guide…There’s More Than Meets the Eye

Sharing your favorite trails in the world with paying guests is often the perception of mountain bike guiding, but there's much more to the trade.
Photo: Kate Loterbauer

Dream jobs are a double-edge sword, especially when they involve your hobby. On one side, you’re doing what you love or at least incorporating it into a livelihood and that makes work much more appealing than any general labor job.

On the other, turning your hobby into a job can lead to burnout and a disinterest in what brought you to the position in the first place. I’ve been fortunate enough to go on a few guided trips over the years as a mountain bike journalist and the guiding profession has always intrigued me. Guides are highly skilled, fit, and natural leaders. But, like any “dream job” there are strings attached to doing what you love every day for a living, and someone’s dream job might also be another’s nightmare.

We spoke with two mountain bike guides who have very different experiences and perspectives. They gave us the down and dirty scoop and shared the roses and the thorns of the profession with us.

Tony Martin leads a group of clients on a ride in Ecuador. Photo: Matt Miller

It didn’t take Tony Martin long to know what he didn’t want to do for a living. Martin, the owner of the 2Wheel Epix guiding company, moved back to Idaho after teaching English in Peru, his first job after college. He landed an interview at a software company in his hometown and it would have been a ticket to building a life in a pricey resort town.

“I got to the final round and I went to the office and met everybody,” he said. “And I looked at everybody sitting at their desks in their outdoor gear and stuff and I said to myself, I never want this to be my life.”

Instead, he opted out of the position, found a local raft guiding business, asked them for a job, and guided trips on the Salmon River for two years before going back to South America and meeting some mountain bike guides he started to tag along with.

Before long, Martin’s Spanish speaking and first aid skills came in handy with the guides he was riding with, and they offered him a job. It was short-lived. It wasn’t a good fit, he said, but it sparked a fire for his business to come. Martin returned to Durango, Colorado where he attended college, won a business competition with a $5,000 prize, and started his international mountain bike guide company in his late twenties “on a huge whim and hoping that everything I learned in business school would actually serve me.”

Refocusing what a guide company should be

Martin and 2Wheel Epix guide Jose Cuervo riding in Ecuador.

The inspiration for his trips throughout Central and South America come from backcountry skiing, the love of history, culture, and art and how to relay those points to clients who signed up for a mountain bike trip.

“And what that accumulates into is creating adventure travel that also has a historical and spiritual side to it, that allows people to connect with those places.”

With the way of mapping apps and an abundant amount of online trail data, Martin saw a greater opening for guiding internationally versus domestic. People are more likely to hire a guide when there is a language and cultural barrier. That also opens the door to providing a rich guiding experience where he can explain the history and culture of the regions to those who sign up.

A day in the office

Martin and a client talking after a ride. Photo: Matt Miller

The work never ends, guides often say. It starts before the clients are awake. It ends after they’re asleep. While there’s no typical day for clients on a trip, for guides, it becomes routine.

“If you’re lead guiding, you’re crushing it,” Martin said. Guides are usually up at six, getting dressed, prepping the clients’ bikes, prepping the van, starting coffee, sending emails, and serving breakfast. Then, the hard part; mobilizing a bunch of sleepy clients.

“It’s kind of like herding cats,” he said.

The hardest part though, is getting those cats into a car. “Your crux of guiding is trying to get your stuff repacked in the morning and trying to get people on whatever vessel you’re going in and getting out.”

Guiding difficult clients

Daniel Bascompte, a 2Wheel Epix guide leads a group up a trail in Ecuador.

Once you’re on the trail, that’s your time to take it easy, Martin said. Unless, that is, you’ve got a client who is difficult or struggling. Martin has guided pro athletes several times who occasionally want to try out a line with really high consequences and he has to put his foot down and tell them it’s a bad idea. Usually, he doesn’t have a hard time with clients.

“You don’t get much pushback from people, because they’re so outside of their comfort zone,” Martin said of guiding people through remote sections of Ecuador or Peru. And they tend to trust you. “You’re their lifeline. With a good guide, you should feel pretty safe.”

Then there are those who are just having a bad time. They’re crashing or dealing with something beyond the trail on a trip. Because mountain biking in a foreign place can be taxing, it’s often when a client’s emotions come out.

“You literally become someone’s therapist. That’s half of guiding,” he said with a laugh. The ones who are having a bad day on the bike are the ones he focuses on the most while those in the front he generally doesn’t have to worry about.

The soft skills and tradeoffs of guiding

Martin has guided for long enough that he’s seen the good and the bad of the profession and how that translates to people’s perceptions of the job. Some people are shocked when they hear the prices for his trips. But not just anyone can be a mountain bike guide.

“The skill set needed to be a bike guide is a lot of super niche things,” he said. “One, being super fit and being able to ride a bike well enough to be able to ride with riders of all abilities. (From intermediate riders to professional athletes on media shoots.) And then to have bike mechanic skills. And then you have to have first aid and then you have to be personable. You have to be super composed all of the time. It’s a really developed skill thing that these guides have to have.” 

The job is also taxing. When Martin built his business, he was always on the move. For a period of three to four years, he recalls not sleeping in one place more than a week or two.

Still, he thinks about all the job has given him. He works with different communities and prides himself on creating connections and experiences, not just for others, but himself too.

“And then the other best part is just seeing the world,” he said. “Sometimes I sit and think back on all the trails I’ve been on, the valleys, rivers, it’s just so overwhelming. It’s too many lifetimes packed into 10 years.”

The idea of guiding hit Kate Loterbauer when she ran into a friend from college at a restaurant where she worked after graduation. Like Martin, she attended Ft. Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, where she learned to mountain bike. Loterbauer ran into her old friend after returning to Durango and learned he was a guide in Moab. Not ready for office life yet, her ears perked when she learned about the opportunity.

“I was like, okay, I’m going to do that too.” She sent her resume and a cover letter to a mountain bike guide company in Moab in the fall of 2015. In the spring of 2016, she started her first guide season. The training wasn’t quite what she expected, considering the nature of the work.

“I had to do three training trips,” she said. “I feel like mostly what I had to learn was how to drive a four-wheel drive truck and do four-wheeling because we did a lot of trips in Canyonlands.” Aside from learning to off-road, Loterbauch had to get her wilderness first aid certification and learn the routes and maps, but much of the training revolved around driving, packing, and setting up camp.

Expectations versus reality

Photo: Matt Miller

After a few training trips, she was thrown into the fire. “We used to make this joke, ‘so you want to be a mountain bike guide, huh?,’” she said.

It encompassed the wide range of expectations of the job and how what they did, didn’t always meet them. In the spring and fall, Loterbauer guided trips through Canyonlands on the White Rim trail. It was typically one male and one female guide. One guide usually rode with the group and the other drove the truck, loaded with supplies, and they rotated every day. On the driving days, she sat in the truck, chugging along at a slow pace behind the main group for the day.

“I totally thought I would be riding my bike more than I did.”

Loterbauer also wasn’t prepared for what turned out to be a challenging clientele. Many of her trips were geared toward families and had a similar type of client: those who are retired or have the money for expensive bike trips. She felt that the clients didn’t equate her experience to that of the male guides.

“There were so many rich, old white guys who wanted to race me up every hill,” she says. “And, like, I’m not here to race you. I work here bro! That got really hard.”

A tough work/life balance

Loterbauer estimates she guided about 20-25 trips a year. Seasons ran from February to October. She’d guide two trips back to back, have a week off in between, and then two more back to back.

“It felt like a lot when I was in it,” she said. Though she lived in Moab at the time, her weekends often started when a trip ended somewhere in Montana or Idaho and traveling back home was done on her time. A lot of guides just slept in their cars on their breaks, she said. In her first season of guiding, she slept in her Subaru Impreza, but between the first and the next season, she built out a van to sleep in.

Loterbauer also found it hard to muster the energy on her days off to ride her bike by herself or with friends, after riding all week with clients. On trips, she realized she had the same “surface level” conversations with clients every day and she felt herself drifting from her actual friends and community. Guiding new people every week was draining and riding bikes became work.

Photo: Matt Miller

Trajectory for guiding

Loterbauer insists it wasn’t all bad. She loves the desert and spent more time than ever outdoors, taking in sunshine and nature and being the first person to see the seasons change and flowers bloom in the spring.

Some guides she knew worked during the summer, switched to ski patrol in the winter, and have lasted decades, earning the “lifer” moniker, though they were few and far between.

“You gotta be a special person to be a lifetime guide,” she said. “You have to be really good at just bullshitting and talking with people.”

Often, she saw guides leave after just a few years. At the end of the her second season, Loterbauer decided to move on.

“It’s a time in my life and I’m so glad I did it when I did it. And also, I’m glad it’s over. It was one of the best, most fulfilling and exciting times in my life. But now I can look back on it fondly.”