At basqueMTB we have an important milestone to celebrate. This month marks a decade of basqueMTB offering mountain bike holidays in Spain. It was 10 years ago that I moved to Spain to join Amaia who had moved a few weeks before to get some things organised. It isn’t easy to say exactly when we started; was it when we set up the website? Or when we moved here? Or when we registered the business? I thought it was a good opportunity to answer all the questions we often get asked on our holidays. Read on for lots of old pictures and the story of how our mountain bike holidays have evolved and changed over the last ten years.
This is a very important picture in the basqueMTB story! It was actually taken on a later visit but it was in the magnificently seedy Fingers Piano bar in Edinburgh where I met Amaia. I really don’t remember what date that was. Amaia is originally from the Basque Country but was living in Edinburgh at the time. I noticed Amaia over the heads of the drunken crowd and noticed that she had extra drinks in her hand so gallantly stepped in to rescue them. That was the moment really that changed my life.
The photos above are of Amaia and me taken at a wedding on the island of Iona. That was the real start of basqueMTB. These were taken a couple of hours apart on the 12th of April 2008 on the day of our friends wedding. The night before I had got… a bit tipsy and the next morning (with a hangover) Amaia told me she had something to talk about. Fearing the worst after my drunken behaviour we set off for a walk around the island. Its not a big island but by the time we had walked around it Amaia had told me that she had a job offer back in the Basque Country and that she wanted us both to move there. I agreed instantly and by the time we had reached the wedding we had worked out a rough plan for basqueMTB. For the record, it was initially Amaia´s idea to set up a mountain bike holiday company. We didn’t tell anyone for a while; it just seemed too much of a dream and we wanted to keep it to ourselves for a while.
The first few months in the Basque Country were hard. I had wiped out all my savings tidying up my affairs in the UK. I also had to buy a bike and get my mountain bike guide qualifications. At the end of January 2009, when I arrived, it was the wettest period on record in the Basque Country. My flight landed during a storm which shut the airport for 2 days and destroyed part of San Sebastian. Initially the idea was to set up basqueMTB as a joint venture with a friend, Jonny. Jonny was a bike guide and really helped set things up at the start with some great ideas about how we could do things. Really quickly it was obvious that it wouldn’t work out though, and we weren’t going to suddenly book up enough to pay two people! At that time we were living in a tiny flat, with no internet, with the rain hammering down every day for 6 weeks. Jonny quickly got a better offer and now he is living the dream in New Zealand! I stuck it out though and some time in February the sun came out and we had an amazing spring. Every day during that period was spend riding and finding all the trails I could. The local library became a second home, so that I could use their internet to publicise basqueMTB as much as I could for free.
By May 2009 I was running our first ever mountain bike holiday with people from my old mountain bike club. They let me test things out a bit and and then we had a slow trickle of people through the year. I think I guided 29 people that year. Back then we didn’t have a van and when I had people looking for a holiday I would hire a van for that. It meant that I was just covering my costs with bigger groups and smaller groups I was running at a loss. At least I was getting people through the door though and showing them what we had. It all worked because lots and lots of those people returned with bigger groups the next year.
I remember the first group I had that made me a small profit. That was in July 2009. I had lived for those months with some money my dad gave me and with Amaia paying rent and buying shopping. Every day after riding I would pass the local bars and watch everyone eating and drinking but I never bought anything because it wouldn’t have felt right without my own money. I remember that July really clearly, I had finished a hard week and I walked down to the local bar at the end of the trip and bought myself a beer and some pintxos. I can’t describe how good that felt!
In 2009 we were really lucky because Singletrack World came out to visit and wrote an article about us. That was great because they gave us some credibility and also some great advice. At that time people didn’t know about the mountains in the Basque Country, it really wasn’t a known area for mountain biking. My plan was to get as many people, magazines and filmmakers to ride out here and see how amazing it was. In 2010 I also did some filming with Reset Films and again in 2011 which was an amazing experience and helped put the Basque Country on the map. They filmed a section of FIND here which went on to do a cinema tour around the UK. I remember my dad telling me about seeing the film in our local cinema, (Inverness), and seeing me on the big screen with all the local biking crew clapping. I think that was when my parents realised that this was serious and not a midlife crisis.
I learnt a lot that year and started to see how I wanted things to develop. I had a lot of funny experiences. One group I think of a lot was a bunch of well known industry guys from the USA. They wanted me to do them a free trip because they were “known”. At that time it was impossible because I had to rent a van so had fairly high costs. They bartered skills training in return for a free trip and we came to an arrangement that if they were much faster than me I would knock off some money. First of all they turned up on the 7th of June rather than the 6th of July! (Now you see how I write the full date on our forms, you learn these things after 10 years of mountain bike holidays!) On the first climb they were fast, really fast and I remember being nervous for the first descent; I know I’m no DH racer! Lets just say that they paid full price and I was happy waiting for them on the descents. 🙂 The next “Industry guy” who came out was Rowan Sorrell and he was happy to wait for me on the descents… I was starting to get an idea of how everything worked and where I fitted in.
At the start of 2010 Amaia´s brother lent me some money to buy a van and I bought the biggest, cheapest van I could find. That van was amazing and I loved it even if I knew it wasn’t the ultimate image I wanted for the company. Things started to go well at basqueMTB and from 2009, each year we doubled the number of holidays we hosted until we reached a plateau of around 250 people a year in 2012. That was the maximum number of people we could offer mountain bike holidays to with just one van. We have obviously had some hiccups during our 10 years of mountain bike holidays! I think it was 2012 when the government changed the tax bracket applying to my type of business, from 10% to 21%. That meant I had a really busy year but actually lost money! That was tough mentally. The other big crux point I remember from those early days was in 2010 when we had our first bad accident, a broken leg. Things went as smoothly as possible with the first aid and evacuation but that really affected me and it was touch and go whether I kept on going after that. Fortunately the next group we had was the fantastic Roberts family who really bumped my confidence again and went on to visit several times.
During the 2009 to 2012 period I was really working hard to make ends meet. I was running stag parties, doing tours of San Sebastian, writing for mountain bike magazines and running mountain bike holidays too. On our mountain bike holidays I would offer uplift, which meant parking the van at the top of the hill and while everyone was having lunch, or a beer at the end of the day, I would ride up and get the van. It was tough but I loved the mountain bike guiding part and that made it all worthwhile. At the end of 2011 I made myself ill and after lots of blood tests and doctors visits they reached the conclusion that I was “just knackered”. 2011 was also the first year when we made a very small profit and that gave me the confidence that basqueMTB could actually be a viable business rather than a time consuming hobby.
At the end of 2011 I decided it was time to make some of my own videos. You can still see all the old videos I made on our Vimeo channel. (Check out our YouTube channel too and subscribe because this is where the new videos will go). At around the same time I also met Ed Oxley who was running a mountain bike skills business in the UK at the time. (Now he is into trousers, check out HebTroCo). Those two things really boosted basqueMTB and in 2012 we were turning so many people away because we were fully booked. That year Ian Robinson came out to visit and stayed, helping me with van driving and guiding which really helped me take the next step. That year was also the first year we started offering mountain bike holidays in the Pyrenees, an area I had been exploring a lot. Up until then I had hesitated to offer holidays there because I really wanted to get everything really dialled on the Basque Coast first.
On our first Backcountry Pyrenees mountain bike holiday in 2012, with Ed Oxley there too, we took the big white van, loaded with bikes and guests we mostly knew. The trip was great and the van did great until the way home when it started dropping gears. We drove all the way back to the coast but by the time we got there we only had 3rd, 4th and 5th. Luckily it had finished the trip for us and we were at the end of the season. It was at that time when I bought a new (old) van, a LWB Renault Traffic. We also bought a trailer. That became the new basqueMTB van! In 2013 Ian went back home and first Scottish Dave and then Antonio started working for basqueMTB. (Antonio is still here, Dave is back in the UK!) This let basqueMTB grow a bit, offering more uplift and big point to point adventures. We really established the Pyrenees as a destination for mountain bike holidays and became very comfortable working there as well as the Basque Coast. Borja helped us out some days too but we ran with one van and a trailer and heavily limited the number of guests we took up until 2016 when we took the next step.
People always ask me why we are the size we are and why we don’t grow more. The simple reason is that we are happy as we are. It feels the right size. I loved working with just one van and basqueMTB being really small, however there was a slight problem. With one van you can’t split the group up very much. We needed 5-6 people in the van to make a living and that meant mixing different groups, so your group of 3 might be with another 2 or 3 people. Obviously we talked through the riding with everyone but every now and then there was a big mismatch in peoples abilities. And it was really hard to solve. We needed another van. And that meant taking more people on our mountain bike holidays. So in 2016 we basically doubled in size. I took on Borja full time, and Carlos and Igor. All was good, and so it continues. We still turn people away and we could easily grow further but really we aren’t interested. Life is good like this. We now have 2 vans, plus a back-up van just in case. We have a team of 5 and it means everything works without anyone working themselves to death. We run our mountain bike holidays in the Pyrenees and the Basque Coast and are the longest running company operating in the north of Spain, by quite a long way. We definitely don’t want to grow and more so things hopefully won’t change much from here.
THANKS TO EVERYONE. 10 Years of Mountain Bike holidays and I´ve loved almost every moment of it. Its been an absolute privilege to ride with you all and thanks for choosing basqueMTB for your mountain bike holiday and being part of this incredible journey.
Some of the key numbers. In no particular order.
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