The sun is setting on the most direct route to working as an MTB guide in France. Photo: Daniel Eiermann
Some of you may have spent a good part of the past lockdown-biased year, reconsidering your life-choices and about potentially a change in direction. If you’re on this site right now, and even reading this at all, I’d hazard a guess that one of those new directions might have been to quit the 9-to-5, move out to the French Alps, get a job as an MTB guide, and live happily ever after shredding endless pristine single-track, day after day, whilst occasionally moonlighting as media-influencer for Santa Cruz Bicycles.
Well get this: there remains, if you’re quick, a little-discussed opportunity to stake your claim to one of The European Union’s greatest achievements – The Freedom of Movement of Professionals. (Or perhaps the worst, if your views tend towards the xenophobic). In short, your last chance to “bank” your opportunity to do this next year, or any time in the future…is right here, and right now.
It has been common knowledge since, well…forever, that if you have your heart set on France to live out this dream, you may as well forget working as a guide without first learning to speak French and then going on to jump through significant, costly and time-consuming hoops to gain a French guiding qualification. For many, this has been an insurmountable barrier to cross, in addition to the more obvious concerns like your wife and kids, the mortgage, a sizeable student loan to pay off, and many other such minor and insignificant responsibilities.
The true pleasure in guiding for a living comes not from the trails themselves, but from the people with whom you share them. Photo: Daniel Eiermann
But here’s the kicker: The previous paragraph is not actually true. Not at all. It hasn’t been, virtually ever since the day Britain joined the EU. What’s actually true is; if you have any recognised guiding qualification in the UK that allows you to work professionally here, or even if you’ve only worked as a guide (without a qualification), European Law is clear in that you do in fact have the right, by default, to work in any other EU state, using only that*.
The bad news is that you’ve got a few weeks left….until the 31 December 2020 to be precise, to do something about it, before this opportunity is lost forever as one of the many casualties of Brexit. (Thanks, Boris). However, the situation isn’t as dire as it sounds. All you need to do before the 31st December, is submit some simple paperwork to at least kick-off the process. (You can follow up with the details, post-Brexit). Clearly, it isn’t as straightforward as just that, but thanks to the efforts of a handful of other ‘lambs to the slaughter’ that have gone before you, the legal inconsistencies between European Law and French Law have been ironed out by the most senior judges in France. The courts have confirmed that what is written in law, must also be applied in practise by the bureaucrats in charge.
*The Host State only has the right to refuse if they can demonstrate a substantial difference between your own qualification, and their own standards. However the burden of proof is on them, not you, and simply counting classroom hours, for example, does not count! Furthermore if a substantial difference is somehow proven to exist (which is not the case, to date) your European hosts are obliged to take into account your personal circumstances, notably any professional experience you might already have had at home in a similar role – which would in real terms make up any shortfall.
When not in a French court or guiding for trailAddiction, Ali dabbled in other initiatives such as a new line in MTB Fragrance, “Essence d’Enduro”. Coming to a Halfords near you, soon. Photo: Mick Kirkman
Errrm, if it Sounds too good to be true….?
At this point you might well be wondering why no-one ever told you about any of this before, if it were only that easy. The full answer to that, would take me until way into January to even type out, and you’d likely die of boredom before getting to the end of it. To save you that fate, here’s a short summary: It’s political. We’re not talking about a last-minute gesture of goodwill from our closest foreign neighbours to get as many British guides across the channel as they can before its too late. France values and respects its outdoor professionals very highly indeed, and prides itself on maintaining some of the highest standards (and therefore barriers to entry) in the world. All Sports Instruction is Government-regulated, unlike in the UK and most other European nations. In layman’s terms, working as a guide in France without a Carte Professionnel is legally equivalent to working as a Surgeon in the UK, without holding a Medical License to practise. However once “in the club”, the rewards for your efforts can be substantial. Apart from working in some of the world’s leading resorts and feasting on fresh pain au chocolat every day, an experienced French MTB guide can typically earn 200 to 300 Euros per day…with some off-piste ski guides working their way into 4-figures in the top resorts. Entire regional economies in France are based on the outdoor tourism industry (the ski industry alone is worth €2 billion per year). Clearly, they need to protect this since their very livelihoods depend on it. To give a crude analogy, in France the British MTB guide has often been viewed – until now at least – much as a Polish Plumber of old. (A term actually coined by the French, but certainly not a view endorsed by the author).
A Boulangerie on every street corner makes for easy-access to trail snacks, but definitely does not help with getting that sixpack-of-steel you always dreamed of. Photo: Mick ‘The Baker’ Kirkman
A French Mountain Bike Guide will train for hundreds if not thousands of hours (all tutored and paid-for) over a period of usually 18 to 24 months, then face a difficult physical and technical competency test (including guiding and coaching skills, speed-map reading and orienteering, even a trials skills test), before being awarded a Carte Professional. In contrast the traditional British Qualification route (way fewer classroom hours but with a heavier bias on real world experience) seems somewhat unfamiliar to French regulators. And of course, imagine how you’d feel if, having gone through all that in France…you were to find out that foreign guides were now to be awarded the same licence as you, having done nothing more than presented their existing UK qualifications. That by the French way of measuring things, are dished out to any-old Tom, Dick, or Harry after merely a “couple of weekends of training”. You might even feel the same way, as one of the few British-qualified men and women who eventually jumped through enough hoops and spent thousands on additional training, to finally be considered as “equivalent” on the French system.
A Boulangerie on every street corner makes for easy-access to trail snacks, but definitely does not help with getting that sixpack-of-steel you always dreamed of. Photo: Mick Kirkman
You’d therefore be forgiven for believing that the French have every right to decide if your UK qualification is equivalent to their own, when in France. And therefore, if you meet the grade to get a Carte Pro Guiding Licence, or not. This article is not intended to be a philosophical discussion. However, whether you agree with the above principal or not, that just isn’t how European Law works. Not only does it over-ride French Law, it IS French law – it’s literally copy/pasted directly into the French constitution (Directive 2005/36/EC to be exact, in case you’re eager for some extra bedtime reading). Reading it with a French accent does not change the meaning of the Directive, nor its interpretation in law.
Having said all of that, please don’t shoot the messenger! I’m not recommending this as a course of action. I’m merely telling you how it is. If others can benefit from the lessons I’ve had to learn the hard way, perhaps it might have all been worth it after all. Maybe you already unknowingly made the smartest decision of all by simply sticking with your day job and looking forward to a week or two out in the Alps on holiday. I can confirm that too many pain au chocolat will end up on your waistline even if you do ride for 6 or 7 hours every day, and although I’m very grateful for the years of support offered by Yeti Cycles and more recently, DirtLej, I never managed to become Santa Cruz’s next instagram poster-boy either. If its Epic Alpine Singletrack Adventures as an add-on rather than a replacement to your regular life that you seek, I can most certainly help you with that.
Before becoming a youtube celebrity, one of the UK’s most respected MTB coaches was allegedly spotted moonlighting suspiciously at coaching workshops with trailAddiction. Although sadly, we can find no records that may confirm or deny this claim, your honour. Photo: Adam Schlang
I’m interested. What steps do I need to take?
As stated above, the most important thing of all is to submit something (anything!) before the end of December. After that, it’s too late to even get started, in which case, there’s still an alternative approach via the EOMTB route…more later). You also need to decide if you are going to play nice, and ask the French to agree that your UK guiding credentials are equivalent to the French version (“Equivalence”), or if you simply wish to exercise your rights as an EU citizen and simply register/declare your intention to work in France (“Declaration”).
You’ll follow a different process (from a legal standpoint) depending on your current country of residence, your nationality, wether or not you currently work as a guide in the UK, are self-employed or not, and if you intend in future to work in France only occasionally, or full time.
If you’re already feeling confused, help is at hand. Ali at trailAddiction (the author of this piece) is happy to answer any specific questions you might have based on his personal experience as the guinea-pig on this very path. Drop me an email on info@trailAddiction.com. Be warned that the conversation might easily get side-tracked into “so where is the best trail in the world, and does it even exist?” -type discussions.
Is THIS this best trail in the world? Well, let’s just say it certainly isn’t Cannock Chase.
The merits of each approach are explained in more detail on [L=https://trackandflow.eu/declaration-assistance]Track & Flow’s website[/L], who are pretty much the only independent experts offering help with this process. They do offer a professional service (in English) to make sure you get it right first time, and don’t get caught out going down a blind alley that can lead you eventually to nowhere. Their lawyer is Phillippe Planes, the same Lawyer that won the case for the now infamous British Ski Guide Simon Butler, who made front page headlines in 2014 when he was dragged off the ski slopes in front of his group by pistol-packing Gendarmes, thrown into a cell for a few nights, and hit with a 5-figure fine. (In 2020, he finally got it all back, and was issued with a French License too in case you were wondering!). It’ll cost you a few hundred Euros to enlist Track & Flow’s help, but this is money well spent if you are at all serious about your application. Plus, you get to pretend that you have joined some kind of “British-French Resistance”.
If your eyes are already starting to glaze over, the minimal-effort, lowest-cost option is to take a punt on the following: Jump onto the official French web portal for these things, and fill in an online application. This, it should be noted, is following the “Please sir, am I good enough yet?” (Equivalence) approach as opposed to the “I’ll be out in France next summer with my British guiding shirt on, thank you very much” (Declaration) approach. But you never know, you could get lucky. And at least you did something to get your name on the list, before the Brexit-drawbridge goes up.
If looking at this photo makes you feel strangely aroused, maybe its time to accept that you are not quite like your other workmates, and you should probably do something about it. Photo: Mick Kirkman
The EOMTBing Route (European MTB Instructor-Guide Project)
In case you are reading this and its already got to 2021, or you just don’t fancy your chances in a game of Brexiteer ‘call my bluff’ against the French Authorities…there is now an alternative and less inflammatory pathway available, thanks to the superb efforts of a handful of others who chose to pursue a somewhat different approach to obtaining the same ultimate goal: A Carte Professionel with your name on it.
Some sterling negotiating work has been going on for years by a dedicated group of very experienced MTB guides and trainers, all across Europe. If you think negotiating a Brexit deal is tough, these guys could probably tell you a few stories! However, the end result is quite something remarkable: A common, agreed set of standards on what it takes to be a fully-qualified MTB guide has now been approved by all the EOMTB state members. The fact that these new standards and the final test itself bear an uncanny resemblance to the existing French national qualification, is surely no mere co-incidence. A new body, the Association of British Mountain Bike Guides (A-BMG) was formed to represent all the existing MTB Guide certifiers in the UK as a single voice in Europe. Full details are on their site, but the summary is that if you work your way through the existing UK qualifications, you can then apply (via the A-BMG) to take an EOMTB examination that will qualify you as a “EOMTB Licensed”. This technically allows you to then work as a guide in any country in the EU (although it should be noted that at least for now, in France at least, they still reserve the right to decide on a case-by-case basis if they think you really are good enough to be awarded a Carte Pro).
Mont Blanc is always keeping a distant eye on things wherever you are, when in the Les Arcs (Savoie) region of France. Photo: Mick Kirkman
The Brexit-related Sting in the Tail
No matter which route you follow, there remains a separate and more fundamental requirement to meet. If you are British resident and are not one of the lucky souls to have dual European nationality or an old Irish passport kicking around somewhere, you’ll need a work visa for any job on the continent. Until things are clearer about post-Brexit arrangements, we won’t know exactly how tough this is going to be. I hate to say it but my personal expectation is “probably not so easy”. I’ve had extensive experience of the visa and residency application process in New Zealand which seems to be fairly standard across other countries too. If you are still fairly young (under 25-ish) – you typically can obtain year-or-so’s “free pass” to go to work in a country and essentially demonstrate your credentials and establish a useful, sustainable career there (ideally in an area of skills shortage). Aside from that, the most common approach is a points-based quota-system, whereby in all but exceptional cases, you need to have a firm offer of a permanent job already lined up in an area of skills-shortage, before you can even cross the border and be allowed to work at all.
Lunchtime at the Savoyard Canteen (Vegan & Gluten-Free options not always available). Photo:trailAddiction
Your last gasp but somewhat extreme alternative is to drop everything right now get yourself across the channel before the end of 2020 – so long as you are already physically living in any EU country when the clock strikes midnight on 31 December 2020, you’ll have the automatic right to stay, live and work in that country, indefinitely. Which as it happens, was certainly a factor in my decision to quit my life on the paradise, COVID-free South Island of New Zealand and return to lockdown-France. NZ is stunning, the people are amazing, the trails are superb, the climate is just unbelievable, and the MTB community is the most active and supportive that I’ve ever seen or heard of….but it still isn’t the French Alps. As much as I might sometimes hate to admit it, in my personal experience there simply is no better place to ride mountain bikes, than right here.
There’s not always a quick and easy way to get to where you want to be. But once you finally get there, at least it’s all downhill on the other side. Photo: Daniel Eiermann
About the Author
Ali Jamieson was co-founder of trailAddiction Ltd together with Ash Smith – a couple of Engineering mates who graduated from The University of Sheffield way back in 2001, with only a tenuous existing connection to the Alps (Ash’s dad had a ski apartment in Val d’Isere which we made frequent use of during Uni holidays). trailAddiction was of the first companies to offer uplift-assisted guided package holidays in the French Alps and at its peak, employed nearly a dozen UK-qualified guides out in France in several locations. Ash went on to launch the Trans-Provence in 2009 while I remained in Savoie running trailAddiction, going on to create the Trans-Savoie and Enduro2 Pairs-Format Race Series. In 2012, I became embroiled in a lengthy legal battle regarding my right to work in France and to employ UK qualified guides, which in retrospect, was probably not the smartest of plans.
The Alpine Guide’s typical morning commute. (Disclaimer: Actual commute may vary considerably from that shown!) Photo: Daniel Eiermann
Before I knew it, it felt as if I was taking on the entire French government single-handedly, and mostly over a point of principle. I simply did not want to sell-out my superb and loyal UK guides, some who had by then worked for trailAddiction for nearly a decade, especially when I truly believed that every one of them was genuinely as skilled and competent as their French counterparts. Not to mention that I’d personally studied the law in quite some detail and paid tens of thousands in legal fees to have my assertions confirmed: that I really didn’t need to, either. What I hadn’t quite banked on was the extent of the political will of the authorities in my host country, to assert their influence. In 2016 I was eventually awarded my Carte Professionel based only on the merits of my UK qualifications alone (MIAS L3), but whole the process itself had already taken a severe personal toll and cost me an awful lot of money. To add insult to injury, the French government subsequently went on to press criminal charges on the grounds that I’d already been working as a guide, before they eventually conceded and issued me a licence for the qualifications that I’d always had. I became quite ill, and suddenly, the whole thing just caved. TrailAddiction Ltd was wound up early in 2017. It literally broke my heart. I decided to move to the South Island of New Zealand to seek out a fresh start on more welcoming shores. After a spell in Queenstown I discovered the little-known town of Nelson and trailAddiction was soon reborn as an NZ registered company, organising events and other adventures on New Zealand’s South Island. (The EWS will be in Nelson in April 2022, and believe me, minds will be blown!).
But the call of The Alps never quite faded, so in 2019, I returned to Les Arcs for a few months, and the rest was pretty much a foregone conclusion. Those superb mountains hadn’t gone anywhere, nor had the virtually infinite network of ancient walking trails and the hundreds of ski lifts linking them all together. A successful relaunch of trailAddiction’s Enduro2 pairs-format event in 2019 sealed the deal. I’m now back in the France offering bespoke guided chalet holidays based out of Les Arcs, but offering backcountry tours to all corners of the valley and beyond. Which leaves me, for the moment at least, hopping back and forth between NZ and France. Which is rather less glamorous than it sounds, but I’m certainly not going to complain.
Keen to join me out here next summer? You know what to do…