© Pete Scullion
Guiding riders across some of the Europe’s best mountain bike trails is all in a day’s work for Julia Hobson, who has spent the last six years working as a mountain bike guide. No stranger to racing either, Julia has completed seriously testing MTB and enduro events such as the Megavalanche, Nepal’s Yak Attack and the Andes-Pacifico, where she came third.
Julia, who recently launched her own guiding business, Endless Trails, first fell in love with mountain biking while living in Sheffield as a student and continues to support the area as an ambassador for Ride Sheffield who maintain and build local and Peak District trails.
When did you discover mountain biking?
I got into mountain biking at University in Sheffield. I was a member of the climbing club, and lots of folks used to go mountain biking when the weather was too wet to climb. My first ride was on a club trip to Wales. I borrowed a bike and we pushed up and rode down Snowdon in the pouring rain. It was terrifying. The rim brakes didn’t work much at all, it was a fully rigid bike, the saddle was up high, I had toe clips and felt completely out of control, but it was completely exhilarating and I was totally hooked!
You’re an ambassador for Ride Sheffield, who work to maintain Sheffield’s awesome MTB trails. Tell us about the voluntary ‘Rad tax’ idea they’ve launched?
Ride Sheffield is a not-for-profit organisation that is run entirely by volunteers, building and maintaining trails around Sheffield, and campaigning for better trail advocacy and improved access in the area. It relies entirely on donations to carry out work.
After successfully crowd-funding two awesome purpose-built mountain bike trails in Sheffield at Lady Canning’s Plantation, ‘Radtax’, an ongoing funding system, was set-up. It lets folks sign up as regular supporters of Ride Sheffield, either paying monthly or up front for the year with all 4 levels of supporters getting some little freebies as a thank you. Money from Radtax goes towards funding new trails, repairs, advocacy work and looking after the existing trail network, because with the numbers of people riding in Sheffield and the Peak District, sustaining existing routes is every bit as important as building new ones.
Which local Sheffield/Peak District trails do you love to ride?
My favourite Sheffield/Peak District loop is probably the one I’ve ridden most in my life! It heads out from the city through the woodland trails of the Rivelin Valley, up towards Stanage edge, then down a fun rocky descent, quickly making you feel like you’re right in the heart of the Peak District. It weaves its way back via the Ride Sheffield trails at Lady Canning’s, then a whole load of natural bridleways back towards the edge of the city. None of them are the biggest or best trails in the world, but it’s a ride I can do from the front door, it has every kind of riding in it, and I always come back smiling from it!
You shared a love of the outdoors with your late husband, Gareth – did you ride and climb together?
Absolutely. We were partners in everything, and shared 10 years of climbing, mountaineering, skiing and biking adventures together, all over the world. We did more in those 10 years than many people do in a lifetime, and I will be always be so grateful that we got to share such an amazing chapter of our lives. Living the dirt-bag climber lifestyle camping in the Alps and the sport-climbing crags of southern France each summer; weekend and school holiday escapes (Gareth was a teacher) in the van to climb or bike all over the UK; skiing and biking trips to Canada; big wall climbing in Yosemite – I have so many incredible memories of all of them.
After Gareth’s death was mountain biking a way to briefly escape your grief and sadness?
Kind of, yes. It definitely became my coping mechanism. There are no instructions or guidebooks for what to do when the most important person in your life dies – you quickly realise that you have to work out what helps you cope by yourself, and slowly start to rebuild a new life. Grief for me was more than just the constant immense sadness. It was laziness and lethargy, lack of motivation or caring about anything, not sleeping because my head was spinning in confusion at what was happening, and not really wanting to wake up each day and have to exist in a world I didn’t want to be part of anymore. A world that was carrying on like nothing had happened.
It was physical too, like a vice around your chest, squeezing to the point where you can’t breathe, spinning you round so you feel constantly dizzy. It was a pain so deep inside you, worse than any broken bones. I felt weighed down by sadness, fear and anxiety, and I couldn’t see a way of ever not feeling like that. Riding wasn’t a way to escape that – there was no escape as the realisation that Gareth was never coming back was always there – but it was a way to ‘feel’ something in addition to the grief. To feel the elements, to feel fatigue and to make my body hurt for a reason I could understand.
When I rode, I would also remember him so easily. It was painful, but made me smile as well as cry. I felt closest to Gareth when I was outside in the fresh air and the mountains, away from the hustle and bustle and fast pace of life. Six months after Gareth died I gave myself a project of planning and riding off-road from Lands End to John O’Groats. It was the hardest thing I have ever done, but exactly what I needed. It gave me a focus, and allowed me to be able to feel something physical other than grief.
Did this become the catalyst to change your career?
The ride gave me time to start to try and think a little bit about the future and the confidence that I would need to start rebuilding my life. As biking and being in the mountains were the things keeping me going at that time, ideas grew around them and, amongst travelling and racing with my bike all over the world, I signed up to start training as a Mountain Bike Leader. It was never really a long-term plan; I was existing day-by-day at that point, but as I started working I realised I’d found a job I loved and a way back to maybe being happy again one day. It took a long time and lots of perseverance, but seven years on I feel like I have the best job in the world, and a happy life I am proud to have made for myself. One that I know Gareth would be immensely proud of too.
Can you tell me what a typical day as a mountain bike guide might involve?
During a summer season in the Alps, a day starts about 6:30am, with breakfast with the guests from 7am, then grabbing supplies at a local shop to make lunch, loading bags and bikes onto vans and trailers and making sure bar tabs have been settled and everyone is briefed and ready for the day. We’re normally then out riding from 9am or so, sometimes for the day, sometimes meeting the van for shuttles to the next trail or area, or for lunch. We’ll normally be finishing by about 4pm, ideally at a bar to celebrate the day’s trails with beers and high fives, then heading to the hotel.
There’s the rooms and keys to sort out with the hotel staff, then the evening plans explained to the guests, followed by helping anyone who needs any assistance with mechanical issues. A quick shower and change then dinner at 7:30pm with the guests, followed by explanation of the following day. Then, providing there are no injuries or other problems to deal with, we’ll get to bed about 10pm, with a small amount of down time to yourself before falling asleep!
The days are long and busy, with no time to yourself, but you do get to meet amazing people from all over the world, and spend the day sharing incredible trails in mind-blowingly beautiful places, knowing that you’re helping make sure that people experience a trip they’ll remember for the rest of their lives. I still feel privileged to be able to call that work.
How does it change in the winter?
During the off season (like now) it’s about as unglamorous as it gets – endless amounts of admin, trip planning, and time in front of the computer preparing for the following year… that’s the side of guiding no-one wants to hear about though!
Previously you’ve competed in mountain bike events – what kind of riding have you done?
I’ve raced all sorts of mountain biking, from multi-day marathon stage races, the Megavalanche, Enduro stage races and EWS (enduro world series), to 24-hour solo races, cyclocross, adventure racing, and even Mountain Bike Orienteering, but the enduro stage races for me are the most enjoyable. I choose races that take me to new places as, for me, it’s as much about the experience of travelling, meeting new people and experiencing new trails and new cultures as it is racing.
You came 3rd lady at the Andes-Pacifico enduro race in Chile – how was that experience?
I really like the concept of ‘blind racing’, riding trails you’ve not pre-practised, and races that are a point-to-point journey. The Andes-Pacifico ticked all these boxes and I’d never been to Chile, so I signed up! It was tough but awesome. The riding was hard and I spent a lot of time crashing on the ‘anti-grip’ soil – as did everyone! – but it was a great challenge and a beautiful place to see and experience the trails and the journey from the Andes to the sea.
It was the first year the race had run so there were a few teething issues, one being the day which the organisers had hugely underestimated, that saw us riding from early in the morning and not getting to camp until late that night, having run out of water and food, got lost, and ending up with heatstroke of varying degrees… all part of the adventure that I look back on and smile, but a fairly low point at the time!
You’ve also ridden the Yak Attack race in Nepal – one of the toughest MTB events in the world. Is it as mental as it sounds?
It is fairly mental! It was an amazing experience though. I’d wanted to visit Nepal for a long time, I’d read so much about it from a mountaineering point of view and longed to visit the Himalayas and see some of the biggest most beautiful mountain range in the world. The Yak Attack itself was hard. The distances you ride for 10 days in a row are hard enough anyway, without throwing in the effects of the highest altitude I’d ever been too, temperatures ranging from tropical to Baltic, dust storms and strong winds, and the fact that you’re staying each night in remote teahouses where there’s limited water and power and a lower level of sanitation than we’re used to as privileged westerners. Just keeping yourself healthy whilst you are racing becomes a battle itself.
The Nepalese were some of the friendliest and most welcoming people I have ever met though, the food was great, the scenery was out-of-this-world, and the whole experience made me fall completely in love with the country. I can’t wait to go back.
Is there such a thing as a typical week of riding/training for you?
There’s no typical weeks at all! Every week is different when you’re guiding, depending on the group’s fitness and abilities. Regardless of this, guiding doesn’t get you fit! You get used to being able to keep going at a steady pace for days and days, but that really doesn’t help with fitness for racing or your own riding at all. I’ve never trained for riding, I just ride my bike a lot and get fit just by going out with friends for big days in the hills.
You’ve guided all over the world. Can you tell me about one of your favourite guiding adventures?
This has to be guiding the route of the Trans-Provence race, which I’ve done every year since 2013. It’s a 6-day journey from the mountains to the sea in the southern French Alps, taking in some of the best riding anywhere in the world. The scenery is epic, unspoilt and changing every day, the trails are varied and ridiculously fun, and you never get tired of riding them. 2019 is going to be the last ever year of the race. I’ll be working on it, getting to ride the route as part of the Mountain staff timing team, and I can’t wait to see what Ash Smith, the organiser, has in store for us. I’m gutted there are no plans for future guiding trips on it though – I’ll miss it!
Tell me about your own guiding business, Endless Trails?
I started Endless Trails MTB in 2017 and have been slowly building the business whilst continuing my freelance work for other companies. After working for other people for many years, I wanted the challenge and flexibility of organising my own trips. It’s been a steep learning curve as I was fairly naïve about how much work is involved in running a business – the guiding itself is the easy part!
2019 will be the first year where I am doing more work for myself than for other people, which is exciting and a little bit scary! I’m running weekend Bikepacking courses in the UK, guided day trips in the Lakes, women’s only multi-day trips, and week-long holidays in the French Alps, the Hautes-Alpes Enduro Safari. Many of these are already sold out which is great, and I’m already thinking ahead to growing the number of trips for future years. It’s certainly keeping me busy!
As a MTB guide you travel a lot – do you have somewhere you call home?
From 2012 to 2017 I was definitely a bit of a nomad, and that’s kind of what I wanted. It felt hard to settle in one place after Gareth died. I didn’t know where I wanted to be, so working as a guide and living out of a bag, or my van when I wasn’t working, suited me fine. I’m also really lucky that I have an amazing family and a fantastic relationship with my mum and dad, who have supported me more than I could ever ask for, and have been happy for me to come and go from the family home as much or as little as I wanted.
Gareth and I owned a house in Sheffield, which I have rented out ever since he died. It was our home, but it’s not somewhere I feel I could live anymore, there are too many memories that I want to keep from that chapter of my life, and it feels strange to be there without him.
The longer I’ve been guiding, the harder it is to keep doing long seasons of living out of a bag; you start to crave just being in one place for more than a night at a time. In 2016, I met my partner Tom, and then moved in with him in Leeds last year. It’s really lovely to now have someone and somewhere to return ‘home’ to after a trip, but it makes having to be away for work much harder!
Have you had any hairy experiences during your guiding career?
It is mountain biking, so unfortunately accidents do happen even when you do your best to try and prevent them through the way you guide. Nothing too hairy thankfully, but the usual injuries; broken collarbones and wrists, a couple of concussions which are always a bit scary to deal with. I think the scariest thing I’ve witnessed was riding behind a guest on a climb, seeing him clip a pedal and tumble off the side of the trail where there happened to be a cliff! Amazingly, he stopped himself and was uninjured, as was his bike, it was just a long walk around to get it. It could have been a whole lot worse.
You used to be part of a ‘No excuses Thursday’ MTB meet up – can you tell me more?
Gareth started the ‘No Excuses Thursday’ rides one winter. We were struggling to motivate ourselves to go out in the dark and cold, but feeling miserable for not getting enough fresh air and riding in, so with a group of friends we set the plan of riding every Thursday night for a couple of hours, all through the winter, no matter what the conditions, and with absolutely no excuses allowed. It was brilliant. The peer pressure meant you forced yourself out even if you didn’t feel like it, and once out we were always glad we’d made the effort.
We had rides through deep snow, rides where we drank too much in the pub before coming home and wobbled our way back; clear, crisp, cold rides where we looked down on the lights of Sheffield and felt smug about being outside, and type 2 fun rides where it was muddy, grim and horrible to be out, but those are the ones where you feel even better about doing it when you’re back. It doesn’t happen anymore, but I think I need to restart it!
What items can’t you live without for a bike packing adventure?
A box of wine (obviously ditch the box and just take the bag!), chocolate, coffee and a lightweight reusable drip filter, my FINDRA merino layers, my big Rab duvet jacket and sleeping bag, and a bunch of like-minded friends who are up for an adventure!
Who are you sponsored by at the moment?
I’m really proud to be an ambassador for Juliana Bicycles and Hope Technology (Hopetechwomen), as well as being supported by FINDRA clothing, Invisiframe, and Bikmo insurance. They are all great companies who share my passion for riding and getting more people out in the mountains on bikes, and I’m honoured to work with them and represent them all.
For more MTB inspiration you can follow Julia via her social media channels, www.instagram.com/julialikesbikes and www.twitter.com/julialikesbikes. To find out more about Julia’s mountain bike guiding visit www.endlesstrailsmtb.com.