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Is this the end of mountain bike guiding in France?

Featured in: | Helen McGrory, Chamonix Reporter | Published

Mountain biking companies in Morzine and the Portes du Soleil have suddenly found their future uncertain after French authorities have decided to crack down on non-French qualified mountain guides in the area. The situation unfolded at the end of last week when a MTB guide for Endless Ride, a long established British MTB specialist in the area, was arrested whilst out guiding a group of British guests. Although later released without charge, the owner of the company, Gareth Jeffries, was then taken into custody and charged with “guiding mountain bikers in France without the appropriate French qualification”.

It appears that the authorities were alerted by local French guides who were disgruntled by a British “Guiding” company that had been touting for business locally. As one of the more prominent companies in the area, Mr Jeffries feels that Endless Ride were “unfortunately the one whose guides were singled out and arrested”. He goes on to say that “Endless Ride and the like do not do this […compete with local business] - we bring in our own guests and guide them as part of a package. We don't compete in the local economy we just add to it.”

As with all reputable British MTB companies operating in France, the guides at Endless Ride all hold the Scottish Mountain Bike Leader Award (SMBLA) (or equivalent), which is widely accepted as one of the best qualifications of its kind that exists in the UK. Current European Community directives exist which govern the recognition of diplomas within the European Union (Directives 89/48/EEC and 92/51/EEC), and under these Directives (even if you do not hold the appropriate national diploma), “the authorities of the host Member State must authorise you to pursue a profession on its territory, if you have the required diploma from your country of origin in order to pursue that profession”.

Many companies have been successfully operating on this basis for years. However, it seems that this year, the French authorities have decided not to accept these regulations and are refusing to acknowledge the SMBLA as an acceptable qualification with which to guide clients. From now on, companies who employ guides without the appropriate French qualification risk being charged under French law.

This poses a serious problem for the numerous MTB companies that are currently operating in France as the French qualification requires a far higher level of mountain awareness than the SMBLA but actually has a lower mountain biking specific focus. A possible way around the ban could be to submit a claim for “equivalence” with the local “Direction Departmentale de la Jeunesse et des Sports” (DDJS) for guides that hold the SMBLA and the International Mountain Leadership (IML) qualification, which together are comparable to the French qualification. Although, it's unlikely that many MTB guides are also holders of the IML.

A similar battle has been raging for years in ski with the Ecole du Ski Française (ESF) refusing to accept instructors with equivalent qualifications from other nations unless they pass their notoriously difficult “speed test”. Tour operators have also lost the ability to offer “guided” ski services to their guests as a result of opposition from local ski schools who claimed it was taking their business. Whilst it is not a question of expecting the French to lower their high qualification standards, it is the selectiveness of when and where they choose to crack down on these alternative services (invariably offered by non-French businesses) that is tough to swallow.

However, MTB companies in Morzine are not taking the ban sitting down. As well as seeking legal advice, Jeffries has been in touch with a number of other Morzine based companies (Flow and Challenge Active) in an attempt to arrange an information campaign to make the local French businesses aware of the consequences of this action. They intend to follow this up with a meeting with Eric Monné, head the Office de Tourism in Morzine.

Until a clear outcome is established, many companies have ceased offering their accompanied riding services to their guests. In the case of Endless Ride and Flow, they are instead hiring a local guide for 2 days a week and are looking at the possibility of still guiding with their own staff on the Swiss trails.

As far as the ban goes, technically it applies across the whole of France but it only appears to be currently enforced in the Haute Savoie - Morzine/Les Gets in particular. However, it is the decision of the local department “Jeunesse et des Sports” as to whether the ban will be applied in more resorts across the alps. It is recommended that anyone booked on or planning a mountain bike holiday in the French Alps this summer, contacts the company they are travelling with prior to departure to check their latest position on accompanied rides.

You can follow discussions on the ban on the blog via the link below and we will keep you posted with more news as it develops.