Mountain Bike Coaching: A Viable Career Alternative

ZEP Mountain Bike Camps

As much as mountain biking has grown and developed over the last decade, taking a mountain bike lesson is still a relatively new concept. Having a full-time career coaching mountain biking is an even more alien idea to the average person on the street. In the late 90’s, mountain bike lessons barely existed.

Today ZEP Mountain Bike Camps, our Whistler-based coaching and instructor training company, trains over 650 instructors all around the world, every year, through our Instructor Camps and the PMBIA Instructor Certification Courses. It’s been incredible to see the growth of mountain bike coaching with more companies and bike parks offering lessons, than ever before.

At ZEP, we’ve always viewed instructor training as a fundamental component to supporting and building the mountain bike industry. Along with trail building and advocation, mountain bike lessons and coaching have played a significant role in helping make our amazing sport more accessible, safer and more fun, to a huge amount of new and current riders, alike.

ZEP Instructor Training Camp
ZEP owner, Paul Howard, still coaching and training instructors after nearly twenty years. photo: bikeparkphotos

So, if riding bikes every day, hanging out with like minded people and seeing the faces of your students light up when they “get it”, sounds appealing, then maybe a career in coaching could be for you? We are stoked to announce the ten year anniversary of our industry leading, multi-week instructor camps. These camps are the perfect jump-start to a career in mountain bike coaching. Our goal is pretty simple… to produce the best instructors possible while offering the mountain bike trip of a lifetime.

ZEP was proud to be the first company to offer these specialized training camps in the mountain bike industry, back in 2008. Today these camps are available in three and five week options and are the only camps in the world to include the PMBI Certification Courses from the world renowned and internationally recognized, Professional Mountain Bike Instructor Association.

Based in Whistler, riders train four days per week with our professional, highly certified coaches, while preparing for and taking the PMBIA Instructor Courses. The camps will push your riding skills on the best trails in the world and also include additional training sessions on suspension set up, analysis and feedback skills, nutrition, plus strength and conditioning training.

ZEP Instructor Training Camp
Riding for a living is like anything worth striving for… hard work. But as the cliche goes; without risk there’s no reward.

Every instructor camp also includes…

  • Whistler Bike Park Season’s Lift Pass
  • Hiring Opportunities with Whistler Mountain Bike Park
  • Small group sizes for quality learning
  • Welcome Pack full of biking goodies from ZEP’s sponsors
  • In Resort Rep is ZEP Camp’s Owner! Customer service is our priority.
  • Optional Heli-Biking Trip on Rainbow Mountain

2019 Camp Dates

Three Week Camps: May 18th – June 8th (hiring camp), July 14th – August 4th
Five Week Camps: May 18th – June 22nd (hiring camp)


Jo, Sam and Rory chose to kick-start their mtb coaching careers, through our ZEP Instructor Academy. The following is a conversation we had over a few beers that we’d like to share with you guys, in the hopes any budding mtb coach might find it useful in planning their gap year or new career.

What motivated you to get into coaching mountain biking?
Jo

At the beginning of the year, I was pretty burnt out from study and work. I was training towards a commercial pilot licence, as well as working full time as an administrator at a sports centre. I’d wanted to go to Whistler for a long time but hadn’t been able to afford a trip, while I was pilot training. I remember sitting at work one morning and just decided I needed to go. Ten minutes later, I had written a resignation letter and had flights to Canada booked on my credit card!

I had been instructing MTB casually for a couple of years and had taken part in a PMBI Level 1 course in New Zealand, but I was keen to learn more. The thought crossed my mind… I wondered if I could turn it into my “main job?”. I was keen to see if the five-week instructor camp with ZEP would help me gain the experience and skills I needed to take things to the next level. I loved the flying, but in reality, it was going to take a lot more time and money to get it to a stage where I could start getting paid.

Coaching Mountain Biking
Jo, killing it on some Whistler tech. She randomly signed up for the EWS Whistler race and placed 3rd in Amateurs. This girl has talent and ZEP was proud to offer her a coaching job for 2018! photo: Matt Gill

Sam

I had some previous experience teaching tennis and snowboarding. The satisfaction in seeing my students progress is amazing so I naturally wanted to do the same with mountain biking.

I was originally planning to only instruct snowboarding and mountain biking for a gap year and then head off to university and face ‘the real world’. Since the ZEP camp and my summer in Whistler, this plan has now changed. I have fallen in love with instructing and living in the mountains and hope to make a career out of this. I get to wake up every day for work and look forward to working. I love it!

Rory

Firstly, I wanted to make a positive move away from my stable office job into the MTB industry. I decided that I was going to follow my dreams, and work towards a role in MTB coaching. Secondly, I wanted to be able to share my passion for the sport, get people stoked on riding their bikes and help progress their riding skills.

Before I did any instructor training, I was being asked by riders how to do certain things. One rider asked me “how can I corner faster?”. I’d consider myself a competent rider, but most of my riding skills have come from experience and learning the hard way. Put simply, I didn’t have a clue what to say to the guy. I struggled to explain what I was doing and why. It was all locked in my subconscious and muscle memory. Despite years of riding, I wasn’t able to offer much more than “I dunno, you just do it.”

I thought it would be so rewarding to be able to break down maneuvers like cornering, offer some quality advice on how it’s done, and see this guy’s riding improve. So, I signed up for a five-week ZEP Instructor Training Camp to get the understanding and skills to become an instructor. I quit my office job the following week and have never looked back!

ZEP Instructor Training Camp
Rory had some amazing bike skills but being a good instructor involves so much more. Rory’s ability to communicate clearly and relate to people, help make him an excellent coach. photo: Matt Gill

Do you think people take enough lessons? What are some potential barriers, you think?
Jo

Mountain biking is still a relatively new sport compared to others, so people don’t tend to get a lesson when they start out, like they do with skiing, for example. But it’s definitely growing. Mountain bike coaching is becoming really popular, especially here in Nelson (New Zealand). There’s a lot of challenging terrain here and the bikes these days are amazing. People are starting to recognize that improving their own riding (rather than getting a better bike) is the next step to being able to tackle that terrain confidently.

Mountain bike lessons are a great way to accelerate that skill progression and acquisition, not to mention making it a lot safer and more fun! I’m always blown away by how quickly the riders in the youth coaching programs progress.

Sam

In the sports I’ve taught, people quite often take lessons at the start to learn the basics, but as soon as they feel they can do it on their own, they stop taking lessons. They start developing bad habits and often plateau as result. It’s a shame, if they just kept with a few lessons every now and then, they would be so much better for it!

People often think, especially in the UK, “I can ride a bike so why would I need a mountain bike lesson?”. But we all know this isn’t the case. Just because you can ride a bike, doesn’t mean you can mountain bike… tackling steep climbs or descents, cornering on loose surfaces, handling rough terrain, drops, jumps or wooden bridges. Luckily people are starting to change this mentality, especially in North America, and coaching seems to be more popular than ever.

Rory taking a break to snap the local wildlife during his ZEP Instructor Training Camp

Nutrition Seminar with Origins Nutrition during the ZEP Instructor Training Camp

After a busy day riding and hanging with bears, it’s good to refuel with a nutrition seminar from Squamish-based Origins Nutrition… coaching full time means keeping healthy and eating well is a big part of the equation.

Rory

Based on my experience with the ZEP instructors, I would say that more people should be taking lessons. I have never had any mountain bike tuition before and my investment in professional coaching has improved my riding tenfold.

I think most people find it easier (and perhaps more exciting) to put their money towards upgrading equipment. However, at the end of the day it’s going to be the same person riding the bike, even if it does have shiny new carbon wheels. It’s probably a similar story across most sports, but the value always seems to lie in improving the rider’s skills.

In your view, is coaching more about a person’s riding skills or teaching skills?
Jo

I feel that being a good coach is more about being able to communicate and explain concepts simply and effectively. Being able to visually analyze a person’s riding in order to give them useful feedback, is a lot harder than it sounds! It’s about encouraging and inspiring riders to learn and improve, and provoke thought about different aspects of their riding, rather than being the “best” rider yourself.

As a coach, I’m always trying to challenge myself and experiment with my riding. This helps keep everything fresh, (not to mention fun!) and also makes it easier to relate to students. No matter where you’re at with your riding, you can always improve!

ZEP Instructor Training Camp
Sam was cruising on the double black trails like Fade to Black, in no time. More importantly, his teaching skills were strong enough to coach other riders how to ride similar trails, safely. For a good coach, there’s no point being able to shred if you can’t help others shred! photo: bikeparkphotos

Sam

I would say a bigger part of being a good coach is having great teaching skills. If a coach delivers an awesome lesson that really improves their riding and gets them stoked on mountain biking, the client is not going to care if the coach can ride pro lines or do backflips.

When teaching at higher levels, the client may be as good as or in some cases better than the coach at certain aspects of their riding. As long as the coach can provide useful teaching points and help to improve the clients riding or maybe racing strategy, then teaching skills are more important. However, having strong riding skills helps clients to get stoked on the lesson and trust your judgement, especially when you can demo something well and make it look easy!

Rory

It was quickly apparent to me that good teaching skills are fundamental to being a good coach. Yes, having advanced riding skills is important, especially in the sense that a coach needs to be able to back up their words with good demos. However, if a rider doesn’t have the teaching skills to effectively communicate with their students, they can’t expect to become a quality coach.

ZEP Instructor Training Camp
The five-week ZEP Instructor Training Camp crew from the U.K., Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands. This was an awesome crew and we were sad to see them leave! With their PMBI Certifications, they are set to teach all over the world.

What was the most challenging part of the training for you?

Jo

The biggest challenge I faced in Whistler, and not necessarily part of the training, was no doubt the Crankworx EWS race! The five-week Instructor Camp was really well structured to include rest days, just when the body was getting tired from all the riding. We had three rest days scheduled after the first couple of weeks of camp, which were conveniently also the two practice days, and race day of the Crankworx EWS.

I was pretty tired after all the riding on the camp by then. I made it through the two practice days, just, and wondered how I would have any gas left for the race. I went into race day with pretty low expectations, by this point I was exhausted. The tracks were awesome, but I was physically struggling the entire time. I somehow managed to push through the whole race, completely surprising myself. I had never experienced that level of exhaustion before, it was no doubt the most challenging thing I’ve ever done! It was also a big wake up call that I really needed to improve my fitness!

ZEP Instructor Training Camp

ZEP Instructor Training Camp

 ZEP Instructor Training Campers, getting their train on with correct rider spacing. Guiding skills, safety rules, class management and terrain choice are fundamental tools for instructors to manage risk effectively. photos: bikeparkphotos.

Sam

Knowing when you are tired and need to take a rest is crucial. I crashed on nearly my last day of the season giving myself a concussion and destroying a brand new D3. I couldn’t ride for three weeks which meant I couldn’t coach. It was depressing! Coming back from a big crash like that and riding again was a big challenge. My confidence was damaged and riding the trail that I crashed on again for the 1st time, was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. When I did get back to coaching is awesome. Working in the office when I was injured was terrible!

Rory

For me, the most challenging part of the instructor training was being able to accurately demonstrate. I had developed my own way of doing things, but a big part of learning to teach was about giving quality demonstrations that clearly depicted the theory behind the manouevers. In some cases, this required me to detune my riding and ‘re-learn’ the safest and most effective way of teaching these manouevers. Luckily, we got plenty of opportunity to practice and I was stoked to be able to come away with the ability to accurately demonstrate to different student ability levels.

credit www.timhailwoodphotography.com
Riders train and prepare for the three-day PMBI Level 1 Instructor Course, during the three and five-week ZEP camps. Potential instructors can take the PMBI course without attending any ZEP camps or prior training; it’s really up to each person’s goals, aspirations and budget, as to what training pathways they take to becoming a coach.

Tell us about some highlights…

Jo

A highlight for me was the confidence boost from having a trained eye, say “yes you can”. It helped me push myself and I managed to ride some features and trails I don’t think I would have ridden otherwise. Stoke levels were high! I am now so much more aware of my own riding, techniques I can use in different situations, things I can do to improve and what I can experiment with. Having this deep exploration into my own riding has made it easier to convey concepts and techniques to others when I teach. Also, appreciating what a good coach can do for a rider has totally validated what an awesome job being a mtb instructor is! It is rewarding knowing that as an instructor you can contribute to helping a rider learn something new or improve themselves in some way.

Sam

One of the season highlights was Crankworx. Most major bike companies come to Whistler for the event and allow you to demo their bikes which is cool. I met lots of pro riders and saw all the events in person, including Red Bull Joyride from the VIP area (courtesy of a parent of one of the kids I was teaching – thank you again for that Kevin!)

ZEP Instructor Training Camp

Coaching Mountain Biking

It’s not all bike park! The PMBI Courses certify instructors to teach in both lift-accessed bike parks and trail/cross country environments. This makes for more skilled, adaptable coaches. The ZEP camps prepare instructors for this with plenty of riding in Whistler Valley.

Rory

The PMBI courses within the ZEP camp were a stand out for me. They were a great goal to focus on and work towards. Being with the ZEP instructors prior to the PMBI courses meant that I was familiar with the concepts within the courses, but the courses still had a huge amount of fresh material. I particularly loved learning about the biomechanics and physics behind these skills – and then learning the teaching so I could communicate this knowledge to students. At the end of our second to last day of riding on the ZEP Camp, our instructor gave us a few options of what we could potentially ride on our last day. One of the campers flippantly suggested a heli drop followed by a bit of chuckle. Well, ZEP had the chopper booked and organized everything within an hour, and we all had a once in a lifetime ride down rainbow mountain the following morning.

This was a perfect example of the flexibility of the camp and the efforts of ZEP’s crew to make the camp as rad as possible. After about a billion pictures, we finally got down the mountain and took a dip in the lake – a fairy-tale end to the camp!

Coaching Mountain Biking
Whistler Alpine is stunning. Rory soaks in the views during a day off from training… it’s not all hard work! photo: Matt Gill

What’s happened since the camp? Have you started working?

Jo

I came away from the course with a bunch of new friends from around the world, a PMBI Level 2 instructor qualification, and a whole load of new knowledge ready to put into practice. Apart from all this, it was the best summer of riding ever with some awesome people! I’ve since got a job coordinating a youth mtb programme, and instructing women’s mtb workshops in New Zealand for summer, and will be heading back to Canada on a work visa next summer where I hope to continue working as an instructor. Thanks ZEP for helping me get the skills to do such a cool job!

Sam

We finished our camp in May, after which I was offered a job with the Whistler Mountain Bike Park and started work as a DFX kids coach. A few days in, I got a call from my manager and was asked whether I wanted to take a club group for the summer. Because I had my PMBI Level 2 and they needed someone who could coach jumping, I was set! I was able to teach the same kids all summer and see them progress, which is one of the reasons I love coaching. 

Working with the DFX kids was the best decision I made.

Rory

Since the ZEP camp, I’ve moved to Queenstown in New Zealand. I am working in a bike shop at the moment and getting involved within the local scene, meeting new people and riding heaps. My intention is to return to Whistler for the 2018 season and work in the bike park as an instructor, which the PMBI qualifications have enabled me to do. I love living in NZ and my long-term goal is to guide or teach mountain biking here. I can really feel myself applying the concepts and teaching points from the ZEP camp and PMBI courses to make sure my riding is always improving. As a bit of a side effect of having acquired this knowledge, I have now become my own number one critic – usually getting through sections of trail, thinking how I can change things to make me ride it better next time!

Coaching Mountain Biking
Continuously learning, taking higher level certifications and pushing your riding, are key if you want to make a full-time career out of coaching. ZEP started a Junior Development Race Team in 2017 and the coaches are loving it!
The three-week ZEP Instructor Training Camp
Left: Morning reviews keep everyone progressing at their own pace.

Sam doing some practice teaching preparing for the PMBI Level 2 Course during the ZEP Instructor Training Camp.
Sam demonstrating during a practice teaching session.

ABOUT ZEP 

Established in 2006, ZEP Mountain Bike Camps is Whistler’s premier coaching and instructor training company. At ZEP we continually strive to offer the ultimate mountain bike learning and riding experiences through the industries finest instructors; those who train and certify other instructors.

ZEP was the first company in the industry to offer multi-week Instructor Training Camps. Today, these camps continue to offer the finest training for mountain bike instructors, including training for and participating in the industry-leading, internationally recognized Professional Mountain Bike Instructor Association Certification Courses, and exclusive job interviews with Whistler Mountain Bike Park. ZEP’s goal is to produce the best instructors possible while offering the mountain bike trip of a lifetime.