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From the office to the great outdoors
When an opportunity came up for civil servant Mike Porteous to make a career change, he decided the time had come to take it.
After years working at a desk in a huge organisation, he wanted to try something completely different and looked to his passions and hobbies for inspiration.
“I thought about what I really enjoyed, what I got the biggest buzz out of. I have an active life, doing triathalons and races, and I realised a really big part of that was about getting away from the office and into the fresh air – escaping to the hills, as it were.”
After finding a like-minded business partner – Nick Finch who attends the same triathalon club as Porteous – ZigZag Cycling was born. Its strapline: Escape to the hills.
The company gives mountain biking training to everyone from the complete beginner to the advanced cyclist and leads a range of cycle tours across the South Downs from locations including Brighton, Arundel and Shoreham.
“With the launch of the South Downs National Park last year, it felt like a no-brainer,” says Porteous, who started mountain biking ten years ago and has since completed the South Downs Randonée challenge (the whole of the South Downs in a day) among other challenges.
ZigZag aims to get everyone into mountain biking and help the sport shed its macho image.
“Mountain biking has a reputation for being a bit hardcore, very male – the colder, wetter and muddier the better – when actually it doesn’t need to be like that at all. For me, it’s about being outside and doing things at the pace you choose. We know we won’t attract die-hard mountain bikers – they’d look at us and think we’re a bunch of softies – but for people who are starting out we can demonstrate basic techniques and build up confidence. We also get a lot of interest from people preparing for a big challenge like a triathalon – we can help with training programmes and getting fitness levels up.”
Led by experienced tutors (including Porteous’s son Tom), rides are graded from easy to challenging, ensuring potential cyclists take part in a route that’s suited to them and most equipment can be provided given advance notice. The rides vary in length between two and five hours and all routes feature a mixture of terrain – Downs and woodland – take place off-road and have been risk assessed beforehand.
On the beginners’ course, ZigZag will even carry the spares and tools to repair any punctures or problems that may arise, and give a quick demonstration of how to deal with such problems when out and about alone.
Aside from the practical stuff, Porteous says the courses can be helpful in providing inspiration for new routes.
“It’s a common theme, even among the experienced cyclists, for them to go on a route with us that they’ve never come across before.
I know when I was cycling purely for fun, I’d do what a lot of people do, which is to set out in one direction, cycle along, look at my watch then turn round and come back the same way, whereas we’ve gone out of our way to find lots of more varied, interesting routes.”
For practised cyclists looking for something a bit different, ZigZag also runs night rides, hiring out the costly highpower lights that often deter people for a modest fee.
“Night riding is something people tell us they’re really excited by,” says Porteous. “But the very sophisticated, powerful lights it requires cost a bomb, so unless you’ve had a go and got the bug – and have the cash – you’re unlikely to experience it, which is a shame because it’s immense fun. We do the rides in the woods and it’s magical.
It feels like everything comes at you faster in the dark and you see lots of nightlife such as badgers and deer.”
For the truly dedicated, the company has recently launched weekend cycling breaks on the South Downs.
Again, the emphasis is on comfort and enjoyment, with accommodation in four-star hotels, three-course dinners and cooked breakfasts.
“We hope that for people who enjoy cycling and want to tick off a certain route – such as the South Downs Way – this will be a bit of a dream.
There are a few other companies that do similar things but we think ours will be the most comfortable.”
It’s all a far cry from Porteous’s former life. “It’s an entirely different way of working.
Before I was in this great big anonymous organisation where everything was done with people around you and every decision checked and double-checked.
“With this we’re making things up ourselves and deciding what we do. It’s brilliant having a job that involves a personal passion.”
* Rides start from £25 per person. For more information or to book a trip, visit www.zigzagcycling.com