GORHAM — Brian Danz is out in front of two popular trends. Danz is a certified mountain bike skills instructor – a profession that didn’t exist outside of ski areas a decade ago – and he is converting a used school bus into a camper to travel to workshops he gives around New England.

Danz felt traveling with his bikes in a camper van made sense. After looking at used camper vans and even construction vans that could be converted, Danz quickly honed in on the school-bus trend, called skoolie conversions, in which a retired school bus is gutted, insulated, and equipped with a bed, kitchen and living space.

“You see on Instagram people with $50,000 vans,” he said. “It’s become more expensive than it once was. This spring I started looking at vehicles with an overall budget of $10,000. I quickly stared considering school buses.”

Brian Danz sits at the wheel inside the school bus he is turning into a camper. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Since 2018, Danz has been a mountain bike skills instructor for Ninja Mountain Bike Performance, a national company with certified instructors across the country. He’s one of just three Ninja instructors in northern New England. For the past two years, he’s also been a full-time skills instructor at the Portland Gear Hub, where he is the lead buyer and adult education coordinator.

Mountain bike skills classes are a relatively new offering in the ever-growing sport. The mountain-bike landscape in Maine has changed quite a bit since the Professional Mountain Bike Instructors Association was formed just 15 years ago. The association trains more than 1,000 instructors a year, but still only has about 100 instructors in New England. Maine has six mountain bike clubs that apply for grants to build trails and many hire professional companies to do the work. In the past several years, mountain bike clubs started acquiring groomers to open up the trails in the winter.

Last year, Danz taught 200 riders how to tackle tougher terrain on their mountain bikes at some 30 workshops across New England, including in Boston and at Vermont’s Kingdom Trails. This year, he’s adding Ninja workshops in Carrabassett Valley and Camden.

Brian Danz shows his student Lydia Cote something on her mountain bike before a workshop he was teaching at Gorham Middle School on May 18, 2021. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Danz teaches fundamental skills – like body position, how to climb steep hills and how to ride over obstacles. He also teaches several advanced-level courses, such as cornering.

“The pro’s coaches work on cornering. It is the holy grail. There are slalom corners, banked corners and multi-apex corners,” Danz said, referring to technical corners that involves several different approaches.

At a recent fundamentals workshop in Gorham, he taught five mountain bike riders with varied riding experience – but all with an equal amount of enthusiasm. Eric Nathanson, a backcountry ski instructor at Saddleback Maine ski area and a sea kayak guide, said he’s been mountain biking on and off for 12 years but wanted to do more challenging riding this year, so he signed up for the class.

“I definitely got a lot out of it,” Nathanson said. “It would be especially helpful to someone who’s a new mountain biker. But you don’t have to be a beginner for it to be useful. I definitely plan to take more advanced classes.”

Lydia Cote of Windham, a rider for about 10 years, wanted to go from an intermediate rider to a more skilled rider.

“I saw on a Facebook group I follow how someone took a class last year. It was someone who has been riding forever and they said it was a great,” Cote said. “And I realized as I (self-taught) myself the fundamentals, I probably picked up bad habits.”

Cote thought it was fantastic when she saw Danz show up at the workshop in a school bus he’s making into a camper.

“My husband and I have talked about a van camper,” she said.

Brian Danz’s mountain bike is loaded up in the school bus he is turning into a camper. He is converting a school bus van into a camper to help transport him and his bike to mountain bike lessons all over the state and New England. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Vans are one of the hottest trends right now. The number of van campers shipped from manufacturers in the first three months of 2021 was up 149 percent from the same period last year, far more than any other kind of camper, according to the RV Industry Association.

Used short school buses range about $5,000 to $15,000 – well within Danz’s budget – but they are more work to convert. In March, he found one with 115,000 miles for $7,000 and bought it.

“It’s unique and it’s fun. It makes me smile when I’m driving it,” Danz said. “I have friends who say they’re living vicariously through me. Just not when I’m parallel parking it in Portland.”

In the past two months, he gutted the inside, insulated it, put down subflooring – and had the van rewired.  So far he’s put a solid 80 to 100 hours into it – and anticipates he’s got at least that amount of work ahead of him.

When it’s done his school bus/van camper will have a full-size bed in a loft in the back, shelves and storage under the bed with room for two bikes, a sofa that can be converted into a guest bed, a counter with a sink, a small refrigerator and room for a camp stove. Behind the driver’s seat will be floor-to-ceiling cabinets for additional storage.

“I’ve seen some really cool setups with a deck on top. Maybe (that will be added) in four or five years. That’s the plan,” he said.

Danz has romanticized about hitting the open road and adopting a gypsy lifestyle once his van is converted, but he loves being in New England and his job in Maine.

“It’s a base-cap vehicle. Everything I need is in it. I’ve had visions of living a truly nomadic life, but I like where I live, I love what I do, especially the work for the Gear Hub,” Danz said. “I’ve never had more job satisfaction. It is super progressive and we teach good things and fun things there. It’s very rewarding.”

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