By Lori Tobias
Special to the Herald
Silver Creek, CO--
At long last I have discovered a winter sport at which I can excel. Skiing darned near killed me, ditto on snowboarding and, although I’ve been ice skating since childhood, I still resemble what my dear friend once described as a big bird coming in for a landing.
But in snowbiking, I think I may have found a winter sport that even I, a non-athlete, can master.
True, when I heard that Silver Creek Ski Area in Colorado was offering snowbiking, my immediate reaction was, “Are they crazy?” I imagined some poor soul careening wildly down the mountain and couldn’t for the life of me figure out why anyone would want to do that.
But on further inquiry I learned that, although just reintroduced this season in the United States, the sport has been around since 1949 when Austrian Englebert Brenter invented what he then dubbed the “sit ski”. Three years later and after some redesign, Brenter renamed the bike the snowbob. Since then, Europeans have continued developing the sport, even holding professional races. In 1964, Eric Brenter set the Guinness World Record for speed, clocking in at 166 kilometers an hour.
However, the sport never caught on in the United States. “There was nobody teaching anybody the proper way to ride, and there was no association or organization keeping the momentum and interest up.” said Roger Hollenbeck, founder and president of the North American Skibob Association. Hollenbeck, who rode snowbikes in Europe in the 1980‘s, is introducing the snowbikes at Silver Creek this season.
“I wanted to bring something with me from Europe that might be a new thing for the ski industry,” Hollenbeck said. Silver Creek Ski Area is the only U. S. Resort offering the bikes, Hollenbeck said, but there are inquiries from ski schools in Pennsylvania, Alaska, California and Michigan.
The biggest resistance? “People can’t believe it’s that easy,” Hollenbeck said.
And so it was that I found myself one Sunday sailing down the mountain at Silver Creek on a snowbike--and liking it.
Getting set up
First stop was the rental shop, where a technician fitted me with skis barely longer than my ski boots. Outside, instructor Greig Sheldon matched me up with a bike that called to mind the “Stingrays” of my youth, with a few distinct differences. Instead of two wheels, it had two skis, there were no pedals and the banana-style seat was mounted over a heavy, but very giving spring. Also, the frame was shorter in length and lower to the ground than the average street bike.
Straddling the bikes, we skated up the bunny slope. At the top, Sheldon’s instructions were simple--deceptively so, I feared. Keep your knees and feet in close to the bike, hands on the handlebars, elbows locked, look straight ahead and go.
“How do you stop?” I yelled as I glided downhill. But, by the time Sheldon could figure out what I was yelling about, I had run out of hill. The bike stopped on its own.
Sunday, January 26, 1997
Snowbikes offer a less-pedestrian way to tackle challenging slopes on skis..
After a second test run, Sheldon decided we were ready to tackle the mountain. We would ride up the Milestone chair, then ski down to the Poma Lift where our bikes awaited us. I must confess at this point, I was far more worried about skiing down on those itsy bitsy skis than I was about riding the bike. As for the Poma Lift, a contraption which consists of a small round plate on the end of a vertical steel bar that hangs from the lift cable, I’ve never encountered one from which I didn’t fall.
In truth, it was the easiest trip down a mountain I’ve ever made on skis. Because the skis are so short, it’s almost impossible to pick up any speed; likewise, balance problems are easily corrected.
At the base of the Poma Lift, rows of white snowbikes in three sizes--small, medium and large--lay shining in the sun. Sheldon adjusted the handlebars to the appropriate level for our height--the bikes apparently accommodate most sizes, since in my group the students ranged from five feet, two inches to six feet, six inches--then directed us to the Poma Lift.
A guide waited at the bottom, grabbed the lift, fitted it with a large red hook, then attached the bike to the lift. The ride up couldn’t have been simpler. At the top, a second guide was waiting to unhook me from the lift and I was ready for my first ride down the mountain.
–Biking down the slopes is surprisingly easy, and fun–
The art of turning
To turn a snowbike, which is also how you stop it, you lean on the uphill handlebar, while lifting the uphill ski and looking over your shoulder up the mountain. The farther up the hill you look, the sharper the turn.
We began on the hard-packed snow, traversing the hillside first in one direction, then the other, then linking the turns back and forth down the hill. Aside from initially using my downhill ski as a “training wheel ”--in other words, I didn’t trust the bike and my uphill ski alone, so I also planted my downhill ski for extra ballast--I can say my first attempt to go downhill went off without a hitch.
Our second trip up, we skated over from the lift to an area of untouched powder, this time gliding down the mountain in a cloud of snow. For once I understood all the fuss skiers make about powder days.
All told, it took approximately 15 minutes to learn the sport. After that it was all play and fine-tuning our newly acquired skills. Anyone who has ever ridden a bicycle will find it incredibly easy--the snowbike is low to the ground and with the four short skis--the two in place of the wheels and the two on your feet--it’s easy to maneuver.
For non-skiers, Sheldon said learning the sport takes roughly 30 minutes because they tend to be intimidated by the hill and are not familiar with the sensation of sliding. However, Sheldon said, once non-skiers learn to snowbike, teaching them to ski becomes much easier.
I did have the option of exploring one more new challenge that day. It seems the veterans of the sport have developed a game in which the goal is to see who can lean the bike over the closest to the snow when making a sharp turn. The trick, according to Sheldon, is to roll the uphill ski over to the outside edge, while at the same time, picking up the downhill ski and holding it in the air. Supposedly, this maneuver provides a counterbalance so that when the bike is tilting into the high-speed turn you don’t fall over and crash.
Thrilling as it sounded, I declined. Mastering one new athletic skill in a day is about all this middle-age writer can take.
Taking it easy: Snowbikers hit the slopes at Silver Creek Ski Area in Colorado. Instead of wheels, snowbikes rest on short skis, and there are no pedals- just a seat mounted over a heavy spring. >