And, then, last season I discovered snowbiking, and everything changed. Snowbiking,
or ski-biking, as some refer to it, is easy to learn, and also a blast. It is just
becoming known among the general public in the United States and Canada, although
it is a staple at most ski areas in Europe, where the sport originated more than
a century ago. You may recall a memorable scene from the 1965 movie Help! in which
the Beatles gracefully curled down the Austrian Alps near Salzburg on "skibobs",
as the Europeans called them.
Skibobbing was briefly introduced in the United States in the 1950s, but it didn't
catch on, and was reintroduced with more success in the mid-1960s, when a California
resident, William Cartwright, became interested in the sport after skibobbing in
Europe, according to Rod Ratzlaff, director of the American Ski-Bike Association.
The association is working to raise awareness of the sport.
Resorts throughout the West supported skibobbing, but it faded away in the United
States in the 1970s, Ratzlaff says. "No one knows exactly why."
It re-emerged in Colorado in the mid-1990s thanks to design enhancements and
marketing by Brenter Snowbike, says Roger Hollenbeck, Colorado-based president of
Rocky Mountain Snowbike, the domestic distributor for Brenter Snowbike. The European
company's founder, Engelbert Brenter, an Austrian sleigh-and ski-maker, patented
the first snowbike in its present configuration in 1949, Hollenbeck says, and continued
design improvements made the snowbikes increasingly stable and easy to use.
As the name "snowbiking" implies, the sport uses a light bike frame that has
skis and suspension where the tires should be, plus a handlebar and a nice, padded
seat. Small foot skis clip onto the rider's ski boots, and enhance stability and
"With snowbikes, you can be having fun, in control, very quickly," says Ratzlaff.
"They tend to be a lot safer [than skis or snowboards] because they're easier to
Snowbiking Can Be A Great Alternative to Skiing
BY Jim Gullo
photo, courtesy: www.snowbike.com
Before I discovered snowbiking, I spent years missing out on winter recreation
at our region's notable ski resorts. For one thing, I'm a lousy skier. Despite
several beginner's lessons with patient instructors, and years of trying the sport,
I've never progressed past ultra-basic wedge turns. Snowboarding looks even harder
to master, at least to me. In recent years, as I moved into the time of life when
you start putting kids through college, the toll that skiing exacted on my tender
knees and ankles nearly ended any hopes I had of ever sliding happily down snowy
Snowbikers embrace the fun and ease of the sport, which can be learned quickly and
allows people with knee or skiing-skill challenges to enjoy the slopes.
I discovered snowbikes last season at the Sunshine Village ski area in Banff.
I was just about to hang up my boots, so to speak, after a day of trying to re-learn
skiing. I did clumsy ski turns without difficulty on the bunny slope but quickly
got out of control when I ventured up the mountain, where I fell hard. The answer
to my sliding woes stood outside of the rental shed at the Sunshine base: a dozen
shiny, yellow snowbikes manufactured by Brenter. For less than (CAN) $60, I was
equipped with foot skis about 2 feet long, a snowbike with a frame to match my size,
and the services of Ian, a friendly young man originally from Dublin, as a snowbike
Would we begin with hours of lessons on the bunny slope, I wondered. No way:
"Let's get on the lift and take our bikes up the mountain," said Ian, and soon we
were riding 800 vertical feet up the slopes on the Mount Standish Express chairlift.
The bikes were easy to manage; we just hooked the seats into the iron frame of the
chairlift and held on as we ascended. Getting off--generally a challenge for new
skiers--was a breeze with the bike. I held the bike to one side, put my weight on
the handlebars and glided to a stop on my short skis.
We were at the starting point for a green route called Creek Run, which began
with a wide, open area that gently sloped before funneling into a steep chute. I
never would have attempted it on skis, even after several lessons. We were going
to tackle it in the first 10 minutes that I was on a snowbike.
"Wait here, and I'll show you how this works," Ian said. He pointed his snowbike
down the hill, pushed off with his foot skis and began to pick up speed. To control
how fast or slow he went, he tacked back and forth, the same as in skiing. To turn,
he simply turned or tilted his head to the right--when you turn your head, your body
tends to follow--and the rear ski of the snowbike slid in the opposite direction
until it caught the fall line of the slope and stopped.
"Now you try it," he called out.
I pushed off. Balance was much easier than on skis, because I was seated on
the bike, my hands on the handlebars and foot skis alongside the frame. With the
bikes' skis, I had four points of contact with the snow, and my center of gravity
was much lower than when I skied. As I picked up speed, I turned my head to the
right, and the bike began to skid sideways with such quick response that I soon found
myself facing uphill and beginning to drift backward. This is disastrous when it
happens on skis, but with the snowbike, I just stood up off the bike and stopped,
picked up my lightweight, 19-pound mode of transport, and turned it back to the correct
We tried several more turns, and Ian showed me how a glance over my shoulder
would begin a smooth, easy turn, and if I pivoted my head even farther, essentially
looking behind my shoulder, the bike would snap into a quick, skidding stop.
I'd found something I'd been seeking for years: the ability to stop quickly
when I had to. Developing this ability had taken all of five minutes on the snowbike.
If anything, I had to learn not to overturn, and instead allow the bike to catch
up with the hill's natural slope, enabling me to move easily across the fall line
while maintaining forward momentum.
We paused at the beginning of the steeper part, me sucking in my breath, and
Ian said: "No worries. It's just three quick turns, and then you're into the wide
area again and moving down towards the lift."
Sure enough, the bike handled the turns easily. I found that I could control
the speed, and within a few minutes we had finished our run and were gliding toward
the lift line, with skiers and snowboarders gawking at my unusual contraption.
They asked a question that I would hear over and over that afternoon: "How do
you stop that thing?" The answer was, "The same way you stop your skis and snowboard,
by skidding into turns."
As anyone who has coasted down a groomed ski trail will attest, a successful
run is an exhilarating experience. The grin on my face said it all.
And then Ian left; my snowbike lesson had lasted less than a half-hour, including
the ride up the lift.
"I think you've got it, " he called over his shoulder. "Have fun!"
I got back in line, went back up the mountain by myself and enjoyed several
more runs down the hill.
One of the best parts was sitting on my comfortable bike seat at the top of 7,875
foot Mount Standish--a place I didn't dare venture on skis--and enjoying the incredible
views of snow and jagged mountaintops all around before shoving off and gliding down
the slope at up to 25 mph.
I fell a few times, mostly from overturning the responsive bike, but they were
easy spills, and painless. My thigh muscles burned by the time I was finished, but
there was no soreness in my knees or ankles, because the seated position takes torque
and stress away from those joints. It was my best experience ever at a ski resort,
and I resolved then and there that snowbiking would be my new winter sport.
I can hone my skills at Northwest ski areas such as Silver Mountain and Tamarack
in Idaho; Whitefish, Great Divide and Showdown in Montana: Mt. Hood Skibowl, Hoodoo
and Mount Ashland in Oregon; and Mission Ridge, Mt. Baker, Stevens Pass, and Summit
at Snoqualmie in Washington. Great Divide, Showdown, Mt. Hood Skibowl and Hoodoo
all rent snowbikes, and Great Divide, Showdown and Hoodoo also allow you to bring
your own bike.
In Western Canada, I can enjoy snowbiking at Alberta's Marmot Basin or at B.C.'s
Kicking Horse, Panorama, Sun Peaks and Whitewater. Sun Peaks has rentals. California
ski areas such as Heavenly Mountain, Northstar-at-Tahoe and Sierra-at-Tahoe also
allow snowbiking, with rentals available at Heavenly Mountain.
Colorado has numerous ski areas that allow snowbiking, with rentals at Durango
Mountain, Keystone, Telluride and Vail.
Resorts that rent bikes often require lessons first, and those that allow you
to bring your own bike often require you to pass an inspection. Sometimes snowbikers
are allowed only on certain lifts or on separate terrain designated for snowbiking.
Because snowbiking is still a new sport in the United States, it is not available
at all ski resorts. Even Sunshine Village, where I found my new downhill thrill
last year, no longer rents snowbikes--largely because interest in using them doesn't
yet warrant the space needed to store them--although the ski area does let riders
bring and use their own snowbikes.
Convincing ski areas to include snowbiking has been the toughest part about
bringing the sport to North America, says Hollenbeck, the Brenter Snowbike distributor.
"We strive to let them know that snowbikes can co-mingle just fine with skis and
snowboards, as is often the case in Europe, and if skiers/boarders might have concerns,
the resort can always start with guided snowbike tours late in the day or on dedicated
terrain, to accommodate existing snowbikers and introduce others to the sport."
He adds that snowbikes, with their quick learning curve, present a very different
economic model from traditional ski schools, which can collect fees for multiple
days of lessons from their beginning students. However, snowbiking has the potential
to bring a lot more business to resorts from nonskiers and people like me whose knees,
age or level of skiing proficiency would otherwise steer them to a different kind
Hollenbeck estimates the 30,000 people have ridden Brenter bikes in the United
States, and more than 1,000 now own their own Brenter snowbike. The bike retails
for about $1,400.
Although Brenter's modern snowbike dates back to 1949, large, heavy snowbike
predecessors appeared in the European alps during the mid-1800's, according to the
American Ski-Bike Association, and in 1892 an American named J. Stevens got a patent
for an "Ice Velocipede"--with a single ski replacing just the front tire--that evidently
was never produced.
Interestingly, a recently discovered photo related to the 1939 MGM documentary
Ski Birds depicts a couple sitting on a fairly sophisticated metal skibike, according
to the association, whose Website notes: "This is something of a revelation, the
'missing link' to later designs. Nothing is known regarding the origins of this
What is known is that somewhere along the line, snowbikes became a well-regarded
alternative to skis among the European celebrity set: Grace Kelly took lessons from
Brenter's son, Erich, who now runs the Brenter company.
Modern snowbike improvements include suspension systems under the seat that
make for a smoother ride, and better linkages between the frames and the skis, allowing
for higher-performance turns and more speed.
Aficionados such as Rod Ratzlaff point out that although it's easy to pick up
snowbiking, it's a sport that retains your interest for years because you can advance
to doing jumps and tricks with the bikes. Many experienced bikers like to use ski-area
adventure parks to try out jumps and airborne stunts.
It's an incredibly high-performance device. Snowbikes can tackle almost
any kind of terrain or snow condition.
"It's an incredibly high-performance device when used to its highest potential,"
Ratzlaff says, adding that snowbikes can tackle almost any kind of terrain or snow
condition, and have been raced at speeds of more than 100 mph by experienced riders.
He likes to ride his snowbike amid trees, digging in the edges of his foot skis
to control speed. "I was an intermediate skier for 30 years," he says. "I got on
the bike and felt like Superman."
Snowbikes are also great for adaptive uses for people with challenges such as
cerebral palsy or prostheses, who find the bikes give them greater control, he says.
"There are a lot of people on the slopes who couldn't be there without snowbikes."
Take it from this convert to snowbiking: It's a sport that is easy to love
after you've tried it, and one that can easily and quickly bring together generations
of a family who have wildly different skiing or snowboarding abilities. And that
is why this winter my sliding will all be conducted from a seated position. ■
Writer Jim Gullo lives in McMinnville, Oregon.
Happy snowbikers wave to the camera. Numerous ski areas let riders use their own
snowbikes on runs, and some ski areas also rent snowbikes and provide lessons.
A good resource for snowbike information is SkiBike World--www.ski-bike.org--the
Website of the American Ski-Bike Association. The "Ski Areas" link provides a list
of resorts that have snowbiking rentals and/or have terrain open to snowbikes. It
also provides information on snowbike styles and manufacturers. Brenter Snowbike's
English-language Website--www.snowbike.us--is also a good resource. Always call ski
areas in advance to verify that snowbiking lessons, rentals and/or terrain are currently
available, and to determine snowbiking restrictions and requirements, such as leash
use on lifts. And if you discover that you love to snowbike, be sure to tell your
favorite ski areas about it, and encourage them to accommodate and promote the sport
on their slopes.