Skibike offers new challenges and opportunities

By: Joel Reichenberger


Patrick Neelan carves the slopes of Steamboat Ski Area last week on his skibike. Skibikes are allowed at Steamboat only for disabled skiers. Their use is more widespread at other Colorado resorts.   Photo by: Joel Reichenberger


Sunday, March 15, 2009                             Link


Steamboat Springs, Colorado — Patrick Neelan won’t stop saying it. “I can go anywhere on this,” he said, setting one foot on the crunchy spring snowpack of Steamboat Ski Area as he rested on his bright oran­ge Stal­mach skibike.


He gave a tilt to the handlebars, and only a thick beard distinguished him from the stereotypical image of a 10-year-old smiling proudly atop a wheeled bicycle.


Even that distinction was gone moments later, as Neelan pushed away and pierced the crisp early-March air with a ring of his bike’s bell, then pointed down the mountain with enthusiasm.


He tucked his legs up under the device — so garishly orange it could be confused for any random tool left on a highway construction site — and with a few gentle cuts, he was on his way to the bottom of another run.


“The skibike is great,” Neelan said. “It saved the sport for me.”


Able to go anywhere


He insisted that wasn’t an exaggeration.


Neelan once defined fitness. He was a college gymnast at Io­­wa State University. The sport wrecked his body, however, and before he started with the skibike, a day of skiing meant a week of pain for Neelan.


“I could only go for half a day,” he said. “But every season, I made sure to go half a day. I still loved it.


“Then, three years ago, I was introduced to the skibike.”


Describing a skibike need not get any more complicated than considering its name.


It looks like a bike, distinguished by the soft curves and rounded handlebars of a 1950s cruiser, minus the banana seat. It has skis instead of wheels. Replace the two main skis with spokes and rubber, and the whole contraption would get lost in grandpa’s garage.


But with skis, it’s a device that helped liberate Neelan from injuries that had slowed him for years.


“My life changed after I took a skibike lesson at Keystone,” he said. “By the end of that two-hour lesson, I was following my instructor through trees on black diamond runs.”


His skibike, imported from Austria, carved through the corduroy snow as easy as any snowboard or alpine setup.


But Neelan never let up.


“Anywhere,” he said again and again. “I was up in the trees off Sunshine yesterday. Man, that was great.”


A wind fierce enough to blow a skier like an old wooden ship prevented a repeat performance.


“How about the halfpipe?” he finally asked.


And in the halfpipe, he proved he could go anywhere. He swung up high on the icy walls of Steamboat’s Maverick’s Superpipe and swooped back down. In addition to the skis on the front and the back of the bike, he wore small skis that were only slightly longer than his feet.


He deployed his legs as needed to keep balance and — flying up and down in the pipe — soared to its finish.


An unusual way down


The tool of Neelan’s mountain resurrection was a godsend to him, but last week, it proved alien to almost everyone else.


Hollered questions — “What the heck is that?” — often announced Neelan’s arrival before even his bell did.


“Whoa!” one terrain park snowboarder exclaimed. “I’ll give you money if you jump that thing.”


The skibike truly is a novelty in Steamboat Springs. Neelan had to petition for special ac­­cess, and he was allowed to bring it only because of his disability.


Other resorts allow skibikes on the slopes.


“There are resorts around Colorado and the nation that allow skibikes and provide training. That’s a key component to it,” Steamboat Ski Area spokeswoman Loryn Kasten said. “A lot of them require a license. Mostly, the decision in Steamboat was because it’s a safety issue, and it’s a convenience issue for our other guests.


“The biggest factor is loading and unloading from the chairlift. Often, they have to slow down the lift, and that’s a part of the decision,” she continued. “It’s also the kind of thing, that as new equipment comes along, we’re always reevaluating the situation. If the demand increases, we’d take skibikes under consideration.”


Neelan, 56, started selling the bikes in the United States soon after he bought his own, and now as he struggles to find construction work in the wrecked economy, he’s had all the more time to enjoy the ride.


“It’s just great to be back on the mountain,” Neelan said. “There’s a great potential for these. I think it could be great for beginning skiers and for someone looking for more adventure and something different. And it’s so much easier on the body; it would be great for veteran skiers whose bodies just won’t let them go as often anymore.” •

Neelan explains his skibike last week to interested skiers at the Steamboat Ski Area. He was stopped constantly by people wondering what exactly he was riding. Photo by: Joel Reichenberger

Neelan swings high up the side of the halfpipe at Steamboat Ski Area. Neelan has been riding his skibike for three years and said it has allowed him to overcome injuries that nearly had forced him from the sport.

Photo by: Joel Reichenberger

Patrick Neelan imported his skibike from Austria. He now sells bikes on his Web site, www.skibike.us. They retail at about $1,100.

Photo by: Joel Reichenberger