Look, Ma, no wheels!
Ski biking slip-slides its way onto the Colorado slopes
By: Allen Holder
The Kansas City Star
Published Dec. 12, 2004
Ski-bike enthusiasts can find seven resorts at which to practice their sport this year in Colorado. Three of the resorts offer lessons and rent equipment.
KEYSTONE, Colo. — From the peak of Dercum Mountain, the ski run ahead looked promising. Long. Wide. Uncrowded.
~~Schoolmarm was the very first trail I had ever skied, 20-something years ago. And I have to admit, on my first run of this mid-November weekday I enjoyed its gentle 3 1/2 -mile-terrain as much as I ever had.
~~But this time was different. I wasn't on skis. I was sitting on a squatty little bike whose front and back wheels had been replaced by skis. And the two guys with me expected me to point this contraption downhill and ride with them.
~~Suddenly Schoolmarm looked a whole lot more stern than I remembered. What was I thinking?
~~My guides didn't seem to think this should be a problem. Chris Marriott, a lifelong skier and snowboarder, now rides ski bikes exclusively. He's also a guide and sales rep for Brenter Original Snowbike, the world's leading manufacturer of ski bikes. Clark Stoneback climbed aboard his first ski bike last winter, was immediately taken with the sport, and now teaches riders at Keystone.
~~But I had never seen a ski bike before. There I sat, hands gripped tightly around the handlebars, boots attached to two more short skis. Every muscle in my body tensed.
~~“When you want to turn,” Marriott shouted from a short distance ahead, “just turn your head in the direction you want to go.”
~~It couldn't be as simple as Marriott and Stoneback made it seem. Could it?
~~I tentatively aimed the bike downhill. For a short distance — 20 feet, maybe — I began sliding in the packed powder and manmade snow, picking up too much speed too quickly for my liking. But when I turned my head sharply left, the bike followed.
~~And I got the bike to stop. It wasn't pretty. But I didn't wipe out.
~~What a kick. Let's do this again.
~~Although ski bikes have been around in some form since the 19th century, they're still pretty much an anomaly at American ski resorts.
~~The locals are getting used to seeing them at Keystone, Marriott said. But on weekends or anytime the slopes are filled with skiers from Denver or beyond, ski bikers tend to draw a crowd.
~~“Kids' eyes light up, and they say, ‘What is that?' ‘That looks like fun.' ‘Did you build that?' ‘Do you crash a lot?' ” Marriott said.
~~That was my experience exactly during two hours on the bike. Every time we stopped, at least one or two curious skiers or boarders would stop. “Is that hard?” they wanted to know. “Ask him,” my guides replied, pointing to me. “This is his first time on one.”
~~“Well, at least if you fall on that thing,” one laughing boarder noted, “you're already on your (rear end).”
~~To my surprise (read: relief), this seemed to be a sport I could pick up quickly.
~~After a few tries at turning — and a couple of spills — Marriott and Stoneback had me linking one, two, three turns. I was traveling farther and faster with every try. Usually in control.
~~“The cool thing about this thing is it's a sport you can do right now,” Marriott said. “We're trying to get people to come out of the condos.
~~“Every clinic or tour I've given, people get this huge smile across their face after just the first or second run. I tell people now, ‘If you don't fight it, you're going to get a huge smile across your face.' They're blown away by how easy it is.”
~~In what seemed like practically no time, we had ridden to the bottom of the Montezuma Express lift, where I learned to safely load the 17-pound Snowbike onto the lift, hooking its frame around the chair's armrest. That's one of the most important things to learn and one reason Keystone requires ski-bike riders to complete a two-hour riding clinic for $49 before they're allowed to rent and ride the bikes without a guide.
~~At the top of the mountain, more than 11,000 feet above sea level, we hopped off the lift, essentially the same way you do on skis, and started again. It only got more fun.
~~Marriott and Stoneback shared their stories and gave more instruction about how to safely maneuver the bike down the mountain.
~~I learned that it really doesn't take much more than a turn of the head to move the bike in the direction I wanted to go. My reflexes took over after that. I held my arms out straight, elbows locked, but not too tightly. A little pressure on the left handlebar helped for left turns or right for right turns. By keeping my knees together and brushing my thighs against the saddle, I could maintain better control. The longer I rode the more comfortable I felt.
~~My two guides even demonstrated how to ride the bike backward for short distances. I did that too, once — but not on purpose.
~~Stoneback, a retired J.C. Penney store manager, had never ridden a ski bike until last year. He had moved to Keystone and was working as a mountain host, providing various guest services, during the winter. At an employee night last year, he got a chance to try out some new things.
~~“I got on the Snowbike, and the guy said, ‘Hey, you look pretty good on that thing. Why don't you meet me on the mountain tomorrow?' ” Stoneback, 64, recalled. “And I did. He gave me a thorough lesson in what he calls the European method of Snowbike instruction. We did that for about two hours. I Snowbiked the rest of that day and the next.”
~~In December he became a Snowbike guide and instructor.
~~Marriott, 34, works as a shuttle bus driver at Keystone and has been riding for about five years. Back when he started, ski biking was strictly an after-hours guided activity at Keystone.
~~“I first heard about it from my boss,” he said. “He set up a time when I could go up there with co-workers and go have fun. I signed up three times because not very many people were taking advantage of it.
~~“On my third time up there I was wanting to go out and have more fun than my instructor was.”
~~Marriott has been skiing or snowboarding since he was 8 years old. When snowboarding became popular, he traded skis for a board. Now he rides a ski bike almost exclusively.
~~“I've been like gung-ho for Snowbikes for a couple of years now,” he said. “I still have skis and snowboards at my place, but I'm unloading them as we speak — selling them to friends and whatnot.
~~“I know Snowbiking. I'm all about Snowbiking now. Snowbiking is my newfound passion. I hit the slopes four or five days a week right now.”
~~This isn't the first go-round for ski biking.
~~“In the late '60s and early '70s, they rode them everywhere,” said Roger Hollenbeck of Breckenridge, Colo., one of ski biking's most enthusiastic promoters and a Brenter Original Snowbike distributor.
~~Hollenbeck had ridden ski bikes in Europe and bought one for himself in 1994.
~~“I ordered one Snowbike and got it shipped over here from Europe,” he said. “Then I ran around to all the ski areas (looking for places that would allow him to ride). All of them said no, except one. That was Silver Creek (now called Sol Vista Basin, near Granby).”
~~“In 1996 we did a joint venture with Sol Vista, and we had 50 bikes come in then.”
~~Sol Vista no longer allows ski bikers on its slopes. But three other Colorado resorts — Keystone, Telluride and Durango Mountain — have embraced the sport by training ski bikers, renting equipment and letting trained riders on their trails.
~~Copper Mountain and Arapahoe Basin, allow ski bikes anywhere on their terrain but offer no training or equipment. At Vail and Winter Park, it's offered as a guided activity. Outside Colorado, ski biking is offered at resorts including Grand Targhee in Wyoming, Showdown in Montana and Whistler in Alberta.
~~In Europe — Brenter Original Snowbike is based in Austria — the sport is more prevalent.
~~“It's more established over there,” Marriott said. “They still have a number of resorts that don't allow them. … But I have been told at the (European) resorts that allow them about 30 percent of the people on the slopes are on ski bikes.”
~~Marriott likens the sport's development to the early days of snowboarding. “The ski-biking industry is slowly growing,” he said. “Just like snowboarding. Back in the '80s the resorts that allowed snowboarding were few and far between. Ski areas didn't know about (snowboarders) and didn't know how to handle them.
~~“But, back in the day, the friendly areas were saying, ‘Oh, that looks like fun. You can ride here.' That's kind of where ski bikes are right now.”
Something to Talk About
~~Despite his background as a skier and boarder, Marriott has found that some of ski biking's most enthusiastic participants are people who don't otherwise spend a lot of time on the slopes.
~~“By our own experience,” he said, “skiers and snowboarders are curious, but the ones who enjoy it the most are the ones who don't ski. They come to Colorado, and they sit in their lodge or their condo, and they go shopping.
~~“Our best customer is the kind who skis once in a while or skis for an hour, then calls it quits and doesn't ski anymore.
~~“People who ski or snowboard a lot, they're the ones who have the most doubts because they're so focused into whatever sport they're into at the time.”
~~Riders seem to like that “they can learn it so quickly, and I think they get comfortable with it,” Stoneback said. “It's an easy way to ski all day and not get tired. Anytime you want to stop, you can stop, and you've got a seat right there so you can sit and enjoy the ambiance, the vistas.
~~“We've had families who've come back and rented them after a lesson. The thing they've found and I've found is that based on my level of skiing, I'm more comfortable on my ski bike than I am on skis.”
~~Ski biking is a sport that welcomes almost anyone who wants to try it, Marriott said.
~~“Snowbiking is just a marriage of bicycling and skiing. That's what makes it inherently safe and easy. They're not using a whole different group of muscles. We're just incorporating two things they've probably done before.”
~~Just one warning: If you're going to ride a ski bike, be prepared to talk about it.
~~“There are days when it's busy up there and it's almost impossible to make a quick run down the mountain,” Stoneback said. “If you're an introvert, you probably shouldn't Snowbike because you're going to be talking to people all day long.” •