By Aislinn Sarnacki, BDN Staff •
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Zigzagging down the ski slopes of Sugarloaf Mountain, three ski bikers practiced their turns on a quiet Wednesday afternoon. The three-skied, bike-like devices they rode, new to the Maine mountain scene, drew attention. Two snowboarders paused to watch them pass — not unlike skiers did when mountains began allowing them on the slopes in the late 1980s.
Ski biking — not to be confused with fat biking — is a downhill sport that has recently been gaining popularity in the United States. And for the first time this year, it’s being offered at Sugarloaf and Sunday River, two of Maine’s biggest ski mountains.
The sport is a mixture of mountain biking, downhill skiing and snowboarding, and it has stirred up interest from people of all ages and skill levels.
“It’s just another way to get people out on the snow and having a good time,” said Ben Herman, Sugarloaf’s ski bike supervisor. “I’ve taught 15-year-olds all the way up to 75-year-olds so far. It’s a pretty diverse group.”
To introduce the sport to the slopes, both Sugarloaf and Sunday River started offering ski bike rentals this winter. As a safety measure, they require renters to take a short, free lesson before being allowed to take out the equipment on their own.
“The learning curve is pretty shallow,” Herman said. “It takes one or two runs to learn. I think the longest I’ve taken with people is three runs before they can go and stop. It may not be pretty, but it’s not like snowboarding where there’s a lot of falling [while learning].”
What’s a ski bike?
Ski bikes, also called snow bikes, come in different designs. But, basically, they’re bikes on skis.
While the activity is fairly new to Maine, it has quite a history. The origins of the sport can be traced back to the late 1800s, when John Stevens of Hartford, Connecticut, patented a bicycle with its front wheel replaced by a ski. He called it the “Ice Velocopide.”
Over the decades, several European inventors modified this design. In 1949, Austrian engineer Englebert Brenter patented the “sit ski,” which gave riders much greater mobility than previous designs. The modern ski bike is often traced back to his invention.
In 1954, the first ski bike race was held in Austria, where the activity is called “skibobbing.” And in 1961, the Federation International de Skibob was formed to promote and regulate the sport, which has become popular in a handful of European countries. The organization is still active today.
It wasn’t until recently that the activity has become more common throughout the United States.
“It’s becoming more popular,” Herman said. “We already have seven people signed up [to rent ski bikes] for this weekend, and last weekend we had 12 or 13 walk-ins. It’s pretty exciting how it’s grown.”
The ski bikes for rent at Sugarloaf and Sunday River are made by Sno-Go, a Utah-based company founded in 2015. The Sno-Go ski bike stands on three short, wide skis — two in back and one in front. On a flexible suspension, these skis are attached to an aluminum frame and handlebars that resemble that of a mountain bike.
Unlike a traditional bike, the Sno-Go ski bike has no seat or wheels, and the handlebars are simple, without levers for changing gears or engaging brakes. Ski bikes don’t have brakes.
“People are sometimes surprised at that, but there are no brakes on skis or snowboards either,” Harman said.
How to ride a ski bike
Sugarloaf requires all new ski bike renters to take a short lesson that covers steering, stopping and safely loading the ski bike on and off a chairlift.
These lessons are important because ski bikes are new to most people and the equipment is large and heavy — about 45 pounds — making it more dangerous than skis or snowboards if dropped from a chairlift. Also, ski bikes are designed to stay upright, which means if you lose control of it on the slopes, it could very well continue all the way down the mountain without you, gathering speed as it goes, which is a danger to other people on the trail.
For this reason, Sugarloaf requires ski bikers to be connected to their bikes with a short leash and waist belt. However, if yanked hard enough — for example, if the ski bike is dropped from a chairlift — the leash is designed to disconnect so you aren’t pulled off the lift with it.
After you’ve completed the short lesson, the instructor gives you a small sticker to place on your season or day pass that tells the chairlift operators that you’re good to go. But if you would like more instruction, Sugarloaf also offers more extensive 2-hour lessons for an additional fee.
“I’d never been on a snow bike before this year, and I think they’re really easy to pick up,” said Noelle Tuttle, marketing manager at Sugarloaf.
To ride a Sno-Go bike, you need to wear snowboarding boots, which fit into the bike’s bindings and “stomp pads” on its two back skis. The bindings simply hook around the inside and top of your boots, allowing you to step out any time.
While standing, you hold the handlebars and lean forward. Then you’re off, down the slope on three short skis. To change direction and control your speed, turn and tilt the handlebars, and shift your weight, leaning uphill.
“We’ve had a lot of people say that they’re surprisingly stable,” Tuttle said. “They expect [the ski bikes] to be a little squirrely or super fast, but they’re built to be very balanced. And if you traverse across the hill, you can control your speed and keep it at a comfortable pace.”
To stop, you turn the bike sideways, and lean up the mountain to dig the edges of the skis into the snow. It’s similar to a hockey stop in skiing or ice skating.
“So far, we’ve had pretty positive feedback,” said Dylan Keller, one of Sugarloaf’s ski bike instructors. “People are enjoying these things.”
The challenges and dangers
Though the majority of feedback about ski biking at Sugarloaf has been positive, the instructors have noticed skepticism among some of their guests.
“They’re something new,” Herman said. “Some people don’t want to try it because they think it looks dangerous.”
All outdoor activities, including downhill sports, carry a certain risk. According to a National Ski Areas Association fact sheet, the rate of reported alpine ski injuries in 2000 was 2.63 per 1,000 skier visits. And the rate of reported snowboarding injuries from that same year was 6.97 per 1,000 visits.
With ski biking being so new to U.S. ski slopes, it’s unclear what the injury rate for it will be, or what types of injuries will be most common. So far, Sugarloaf has recorded two injuries from people using the ski bikes, including one broken bone, Herman said. That’s out of about 55 lessons, some of which were for groups of people.
“I’ve seen people eat it pretty hard,” Herman said. “But mostly it’s instructors who are trying to do something dumb on it. It’s like anything, if you aren’t using it correctly, it’s not going to work.”
Is ski biking right for you?
Both Herman and Keller have heard from older skiers who want to switch to ski biking because they find the sport to be easier on their legs, especially their knees.
“If you think about skiing or snowboarding, you’re on your knees, ankles and hips the whole time,” Herman said. “With a Sno[-Go] bike, you have four points of contact, so you’re splitting up the weight, plus the bike does some of the work for you.”
The two skis at the back of the bike are connected so they move together, he explained. This makes it impossible to cross your skis, a common mistake among people who are learning to ski.
“The younger crowd likes it because it’s something different, something fun and new to learn,” Herman said. “We’ve had a few people who work up here and are also mountain bikers who really enjoy it. It’s faster and more stable than a fat tire bike, so it’s just something different they can do.”
Sugarloaf and Sunday River only allows Sno-Go ski bikes on their slopes, except for models available through adaptive sports programs. This is because Sno-Go designs have certain safety features, including a special bar that slides over the chairlift seat. This takes the weight of the bike out of the rider’s hands while riding the lift.
In addition, ski bikes are only allowed on certain chairlifts and trails. At Sugarloaf, they are allowed on green circle (easy) and blue square (intermediate) trails accessible from four chairlifts. At Sunday River, ski bikes are allowed on all aerial lifts and conveyors, with the exception of the Locke Mountain Triple, the Spruce Mountain Triple and the Oz Quad.
Riders must be age 13 and older, be at least 5 feet tall and weigh at least 100 pounds.
“It’s been really popular with groups that come and stay for a couple of days,” Tuttle said. “It gives them something new to do together, and if people haven’t skied or snowboarded before, this is a pretty easy activity to pick up.”