“What the heck is a ski bike?” I asked as my friend Kristen tried to explain it to me.
“They are simply bikes with skis.”
“Really?” (No, not really).
An avid cyclist who is well connected with the Colorado mountain biking scene, Kristen was friends with Devon Lenz, founder of LenzSport, and she hinted that he might be able to “hook us up” with one to ride.
“Sure, why not?” I thought, since I love both skiing and biking. “This should be interesting.”
I already knew that Devon has been handcrafting quality American-made custom bicycles for years out of the large work shed behind his ranch-style home some thirty miles north of Denver, but Kristen told me how he had deftly convinced several Colorado ski resorts to not only allow these “ski bikes” on the slopes, but to provide lessons and tours as well. Convincing ski resorts to change is a difficult thing to do. It wasn’t too long ago that certain bastions of ski-country, such as Taos, didn’t even allow snowboards on their perfectly-groomed slopes. Snowboarders often give off that “punk kid” vibe, and more refined institutions didn’t want anything to do with that. But times have certainly changed.
Ski bikes are a whole other animal. Antsy mountain bikers, armed with a torch, a few bike parts, careful designs, and a desire to combine biking with skiing, had somehow convinced the multi-million dollar Vail resorts to permit these bastardized contraptions on the snow. Awesome!
And these bikes aren’t some flimsy plastic frame with a couple of recycled skis mounted to them… no sir! These are high-quality, full-suspension, durable bike frames with long travel forks designed to ride moto-style downhill in the snow and kick ass. And I was about to ride one. Sweet.
To be clear, what we rode were the more refined Type II ski bikes, which you stand on to pilot. This is a departure from the more tourist-oriented Type I ski bikes that you sit on and steer with snowblades attached to your feet. Also, don’t confuse these with bike-conversion kits, or KTraKs.
I first met Devon a few years ago after he let me demo one of his Lenz Leviathan 4.0 bikes for a few days while I was visiting the Front Range. At the time, he was almost exclusively manufacturing hand-made 29ers. An early innovator in the industry, his designs have undoubtedly been replicated by some of the “bigger” guys. What most impressed me about his work were the simple-yet-stalwart frame designs, that had obviously been manufactured with care and precision. Devon invited me out to his shop, and patiently explained to me the intricate process of making aluminum frames from scratch. It is obvious that he has the same enthusiasm and passion for crafting both dirt and ski bikes, which you can read more about in this article from Dirt Rag.
If you are reading this, chances are you are ready for winter to come to an abrupt end, hang up your skis, and hit some dry singletrack. But with spring breakers going back home, local trails sketchy with mud, and historic snowfall blanketing the US from West to East, there are plenty of opportunities to still squeeze in a few more powder days at your favorite ski resort… about two more weeks, to be precise. If anything, it’s a good way to rest your ski legs on a longer ski trip. Check out this video of Devon and his friends.
The closest place to Denver to try ski biking is Winter Park (WP), which offers lessons and tours, including VIP night rides. Lessons are mandatory if you want to ride solo, and WP issues a license if you prove your competency. It is a good idea to make reservations, because lessons and rentals are limited and demand varies.
Understandably, Devon is a busy individual, and we’ve been trying to meet up again for a while now. In the end, I didn’t get the hook up that I had hoped for, but instead opted to pay the $139 for the lessons/rental at West Portal at WP. Convincing my friends to fork over their time and money to try this was a challenge. Fortunately, there was one–my friend Mike–who had been hoping to try ski-biking for some time now. So off we went.
Our instructor, Rob, was exactly the kind of guy I had hoped to learn ski biking from. Sporting a twirled handlebar mustache and what I think was a mullet under his full-face helmet, he had dabbled in many of the same sports that a lot of us do: cycling, climbing, and snowboarding, accompanied by a bit of flair that made the day more interesting.
Though I wasn’t sure what to expect, I was sure of one thing: we were going to give it our best shot, and try hard not to take ourselves too seriously. I have been biking and snowboarding for years, so part of me sheepishly asked myself, “How hard could this be?” The short answer is: harder than I thought.
As we started our lessons, I was eager to just go and figure it out. I honestly tried to pay close attention to Rob, but I was so sure that once I got rolling I could pick this up fast, so my mind kept dreaming of rallying down the mountain. I think a lot of experienced bikers
may have this same problem. To be fair, it did seem easy at first, making wide obtuse turns on near-flat green runs, following the instructor. Once I got a little cocky, though, and shot down the hill ahead of Rob (by accident), and he really let me know that he didn’t appreciate that. Eek. It was a little embarrassing to so quickly be labeled the “Black Sheep,” but in retrospect I guess I’m used to it for some reason. So I quickly throttled back, because Rob was a nice guy, and he was being patient with all of us. Safety first, right? It wasn’t long after that we started learning feathering, hockey stops, and turns on steeper blue runs, and things quickly got scary and painful. I laid the bike over a few times because I was losing control, and one of the guys in our group mowed over a 3 year-old skier because he couldn’t stop (we all felt really bad, but he was ok)–I instantly realized why the basics were so critical to learn. So, pay attention.
If you’ve been cycling for years or decades, learning to turn a ski bike can be counter-intuitive. First of all, good luck grabbing a handful of brake when things get dicey–there are none–but your instincts override your brain and try it anyway. And, when you are trying to rail a sharp turn, for example, you can’t weight the pedals and lean into the turn like you do on a bike. Instead, you actually have to push the bars away from the turn, and lean the bike downhill away from you, while you lean into the turn. Your muscle memory doesn’t like that at all. For better control, you have to stand almost completely upright, leaning forward close to the handlebars, in order to weight the front ski, and use your knees/hips to control the back end of the bike. Bending your knees is usually a bad idea. It is completely different than riding DH, but once you get used to it, things eventually fall into place.
The other thing you have to get used to is what Rob termed “celebrity status,” a phenomenon I’ve never had the opportunity to experience before. You see, there are so few ski-bikes on the slopes, that some people stare right at you trying to get a better look, and ski right into you. It really happens. This is especially nerve-wracking when you are trying to learn on a crowded green run and no one, but you, realizes that you have absolutely no control over this darn thing yet.
In fact, we only saw one other ski bike the entire day. Most people seemed curious and asked a lot of questions about the bikes in lift lines, especially kids, while lift employees gave us a confounding smirk. There are a few skeptics and haters out there, of course, as one punk snowboarder soundly illustrated while he slid past our neophyte group yelling insults and reminding us that “bikes are for summertime!”
That may be so, but to be clear, these aren’t bikes. And they aren’t skis. Rob said that some of his friends who had been skiing or snowboarding for many years actually abandoned those disciplines to learn to ski bike exclusively. While a lot of people have the same negative reaction that snowboarders once received during the genesis of that sport, ski bikes are gaining traction across the US for some good reasons. Rob, who has been teaching and riding for over five years, said that he can ride downhill through steep trees and bumps faster than he can on a mountain bike. “There are no trails,” he said, so you can just “point it straight down the mountain” and rip it. Obviously, you better know what you’re doing.
I was a little surprised that it took me so long to get the hang of it, but once our instructor gave me a couple of key pointers, something clicked, and I got much better, much faster. I
think you have to un-train your brain from biking or skiing. The same thing happened with Mike, who is also a very good skiier, and we agreed the learning curve was somewhat warped. Once the lesson was over, however, we still had the bikes for about three hours on the slopes, so we pushed ourselves, and by the end of the day we were riding/falling in deep powder, and experimenting with black runs and moguls, though it quickly became obvious we were not quite ready for them yet. I almost nailed a tree going full speed, but quickly laid the bike over and avoided catastrophe. Though we wanted to try a few jumps, we learned that the terrain park is currently off limits to ski bikes, though there is a push to change that.
Some people would rather bike or ski, and not try to combine these two sports. One of my closest friends thinks these things are ridiculous… and I get it. Like Rob, I’m not sure that I’ll ever completely abandon my snowboard for a $3,500 ski bike. But I’ll be the first to admit that they are a lot of fun to ride, and now that I’ve had a lesson and have a license to use one, I will definitely rent one a few times each season to mix things up. Hopefully, one day, I’ll be flying off doubles, down through the trees, and hucking off some cliffs.
Your turn: Have you ever tried ski biking? What did you think? What is your impression of this new and evolving sport?
Thanks to Rob H. for such a great time on the slopes!