‘Writing the book’: On a ski bike at Keystone with Devin Lenz of Lenz Sports
February 16, 2018
He thought it was the coolest and craziest thing he'd ever seen on snow. He asked the standard questions: Where are the brakes? How do you stop? Where do you rent one? He wondered if they were even allowed at ski resorts.
But would he ever trade his shaped Nordicas and rigid boots for a ski bike?
"Hell no," he told me from the middle face of Silver Spoon, a mellow green on a mellow day where our collection of ski bikers was eating up the sun. "I'm 71 years old and falling hurts."
He chuckled again, gave us a nod and skied off. I didn't get his name, but his questions and reactions and simple curiosity were familiar by then. It was about 11:30 a.m. on a Wednesday in February and our group had run into at least a half-dozen people wondering what in the hell we were riding, including a Keystone ski patroller and mountain safety patroller.
All of the attention from strangers was nothing new for this crew. There was Glenna Kunkel, a longtime ski biker from Lafayette who picked it up when her knees couldn't handle snowboarding anymore and now teaches ski biking at Winter Park. There was Rich Mayer, a single dad of three from Golden who grew up building bikes and sidecars — "I've always been a fabricator," he said — and showed me the custom bike he built with skis, BMX handlebars and a ring-a-ling bell attached to an old Iron Horse downhill frame.
Then there was Devin Lenz, owner of Lenz Sports Bicycles in Fort Lupton and one of the first ski-bike manufacturers. He was riding one of his company's custom-made bikes, all built and assembled by hand in his Front Range workshop to be the best possible machine for snow. They aren't simply mountain bikes with skis in place of tires, he said, but rather purpose-built models made to carve, turn and stop on groomers, steeps and powder.
"Ski bikes have been around for over 100 years — mostly the ski bobs — but our bikes have been around for a long time too," said Lenz, who started making ski bikes about 12 years ago and has crafted close to 500 since then. "It's been slow going and slow to take off. That's why a lot of people haven't seen it … It's starting to snowball, but we've been a freak show for a long time."
Better than 'bobs'
Before cruising the final pitch to Dercum's Dash and River Run Village, the four of us started talking about the difference between ski bikes — the mountain-bike style machines we were riding, with fixed pedals (or pegs) and full suspension — and snow bikes, also known as ski bobs. Those come with ski attachments for your boots and are available to rent through Keystone's Adventure Point, while ski bikes are pretty much only found at Winter Park, Purgatory, Vail and Steamboat Springs.
"I'm of the philosophy that I gave up training wheels when I was a kid," Mayer said, putting the debate to rest as simply as possible. "I'm just a bike addict. I'll do anything on a bike."
Like Mayer, I'm also a bike addict and spend summers downhilling the dirt trails at Keystone. Kunkel and Lenz said that the majority of ski bikers are downhill and dirt bike riders — and sometimes that's their worst enemy.
During one of Kunkel's lessons at Winter Park, she covers the two basics everyone needs (and wants) before ski biking solo: how to control speed and how to stop. There are no brakes on the bikes, and so they slow down or stop by edging the back ski into the snow.
"Stance is incredibly important," Kunkel said later, following up on the crash-course lesson she and Lenz gave me at Keystone. "People can get in the back seat on those bikes, especially at the end of the turn like skis, so you have to bring the hips forward. That's incredibly important on the bike because you need weight on that front ski."
I learned that lesson soon enough. It had been two years since I was last on a ski bike, and as soon as we rode a steep pitch I got into the downhiller stance: elbows out, butt back, knees bent — and I nearly lost control when I couldn't turn.
"The geometry is a combination of mountain bike geometry and putting you in a skier position, that athletic stance like they call it," Lenz said. "The bikes put you in a position that is responsive — you're not sitting back. This gets you in a skier stance."
Over the years, Lenz has perfected the geometry on his bikes to be as safe — and user-friendly — as possible. The handlebars are high and small like a BMX bike, and the frame is surprisingly compact. Again, he said, everything is made to push your body into a skier's stance and make the basics much easier.
"People are always pretty curious and think this is pretty cool," Lenz said. "Other people think it's scary or dangerous. Everyone wants to know how you stop, and if it's easy to ride … The snow industry is just so huge that you hardly see a guy on his bike, but I've noticed this year that it's picked up."
Slow to grow
In Colorado, the fight for ski-bike access hasn't been too bloody. Models like Lenz Bikes are allowed everywhere in Summit County except for Copper Mountain, including Arapahoe Basin, although homemade models like Mayer's aren't allowed anywhere but Winter Park, Mary Jane and A-Basin.
Still, Lenz and Kunkel said the sport has been extremely slow to catch on. On one end is the supposed learning curve — it looks more difficult than it is — and on the other is the industry. He's one of only a handful of ski-bike manufacturers in the country, and he's often too busy with just building the bikes to promote like mad, and industry showcases like the SIA Snow Show are expensive to attend.
Still, Kunkel believes the sport is catching on in pockets across the state and country, like Winter Park. The program there is one-of-a-kind, but she and other instructors are trying to standardize the curriculum.
"Each year I keep pushing myself and learning new things," Kunkel said. "No one else in the country is doing this, trying to bring instruction to the ski bikes, so we're working to build a certification for it. It's like we're writing the book on this."
This article originally published in February 2017.
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