Trading traditional skis for snow bikes
February 18, 2016
For nearly a decade, a small group of locals has traded skis for modified bikes made to charge through snow and tight tree runs.
David Gray is something of a one-man bike gang. Whether you knew it or not, you've probably seen Gray cruising solo (or maybe with a single partner) beneath Colorado SuperChair at Breckenridge. On most winter mornings the longtime local doctor dons a gray helmet, dark sunglasses, snow boots and a red-and-black one-piece for a few laps on his favorite Peak 8 runs. He doesn't snowboard or ski — he hasn't touched anything with traditional bindings in years — and he sure as hell doesn't wear any hand-sewn patches. Yet he still manages to draw the attention of nearly everyone on the mountain.
One thing's for sure: Gray grabbed my attention. It was a brutally cold morning in early December, the first truly frigid day of the season, when I met with him and Roger Hollenbeck, owner of Rocky Mountain Snowbike, Inc. The two are old friends and greeted each other warmly, trading a few gentle barbs back and forth before bringing me into the fold.
"Oh, you didn't bring your girlfriend?" Gray asked as he shook my hand, laughing from behind a black facemask. It was the first time I had met him, but we'd been exchanging emails for at least four months about the unknown realm of snow biking. "What'd you expect?" Hollenbeck said in return, then grabbed his helmet and jacket before heading out into the cold.
For the past decade or so, he and Gray have traded traditional skiing for snow biking (also known as ski bobbing), a funky little sport that looks new and fresh and unfamiliar but has been around for decades. It started in Austria (where else?) in the '60s and slowly made its way to Colorado, where ski areas are more tightly restricted and anything unfamiliar is, well, threatening.
"David Gray is one of the main reasons Breckenridge is open to this," Hollenbeck said as he introduced me to my bright-yellow machine. "And that's because he rode here for many years, maybe four or five years, and no accidents."
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Hollenbeck took the bike-looking contraption from the ski rack and handed it over. He also grabbed two modified skis — short, stubby, almost like snow skates — with custom bindings made to fit over my snowboard boots. His supplier, Brenter Snowbikes of Austria, also has models for ski boots, but the snow-bike veteran recommended snowboard boots. Comfort, he said.
In less than five minutes, Hollenbeck gave me a crash course on all things snow biking. I'd been on the machines before at Vail, where they only come out at night after runs close for the general public, and so I understood the basics: Sit low in the seat for stability, lean (don't jerk or twist) into turns like a motorcycle, dig your heels into the snow to brake and control your speed.
"The reason a beginner can get on a snow bike and go down a blue first thing is that skiing and braking are independent of each other," Gray said from my right side. "But we don't want to tell a beginner that," Hollenbeck called back from my left. "Their mind just might explode." "But it really is the truth," Gray replied and pulled his facemask tight.
So, there we were, heading from the patio at One Ski Hill to the Colorado chair and, suddenly, all eyes were on us. There were Gray and Hollenbeck, plus Gray's 23-year-old daughter, Kayla, and yet another skier-turned-biker, Chris Marriott of Breck.
"There's a whole gang of 'em," someone (maybe a liftie?) said from the lift line as we shimmied up to the chair. The bike felt awkward at first — and not only because I was one of just five people riding one — but after a few shuffling scoots I got the hang of moving over flat ground. It's a cross between ice-skating and Nordic skiing, except with a bike between your legs. Just close your eyes for a second and it gets better.
We load the six-pack chair three at a time (a snow bike counts as a person). "I took a few runs early and man, it is good out there," Hollenbeck said. "I really want to show you how they handle in the trees." Gray lit up behind his facemask. I could tell because his voice was intense and excited, like someone who's about to show you a closely guarded secret. "That's the big draw of this, the trees," Gray said. "It's what they're doing in Telluride, it's what they're doing in Durango. So much of these resorts are untouched because no one goes into those trees." And that's where we were headed.
Austria to Colorado
Hollenbeck is a self-described ski bum, the sort of guy who's spent his life chasing snow just about anywhere and everywhere. He grew up in Los Angeles and moved to Telluride as soon as he could, next visiting Austria in the '80s and Great Britain in the '90s before returning to the U.S. in 1994. When he did, he brought snow biking with him. The sport, credited to Erich Brenter of Brenter Snowbikes, ebbed and flowed in its native Europe, but Hollenbeck knew it was abolustely unheard-of in the States.
"I knew I'd need a couple of jobs when I came here, like everyone else, and I was hoping I could start this sport locally," Hollenbeck said. "The manufacturer didn't want to sell to the United States — too much liability." It took a year of coaxing and convincing, but Hollenbeck finally brought snow biking to Silver Creek (now Granby Ranch) near Winter Park in 1995. But it wasn't easy. "Every place said no," Hollenbeck said. "I guess they just didn't understand it. Copper, for example, wanted to know if it was listed in the Skier Safety Act of 1979."
It wasn't, and neither were other off-kilter activities like snowskates and ski bikes (aka peg bikes), which are similar to snow bikes but feature burly front forks, pegs instead of pedals and no foot skis.
Still, Hollenbeck had his sights set on snow biking and he wasn't going to let a few hand-wringing lawyers stand in the way. By 1997, he made a major breakthrough with Vail Mountain. The resort agreed to allow snow bikes, but only as a nighttime activity with small groups led by trained instructors. This skirted the liability issue and, at the same time, opened the doors for snow bikes across the Rockies, including Keystone, Copper and Arapahoe Basin.
"As a result, a lot more resorts joined on after that," Hollenbeck said. "It was kind of the turning point for the night tours." In the early years, snow bikes were still limited to night tours and select runs — a handful of greens, maybe a blue here and there, and definitely no tree runs. Keystone loosened up after a few years and allowed bikes on all runs, no restrictions, but bikers were few and far between. It was still seen as an oddity, a curiosity, the sort of thing you did if you hated skiing or couldn't edge or were simply bored.
Then, in 2012, the dominoes fell when all Vail Resorts properties started allowing snowskates and snow bikes (but not peg bikes) on all runs during normal hours. "I don't care why or how, it's just that we had already been at Keystone since 2008 — the whole mountain, all lifts, so they knew about it and what it looked like," Hollenbeck said about VR's decision to lift the daytime ban. "I was able to find what they want to hear, and it's that everyone must learn how to ride and use the lifts before they get ahold of a bike."
Hollenbeck now takes small groups of novice snow bikers on the mountain. Like he did with me, he'll go over the basics in the base area (the U.S. Forest Service doesn't allow him to teach on the actual slopes) before heading out with groups for a few runs. His fleet of bikes is made for just about anyone — families, couples, feisty teenagers — and the only limitation is age. Anyone younger than 9 years old will struggle to fit on the bike. Other than that, it's fair game.
"You have the experienced snow slider who wants to just check this out," Hollenbeck said, using one of his favorite terms to describe anything slick and on the snow. "They're not going to switch over, but they'll check it out to see what it's all about. No one spends more than 20 or 30 minutes learning how to ride. So, as a gang of experienced riders, you can have a lot of fun right away."
Into the woods
Our gang that chill December morning was experienced, and then some. Well, all except for me. Gray and Hollenbeck haven't been on skis in years and Marriott is about the same. Kayla Gray picked up snow biking in high school with Hollenbeck's son, Justin — "We started a little snow bike gang," she said — and briefly went back to skiing a few years ago. But it just wasn't the same.
"I wasn't having as much fun, so I loaded up my skis, got the snow bike and haven't tried skis again," she said.
After one run to get my bearings — it didn't take long, just as Hollenbeck said — we took Rocky Mountain SuperChair for a run through Gray's favorite trees, found just below the T-Bar between Peak 7 and Peak 8. I'm no stranger to those trees. It's one of my favorite areas on Peak 8, with several gullies that feel like mountain bike pump tracks when the snow is just right. They're a dream on a snowboard, and I admit that I'll be hard-pressed to hang up my board in favor of a snow bike when the powder in those gullies is prime.
But that's not quite the point. Like Hollenbeck said, diehard skiers and riders can have fun on snow bikes because they're easy and familiar, but folks who just don't enjoy those sports can fall in love with snow biking because, again, it's easy and familiar, even in intimidating terrain like trees.
"It never occurred to me to go into the trees on my skis," Gray said right before we dropped into the woods. "It just seemed too stupid."
Trees are anything but stupid on a snow bike. The machine carves like a dream through powder and stops on a dime when you dig in your heels. I had a blast — so much, actually, that I had to remind myself that stopping is a good thing. I was trying my damndest to keep up with the Breck bike gang, and when we reached the bottom Gray beamed again.
"It looks like you were enjoying yourself," Gray said. I nodded, probably beaming just as large as he was. "I told you so."
Snow biking in Summit
All four ski areas in Summit County allow snow bikes this season, but each one has slightly different rules and access. For rentals and tours, call Roger Hollenbeck with Rocky Mountain Snowbike at (970) 389-7006 or visit http://www.snowbike.us.
$60 — rental, lesson and lift ticket (lesson required for first-timer users)
$49 — rental and lesson
$40 — rental only
$40 — rental
$40 — rental
No lessons or rentals