As a sign that creative minds never sleep--particularly here on the West Coast, where there seems to be a constant parade of innovative methods of enjoying the outdoors--get set to snow bike, the latest way to play in the white world. The good news is that this sport is as easy on the knees as it is on a rider's central nervous system. Just sit back and enjoy the trip. On the other hand, more aggressive types will quickly aspire to be among the first snow bikers to land backside tail whips off a terrain-park jump.
Long-time Whistler resident Stephen Vogler recalls doing something similar with a hybrid bicycle--with skis instead of wheels--in the 1970s beside the town's venerable Tyrol Lodge, where his parents worked as caretakers. When contacted on the phone by the Georgia Straight, Vogler fondly reminisced about the curved lines of his snow bike's blue-laminated wooden frame, the forerunner of today's aluminum-bodied models. Try as they might, Vogler and his 10-year-old pals couldn't destroy the sturdily built machine. He speculated that one of the private lodge's Austrian members brought it to Whistler.
Originally called ski-bobs, snow bikes first appeared in the European Alps in the mid-19th century, at about the same time that early road bicycles made their debut. Paintings from that era depict outdoor enthusiasts riding on wooden-framed contraptions with a handlebar attached to a front ski. The first commercially manufactured ski bikes hit the market in the late 1940s in Austria, a country renowned for its "anything goes" attitude when it comes to hurtling down snowy slopes. Particularly popular were the Sit-Ski models patented by Englebert Brenter. Today, the Brenter company (www.snowbike.net/) is still headed by family members, including son Carl Brenter, who last winter came to Whistler Blackcomb's ski and snowboard school to certify a group of instructors as snow-bike guides.
Snow biking broke big in North American in 1965 when the sight of the Beatles racing downhill on ski bikes in filmmaker Richard Lester's Help propelled the sport into popularity. By the 1970s, innovative designers, particularly Kevan Leycraft in Calgary, tricked them out with full suspensions and floating rear skis.
The sign that a new sport has achieved global status is having a world championship for its participants. In 1967, the fledgling Fédération Internationale de Skibob (www.skibob.org/) did just that in Europe. More recently, snow-bike groups such as the Canadian SkiBike Association (www.skibikes.ca/) have sprung up in North America, particularly in western regions where for the past decade the annual North American Snowbike Championships have been held.
Just as it's said that if you can walk you can snowshoe, it's also true that if you can cycle you can snowbike. After a few practice runs, cruising on one becomes second nature. However, there is one crucial difference: unlike bicycles, snow bikes aren't fitted with brakes. Instead, riders apply the edges of short skis fitted to their boots to control speed. And when you want to turn, simply get your backfield in motion, as it were. A little body language goes a long way when applied from a bike seat set at a much lower centre of gravity than with skis or snowboards. The good news is that unlike with those sports, you can maintain this naturally semi-tucked position with four points of balance for run after run without feeling the burn from overtaxed muscles.
Much like the early days of snowboarding in the 1980s, mountain operators such as Whistler Blackcomb have been cautious about allowing snow bikes access to their lifts and trails. When first introduced at Whistler last season, snow-bike riders were only permitted to explore the slopes when accompanied by a guide, and only then on Whistler Mountain and during family evenings on Blackcomb's Magic Chair. So successful was that limited experiment that this season both Whistler and Blackcomb mountains welcome snow bikers almost unconditionally. When contacted by the Straight, Whistler Blackcomb snowboard manager Adam Schell confirmed that after an introductory half-day lesson--wherein new riders are coached on handling a snow bike both on the slopes as well as entering and exiting lifts--a certification pass is issued that allows snow bikers to ride independently on all but the most challenging runs.
Schell said he finds snow biking a relaxed way to spend time outdoors, particularly in the company of friends. As to when snow bikes will make their appearance in some of the trendier parts of the mountain, such as the terrain parks, Schell said that once the sport catches on, no one will hold back on the inverts. After all, Whistler is the crucible of new-school everything.
As for an old-school snow biker like Vogler, he was delighted to rediscover the sport last year during a family night outing. Vogler particularly welcomed snow biking's renaissance when he noticed that the chrome-yellow models he and his 10-year-old son were riding were built by Brenter, the same brand he'd launched himself off Superman-style at the Tyrol Lodge years ago. Some things never change. According to Vogler, snow bikes are still as fast, as comfortable, and as easy to get ripping on now as ever.
ACCESS: For information on snow biking at Whistler, contact Whistler Blackcomb (1-800-766-0449; www.whistlerblackcomb.com/todo/winter/). A package with a certification lesson, snow-bike rental, and lift ticket costs about $120. Rentals are available from the Carleton Lodge on Whistler's Skiers Plaza and at the Blackcomb Day Lodge.