Ski Biking: Seat-of-Your-Pants Fun
Sunday, February 2, 2003
Sitting on a ski hill is nothing new to me. After 32 years of skiing, I've spent my share of time involuntarily reclined in the snow. But something is different about this steel-cold day on New Hampshire's Loon Mountain: Despite my seated position, my butt is high (more than a foot above the snow) and dry, resting comfortably on a ski bike.
The K2 Snow Cycle consists of what looks like a small aluminum mountain bike frame with rear, shock-absorbing suspension, handlebars and a longish seat resembling a small motorcycle saddle. In place of the wheels are two 97-centimeter skis -- real, hyperbolic K2 skis, with tips and edges -- each of which can be turned independently (the front with the handlebars, the back by swishing out your hips). On the front fork are two chrome pegs, each about five inches long, where the rider rests his feet.
"You get your butt out to the side and slide that back ski, like a hockey stop on ice skates," instructs Rick Frost, Loon's adventure activities director. "It's pretty easy." The sport's gentle learning curve, he says, is the main reason the resort offers ski biking.
"About 10 percent of first-time skiers return, which means that 90 percent don't, probably because they had a negative experience," Frost tells me. That may explain why the activity isn't exactly taking resorts by storm. In fact, during two crowded days at Loon -- one of the roughly 35 U.S. resorts to allow ski bikes (even fewer rent them) -- I saw only three other ski bikers on the slopes.
I was drawn to Loon in the hopes of finding yet another non-motorized method of hurtling down a mountain. I love to ski, mountain bike and, when I get the chance, snowboard, and I was curious if ski biking would offer a similar hair-raising exhilaration.
A rental shop employee recommends a couple runs on the bunny slope, so up I go. Within seconds I'm getting stares. First, I'm told to ride the chair alone with the bike across my lap (a mandate I will later violate with little resistance from the lift operators). As I run -- yes, run -- off the chair at the top carrying my steed, a couple of guys on snowboards look me over.
"Whoa, what do we got here? Is that thing hard to ride?" I tell them I've never been on one before and will let them know in a minute. A middle-aged woman with kids in tow glares as she slowly skis off the lift.
"Where's your helmet?" she asks me.
One of the boarders stymies her with a retort: "Where's yours?"
Enough stalling. I sit on the bike, give a gentle push and place my feet on the pegs. For the umpteenth time in my life, I am shocked at the veracity of Newton's whole gravity shtick. I am going too fast. I instinctively put my feet down, a move that fails to slow me. I'm on the verge of losing control of the Snow Cycle when I remember Frost's instructions: I throw my hips out to the right.
Bingo! The rear ski slides out, edges a little bit and slows the bike.
I glide through a gentle, if not graceful, turn. Emboldened, I swing my hips the other way, with the same result. I feel as if I'm at the helm of a PlayStation motorcycle, weaving between imaginary opponents. But in reality I'm moving, with the very real risk that I could run someone over or whack a tree, thrills unavailable in my living room. I am also acutely aware of people regarding me as the oddity of the day.