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.
I try a few longer, more arcing turns, which cause me to go even faster. I start to panic again, so I pull my feet from the pegs and try to slow down 198 teetering pounds (my 175 plus the 23-pound bike) with foot-on-snow brakes. I manage, but not without some pain, and the message is clear: I'd better learn to control my speed using the skis.
Ski bikes (also called snow bikes or ski bobs) date to 19th-century Europe, according to the Canadian and American ski bike associations. The earliest versions, used for transportation, were large, wooden and heavy. That changed in 1949, when Austrian Engelbert Brenter won a patent for his Sit-Ski, which employed real skis and a suspension system. Ski biking grew in Europe through the 1970s, at one time supporting 70 manufacturers.
Now, some U.S. resorts are quietly feeding the renewed interest. The ski industry has suffered flat growth for much of the past 20 years and is eager to attract more visitors. Other toys popping up at resorts include ski scoots -- snow versions of the popular foot-propelled scooters -- and snow tubes, which are basically inner tubes for sledding.
Modern ski bikes offer remarkable stability, though the linear alignment looks wobbly. With little effort, you can sit on flat ground and rest your feet on the pegs without tipping. For added control, many riders wear ski skates (included with the rental) that they use like regular skis, meaning they don't use the foot pegs at all.
When I first learned of ski biking I was struck by how, in every action photo, the riders looked like total nerds. The geometry of the rider's position -- weight way back over the rear ski, arms extended to reach the handlebars -- almost eliminates any perception of motion. Even in the shot I saw of some crazy dude sailing off a cliff, it seemed as if neither the rider nor the bike was moving.
So I harbor no illusions that I look cool on the cycle as I head up to Loon's intermediate terrain, having linked a series of turns together without imploding. The lift line brings more comments, mainly from kids. "Man, check that out! Is that harder than boarding?" "Can you do tricks on that?"
"Not on purpose," I answer. Loon's ski bike ambassadors say they haven't seen anybody get too radical on the Snow Cycle, but knowing the adolescent penchant for absurd risk, I am confident some teenager will be throwing flips within a season or two.
The alloy pony's speed capability has been proven: Romuald Bonvin, a speed ski biker who moonlights as an account manager for Sun Microsystems in Switzerland, last year set a world record of 114 mph. Later, riding a bike equipped with a bobsled-esque nose and windshield, he clocked 135 mph.
Bonvin's records are safe with me. My biggest kick comes when I persuade the keeper of Loon's amateur giant slalom race course (a series of about 12 ski racing gates that's open to the public) to break policy and let me take the bike through the course. I make every gate without stopping and achieve the fastest, tightest turns of my day. A nice rush, but I still miss my skis.
Just before I run the gates, a woman approaches me.
"Were you over on Rumrunner about two hours ago?" I nod, and she continues: "Because I saw you and said to my husband, 'Look at that freak on the bike!' " I've been called worse, but at least this time I wasn't breaking the law.
I want to test my new-found ability on the expert runs of the resort's upper mountain but am told the ski patrol doesn't allow bikes up there "for safety reasons" (an indication that ski biking has not yet gained full acceptance, even at resorts that allow it).
The next day I try the ski skates with my bike, which provide a little more exercise -- I actually use my legs -- but reduce the thrill of steering entirely by body weight. The sensation is akin to simply skiing while sitting down.
After I return the Snow Cycle, I click into my skis and feel the familiar leg flexing, pole plants and whap of the boards between moguls. I'll keep my skis for now, but at least I understand the ski bike's allure, especially for snow sport novices, impatient learners and anyone seeking a quick thrill.
And I'll know what's going through the mind of the next "freak" I see steering downhill with that motorcycle racer's grin on his face, even if he doesn't look like he's moving at all.