Whistler-Blackcomb introducing snow bikes to mountains
The first thing most people notice about the new Brentner Snow Bikes acquired by Whistler-Blackcomb is that they dont come equipped with any brakes.
"How are you supposed to stop?" people ask.
Tim Conway, one of five snowboard instructors certified by the manufacturer to teach people how to teach snow bike lessons, says he gives the same reassuring explanation to everybody:
"Where are the brakes on your skis? Where are the brakes on your snowboard? You use your edges to turn and your edges to stop. Its as simple as that."
Whistler-Blackcomb has been experimenting with the snow bikes for several months now, with mountain staffers and safety workers giving their thumbs up after taking a test ride. Members of the media, including Pique staff, were invited to try them out, and the bikes are now available to the public.
You can rent the bikes for Night Moves, and they have been approved for gondolas on Whistler and Blackcomb when you book a lesson with an instructor. Half-day tours are available for $39 and full day tours for $69, including boot and helmet rentals.
Although the bikes are new to North America, they are already widely used in Europe. Several different makes are available, but Whistler-Blackcomb opted for the Brenter Snowbike manufactured in Austria. They retail for about $1,500 each.
The appeal, according to Conway, is the fact that they are easy to learn much easier than skiing or boarding, although experience with either sport helps and easy on the body.
"This is for people who are tired after five days of skiing or people that arent that good at skiing or snowboarding. The learning curve is pretty fast and they can see a lot more of the mountain on a snowbike," said Conway.
"Weve had two newcomers to the mountains, who didnt ski or snowboard, linking turns down the green runs their very first run. I dont see it overtaking snowboarding any time soon, but its pretty fun, and people love it. Everybody who tries this wants one."
On our very first run, after testing the bikes with a few controlled turns and stops in both directions, we headed into the trees and practised carving without using our feet. The conditions were slushy and forgiving on that day, but Conway has tested the bikes in all kinds of conditions and gives the bike the thumbs-up.
"Its really good in the powder, in the trees. Weve ridden them on icy days, which is a little more challenging but you still have pretty good control. People have even taken them into the terrain park, which they werent supposed to do, but they did pretty good in there from what Ive heard," said Conway.
Conway doesnt know how fast hes been able to go on the bikes, but says the son of the inventor set the snow bike land-speed record of 105 mph (168 km/h).
The Brenter snow bikes have a ski in front and a ski in back. There is a rubber dampening shock for the front ski, and the rider sits on a banana seat that is perched on a U-shaped shock that is very forgiving. Riders also wear ski boots with specially adapted snow blades on each feet.
The snow blades are used to propel the bike on flat areas, the same way ice skates are used, and can also be used for power turns and stability. In flat areas or situations when you want to go faster you can pick up the skis and rest them on the frame.
The bike comes apart for easy transport to and from the hill and up the gondola. The bike, not including ski boots and the snow blades, weighs 16 pounds (seven kilograms).
The bikes are still being tested for use on chairlifts and in terrain parks, as Whistler-Blackcomb looks at ways the bikes could be used in the future, says Conway.
"There are still a lot of grey areas, where we can go and cant go, whether people can go on their own or have to hire guides," said Conway, who has already tested the bikes on black diamond gladed runs like Unsanctioned.
"There are some places you just wouldnt go, like youre not going to drop into the Couloir or drop cornices or anything, but they can go almost anywhere."
For more information on the Brenter Snow Bike, visit www.snowbike.net.