ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — They’re out there on the mountain already, those funny looking handlebarred rides propped atop two short skis instead of two wheels.
But even at resorts like Sipapu where their use is allowed, the ski-bike rarely fails to attract attention.
People gawk as the bikes are carried through the base area or point down from their chair lift perches at seated riders gliding across the snow below. But mostly, Sipapu ski and snowboard instructor Richie Parrent says, most people just ask questions.
“There’s not one time that I’ve taken a bike out that at least two or three people haven’t gone, ‘Hey, can we rent those?’ or ‘Are they fun?’ ” Parrent said. “Everybody’s always interested in them.”
As Randy Kimball, an Albuquerque-based ski-bike Web retailer, put it: “You get this rock-star status. Everybody wants to know what it’s about.”
This weekend’s Sipapu Ski-Bike Rally will give the uninitiated a chance to learn more. The two-day event includes demos, lessons, opportunities to take bikes up and down the mountain, races for riders of all abilities and a moonlight downhill bike parade on Saturday night.
Sipapu is not new to the ski-bike phenomenon and has a history of demo events and even rallies. The resort, southeast of Taos, has watched the sport grow on its own slopes in recent years.
“We’re seeing more and more of it all the time,” said Sipapu marketing director Stacey Glaser, adding that Sipapu often makes room for the latest trends. “… That’s just been a tradition here – they’ve always been early-adopters, pioneers when it comes to embracing new sports.”
Still, though, the bikes remain relative anomalies among the skiing and snowboarding masses. Rod Ratzlaff, a Colorado-based ski-bike advocate who founded the American Ski-Bike Association in 2001, likened the sport’s current status to snowboarding in the 1980s. Interest and awareness are growing, but snow-biking is still a fledgling part of the winter sports market, and it’s allowed at only about 10 percent of American resorts. (In New Mexico, that includes Angel Fire, Sipapu and Ski Apache.)
Ratzlaff can’t quantify nationwide ski-bike use, but it’s worth noting that his encyclopedic SkiBike World website (ski-bike.org) gets roughly 20,000 hits per month during ski season.
Why the interest? Well, the sport is attractive for a number of reasons, Ratzlaff said. It’s generally gentler on the body and easier to master than skiing, and riders can experience so much terrain. A self-described “tree hound,” Ratzlaff was wowed by the freedom and agility afforded by the ski-bike. He first rode one during the 2000-01 season and has been smitten ever since, never returning to ordinary skis.
“I was kind of stuck in the intermediate rut on skis, which an awful lot of people are. You just hit a wall; you can’t seem to get past a certain point,” he said. “I got on that bike and within a few days of riding, I found I could go ride bumps and trees and all the stuff I could never do (before).”
Of course that often depends on the bike itself. “Ski-bike” is an umbrella term for a range of devices. Ratzlaff said the three prominent style variations are the traditional ski-bob, the hybrid or “pegger” and board bike. (See sidebar.) Bobbers – on which the rider also wears foot skis – are the most traditional style, while Ratzlaff said peggers are the fastest-growing segment of the market.
Board bikes – a scooter-like device ridden while standing – aren’t as popular.
“Here in the U.S., everyone wants something with a seat,” said Randy Kimball, who runs skibikefun.com with his wife, Melanie.
The Kimballs started their business 10 years ago with “conversion kits” that help turn everyday mountain bikes into snow-riding machines, but there are now more purpose-built models in the marketplace. The Kimballs sell at least 40-50 ski-bikes per year, Melanie said, at prices that range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. The customer base has, to the Kimballs’ surprise, skewed older.
“When we first started selling this gear eight, nine years ago, we thought we’d be selling to kids, and guess what? Our average customers isn’t a kid, it’s 45 plus, 50 plus,” Randy Kimball said.
Sipapu has purchased a few for its rental shop and offers customers some instruction.
Bob Fitzgerald, a ticket office manager for the resort, said ski-biking is relatively simple, especially compared with traditional skiing.
“Just about anybody can do it,” he said.
Randy Kimball said it’s especially easy for those with previous skiing or snowboarding experience to learn because many of the skills translate, but it certainly doesn’t require a great deal of on-the-slopes experience. After some brief instruction on Sipapu’s gentle ski school hill, Kimball often takes people up the lift; even a first-day rider can usually sweep back and forth down the mountain. He advises novices not to point the bike straight downhill so as not to pick up too much speed. Since there are no brakes, stopping generally involves turning the bike uphill or, sometimes, digging feet into the snow like Fred Flintstone.
More advanced riders, though, can make the experience much more extreme.
“You can get air on them, you can go fast, you can carve – it’s very versatile,” Parrent said. “It’s almost like a ski or a snowboard.”
Brett Gonzales, a 17-year-old Sipapu ski school instructor, said he has no problem recommending the ski-bikes when people inquire.
“Most people (ask) ‘Is it fun?’ ” Gonzales said. “I’m like, ‘heck, yeah, it’s fun.’ “