I like to think of myself as a pretty athletic guy – I played on a town baseball team 11 years ago and have kept in shape through a range of yard games ever since.
When it comes to snow sports, though, it’s kind of a different story. Sure, I can ski, but I might get to a mountain once a year, if that (I didn’t go at all last year). Nonetheless, when I saw that Pats Peak offered snowbike lessons, I knew it was an opportunity I had to jump on – I’d always wanted to try it, and we would be in Henniker anyway for this issue.
A snowbike is basically what you’d think it is – a bike made for the snow. There are no tires, chains, gears or brakes, but there is a big seat and a set of handlebars. In place of the wheels are small, special skis, the front one controlled by the handlebars.
Pats Peak has about a dozen of these available for rent, and they offer lessons, too, which last about an hour. The basic intro package is $26 for the lesson; a two-hour rental of the bike, boots and foot skis; and a license. Lift tickets are extra.
I signed up for the basic intro package – just a lesson, rental and a couple quick runs.
When I walked into the rental shop, I saw a rack full of yellow snowbikes, and I knew I was in the right place. I was fitted for boots for the mini foot skis – I opted for ski boots since that’s what I was used to, but you can go for snowboard boots if you prefer – then I was turned loose to go to my lesson.
My instructors, Erin Balcom and Jocelyn Saltzman, assured me that it would be easier than I thought. I did, after all, assume it was going to be tricky, as there’s a lot going on between shifting your body, controlling your feet, steering the handlebars, not crashing into everything in sight, etc.
Balcom told me to sit far back on the extra-long banana seat and to hold the handlebars with my arms fully outstretched – all of this took place on level ground at the bottom of the carpet lift. She said it was pretty similar to riding a dirtbike, which was perfect, since I’d never done that.
“You don’t really want to turn the handlebars like this,” Balcom said, jerking the bars dramatically from side to side. “You want to turn your head in the direction you want to go.”
Sounded simple enough, which was good, because that was all the instruction before heading up the rubber escalator-type thing to the top of the bunny hill.
Mounting the “carpet,” as they call it, was a little challenging. You have to waddle with the mini skis on your feet while holding the bike out in front of you as you approach the rubber. Then you have to place the bike on the carpet and waddle using baby steps to get on.
Saltzman went ahead of me to show me how it was done, and she sat on the bike once she was on, so that’s what I tried.
The first try was sketchy – my feet were planted flat since they were attached to skis, so it was hard to bend properly to sit. I just scooted up a little more and was able to sit.
Near the top, Saltzman stood, so that’s what I tried to do, only I couldn’t get up. It was hard to get any leverage, having my hands stretched far out in front of me and not being able to bend my ankles. The solution? I just stayed seated until the ride dumped me off at the end – it all worked out.
At the top of the little hill, Saltzman gave me some steering tips: don’t dig in with your front leg, as that will put a lot of stress on the knee, she said. Instead, lean the opposite direction, up the hill. Also, use your head and neck to guide the bike and only use the foot skis to maintain stability.
With all of the tips retained, I pushed slowly down the hill at a fairly horizontal angle, Balcom confidently leading the way.
The first thing I thought was, this is a lot of fun. I easily negotiated my first carve, a wide-angled job to the left, weaving back to the right. I caught myself being a little heavy-handed on the bars, causing the front ski to skip a little, but it was easy enough to correct.
As I made my way down, I applied all the skills I had just learned, realizing that I had two very good instructors. I turned with relative ease and comfort the whole way – snowbiking is a luxury sport in that you get to sit down the whole time.
After another wipeout-free run down the beginner slope, I was allowed to take a trip up the lift to a “real” trail, even if it was an easy one (called Puff).
Mounting the lift was a bit awkward, but not that bad. I just had to hold the bike to the outside then hold it on my lap. At the top, we motioned to the lift operator with a wave to slow it down a bit, which he kindly did.
Then it was down the slope. I cut, I carved, I drifted – I had a blast. I couldn’t believe how easy and fun it was, and that I didn’t even really come close to falling at any point. I never gained blazing speed, but that was probably for the best, all things considered.
At the end, I went back inside to get my license, now that I was deemed safe to operate a snowbike. I filled out some basic information, stood for a hat-headed photo and got my laminated, lanyarded license, which they told me was good anywhere in the U.S. and never expired. This means that if I decide to go to Colorado for some snowbiking about 37 years from now, nobody can stop me. It’s also a requirement – you must have a snowbiking license visible at all times to use a snowbike at Pats Peak, and if you don’t have one, you must take the hourlong lesson first. (You also need to be older than 13 to take one up the lift and down the mountain.)
And really, you should. This was the most fun I’d had in a while, and I’m glad I got that license while I was there. Now I can go back to Pats Peak and just rent the equipment and get a lift ticket and I’ll be on my way.
There are several options for different rental packages, so check out PatsPeak.com for more info.