Austria to Tahoe: Ski biking through history


Miranda Jacobson

Ski bikes make a return to American slopes

It’s no surprise that Lake Tahoe is one of the most sought after destinations for outdoor sports across the board. With lustrous mountains that make for the perfect terrain, there is no better place to mountain bike in the summer and explore in the winter. It’s also no surprise that as old trends come into newfound popularity, the snowsports industry is no exception.

Enter the ski bike.

Kierra Keller does continuous work on her bike to make it even better. / Provided by Kierra Keller

What began as a mode of transportation in the Alps grew into a completely new sport on the slopes when Austrian ski manufacturer Engelbert Brenter patented the “Sit-Ski” in 1949. He transformed a steerable sledge with just runners. Brenter added key components needed to transform the bike into a real recreational sport including a suspension system and real skis instead of runners.

“That was the first production style ski bike,” said American Ski Bike Association Chairman, Jim Cameron. “They were very popular and they still are.” Cameron came to love ski bikes when they arrived in the United States in the early 1960s. The sport gained some popularity when Mount Rose hosted the world cup competition for ski biking in 1971.

The ski bike has a stable design with four points of contact — unlike traditional skiing or snowboarding — along with the unique ability for riders to stand or sit while riding. While many enjoyed ski biking for it’s easier than most learning curves, there were many who were skeptical due to the newness of the sport and the lack of education on how it worked.

When the sport died out in the US after it was banned from many resorts, Cameron was surprised to see a modern ski bike in a recreational sports catalog just 10 years ago. He contacted the representative selling the bike and one ride later, he was hooked. “I never turned back,” said Cameron. “I bought a bike immediately.”

After researching, Cameron discovered the American SkiBike Association which educates, promotes ski bike safety and encourages resorts to be ski bike friendly. The American SkiBike Association was formed in November 2001 by Rod Ratzlaff. The nonprofit acts as a hub of information that not only spreads knowledge, but helps facilitate clinics, competitions and events that help bring the snow recreation community together. “I saw the snowboarding community back in the 80s not really having an organization,” said Cameron. “They upset a lot of ski areas because they didn’t have an organization of a professional group to get permission to ride a ski area, to have rules and common courtesy. We’re trying to facilitate what the snowboarders didn’t do.”

The ASA created their website to provide information and list ski areas that allow ski biking with restrictions, if there are any. The members of the ASA have been putting together instructional videos aimed to spread awareness of the sport. While all of this information is helpful for consumers of the industry, Cameron said they’re trying to reach another target audience. “We’re trying to educate the National Ski Areas Association, teaching organizations, ski patrol organizations, and the adaptive organizations,” he said. “We’re a big clearinghouse for information; if you want to find out about ski biking, we’ve invested a lot of energy so you can find out where to ride.” As the sport began to grow in the states and the ASA was formed, newer models of the ski bike were created.

Classic” ski bike. /Provided by the American Ski Association

There are three different designs of ski bikes currently on the market. The classic bike follows the original Brenter look of the original bike. As mountain bikers and motocross riders began to put their own special touches on the bikes, two new models emerged: freestyle and trike (or 3-ski).

The “classic” ski bike has the original design of the bike created by Brenter in the sixties and was known as a “Skibob” (and still is referenced that way in Europe today). The classic design boasts a low center of gravity as it is meant to be ridden sitting down. Generally, there is a ski on the rear with a ski in the front as you steer. “It has a saddle, almost like a motorcycle on it,” said Cameron. But what really won Cameron over was the footski which is little skis that attach to either the binding or an attachment and fits either a ski or snowboard boot.

“You have a couple extra points of contact,” said Cameron. “It helps with balance. That was the primary style of bike for many years. Back in the 70s and 80s, we had a couple pioneers of that.”

The “freestyle” bike emerged when more mountain bikers in the states began to take up the sport. He explained that a current board member used to experiment on bikes in his free time and his experience with biking and skiing mixed when he merged the two styles of the sport.

“All of a sudden, we have a whole market of mountain bikers,” said Cameron. “There’s a big overlap. People started riding that style of bike and that started growing the sport in the ski areas.” The bike is often ridden without foot skis and has a downhill mountain bike inspired technique. They can be ridden sitting down as the classic or standing up with foot pegs. The bike still only has two skis which were upgraded in the third style of the bike and has grown in popularity over the years.

The “3-ski” bike is true to its name with two skis on the back and one steerable ski on the front. The rider stands on the two rear skis with the front ski connected to the handlebar for maximum control of direction. These bikes were created with motocross in mind. Most models will have killer front suspension and the rider can enjoy the ride while standing the entire time. “As far as resorts go, all the sudden you have these three styles of ski bikes,” said Cameron. “So even more reason to have the association help be the third party for information about all of these brands.”

Even though ski biking is not approved at every ski area in the states, there are many areas in the Sierra Nevada mountains that allow the sport. The policies change from place to place so it is important to check the ASA’s website for the official list of resorts along with each resort’s policy.

On the California side of the basin, Heavenly Valley Ski Resort, Kirkwood Ski Resort, Northstar at Tahoe, Sierra at Tahoe, and Tahoe Donner all allow ski biking. Each resort has different policies relating to what is and isn’t allowed on the ski area. Sierra at Tahoe, which has been a big proponent of ski biking, doesn’t have any restrictions. In comparison, Heavenly Valley Ski Resort allows ski bikes but a leash connecting the rider to the bike is required at all times and 3-skis are not allowed.

The SkiBike came to the US in the early sixties before dying off in the seventies. Now, the sport has made a large comeback in the states, and three different bikes have now emerged for riders to enjoy. / Provided by the American Ski Association

One way to educate and get more ski areas to be ski bike friendly is through events that ASA hosts to bring together the ski bike communities. “We call them ski bike rallies,” said Cameron. “It’s much more informal of an event where everybody meets at a certain place and they all ride together.” Cameron said that one of the best parts of these events is sharing the love for the sport while also introducing it to those who might never have tried it before. For those who are worried it might be too difficult to learn, have no fear. “Learning to ski bike is really easy,” said Cameron.

Now that ski biking has made its comeback in the country, Cameron said their goal now is to continue growing and educating those interested in the sport and bring more people into the fun. One way to do that is through their official ambassadors, who spread the good word of ski biking. Lake Tahoe ASA Ambassador, Kierra Keller learned how to ski bike last year. After a few rides, she knew it was something she wanted to continue doing and share with her loved ones. Or everyone she met. “It made me want to throw my entire life at it because the joy that came out of my first few runs was more than anything I’d experienced skiing,” said Keller. “I became a part of the ASA so I could get more resorts to adopt it. But, my sole duty is to share the love.”


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