Have you seen a suspicious, but insanely fun “bike” carving down the mountain face at Boyne Highlands this winter? Perhaps you’ve even seen this mysterious cross between a tricycle, a sled, and skis at other Michigan resorts or in other states. Well, we’re sad to say it’s not called a super-fun-bike-thingamajig. However, we do have the inside scoop on the SNO-GO bike and how you can ride one this winter.
Touted as “the fastest growing winter sport” on their website, the makers of the SNO-GO craze transformed their Kickstarter dream in 2015 to a fully-fledged concept in little time. S.L.A.T. (synchronized lateral articulation technology) is the proprietary technology that sets SNO-GO apart from competing brands and links the movements in the upper body to the bike’s three skis for intuitive control. It’s been boasted that learning to maneuver a SNO-GO is easier than learning to ski or snowboard. Naturally, we had to investigate this claim.
At Boyne Highlands, you can easily try out a SNO-GO bike before committing to buying your own — good idea, because they retail for $1,600. Each trial begins with signing a safety waiver and partaking in a mandatory lesson on the hill. Once you are competent and comfortable on the bike, you have free rein to explore for the remainder of your rental time. Helmets are mandatory and snowboard boots are recommended for optimal fit and grip when standing on the bike.
Although the SNO-GO has handlebars and resembles a street bike, our instructor was clear that riding a SNO-GO is not like mountain biking. New riders will mistakenly turn the handlebars, force their entire weight forward, or lazily ride in the backseat. However, the proper weight distribution is over the center of the bike while strategically pressing on the handlebar with your palms. In fact, you do not want to turn the handles. Rather, you should lightly press your palms right or left on the handles to turn in either direction (like pedals for your hands). The bungee cord belt that attaches to your waste doubles as a fail-safe in case you fall off the bike at high speed. After 40 pounds of force is exerted on the metal ring attaching you to the bike, it will bend and snap. This safely detaches you from the bike upon impact and prevents it from bouncing back and hitting you in the head.
Comically, braking was the last thing we learned, but this was also the point at which we skiers felt most comfortable on the new machines. Braking was a simultaneous process of pressing the handlebar to one side and swinging the back of the bike around in a hockey stop fashion. Of course, there were a few snafus where we swung the bikes too far around and ended up going backwards downhill (not recommended). Although theoretically you could enter this sport without first skiing or boarding and become acclimated, it would certainly benefit one to be familiar with an athlete’s stance, stamina, and sense of balance — the skills that are second nature to long-time skiers and riders.
Currently, lift operators are always instructed to slow the lift down when a SNO-GO rider is loading to ensure the bike (and person) both make it on the chair safely. The chairlift ride wasn’t nearly as scary as it first appeared. You simply lift up the handlebars and slide the bike’s protruding middle bar up onto the seat while straddling the bike. Our instructor also urged us to make sure the bike makes it on the chair first, rather than focusing on sitting down first. The bar, in turn, supported the bike the entire ride without needing to hold on to it.
Unloading was as easy as pushing the bike forward (since it’s still tethered to your waste by a bungee cord) and quickly running forward away from the chair. More experienced riders could simply get up and ride the bike down the lift ramp while pushing with one foot like a scooter.
At Boyne Highlands a two-hour rental for first-timers, including the necessary orientation, costs $55. This timeframe will most likely leave you with an hour to explore with the bike on your own, assuming you “pass” the lesson. We started out on the magic carpet and then moved to lower Camelot: Highlands’ relatively-flat beginner hill that allowed us to get our bearings. You must also have a lift ticket in addition to rental cost. For season pass holders, the price is easier to stomach and the logistics more manageable as you sample this new sport. For day visitors, you’ll have to weigh the benefits of the unique experience with the often steep ticket prices and capacity concerns. We definitely think it’s worth a try.
The Future of Ski Bikes
Right now at the Boyne resorts, there is no cap on who can bring a SNO-GO to the hill on their own as long as they have a lift ticket. This begs the question about the future coexistence of skiers, snowboarders, and bikers on the same mountain. Could this consistent lift accommodation (i.e. dramatically slowing down the lift each time for bikers) impact other guests at a certain capacity in the lift lines? Could hills become congested to the point of serious safety concerns when competing for space or not knowing who has the right of way?
At Holiday Valley for example, a popular resort in eastern New York, their website explicitly states that snow bikes or similar equipment are prohibited: “This policy is based on compliance with applicable state and national regulations as well as safety concerns for both the snow bike rider and others on the slopes. Namely, the Resort is not equipped to transport snow bikes up the lift safely and securely. The inability to secure a snow bike to the lift poses safety risks should the rider drop the bike onto the slope and skiers below or fall out of the chairlift while holding the bike on the ride up.” For the record, at no point on the chairlift or hill did we feel the bike was dangerous or unmanageable, and there are different varieties on ski bikes in the market.
Right now, Boyne Highlands only has 10 SNO-GO bikes in stock to rent per day. One woman who learned how to ride during a trial run at Highlands last year returned this season with her own SNO-GO, proving that those who try it once can quickly learn to love it — we certainly did. As the sport expands to the masses, there will certainly be etiquette concerns when sharing the slopes. For now, we’re excited to see a new mode of mountain recreation taking hold and inspiring an expanded love of Michigan winters.