Rapidly progressing sport allows travel to previously unrideable terrain
A new sport is taking off in the mountains of British Columbia, and if you’ve never seen it, you’d be forgiven for having a double take when you do.
It’s called snowbiking, and it’s essentially a hybrid between snowmobiling and dirt biking.
In recent years, companies have been rapidly improving the technology that allows it. Kits are used to swap the front wheel of a dirt bike into a single ski; a track (kind of like what you’d find on a snowmobile) replaces the rear.
Timbersled, a snowbiking company owned by Polaris, now offers kits that are used to transform dirt bikes into snowbikes starting at around $5,500.
Longtime snowmobilers say a bit of a revolution is going on—but that snowbiking isn’t likely to displace snowmobiling entirely.
Brett Turcotte, a leading snowbiker and snowmobiler from Clearwater, B.C., began snowbiking in 2016.
“It was an avenue that I pursued because I saw an opening to get involved in a sport that was new and fresh and growing at a really fast rate,” he explained.
Turcotte added the sport has grown quickly in recent years. There are now about three snowbikers for every seven snowmobilers in the backcountry, he said.
“They’re definitely making their way into the winter world and into the backcountry.”
Driving the change
A number of factors seem to be driving snowbiking’s popularity.
For one thing (and this might seem counterintuitive to many people) snowbiking is thought to be much easier than snowmobiling.
Snowbikes are lighter and easier to navigate, particularly in tight, treed terrain.
“The access that they allow is unreal,” explained Turcotte.
“We’re getting into spots with these bikes that would be a real struggle with a snowmobile. Snowbiking has opened up a whole new way to look at terrain.”
Snowbikes can also come in handy on steep terrain, even though they have far less horsepower than sleds.
Sidelining, the process of zig-zagging your way up a steep mountain, is challenging on a sled, as riders are forced to balance on one of the machine’s two front skis.
It is much more natural on a snowbike.
“It only has one ski, so you’re essentially kind of dirt biking across the snow,” said Turcotte. “And when the terrain gets very steep, you can lean the bike in against the hill and use your foot as a rudder to keep your balance.”
And then there’s the price point. The kits offer a (relatively) affordable way into the realm of winter backcountry travel for people who already own dirt bikes.
“If you already have a dirt bike, you could get into a brand new snowbike kit for $6,000,” he said.
This, he explained, compares to spending around $16,000 on a new snowmobile.
This said, you can still spend a lot of money on a snow bike. Turcotte built his bike up specifically for snow biking and estimates it would cost around $20,000.
Kamloops-based mountain bike pro Graham Agassiz has similarly developed a passion for snowbiking.
He got into the sport around the same time as Turcotte, and the two are riding buddies as well as Monster Energy Drink teammates.
Agassiz said snowbiking serves as great cross training for mountain biking and has helped him train for events like the Red Bull Rampage, a spectacular freeride event that takes place in Utah.
It allows Agassiz to get that air feeling in a relatively safe way, he explained.
“Going 60 to70 feet on a mountain bike feels pretty aggressive, but on a [snowbike], every other air can be like that, depending on where you are.”
Agassiz added the terrain around Sun Peaks is particularly well suited to the sport, with treed sections that can remain relatively fresh days after snowfall.
He said he sees lots of room for growth for the sport, especially given that it’s much easier to learn than sledding—not to mention much less physically demanding.
“You don’t have to be super strong or fit,” he said, adding that snowbikes allow users to extend their days in the backcountry.
A tragic event
While snowbiking maintains a relatively low profile among the general public, it recently became a bit of a focal point of attention after a tragic accident in the Coast Mountains of B.C, when two young snowbikers were killed in an avalanche near Pemberton.
Both were passionate about the emerging sport and were reportedly well-versed in avalanche safety. In a report by the CBC, Nicholas Bowker’s mother described her son as an adventurous young man who fell in love with motorized sports at an early age.
“He just had a sense of living on the edge, but still being safe about it,” said Suzanne Bowker “I did worry about him, but you know what? I prayed for him. And I know that God was watching over him. And God has a purpose in all this.”
Graham Haywood, the other man who passed away, worked as a senior project coordinator at the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District.
Like all backcountry sports, sledding and snowbiking carries its own dangers.
A recent provincial report outlined the causes of winter-related deaths between 2008 and 2018.
It found that over that period there were 114 snowmobile deaths, with about two thirds of them occurring in B.C.’s Interior. Of the snowmobile deaths, over half (57 per cent) were related to avalanches.
Speaking broadly about the snowbiking and snowmobiling community, Turcotte said in recent years he’s seen heightened awareness and preparedness when it comes to avalanche safety.
That said, he said that there is still room for improvement.
“I still don’t think that it’s perfect,” he said. “I still am seeing guys in the backcountry that are making mistakes. I’m seeing tracks where I’m like, ‘oh, my goodness.'”
Turcotte said ultimately, he would like to see a system brought in to require proper training when going into the backcountry.
“I feel like it should almost be like a driver’s license, where at a minimum you have your AST,” he said.
All sports go through periods where they rapidly progress, where the envelope of what’s possible is in a constant state of motion. Think snowboarding in the 1990s, or mountain biking in the early 2000s.
Snowbiking appears to be in this phase. Riders are pushing their limits, performing new aerials and mastering the art of carving terrain and hitting cliffs with mind-bending grace.
Turcotte is on the leading edge of progressing the sport.
In 2016 (the same year he got into the sport), he became the first person to do a backflip on a snowbike, and last year he took home a gold in the X-Games best trick contest for the sport.
“It took me about six tries to get the flip to come around, and each one of those tries was a different type of fail,” he said, recalling that first backflip back in 2016.
Between jumps, Turcotte would study video and work to adjust the jump until it was just right.
“It was a huge process,” he said. “It definitely took a lot more effort than I had expected.”
Going forward, snowbiking isn’t likely to displace sledding altogether. But it will bring more people to motorized backcountry exploration.
Turcotte said that is where the sport shines. Riders can use their creativity to carve dreamy lines.
“When I’m out in the backcountry, I think of my snowbike as like a motorized snowboard,” he said. “If I can get to the top of the mountain, the most fun that I have is coming back down.”