Future Days – Arctic Cat Alpha One
Alpha One is just the latest in Arctic Cat’s legacy of snowmobile suspension innovation. The technology is a single-beam rear suspension that replaces the traditional two-rail system. In hindsight, it makes a ton of sense to have a single-line around which the track can flex and adapt to various snow conditions. So why then didn’t anyone think of this sooner? Well, apparently Arctic Cat did, but the company has spent years developing and refining the technology to a point where they felt it was ready to go into production.
What is Alpha One?
At the core of Alpha One is a hollow, single-beam skidframe. It’s a stiff, enclosed piece made primarily from heat-treated extruded aluminum, while the front cast is comprised of magnesium. In keeping with its futuristic design, there is no welding on the beam; it is instead assembled with 3M epoxy. There are some traditional rivets visible, but they are primarily fixtures for the purpose of locating pieces while the epoxy cures, rather than structural elements.
But Alpha One isn’t just about the skidframe. A huge component of what makes it work is an all-new track—weighing almost 3 kg less than a similar-length Power Claw track. In a departure from the rest of the Arctic Cat lineup, the Mountain Cat Alpha One comes in 154” and 165” track lengths. It does, however, continue to utilize 3” paddles with a 3.5” pitch—mountain sled spec de rigueur these days.
Visually, the big difference is that instead of three rows of paddles, there are two rows of alternating, half-width paddles. A center row of windows runs right down the middle. Paddles on each side run from the outer edge to the center, while reinforcing rods run full width of the track. The track is optimized for flex in all directions and has been beefed up to help with the extra torsion it is subject to by nature of the single-rail design.
The Alpha One Power Claw is turned by 7-tooth drivers, rather than the 8-tooth drivers present in the rest of the mountain lineup. At the rear, an oversized 10” idler wheel reduces rolling resistance for efficient application of power to snow. The larger wheel also allows the Alpha One to reverse more easily in deep powder snow.
In all other ways, the Alpha One carries the same pedigree as the top-of-the-line Mountain Cat.
Alpha One Development
Objective #1 – Lightweight
The Mountain Cat Alpha One is more than 5 kg lighter than the standard Mountain Cat model. The overall weight-loss is the combined result of a lighter skid, track and drive assembly. That’s a lot of weight! But what might be even more significant is the relative weight-loss that comes from a reduction in snow buildup. A traditional two-rail skidframe tends to collect and trap snow between the rails, bogging down the sled. Without bilateral rails to trap snow, the single-beam Alpha One skid sheds snow very effectively. It’s impossible to accurately quantify this weight-saving, but there’s no doubt that it’s significant.
Objective #2 – Ease of Use and Manoeuvrability
By narrowing the point of contact between the rails and the track, the sled is allowed to roll within the track. The track is permitted to freely conform to varying terrain with overall less impact on the general attitude of the sled. This improves manoeuvrability and—with less negative feedback from uneven terrain—makes the sled easier to control.
Objective #3 – More Traction, Better Floatation
With a single rail in the middle of the track, the track is allowed greater flex to help establish a neutral position on the snow at all times. This helps to distribute the load evenly across the entire track, providing better floatation and traction in all situations.
Alpha One: Questions about Real-World Performance Answered
Q: What are the real-world benefits of the Alpha One single-beam?
A: In a nutshell, the Alpha One is easier to ride. It’s both significantly easier to get it over on its side and to hold it there. There is less feedback through the sled and bars when sidehilling through chop and uneven snow. And it can be turned on a dime. That makes it easier than ever to execute a tight turn-up to escape a cliff, tree band or to otherwise get out of trouble. Yet it doesn’t feel twitchy at all. Meanwhile, the track flex allows for better traction. It’s easier to get going and get on top of the snow.
Q: Is overheating an issue?
A: The Mountain Cat Alpha Ones we’ve tested do have a tendency to run a little warm on the soft-groomed trails, even on a couple of cool days. But it’s not uncommon for a mountain sled with a 3” paddle to do so—especially one with a front-only heat exchanger. Accordingly, the Alpha One comes standard with scratchers to help keep the single slider from overheating on the trail.
Q: How does it handle on the trail?
A: Not much different than any of the other mountain sleds in the Arctic Cat lineup. They all run a little loose on the trail, but whatever—with a 36” ski stance and no sway bar, these things aren’t built to shred corduroy. Interestingly, when you tip the Alpha One onto one ski while cruising down the trail, it doesn’t have the same natural inclination to drop back down onto both skis quite like every other sled out there. Ultimately it’s a little more squirrelly, but not enough for mountain riders to care about.
Q: Is it durable? Will it hold up to the abuse of mountain sledding over time?
A: The Arctic Cat development staff assert that the single-beam Alpha One skid has “all the durability of a traditional suspension.” It certainly looks beefy enough. There have been a few odd reports of a bolt shearing or coming loose so far in the Alpha One’s first year of existence, but if it weren’t for social media we wouldn’t hear about these isolated incidents. Heck, it seems more people snap off the brake lever than anything else on these machines. So far so good.
So what’s the verdict on the Alpha One? It’s just better. The sled is easier to tip on edge and manoeuvre. It requires less effort to hold a sidehill or carve. The Alpha One track seems to find better purchase in soft snow, and chew its way on top more quickly. It can whip around in a very tight spot. It’s significantly lighter. Riders on Alpha Cats this winter seem really happy with their experience.
But the question remains: will the single-beam rear suspension revolutionize mountain sledding? Is this a glimpse at future days? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.