Riding a Snow Bike 101 for Sledders and Dirt Bike Riders – Old Guy, New Tricks
I’m a bike guy from way back, so it stands to reason that I would have interest in riding a snow bike. I started on a Keystone minibike not long after I could walk, before moving up to a 60cc Yamaha. At the ripe old age of 9, my dad brought home a brand-new Honda XR80 and the rest, as they say, is history. Motocross tracks, backroads, singletrack, drag strip, highway running—I’ve done, and still love, all of it.
My passion for snowmobiles started around the same time, filling winter-after-winter with powder-busting fun. Riding snowmobiles in the snowy months is a pleasant reprieve from simply waiting for bike season to start again.
Needless to say, when I first saw a snow bike on the mountain, my interest was immediately piqued. However, I honestly never thought that the “fad” would explode into its own, full subculture. Four X Games events, an organized race circuit and involvement by the big OEMs? Who could have imagined? The time had come to try this rapidly emerging sport for myself.
Riding a Snow Bike 101 for Sledders and Dirt Bike Riders – Teaching an Old Guy New Tricks
Loaded with a head full of assumptions and preconceived notions, the plan was put into place to demo a snow bike for a couple of days. Cycle North Powersports in Prince George was kind enough to trust me with their 2018 Honda CRF450RX. The bike is loaded up with a 137” Timbersled ARO system with Timbersled Trio front shock, Rekluse clutch, Power Sports Tech (PST) engine blanket and a full FMF exhaust system. This bike looks as good as it sounds, and promised to go even better.
The weather cooperated with a fresh 30cm on top of one of the best snow years we have had in recent memory here in Central British Columbia. The day started out a bit cool in the morning at -17°C. But it warmed up to about -9°C with sunshine later, so it was very near to perfection. Some recent wind had set the snow up a bit; conditions were soft, but not full-on powder.
Riding a Snow Bike – First Impressions
The first downside I noticed was in the plowed and icy parking lot. I found the short road to the trailhead was very hard to navigate. I struggled to get the bike to turn. When I finally got forceful and made it turn, the front-end washed out and it took a quick foot stab and turn-in to keep from dumping it. Low-siding in the parking lot was not how I anticipated the start of my day—not good so far. This quickly changed once the Traverse Ski got its tri-keels dug into the soft snow on the trail. Now the bike felt stable and much more eager to turn.
Once on the trail I ran up through a couple of gears, getting a feel for the bike itself. I have a Rekluse clutch on my personal dirt bike so I am familiar with its use. But one difference between snow and dirt is this: on the dirt, a Rekluse clutch is a luxury. It can help you get out of trouble in tight trees or on a narrow trail. If you are good on the clutch and quick with your shifter, you can get through most stuff without it. On the snow—with the increased drag of the track and snow compared to a freewheeling tire on dirt—the Rekluse is almost a complete necessity. The ability to instantly drop a gear without completely cutting power, along with the ease of starting off when buried in the snow makes the Rekluse something I wouldn’t ride a snow bike without.
Up the Trail – Sort of Anyway
On the trail there is no end to the fun to be had riding a snow bike. Mainly because you are rarely actually on the trail. Climbing the cutbanks on the sides, jumping off snow piles, ducking in and out of the trees, going cross country and popping back out around the next corner—it’s all fair game once you understand the capabilities of the snow bike.
You can easily sidehill and then hold that sidehill around the inside bend of a corner—something that would be all but impossible on a sled. In fact, the ability to ride straight across almost any angle is one of the biggest things that changes the way you look at terrain while riding a snow bike. You need to take everything you have learned about picking lines and throw it out the window; if you think you can’t go there, you are probably wrong.
Riding a Snow Bike in Open Terrain
Once out in the open hills and meadows, it was time to learn some more. Trusting the lean angles when carving a bike on snow takes a bit of getting used to. Once a person starts to trust how hard these bikes corner you will soon look like Ryan Dungey at the first turn of the AMA Championship in Las Vegas. OK, maybe only in your head, but that’s good enough isn’t it?
Jumps are also something that you need to experience on a snowbike. The fact that you can run straight across any angle turns every windlip and drift into a jump, neutralizing the off-camber aspect of any terrain feature. And the mass of the track spinning makes attitude adjustments in the air easy. I found myself most commonly launching nose high, then tapping the brakes to bring it back level. Fortunately I never got into a nose-low situation to try and correct.
Smashing a Bumpy Trail
On the hard-packed, bumpy trail the bike’s suspension evolution from motocross was very evident. Today’s sleds handle whoops pretty well, but the 12” of travel offered up by the Showa forks from Honda—coupled with the Trio shock and the Fox-equipped ARO rear suspension—makes the Timbersled soak up bumps with ease.
The front-end seemed to get a little loose feeling on the really hard-packed trails. But as the weekend wore on, my confidence grew, and I am sure overcoming that feeling is mostly a matter of seat time. I’ve seen guys absolutely fly through the bumps, so we know the machine has the capability. On this day, the rider’s talent may have been lacking. Timing the whoops is a little different with 137” of track out the back instead of just the rear wheel, so some practice is required.
Footpeg Weight and Knee Grip
Those of you with some motocross or dirt riding experience will know how quickly a bike responds to weighting the footpegs in a turn. The snowbike is no different. I was learning my way riding a snow bike without a coach, and had to feel my way through this process. I discovered that I was sitting farther back than I should have been and not in an aggressive enough position. It may have been subconsciously from the concern of a nose dive. But once I got myself up on the tank and clamping the bike with my knees, with conscious weight on the pegs, the control on the trail improved dramatically.
Gripping the bike with my legs and transferring weight to initiate a turn took away all of the “fight” I was having with the bars. It’s a learning curve I never expected, and illustrates how a snow bike is neither completely a bike nor completely a snowmobile. It is its own breed altogether.
Some Pointers for Riding a Snow Bike
A few other pointers to keep in mind should you find yourself out on a snow bike:
– Motorcycle experience had me stopping with one foot down and leaning slightly towards that foot. This is fine on a hard surface, but in the soft snow it is a bad idea. On more than one occasion I found myself frantically hopping off and holding the bike up while my leg sunk knee deep into the snow. If the snow is that soft, the bike will easily stands on its own. I learned to keep it balanced as I came to rest and didn’t have to put my foot down at all. Also, applying a bit of brake when coming to a stop can help settle the track into the snow and make it more stable.
– When you are off the bike in soft snow it can be a challenge to climb on without pulling the bike over onto yourself. I found that keeping my body mass as close as possible to the bike and stepping vertically straight up onto the peg to lift myself over worked the best. A bit of practice was required to climb on without issue.
– Your butt will get sore. Motocross bike seats are not known for their comfort and certainly not meant to be sat on as much as one does on a snow bike. After two full days I suspect I resembled a monkey when viewed from a certain “angle”. Fortunately, there are more comfortable seat options in the aftermarket world.
Oh, the Places You’ll Go
The snow bike is an amazing beast that will change your beliefs of where you can go on a snow machine. You can drop into a willow-infested creek bottom and snake your way through, only to climb a virtual wall out the other side. The same move would have induced hours of shoveling, sawing and swearing on a sled. But on a snowbike it is simple—just drop a gear and twist it. There were several times that I thought, “oh, you shouldn’t have come here.” Then was left in disbelief as the bike easily chewed out of a hole and around obstacles. The fun that can be had in a small or tight area is hard to describe.
The goat-like abilities of a snow bike are astounding. We found a hill that was steep enough to give the sleds a workout climbing straight up. The bike was able to come down the hill, and then turn around and go back up from halfway down. I progressed to carving figure-of-8s sideways, looping around on the hill the way you would on a flat field—amazing. No, it doesn’t climb as fast as a sled but it really doesn’t need to. One really has to ride one to see where the similarities and contrasts lie between a dirt bike and a snow bike, but it’s tough to compare it to a snowmobile. It is that different of an animal.
Now if you will excuse me, I need to make some room in my garage.