By Peggy Shin
Donna Abner-Sparkman doesn’t know how to ski or snowboard.
But that hasn’t stopped her from competing in NASTAR races. She and her husband Mike compete on snowbikes, and last year, they even competed at NASTAR Nationals. They plan to compete at Nationals again this year as well.
“NASTAR is grassroots ski racing and family fun,” said Mike Sparkman, who teaches snowbiking along with Donna at Purgatory Mountain Resort outside Durango, Colorado. “Snowbiking is easy and fun. The whole family can enjoy it.”
They should know. Donna first tried snowbiking 12 years ago because she was stranded in the base lodge while her family skied.
“I heard all the stories about how beautiful the view is, how much fun they were having,” she said.
After taking a snowbike lesson, she finally saw the view and now says, “Anybody can ride a snow bike.”
“Just about everyone knows how to ride a bicycle,” added Mike, “so they have pre-existing muscle memory and skill set.”
Unlike popular fat bikes, with their voluminous tires that make riding on snow feasible, snowbikes have bicycle-like handlebars but no wheels. The rider sits on a seat mounted atop two small skis, and he/she also wears small skis. The object is to steer the bike down the mountain in a series of carved turns.
Snowbiking in NASTAR is the brainchild of NASTAR director Bill Madsen, who had seen snowbikers around Snowmass, his home mountain. It looked like a fun new way to race gates, so he introduced it as part of NASTAR last year.
But snowbiking isn’t new to the gates. The sport itself has been around for at least 150 years. Popular in Europe, snowbike (or skibike) racing started in 1954 in Austria. The International Ski Bob Federation (skibob.org) was founded in 1961, and the first world championships were staged in 1967.
Worlds were held every other year from 1967 through 1987 — and hosted at Mt. Rose outside Reno in 1971 — then held almost annually since then. The sport even has its own World Cup tour, with slalom, GS and super G races.
Photos of the top snowbike racers clipping the gates conjure up images of Ted Ligety laying out arced turns down a GS course.
“It’s not the limitations of the device,” said Mike. “It’s the limitations of the experience of the individual.”
So far, snowbiking has yet to take off on the NASTAR circuit. And as of yet, snowbiking does not have a NASTAR pacesetter.
Although the Sparkmans had raced the Purgatory NASTAR course on their snowbikes for years, they only heard that they could qualify for 2015 national championships at the last minute. Then at nationals, they were the only two snowbikers. They competed wearing wild wigs atop their helmets — an attempt to show how fun and easy snowbiking is. And of course, they each won gold medals This year, they are hoping a half-dozen of their snowbiking friends will join them.
Madsen is both optimistic and realistic about snowbiking’s future in NASTAR.
“Because it is an evolving sport, we figured we’d get in on the ground floor and see where it goes and see if it organically takes off,” he said. “Or maybe it’s a fad and nothing will happen with it at all. Or who knows? Maybe it will become the next big thing. As long as we’re prepared to manage it, then we’re in a better position.”
Popular at Western resorts in the U.S., snowbiking is welcome at most resorts in Colorado, as well as a handful of resorts around the country. For a complete list of resorts that allow snowbiking, check www.ski-bike.org/ski_areas.html.
For more features about offbeat snowsports adventures, visit the Premium section of SkiRacing.com.