So, where are the brakes? Roadtesting the latest incarnation of the snow bike
Saturday 16 January 2010
It felt like the stuff of nightmares. There I was, going along on my bike, when I realised I was careering for the edge of a cliff. So I looked down at the handlebars, only to find that there were no brakes.
On a long weekend in St Anton last April, I paid €32 to rent a snowbike for the day, but was soon questioning the wisdom of my latest thrill-seeking. The joy of trying out snowbiking is that you can pick up the basics as quickly as you would riding a bicycle after a few years out of the saddle. However, trying it out as I did – on the clifftops of the Rendl ski area, high above an Austrian village that's as legendary for its off-piste as for its après-ski – was possibly a bit foolhardy.
Many places will only rent snowbikes if you pay for two hours with an instructor – not a bad idea, as I generally felt far less in control than on skis and was glad the late-season slopes were all but deserted. Instructors can also show you the best places to go, so I was glad to have benefited from a half-day of expertise before this, my first solo expedition.
Snowbikes are taking off in popularity now that the Austrian firm Brenter is using lightweight materials to make bikes that weigh no more than 7kg. The day before, my instructor, Fredy, had recalled an early incarnation from the Sixties – the Skibob – tried out by both Paul McCartney and Prince Charles. "They were as heavy as motorbikes and they made such a mess of the pistes we were eventually allowed on only one run," he said.
The new snowbikes are light enough to carry on your knees on chair lifts or take on cable cars, although they don't generally fit into gondolas and don't work on drag lifts. But Fredy was keen on continuing with his motor cycle analogy. "It's like Easy Rider," he said, as he sat back in his saddle as if he were astride a Harley Davidson. I saw his point as a cloud of white powder blasted from the snowbike's rear ski as he set off.
Because so little technique is involved, snowbiking lends itself to group lessons. But Easy Rider? BMX Bandits would be more like it. One of the greatest things about snowbiking is that you feel like a 10-year-old again, particularly with someone like Fredy leading you over jumps, through the woods and into naturally occuring half-pipes.
Meanwhile, I was riding like a novice. Trying to catch up with Fredy at one point, I shot over the brow of a hill I hadn't seen and went shooting past him, legs akimbo, desperately hanging on to the handlebars.
Happily, I wasn't hurt, but because snowbiking can be a rather hair-raising experience snowbikes are not welcomed by many lift companies, particularly in the non-German-speaking parts of the Alps. However, in Austria in particular (a nation known for its joyful attitude to skiing) they love it.
And my near-miss with the cliff-edge? In the face of impending doom, I suddenly remembered that I had been taught to lean into the turn and skid the snowblades clipped to my skiboots, which duly landed me back in the centre of the piste. I was back in dreamland once more.
The writer travelled with Flexiski (020-8939 0862; flexiski.com ), which offers three-night tailor-made trips from £320 full-board at the Amalien Haus chalet in St Anton, excluding flights. A full list of resorts and rental shops offering snowbiking can be found at snowbike.us
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