SkiBike Tour 2011-12 - Stockholm BikerMads

Posted: Wednesday, 29 February 2012 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,
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In spite of the ice on the pavement at Skavsta airport, it was forecast to be pleasantly warm day, hopefully we would be able to find some slushy snow to ride on. Sadly our planned SkiBiking at a nearby resort had to be cancelled due to them refusing permission to use skibikes, a familiar story then. Instead we were heading for a tiny ski station in central Stockholm, an hours drive away. Tommy and I chatted about the skibike business and generally talked shop the whole way. Tommy was modest about his English skills, but understood my nuances of language very well, he also exudes "Nordic Calm" and I suspect would make an formidable poker player.

BikerMads - Nordic Calm?

In the back of the car were 3 skibikes to play with. There were 2 examples of the SledgeHammer Freerider and a BikerMads conversion of a Kona Stinky.

First up, I tried out a standard SledgeHammer Freerider, from the Austrian manufacturer who are now selling the cheapest ready made skibikes in Europe.
It had an instantly recognisable feel, softly yielding and bouncy, close your eyes and you could be fooled that you were astride a Brenter fat boy, but with footpegs. Please note that The SkiBiker SkiBike Blog does not endorse riding skibikes with your eyes closed.
The presence of many cycle derived parts, means that upgrades to suit your personal taste, such as; higher spring rates, better damping, alternative handlebars, etc. should be quite economical.
It was lighter than the burly construction would suggest and I found assembly to be straightforward thanks to quick release fittings for the skis. The ski levelling arrangement by high tech rubber bands doesn't exactly inspire confidence, but I am assured that BikerMads haven't broken any yet. However Tommy did feel that the standard skis supplied are quite thin for off piste riding and had a second SledgeHammer fitted out with trick powder skis for our appraisal. With the limited snow available it was hard to assess the difference, but as you would expect it was a bit more skiddy on the hard pack, but came into its own drifting out pleasurably on the slushy stuff. Tommy drew attention to some subtle design nuiances, such as the single tube front fork and rear tube design; these make the SledgeHammer skibike ride brilliantly in deep powder snow, due to the lack of drag that conventional mountain bike twin tube forks and rear triangle create.

SledgeHammer SkiBike vs. BikerMads SkiBike conversion - like chalk and cheese

Next I rode a BikerMads Kona Stinky conversion, fitted out with aggressive looking Marzocchi twin crown forks, Fox shox at the rear and skis and adapters branded as SCK SkiXBike. These adapters are so very close to the original Winter X Bike / Alpine SkiBikes adapter and are produced by a Russian manufacturer. A potential law suit for pattern infringement in 5,4,3,2,1.

A potential law suit for pattern infringement in 5,4,3,2,1

My goodness, this combination felt planted, whereas the SledgeHammer felt squidgy and spongy this thing tracked solidly. It inspired confidence and even on virtually sheet ice still held an edge. If you get the impression that I liked this skibike, you would be correct, I didn't want to stop riding it and felt it could go a 1000 miles without ever boring you. Of course, even sourcing used parts on eBay and not costing in the time taken for DIY construction; the frame, forks and shocks combo alone, would be the best part of £500, add the kit and sundries would make this an £1100 machine, double the price of the bargain SledgeHammer. My only gripe with the conversion kit was the rounded stunt pegs, they soon become covered in ice and the knurled finish provided no grip at all, my foot slipped off at least once leading to an interesting new trajectory!

In conclusion, I could see the SledgeHammer as being the ideal beginner / hire shop skibike, friendly and forgiving for the first week of mile building, confidence inspiring skibike rides. Wheras the BikerMads Kona Stinky conversion would be geared towards the higher intermediate rider wanting to go that bit faster and trading off some fluffiness for precision, stability and overall control.

Tommy Frejd - do not try to play Poker with this man

My bed for the night was to be found at the A Marican hotel / hostel. The very word hostel has unpleasant associations for me, I once spent a week in a Youth Hostel in Edinburgh crammed full of odd balls, 15 to a dormitory and rocked to sleep every night by the furious masturbatory habits of the bunk mate nested inches below me (true!).
Luckily, I am in the hotel side of the A Marican, in a basic single room with en suite sink with toilets and shower down the corridor. Not the Savoy admittedly, but all clean, simple and sturdy, much like a 1970s Volvo and costing a frugal £40 per night.

A ski slope in the centre of Stockholm - How cool is that?

SkiBike Tour 2011-12 - We Are Not Gods

Posted: Tuesday, 28 February 2012 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , ,
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What a strange day, arriving at 2am, crashing out with the smell of pine forests still in my nostrils, nerves jangling from the 650 mile drive, to awake in a familiar bed with the ambient soundtrack of South London playing; trains rolling past, birdsong, sirens in the distance and gruff  modern day cockney voices. I popped down to the local corner shop cum mini supermarket and bought some freshly baked baguettes then polished off my left over Camembert brought back from France. Washing it all down with a couple of over sized cups of tea, something which would have caused Serge to have a hissy fit, but 10am was too early for wine, even for a SkiBiker.

I unpacked Uncle Fester, the tired old Fiesta and treated the sad looking object to a wash, the first in 2000 miles of salty roads. The weather in London was balmy and warm, spring bulbs will soon be in bloom and blossom is appearing on the fruit trees.

I repacked my wheeled travelling case for the next couple of days trip to Sweden to see how the Swedish skibike scene ticks. I will be flying by RyanAir, their standard baggage weight limit is now 15kg, that doesn't go far with ski wear; at the airport I ended up pulling out my bulky Kangol jacket and wearing it on board, plus a couple of other layers to boot, all to stay within my measly baggage allowance.
Now that I am down to nearly 12 stone again, 168lb in American or 75kg in Europe, I can piously speculate that if the weight allowances were to be truly equitable they should weigh both the passenger and the luggage.

The flight will follow a route from London Gatwick to Stockholm Skavsta, a former cargo airport that I know nothing of, of course my Cousin Paul Kinnon knew it immediately from his days working on the logistical side of the private air charter business. RyanAir prices are cheap; providing you book well in advance, outside of peak demand periods and can resist the many enticements for early boarding, travel insurance and the swingeing costs of in flight catering. I paid somewhere under £100 return.

After clearing check-in, security and passport control, I blew the last of my small change on a pint of Hobgoblin at Weatherspoons. It is a sweetish dark beer and was surprisingly cheap for an airport bar at £3.10, buffered against any eventuality, I headed for the gate.
I spent most of the flight reading the 50 page introduction to Gilgamesh, an ancient Sumerian text written 4000 years ago. This may sound a bit poncy and intellectual for the skibiker, but I had been recommend it by a fellow biker of dirt track and speedway disciplines. Anyone who has ever had a smattering of religion in their upbringing will recognise the story of the great flood, written possibly 1000 years before the Old Testament in The Bible.

One quote resonated strongly:
"We are not gods, we cannot ascend to heaven. No, we are mortal men. Only the gods live forever. Our days are few in number, and whatever we achieve is a puff of wind. Why be afraid then, since sooner or later death must come?"

I felt calm and deeply centred, I shut my eyes and thought about mountains, soft snow and the buttery fluid sensation of skis slipping and sliding in multi-faceted vector motion.
I awoke perhaps 40 minutes later and took a peak out of the window to a view of almost total blackness, but for 2 tiny white lights, what was I looking down on from 39,000 feet, fishing boats out alone on the North Sea on this crystal clear yet moonless night perhaps?

Disembarking down the steps of the aircraft there was black ice on the runway, reminding me that I have moved North East by 1000 miles. Arriving close to midnight I located the Connect Hotel, less than 5 minutes from the airport arrivals hall. The interior is all cool shades of grey and IKEA type lighting with non-descript piano jazz playing in the background. A slightly clinical look perhaps, how I imagine a posh rehab centre must be.
I had forgotten that I had pre-paid for my room, so I will have a little extra cash to spend tomorrow when Tommy Fredj arrives to collect me. The cost is roughly £55 per night, all very clean and simple, much better than a French Formula One motel and on par with an English Travelodge, but less chintzy.

In future, I will have great sympathy for the stressed out Executive types I provide technical services for, once I am making a profitable living again. They have to live like this for months on end and still be on the ball to deliver perfect presentations; never knowing which time zone the next clean pair of underpants will be located in. Mind you what they earn in a month, I can only dream of earning in a year. On the other hand, they don't get to spend weeks on end astride a freestyle pegger skibike. Something, I will hopefully be doing tomorrow with Tommy Fredj of BikerMads, Sweden's top skibike builder and skibiking on-line shop co-proprietor.

SkiBike Tour 2011-12 - Tired, Bruised & Battered

Posted: by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , ,
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I arrived home at 2am and haven't even unpacked the car yet, in several hours I will be on a plane flying to Sweden, home of Swedens only Freestyle Pegger SkiBike outfit BikerMads.
Sign of the Beast man.... rock'n'roll.

Where to SkiBike - St-Cergue - La Dôle

Posted: Sunday, 26 February 2012 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: ,
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I will be returning to the UK within the next 24 hours, every second is precious and I wanted a little easy skibike action on my last day.
I decided to check out the small Swiss village close to my Geneva base by the name St Cergue. I have passed through it on a couple of occasions, usually in a blizzard in the dead of night, as it is on a convenient low altitude back route to cross the Jura mountains and head via Nyon to the shelter of Geneva. It is a mere 30 minute drive from the environs of Geneva airport on a fine day like today, upon arrival I found the town car park absolutely packed out and could only see 2 drag lifts which didn't look at all promising for an afternoon of skibiking fun. According to some brief research on the web, it should have had at least a couple of chairlifts; but confusingly there is another resort of the same name in France, so perhaps it is that one that is the better endowed.

Undeterred, I drove on a little higher, past a huge cross country ski centre and on to Les Rousses. It too was packed out, but at least I found a space to leave my car for 15 minutes. I asked the liftie at the main chairlift whether skibikes were allowed at Les Rousses. He wasn't sure and referred me to the main office, my next port of call.
The lady in the office was very helpful and said there would be a problem, as their chairlifts are older continuous high speed designs which are considered too risky for non-ski traffic to alight from. She mentioned that there was a modern style detachable chairlift at Le Dole and even phoned through to check for me and confirmed that I could use my skibike there.
By the way, all of these disparate ski stations are within minutes of each other by car. If they ever put in some connecting lift links this would be quite a domain up in the High Jura mountains and position in a catchment area full of wealthy Swiss and not quite so wealthy French and one lone impoverished English skibiker.



Following the helpful local info, I rattled over to the car park for Le Dole, keeping an eagle eye on the horizon for that very special detachable chairlift. La Dole has to be unique in one respect, as far as I can work out, the kiosks and resort paraphernalia are all in France, but all the pistes are in Switzerland! I wasn't expecting to see a frontier guards scrutinising the lift queue, but I have to confess I stuck my passport in my jacket pocket just in case.
From its base at Les Dappes, the Telesiege des Dappes climbs to the peak of the Massif de la Dole at 1678m. Not a huge vertical drop, but enough for some sunny Sunday afternoon fun in the snow skibiking. There were no issues with the lifties, who seemed happy enough to see my skibiking leash in place, smiled and went back to more important liftie business.

On my first run down the snow was rock hard and icy on piste, unfortunately it was equally brittle off piste. Worst of all at 1pm in the afternoon, the sun didn't appear to be making any impression on it at all. I persevered for another hour putting in 3 runs, frantically trying to carve into the unyielding surface and preserve what little amount of skibiker cool I have left.
I impressed myself by not skidding out, but there was little enjoyment to be had from it. On the upside my mission had been completed, I had skibiked at Le Dole, in the Jura mountains overlooking Lake Geneva, yet another new area to add to my list of resorts that I have successfully skibiked at.



Returning to the sanctuary of the car park I switched technologies; donned hard boots and clipped on SnowBlades for some further exploration. At the top of the chairlift you have a large slope just above the tree line, your options are; to follow the fall line off piste, traverse a little way and drop on to a black run, go a little further and follow the red or keep going till you reach the blue. I tried them all, the off piste was horrible, effectively riding over bumpy and lumpy ice. Riding conditions were reminiscent of some of my more horrible days in Scotland, but without the 70mph gales, flapping kilts, doodle sacks and attacks by rampant Haggis.
As the afternoon progressed the sun finally won the battle and by close of play it would have been almost perfect for skibike riding, bugger it, typical.
Although perfect for skibike riding, meant I had to watch out for ominous clumps of "mashed potato" slushy snow on my little SnowBlades. Having screamed down the red run, one of these caught me out, on SnowBlades you have to really lean back to avoid sudden deceleration, it misjudged, went head over heals, landed back on my feet and continued riding. Once you've pulled off a stunt like that, it really is a sign to say, "thank you for your visit, now get off home before you break something", so I did.

Tomorrow I have to return to the UK, but I really, really, don't want to.

In conclusion, La Dole is a tiny part of a disparate group of ski stations and is the only one that is currently skibike friendly. You couldn't come here for a weeks vacation, not when there are some full on resorts just over an hour away in the Alps. On the other hand if you are in the area or just passing through and fancy a bit of easy riding, perhaps to loosen up and while away a few hours, it offers cheap and cheerful skibike riding. The price for a midday onwards ski pass was under 20€ and could be paid in Swiss Francs too.
I would very much like to return after a big dump of fresh snow and try the off-piste run under the chairlift again; except next time on a light and yielding surface, rather than "boiler plate" re-frozen snow/ice.
These smaller resorts are proving consistently helpful, providing you are polite and treat them with due respect, they really go the extra kilometre to make sure you have a good day on their mountain. I hope this attitude spreads to other resorts, it would help to make skibiking as easy and accessible as mono-ski, telemark, speed riding or any of the other fringe ski related activities that you see enthusiasts practising.

Where to SkiBike - Samoëns, Les Carroz and Flaine

Posted: Saturday, 25 February 2012 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: ,
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Role reversal is a curious thing, just over a year ago Serge Mermillod introduced me to the Firem VS, his unique brand of freestyle pegger skibike and showed me how to ride it. Since then I occasionally have had the pleasure of skibike riding with him, usually he is the guide and I have to rush to keep up, meanwhile he has a cigarette and/or shot of Genepe at the bottom of the piste. Today it was different, I had suggested we meet at Samoëns for a skibike safari all the way to Flaine and back. He agreed to my plan, today I was to be the guide, although it is a bit strange guiding from the rear, at least I got to decide whether we were going left, right, up or down. Joining us were Serge's friend and engineer Thiery on his custom made and very individual skibike.

SkiBiker - leading from the rear

The route is one I have followed several times before and covers a hefty chunk of the best riding that the Grand Massif Domain has on offer. It makes sense to start at Samoëns, because it is practically a level drive from Geneva, a fast gondola gets you quickly to altitude, saving you fuel and time. The alternative is to drive to one of the other entry points to the lift system, but be aware that the 11km stretch of road from Cluses to Flaine can take almost an hour to cover when it has a couple of inches of snow on it and chains are the only way to get a grip on the steep and twisty sections.

Once at Samoëns 1600, it is a 30 second run down to the bottom of the Chariande Express, this fast detachable chair will wisk you to the Tete de Saix in minutes. From here you have a variety of routes down to Les Carroz. This sector is branded as the "Canada Experience" with a 1000m drop through broad tree lined runs, I opted to keep us on the sunnier and softer runs and keep away from the shaded icier ones.
On route I heard an English voice say, "I would love a ride on that" so we stopped and I suggested "Why don't you give it a try?". The skier unclipped his bindings and hunkered down  on the Firem VS 512, I explained the braking system and he was off and away. I thought he would only go for a few feet, but was at least 100m down the slope by the time we caught up. He loved the braking system a lot and said that it gave him the confidence to try it without any feeling of risk. Serge arrived shortly on foot carrying an armful of skis and poles looking very relieved that the British hadn't stolen the VS512 factory prototype.

Failed British attempt to steal the secrets of the Firem VS512

I then received a stern lecture from Serge than I was in France, skibiking with French men who take lunch very seriously and  which will be consumed at midday in exactly 10 minutes time.

Eager to go completely native we set up camp at the base of the Moulins chairlift. I am about to go off at a tangent, so feel free to skip this paragraph if you want to read about skibiking in Flaine.
It never fails to amaze me that you can combine the simplest common ingredients in France and enjoy a mouth wateringly delicious meal, such as; the simple plain crusty baguette bread bought on route from Le Panier, the President brand of Couloumiers Camembert sourced from Carefour and the bottle of Bougoine Aligot, a delicious crisp dry white wine, buried up to the neck in the snow pack and chilled to perfection.
Incidentally you don't see that many fat or obese people in France. This is a nutritional anomaly in spite of the oily French diet. It has been written that the secret is that food is general consumed whole, not factory processed, it is eaten fresh, made locally and most important of all in small portions. Obese Americans and Northern Europeans could improve their health prospects greatly by switching to the French Mediterranean diet and cutting out on the hidden sugars, palm oils and sundry chemicals and potentially carcinogenic additives lurking in processed foods.

SkiBiker musing on the zen of a fine French lunch

Whilst I mused on the zen of a fine lunch, Serge chatted with a SnowScoot rider, who expressed great surprise to see how light skibikes are, he borrowed mine, took it a short walk up the hill and rode back on the pegs. There was quite a gleam in his eye when he got off, I can see him testing one out at Grand Bornand quite soon.

Returning to the Tete des Saix we zipped down to the very fast Vernant chairlift to get to the peak of Grand Vans. This lead on to my favourite run in the Grand Massif the Tourmaline, in the past I have rode this flattering run time and again. My idea of nirvana would be to skibike down the Tourmaline for all eternity, splatting over the bumps and pulling outrageous drifts with the back ski at 90 degrees.

Possibly due to an administrative error, skibikes aren't allowed to use the chairlifts belonging to Flaine sector, but SnowScoots are. Hopefully this might be resolved for the 2013 ski season. In the meantime our sole choice of uplift is the large Granes Platiers Gondola, this is not quite the restriction you might imagine as a huge selection of runs branch out from this point. There is usually about 5-10 minutes of shuffling forward before you can get on, it is a good idea to carry your skibike vertically to take up the minimum of room and it causes the least fuss for other passengers if you are either the first or last to get on.

Serge and Thiery - Setting the trend in French Freestyle SkiBiking

Flaine markets this sector as "Red Run Speed" so I particularly wanted to take Serge and Thiery on the Mephisto Superior and Mephisto runs back to Flaine, which are fast, wide, variable grade, roller coaster trails. I believe they rather enjoyed themselves, I know I did. At Flaine, we had a shortish walk uphill to the base of the Grand Vans chairlift, which luckily is outside the jurisdiction of Flaine and can carry skibikes. Then we had a fast return back over the Tete des Saix towards Samoëns. The links can close as early as 4pm, not wanting to get stranded we weren't taking any prisoners.
Once back in Samoëns sector we enjoyed some truly splendid runs from the top the Tetes des Saix back down to the gondola top station. You can choose from fairly easy grade blue runs such as the Dahu to the steep and quite heavily mogulled Marmotte red, there is even a black run straight down the face for those with nerves of steel or simply better skibiking technique than I.
Amusingly Serge was pursued and stopped by an all female fan club, who seemed very interested in the whole skibiking concept and details were exchanged, hopefully his wife won't get jealous.
Overall we had enjoyed excellent snow for the whole day, the weather was very spring like, at around 12 degrees Celsius it made for a lot of fun splatting through "mashed potato" slush and bouncing over the bumps.

Pegger SkiBiker - The joy of the "hockey stop"

In conclusion, a skibike safari across the Grand Massif remains once of the best day tours I have ever ridden, on par with the best of the 3 valleys or Espace Killy. It is quite pricey at around 40€ for the day, but can be considered good value due to the scale and variety on offer. Even at peak times queues are rarely, if ever seen. There are currently some odd restrictions on chairlift use in Flaine, but hopefully a representation from the French skibike club should be able to resolve the situation.
I have never ventured into the Morillon sector, as I was advised that there were restrictions there too, it would be a suitable investigation for the 2013 season. Likewise I have never tried access from the smaller Gondola station at Vercland, this would allow you to skibike all the way back to the car park at the end of the day, which I always find a thrill.

Samoëns, Les Carroz and Flaine - Ideal for SkiBikes

Where to SkiBike - Hirmentaz-Les Habères (Valee Vert)

Posted: Friday, 24 February 2012 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: ,
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I am on a roll, I have discovered a whole new strategy to finding new places to skibike. I just turn up and ride and/or ski. Boosted by this new bravado I decided to visit the twin ski stations of Hirmentaz and Les Habères.
They are next door to the Massif des Brasses that I visited yesterday. It is the same drive to Boëge then you follow the sign for Les Habères and 5 minutes later you are there. There is a reasonable sized car park, filled with cars, as it is currently French school half term.

Les Habères

Dotted around are; the ubiquitous ESF school, is there anywhere in France the ESF mafia haven't cleaned up? and the equally ubiquitous Bar cum Cafe/Brasserie.
Concerned about the state of my hydration, I had consumed litre of water at breakfast and my kidneys were functioning well. Unfortunately and to my great astonishment, I discovered that there is only 1 public toilet available, not 1 public toilet block but a single toilet between perhaps 1000 people, half of which appeared to be under 10 years old. Without being sexist or misogynistic, ladies please take note, bring the shepee.
I was recommended to try the cafe, who have the only other toilet in town and was greatly relieved. Micturition duly accomplished, I investigated the local ski hire shop with 6 assorted types of SnowScoot on display outside, a sure sign that I was probably going to be doing some skibiking today. A brief chat with the owner and an exchange of details confirmed that Hirmentaz-Les Habères would be skibike friendly.

SnowScoots a plenty at Le Christiania Sports

It has 3 chairlifts, I took the first and then progressively worked my way around and up the hill. One liftie was woried that I didn't have a leash, the SnowScoot ones run from a wrist strap to the handlebars, but mine stows in my inner jacket pocket when riding. Once I produced it he was very happy and apologised for even asking. The next liftie saw me rock up and announced that he didn't think it was allowed, I explained that it hadn't been a problem at the other lift, he radioed through to the liftie HQ and got the all clear.
Riding to the top of the hill and primed for a ride down into Hirmentaz the next liftie was kind enough to warn me that they had mostly drag lifts, including the interconnecting link. Armed with this insider knowledge I decided to stay on the Les Habères side and leave the reconnaissance mission to Hirmentaz for SnowBlades later.

Les Habères Village

The riding at the bottom of the hill, closest to the village turned out to be treacherously hard and icy, whilst the sunnier slopes at the top of the hill were much better. I stayed high and played for a while, I was particularly happy to cover a steep red run almost entirely "on the pegs". I keep forgetting that only a month ago I had never ridden my skibike successfully without footskis and today I found myself on a red run riding standing up!

Having exhausted my options, I returned to the bottom to change sliding technology and go from soft boots and skibike to hard boots and SnowBlades. As if on a mission, I got back up the hill and over to the Hirmetaz sector. It is a large bowl with runs coming back to the base from all sides.

The liftie had been quite accurate in his assessment, they did have a lot of drag lifts and the one that would get you home at the end of the day is short but steep.
On the plus side there is a modern 5 seater chair running up the centre of the bowl and would easily give you enough options to stay amused for a morning or afternoon of skibiking. You could choose to move your car over lunch between centres, make the walk uphill, or like the SnowScoot rider I saw, use the Poma "on the pegs". He was doing quite well on one of the fast and difficult drags, but was yelling the whole way I think it may have been doing damage to his undercarriage.

Above Les Habères looking North towards the Jura mountains and Lac Leman

In conclusion, another great little resort a stones throw from the suburbs of Geneva.
Great views of the mountains and on a clearer day Lac Leman / Lake Geneva. Fun and varied skibiking in a simple, natural and unpretentious manner. Excellent value at around €20 a day with cheaper options for half day and individual sector passes. The presence of an enthusiastic local SnowScoot rental shop will hopefully drive this ski station to embrace skibiking of all its many flavours.
Sadly, low altitude will mean a short season and multiple freeze thaw cycles will never make for the best riding snow. On the other hand, with somewhere this close you just have to hit it after a big dump or when the conditions are in its favour.

Where to SkiBike - Massif des Brasses (Haute Savoie)

Posted: Thursday, 23 February 2012 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: ,
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Normally I like to prepare carefully in advance before testing out a new ski area, but today I went with a hunch that I might be able to score some good skibiking at the Massif des Brasses and luckily my senses proved correct.
It is located in an area referred to locally as the Valley Vert (Green Valley), the name is well chosen, for this isn't a deep barren wintry gorge but an area of wooded rolling countryside with steeper hills at the edges.
It reminded me strongly of the area between Pitlochry and the Spittal of Glenshee in Scotland's Cairngorm mountains. There was plenty of "big sky" and charming little villages, where farming is still the main money spinner and tourism pays for the luxuries. all very down to earth and Gallic.

In spite of cut price competition from multinational corporate supermarkets, the villages have retained their; local bakers, confectioners and butchers. Incidentally the bakers are always worth a visit for a delicious pain au raisin (sweet raisin bread laced with gooey custard) or pain aux noix (a savoury bread made with walnuts). Both make superb components for the perfect brunch time belly filler.

It was an easy and quick drive out from Geneva, practically flat by local standards, with the last couple of kilometres a bit steeper and more twisty. I found it hard to believe there would be a resort open given the lack of snow on the verges of the road. Passing through Bogeve I spotted the signs for the ski station and followed them.

Massif des Brasses - Village ski station
 
I was expecting to see a tiny village, with a 100m hill above it, served by 2 drag lifts, a red and green run, plus a nursery slope served by a rope tow lift; a bit like the French provincial equivalent of your average British dry ski slope. Upon arrival my first impressions were that it was exactly that.
However, the chairlift went much higher than I was expecting, following a tiny stream through the woods up to the sunny peak of the Pointe des Brasses. Here learners get their first runs and more experienced snow users can head off in different directions, meanwhile others just chill out on a sundeck, or eat and drink the day away at the restaurant.

Massif des Brasses - Much bigger than I was expecting
 
The top station is stated as being at 1600m, this is low altitude by Alpine standards where the sun this far South can melt away snowfall on any given month. But for today, in late February, the result was pleasant soft rideable snow, not the killer ice I had experienced just a short distance away a few days earlier. The downside is that the ski season at the Massif des Brasses is likely to be short. The upside, is that there is plentiful woodland riding on offer; being up on a glacier above 3000m is all very macho, but there is a lot to be said for whizzing through the woods.

Massif des Brasses - Tree Line SkiBiking
 
The infrastructure is mostly based around chairlifts complemented by a handful of interlinking Poma drag lifts. Most chairlifts are small, vintage 2 and 3 seater non detachable types. Providing the lifties are on the ball they will slow them down for you, so it isn't quite so painful on re-entry. Won't be an issue Brenter type skibob riders, more for the novice pegger freestyle skibike method followers. The lifties have become accustomed to SnowScoot riders and are on the ball and friendly.
The price at 21€ was excellent value, confirmed during a chat with a local, who much prefers prefers to bring his kids to the ESF ski school rather than pay big resort or worse, Swiss prices.

The runs are easy by Alpine standards, you are on big rounded hills, rather than craggy mountains, the riding is steep enough, I hit an icy bare patch and was surprised quite how far I slid on my back before stopping.

In summary the Massif des Brasses offers fun, cheap, unpretentious skibiking when conditions allow. It is an easy drive from Geneva, almost in the Southern suburbs.
You could fly cheaply from the UK on EasyJet, grab a hire car and be there in an hour. You would be unlikely to need chains except during a blizzard or immediately after heavy snow.


 
I recommend you head for the Chenevieres chairlift above the curiously named village of Onnion, there you will find a modern detachable chairlift, so the take off and landings are very slow and safe.
You can also go to the main car park at Chaine d'Or, above the village of Bogeve, from here you can skibike for 3 minutes down an easy blue to the same chairlift.
There might be local bus and coach services, choices might be very limited though.

Where to SkiBike - Praz de Lys Sommand (Taninges/Mieusy Haute Savoie)

Posted: Wednesday, 22 February 2012 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: ,
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Pras de Lys Sommand is the biggest resort that I had never heard of, the chances are that you probably don't know it either. To the best of my knowledge you won't find it in any package holiday brochures, if you visit you are unlikely to hear the usual melange of English, German and Dutch languages spoken. Yet again, this is a secret the French don't want to share with the rest of the world, in fact it would not be stretching the truth much to say that I felt like a spy just being there.
Pras de Lys is located right above the charming historic market town of Taninges, very close to Cluses, which perhaps you may already know, as Cluses is the gateway to Les Carroz, Flaine and the other parts of the Grand Massif domain. Pras de Lys Sommand, however, is a stand alone resort and not part of any larger domain. One part is a giant snow bowl located on a high plateau, the other is the face of a linking mountain.

Praz de Lys - much bigger than I was expecting
 
The drive from Geneva is relatively easy, but the last 5km takes you up quite a steep road with hairpin bends. In fine weather this seems straightforward, but in heavy snow you could well have to fit chains to make it. I didn't see any cars in the car park that weren't wearing winter tyres, although the usual complement of posh 4x4s were noticeably absent and small front wheel drive hatchbacks were the norm.

Frozen waterfalls on the road to Praz de Lys

I was staggered by the scale of the place, it is much larger than I expected, so much is hidden from below. As well as Alpine skiing there is also Nordic (Cross Country) skiing, SnowShoe hiking and even a snowmobile track.

I quickly set myself up and jumped on the nearest chairlift and headed down an easy blue to warm myself up, it was very difficult to control my speed due to the extremely icy surface, so I tried another run with exactly the same result. Furthermore, the layout of the pistes mean that steep hills are criss-crossed with much easier runs and even hiking and cross country trails. It is an odd arrangement and strikes me as potentially quite dangerous, a bit like having a cycle lane cross a motorway.
I decided to give the nearby red run a miss as I was having a crisis of confidence, had I forgotten everything I know overnight?
I tried some of the nearby off-piste sections, they were crusty but quite deep underneath, if you broke through the crust you had some digging out to do, none too enthused I went for a final go on the icy blue.
About half way down a steep section, I thought "bugger it with all this turning malarky Mark.. just let the frickin skibike run free"
The piste was totally empty and it looked like I had a mile free ahead and no-one behind me.
Bloomin heck, I thought I was going to break the speed barrier, I have never been so fast before on a skibike, taking off over bumps and balancing on a knife edge.
So this is what it feels like to be Raymond Georgesson, Serge Mermillod or Martin Schwaiger. I gingerly took myself back to the car park and put the skibike in the back of the car before I killed myself or someone else. I got the SnowBlades out, I have twice the braking power on those!

Just before my dice with death on the icy "Le Lac" run
 
I re-tried the near fatal blue on SnowBlades and confirmed that, yes it was very icy and fast, but not entirely unreadable. I just don't have sufficiently good carving skills on a skibike yet, maybe I never will.
I then decided to try over the hill on the Sommand sectors
this was a completely different story, the snow was still hard but at least it had a decent couple of inches of soft scrapings. The runs were also of a less severe gradient and might possibly get more sun on them. I really could have kicked myself for not persevering and bringing the skibike over to this sector and there was now insufficient time to switch back. If I was to return, I would definitely park on the Sommand side and ride there first.

Overlooking Sommand from the top of the bowl

In conclusion, Pras de Lys Sommand has plenty to offer the skibiker, there are runs of varying grades from moderate to very difficult. It is the best value resort I have visited, an afternoon lift pass costing just 18.5€, something like £15, which in the UK would buy you an hour on a badly maintained dry slope or roughly 30 minutes in an indoor snow centre. There are plenty of chairlifts, although you do need to check the map, as I spotted one that took you to a piste leading down to a drag lift for the return uphill leg.
Access from Geneva by car is on par with the other local resorts such as Flaine, there is also a coach up from Cluses, which has a railway station served by TGV Express Trains.

Taninges at dusk - rugged yet pretty

Where to SkiBike - La Chapelle d'Abondance (Portes du Soleil)

Posted: Tuesday, 21 February 2012 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , ,
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The Portes du Soleil are a string of resorts dotted along the Franco Swiss border from the environs of Lac Leman (or Lake Geneva as it is known to English speakers) to within spitting distance of the Mont Blanc where France, Switzerland and Italy meet.
The resorts vary in size from tiny ski stations in farming villages, right up to luxury purpose built resorts. The likes of Avoriaz and Morzine would be a the top end of this scale and La Chapelle d'Abondonce at the other.

The SkiBiker SkiBike Blog has previously visited both Avoriaz and Morzine, two resorts well known for summer downhill mountain biking that have recently become skibike friendly. Other resorts in the domain, most notably Les Gets have been actively anti-skibiking, displaying a level of prejudice that if it was based upon; skin colour, religious beliefs or sexuality would have landed the Mayor in jail.

It came as a welcome surprise to receive an email from the tourist bureau at La Chapelle d'Abondance instructing me that if the skibike had the infamous STRMTG AVEL, I could ride it. The AVEL is a homologation system run by the French association of lift mechanics to authorise leisure vehicles for use on chairlifts, etc. There are only a handful of skibikes with these authorisations, namely, Brenter, Firem VS and Winter-X Bike, mine comes under the later classification. Altough I suspect that if your diy skibike looked professional, at La Chapelle d'Abondance they would be unlikely to turn you away.

La Chapelle d'Abondance is relatively close to Geneva, my journey was about 45 miles door to door. For the most part it was on minor (departmental) roads, so took about 90 minutes. For the most part I followed the South side of Lac Leman / Lake Geneva passing through a number of small towns and villages following what I suspect was originally a Route Napoleonic. Napoleon created these roads to move his army around France on what was the first system of turnpikes created since the fall of the Roman Empire roughly 1500 years earlier.

Turning off at Thonon close to its famous neighbour Evian les Bains, which almost everyone in the civilised world will recognise for its brand of spring water, you head into some craggy mountains. Some 20 minutes or so later you arrive at La Chapelle d'Abondance, a charming little town wedged into a narrow valley.
The domain is small, but then so is the cost of a lift pass at 23€ or £20 a day.

Chapelle d'Abondance - lots of pretty tree lined runs, but the best are only accesible on skis
There are 2 chairlifts heading up the Cret Beni, that give access to around half of the usable area, these lead to a couple of good cruising blue runs as well as some quite steep red runs. My favourite run was Renard (Fox), once you had managed the first steep slope, the rest was pleasant and interestingly varied. However, the snow was particularly hard and icy in places, leading me to skid out on too many occasions, I can't comment whether the riding is always this firm though. This made my attempts on the Cerf red run somewhat sketchy and amateurish, going much too fast and having to wait for the right moment to scrub off speed.

My one gripe about the layout of the runs is that to return to the village you can only follow Ourson an easy but boring green run or choose Cerf, the very steep and icy red run down the face of the hill. I found Cerf to be one of the most intimidating gradients I have come across, in such an icy state, it could be classified as a black run. Luckily, it is very wide, so I opted to do some super wide traverses and leave the turning until the rough stuff at the edges. Even there, it was still a test of your courage and skill and I confess that I got off the skibike and rotated it through 180 degrees and got back on at least once.

Having exhausted all the possibilities I returned to the car and switched from SkiBike to SnowBlades to explore the area served by a very long Poma drag lift called La Combe. For your information, currently skibikes are banned from using drag lifts in France. A warning sign alerts you that it is "A Very Difficult Drag Lift"; which is probably to prevent the common practice I have seen of parents riding up with small children between their legs. The initial jolt is sudden, but I have experienced Scotland's rocket launch drag lifts and took it in my stride.
Once at the top, which takes quite a while, I discovered La Chapelle d'Abondance's hidden gem. Some delightful and fun, moderate grade woodland runs but with plenty of lumps, bumps and off camber turns to negotiate. If you were allowed to use the drag lift with a skibike, this is where I would have spent most of my day.

In conclusion, La Chapelle d'Abondance is a fun little resort, possibly somewhere to spend an afternoon and use the combined Portes du Soleil lift pass system to do somewhere else in the morning. There are a few other stations around 10km away, which should be about 20 minutes drive at most.
The vertical drop is limited, but many of the runs are challenging and could equal any I have experienced in super resorts such as L'Espace Killy. The atmosphere is a little bit rough, rocky and wild, you feel that you are truly in the mountains and not a giant outdoor shopping mall.

SkiBike Tour 2011-12 - BullSkating Into The Sunset

Posted: Monday, 20 February 2012 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,
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I had a slightly later start today and wasn't on the slope till 10:30, I am feeling the fatigue setting in and yet there is still so much to cram in before the 2012 tour and my skibiking season ends. Last year I managed to schedule in a few rest days but this year it isn't an option, as Warren Zevon once said "I'll sleep when I'm dead".

Today I have made peace with the T-bar drag lifts, I even found myself messing about whilst riding them, as I casually rested a leg on top of the fork crowns on the ride up. It's an easy but novel stunt that Martin Schwaiger considered a first on the T-Bar. I wonder if he'll copy it, of course the crown of a BullSkate fork is a lot higher.
Whilst I was exploring some of the pleasant and gentle woodland runs, I got a call from Martin to meet him at BullSkate base camp. We shared coffee and McVities chocolate digestive biscuits, shot the breeze and in spite of pressing chores elsewhere, I persuaded him to come for one final ride. He ran me through his carving drills, at the end of which he declared I was 25% carving, in truth it was probably only 10% and he was being nice to me. I warned him that in future there may be an army of "fat, sweaty, middle aged Englishmen with a hatred of T-Bars" to follow in my wake, at least he knows what to expect now, I hope they don't destroy his hard earned street cred.


In the afternoon I cruised around Sorenberg some more, trying out every run imaginable, right down to a tiny nursery slope. There really is plenty of variety on offer, steep reds, gentle woodland blues and some very wide flatter "carving practice" pistes.
Yet again I lost myself and missed the corresponding lift up the hill and ended up walking back to the car park. I followed a "winter wonderweg" pisted footpath with my skibike at my side, gliding along the snow like a well trained dog. A far better option than trudging up the main road with it over my shoulder.

If you are tempted to follow in my skibike tracks, here is some salient information.

BullSkate skibikes can be rented by the day in Sorenberg and at a few other locations, expect to pay 40 CHF (Swiss Francs) per day, hire will include approximately a half hour of tuition.
By car Sorenberg is just over 2 and a half hours drive from Geneva airport.
You could also fly to Zurich cheaply by EasyJet from London Gatwick airport, then use the train and hourly post bus direct to the centre of Sorenberg.
There are a small number of hotels of varying types in Sorenberg, but if you want to try the "Nuclear Bunker Experience" and don't mind roughing it a bit, contact Frederic Hupka currently it costs just 15 CHF per night and is probably the best bargain in all of Switzerland.
The town has restaurants to suit varying budgets, but the prices will make you shudder, at the bottom of the range a plate of chips and ketchup was £10.
Self-catering may be the only option for cash strapped British skibikers, the town has a bakery and smaller super market. Prices for food is slightly higher than in the UK, but the quality is excellent, even convenience food is significantly more wholesome than the British equivalent.

Sorenberg - sublime woodland SkiBike riding

SkiBike Tour 2011-12 - Sörenberg

Posted: Sunday, 19 February 2012 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,
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Emerging from the bunker this morning expecting to see more bright blue skies, I was surprised to see a good couple of inches of fresh snow had fallen overnight. As even more was falling by the minute, I swiftly retreated back to my room and donned a thermal base layer. I also pulled out of my pack a pair of very 90's Steiner goggles that in spite of their vintage have only seen a few days use.

Steiner goggles - remember the 90's?
I wanted to revist the runs from yesterday but as I suspected the conditions at the top of the second chairlift were poor and appeared to be worsening. There are two routes down from the top of the Hinter Schwarzenegg, on one side you had to face the wrath of the wind along an exposed ridge, on the other, a steep red run obscured by fog. I tried both and preferred the pelting of riven snow over riding blind. I persevered for a couple of hours but eventually decided to move lower down where there would be more shelter.
A couple of potentially nasty crashes proved that it would be difficult to ride fast and safely on the piste. So I decided to go off-piste, at times riding up to the tops of the forks in powdery snow. Skibiking is very much like riding a bike on wheels in such deep snow. You steer uphill to slow down, but try not to stall or fall off. When you do, you end up having to dig both yourself and the skibike back out.

DIY SkiBike - axle deep in fresh powdery snow

You need to get up on the pegs and lean right back, way behind the saddle, this un-weights the front ski and you see the tip break the surface like a submarine. Get the technique right and the sensation is like flying, there were even a few precious moments where I had enough speed and control to feel the whole ensemble planing like a speed boat.

It was so much fun to ride freely all around the mountain, bouncing and bobbing over hidden obstacles, cutting a fresh trail as I went. To some extent I feel that this is where a skibike truly belongs, the technique isn't complicated and the gratification is instant.

Uncle Fester the crusty Fiesta covered over in just a few hours

SkiBike Tour 2011-12 - Nuclear Bunker

Posted: Saturday, 18 February 2012 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,
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Strange things seem to happen to me every time I head into the lesser known parts of the Swiss Alps. Last time it was witnessing the sight of a full blown Swiss Scottish bag pipe marching band playing lesser indie pop hits from the 1980's.
This time it is to be the chance to lodge in a working nuclear bunker. From the 1950s to the 1980s those canny Swiss, having witnessed the sabre rattling of the United States of America and Russia, decided that all new properties required a fully functional bunker capable of surviving the ultimate form of combat.
Presumably, once the fallout had settled and radiation levels were tolerable, Swiss post nuclear families with the right dynamic for the New Frontier could emerge to a post holocaust nuclear winter pumped for some epic ski adventures.

So what is it like? Well one enters a normal Swiss chalet and heads down an innocuous looking staircase to the utility room. There it is, a massive 6" thick bright orange blast door, passing through the door the air is tainted with the smell of damp earth and stinky ski boots. The place is filled with a random collection of junk and souvenirs of abandoned hobbies.

Nuclear bunker - blast door
Much more terrifying than the nasty whiffs are the cold war accoutrements, such as; the air filtration system capable of manual activation, once the first high altitude air burst emf device fried the entire European electrical grid.
If they finally went and pushed the button, how would we pass the time waiting for the all clear? How much Toblerone, Museli and Emmental cheese could one eat before the attraction waned?
The owner of the bunker provided the answer, we only keep it stocked up with booze, if it is ever needed... I want to be very, very drunk.

SkiBike Tour 2011-12 - I Was Wrong

Posted: by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , , ,
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Living in a nuclear bunker has its disadvantages, no natural light to wake you up is one of them. I though I was up with the larks, but it was 9am by the time I surfaced. I rushed through a quick shower and shave then headed down to BullSkate base station to install my shiny new BullSkate "big ass" saddle.

BullSkate "Big Ass" saddle

Task accomplished, I helped Martin get out his collection of skibikes from storage, how you can cram 16 skibikes into a space not much bigger than a garden shed is a work of art.
A spartan breakfast, even by my ascetic standards, of an orange and a couple of chocolate digestive biscuits left me ready for the moment of truth. My lucky saddle did the trick and my journeys on the T-Bar were for the most part successful. So the scoreboard currently reads Schwaiger = 1 Kinnon = 0
The best part of being able to finally utilise Sorenberg's T-Bar heavy lift system was to get enough uplift to head over to the zone with proper modern chairlifts. Oh deep joy loads, chairlifts how I love you, even though you have occasionally hit me on the back of the head.

Sorenberg chairlift - oh the joy of it!
 Like a bird set free to soar high, I played on the pistes and contrary to my normal tastes felt the desire to head into the many areas of rough stuff. Up to the top of the forks in snow and under the chairlift someone shouted "Crazy English Men", I promptly saluted and replied "God Save the Queen" before continuing on.
Packing my kit back into the car at the end of the day, I was somewhat surprised when one of the many babes that pass through the BullSkate base camp said "Hey aren't you the God Save the Queen guy? Life is definitely looking up, I just need to be about 25 years younger, have a full head of hair again and quit using the gay wrist position (on the handlebars).

SkiBike Tour 2011-12 - BullSkating With BullSkate

Posted: Friday, 17 February 2012 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , , ,
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Leaving at first light I enjoyed a pleasant scenic early morning drive from Geneva. The route is very fast to Interlaken, but from then on it is tiny local roads almost all the way to Lucern before the turn off and short run up the valley to Sorenberg itself. It is smaller than I was expecting and the BullSkate hire centre/party zone/chill out lounge was easy to find.
This tiny 16' x 8' portacabin is, to the best of my knowledge, the epicentre of European Freestyle SkiBiking, no-one else has this many pegger skibikes available to hire. Within this tiny space, in a manner similar to Dr Who's Tardis, BullSkate manage to cram in; a sun deck with barbecue, a workshop with space for 16 freestyle skibikes, a bar and chill out sofa with optional nightclub lighting. This is the gestalt of youthful trendy skibiking, a universe away from the staid conservatism of the ski-bobbing scene.

BullSkate Base Station - The epicentre of European Freestyle SkiBiking

My arrival couldn't have been better timed, Martin Schwaiger was about to give a lesson to a group of novices, I joined the class and went through the exercises horrified to find that by BullSkate standards my skibike riding skills are well below par, to say the least.
Martin's appraisal could by summarised as follows:
I can skid the skibike, just like a girl
I keep my knees together, just like a girl
I have a gay wrist position, just like a girl
I put the balls, not the flats of my feet on the pegs, just like a girl
I can't carve the skibike, like a real man could.

This is how I ride - Come on Barbie let's go carving

Martin seems fixated by the carving concept, without this skill he feels that you do not fully control a skibike. It appear that at this point I Scarve turns, i.e. I start with a skid that turns into a carve.
I followed the "Schwaiger method" to the best of my abilities, but it seems that I am one of those students that just don't get it, much like some girls.
The biggest problem I have with the "Schwaiger method" technique is that it involves gliding an uphill boot over the piste in a similar style to the classic skibob racing technique.
I have just spent the last two years making it second nature to keep my feet on the pegs at all times and be one with my skibike. Now I am expected to go back to virtually step one, perhaps what we have here is a failure to communicate.
To compound my pain at the BullSkate skibike boot camp, the Sorenberg lift infrastructure is built around my "Bete Noir" the dreaded T-Bar drag lift, which I am struggling to get more than 50 feet on before the cursed thing ejects me. Apparently even 50 year old non-athletic office workers manage them with aplomb. I warned BullSkate about fat middle aged English blokes having a considerably lower level of physical ability and tolerance.
Ironically skibikes are banned from the gondola, but kids can carry on sledges the size of garden gates, aaargh!

Tomorrow, I will install a BullSkate "Big Ass" saddle on my skibike, Martin promises me that he had the same problem with sporty saddles, they are too thin.. we shall see.

In the last hour I was so angry and frustrated with myself, I donned my SnowBlades and went for a ski to chill out for a bit and it worked. I didn't pack my bikini and head to Rio, like a girl might.

Sorenberg

SkiBike Tour 2011-12 - Lelex

Posted: Thursday, 16 February 2012 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,
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The crashes of the previous day had left my left leg in a very stiff and sore state, so I decided to give myself the morning off and catch up on my on-line world. SkiBiking could wait till the afternoon.
Ferney-Voltaire is just over the French border and adjacent to Geneva's Cointrin airport, so it would be a logical assumption that in quite a fair sized town there would be a selection of Internet cafes / Wifi hotspots.
As I popped in to various establishments asking whether they had wifi, I began to feel that there must be some kind of conspiracy taking place.
It was not unlike the first episode of cult 60s tv show "The Prisoner", where Paddy McGoohan tries in vain to get a map showing where "The Village" is, "map you say, no, we don't much need them here..."
On a hunch I followed the signs for McDonalds, located well out of town and sure enough there was free wifi, so for the cost of a coffee, I was in business. The place was full of smart young executive types busy on their laptops.
Lelex - The perfect carving practice run
In the afternoon I headed back to Le Crozet and timed the journey, just to confirm it really is 15 minutes. The Weather was still overcast, but the snow had abated and there were even the occasional bright spells. Oh the joy of being able to see where you are going.
Yesterday, I had shared a ride in the gondola with a man from Belgium and his impossibly cute daughter. They holiday here regularly because they enjoy "ski sauvage" or wild skiing. It was noticeable that the pistes had been groomed very little, yet the snow quality was outstandingly good and this was around 1000m or 3000 feet, well below the level of Alpine resorts. I could see their point, it would also explain the attraction for snowboarders and SnowScoot riders, plenty of rougher stuff to go ploughing through and over.

Bugger! Skibiker has missed the last lift
Once again I lost all track of time and completely missed the closure of the interlinking chair lift. I thought I was facing a long walk back up the mountain, but some words were uttered over the radio and I was told to wait a minute or two. To my surprise after a few minutes a snowmobile raced up to me, I was told to sit on the back, my skibike was thrust into my arms and we were off with the alacrity of the proverbial scalded cat.
I have never been down, let alone up a ski run, at the speed this fellow drove. The ride up on the chair would take about 7 minutes and I think we were at the top in under 2.
It was very unexpected to get such VIP treatment from the staff of Le Crozet / Lelex or maybe they were eager to get me off their mountain as quickly as possible.
Luckily for them, tomorrow, I leave at dawn for Sorenberg in Switzerland, home of Swiss SkiBike manufacturer BullSkate.

Skibiking At Le Crozet / Lelex

Posted: Wednesday, 15 February 2012 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,
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In spite of the exhausting drive yesterday, I still managed to drag my lazy carcass out of bed and prepare for my first investigation. I munched through a few juicy clementine oranges whilst peering through bleary eyes out of the window of the Geneva flat. The day looked dull and overcast with occasional flurries of snow. From my vantage point both the Jura and Alps were obscured from view, this could mean hill fog or fresh snow, I wouldn't know till I was up there.
My one certainty was that today could never be a "BlueBird Day" so rather than head for the high mountains and risk being stuck in whiteout on some featureless moonscape, I decided to play close to home and at relatively low altitude amongst the forests of the Jura mountains. From my base at Ferney-Voltaire I made the brief 20 minute journey by car to the ski base station at Le Crozet. Imagine that a proper ski station just 30 minutes from Geneva airport!
On my last visit to Le Crozet high winds shut down most of the mountain infrastructure, leaving just a short nursery slope to play with. This time it was going to be different, in spite of steady snowfall the whole area was open and running at 100%. Le Crozet has a gondola lift station which takes you much higher up the mountain where the pisted runs begin. There are only a few short runs on the South facing side looking towards Geneva. They are perfect for lessons, practice and a few warm up runs, but the hidden gem is terrain available on the North face heading down towards the small village of Lelex situated in a long valley.
I tried a few funs and as the day progressed the snowfall steadily increased. On the many tree lined runs, this wasn't too bad as the trees broke the force of the wind and helped tremendously with orientation. I wasn't out to break any speed records today, it was all about being slow and steady and living to ride another day. I soon settled in to a Zen like state, loving the feeling of fresh soft snow gliding under the skibike. On a couple of occasions, I got caught out by ice freshly exposed by the action of so many snow users and fell incredibly painfully on my left side somehow crushing my wallet into the side of my thigh. No doubt I will have quite a bruise to remember this holiday by for a while.
I met a group of SnowScoot riders on the piste and (I hope) amused them greatly by riding by shouting my best "Rock'n'Roll maaan" in a terrible faux American west coast accent coupled with a few Rebel Yells, on my substitute Harley Davidson overtaking their Lambretta Scooters on skiboards
I enjoyed myself so much that I lost track of time and was lucky to get literally the last chairlift ride back up the mountain to the Geneva side.

Whiteout at Le Crozet - scary stuff!
I hadn't appreciated how sheltered my riding trails had been, on the summit of Monthoisey's exposed peak the conditions were scary heading towards terrifying. It was like Scottish skiing on a good day, with pelting wind blown snow and almost no visibility. With helpful and much needed instructions from the lifties I made it back to the safety of the gondola station. I heard them send a radio message out "the biker has arrived" it had felt very lonely riding that last kilometre with no one else left on the piste and it was reassuring to know that I wouldn't have been left on the hill overnight. As I stepped out of the lift safely back at Le Crozet base station, I heard them shut off the traction motor. Wow, last man down.
The cost of my day's adventure was a measly 23€, this is about what you would pay in the UK for an hour on a badly maintained, killer, dry ski slope. I was told by a local skier that for loyal users there is a "pay as you go" season pass, getting cheaper with every visit, Mr Thrifty thoroughly approves.

SkiBike Tour 2011-12 - Part Deux

Posted: Tuesday, 14 February 2012 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,
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Having returned from a monumental trip to Flaine, I had to endure a week of miscellaneous work related tasks before I was free to continue the SkiBike Tour 2011-12. For this next leg it was necessary to cram "Uncle Fester" the tired old Ford Fiesta with all my skibike paraphernalia and head South the 700 miles to Geneva.
By happy accident, I broke the journey down into a couple of chunks as covering a distance almost equivalent to John O Groats to Lands End in a single day is more than I can bear.
My first proper break was at Amneville near Metz, home to SnowHall the second largest indoor ski slope in the world. Driving along the motorway I caught sight of a gigantic grey slash in the landscape that trained skibiker and skier eyes wouldn't fail to miss. The French seem to have a knack for keeping secrets and I wonder if they don't want to share this amazing resource or perhaps they don't appreciate its worth. Either way, signage off the motorway is minimal and you are more likely to end up in the neighbouring retail park, as I did, as find SnowHall. The area around it is somewhat like some of the pretty outskirts of Coventry (Binley Woods, perhaps). The building looks remarkably like all the other snowdomes that I have seen, it particularly resembles Hemel Hempstead's SnowCentre only much, much, longer.
I was able to confirm from the reception staff, that SnowScoots are allowed on Thursday evenings only and do not mix with other slope users. One has to have lessons and pass a riding test provided by a local man. They did not know what a skibike was and my attempts to describe other manufacturers and methods of riding met with glazed expressions. However, this venue is certainly worth further investigation, particularly for the French SkiBike club where it would make for the perfect summer training camp. If time allows I will call in again and test it on SnowBlades.

SnowHall Amneville - just like Hemel only bigger
Heading onward, the weather turned progressively more wintry as I skirted the Vosges and Jura Mountains. I found myself driving for around 100 miles on an inch or two of wet snow. I was very thankful for the Cooper brand winter tyres on the front wheels, they inspire great confidence and I never felt the need to fit snow chains. My only caveat is that they should really be on a four corners of the car, as the rear end could be quite skittish and attempt to overtake the front. Luckily I cut my teeth on rear wheel drive cars, such as the Opel Manta and opposite lock is second nature.
To avoid high ground in the steadily worsening conditions, I ignored my sat nav's preferred route over the top of the Jura Mountains and decided to head for Lausanne via PontArlier following the low route. Maybe the frustrated genius TomTom programmer added in a sadistic passive/aggressive feature to the algorithm. Either way within sight of the lights of Lausanne it exacted its revenge by steering me back on to a remarkable route through the high valleys of the Jura mountains. In the dead of night, with jangled nerves, I rolled through places that I knew from Internet research only, such as; Le Bois d'Amant. I had previously thought of the Jura mountains as the rough country cousins of the chic Alps. The breathtaking beauty of some of these hitherto unseen locations makes me think that they will be worthy of future visits.

SkiBike Design Part 3 - By Wayne Richards

Posted: Sunday, 12 February 2012 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: ,
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Wayne Richards has already forgotten more about ski technique and bike technology than I will ever be able to learn in this lifetime, he now continues his essay on the nuances of skibike design from a DIY self-build perspective.

OK here’s where it all gets a bit tricky and probably there are far more experienced people out there who have tried and done many of the things I am about to discuss, please write into Mark and put your theories over as there is almost no information out there discussing these points. I’ll have a go but can only relate it to my MX, more latterly MTB cycling knowledge and from the other side of the sport, an in depth knowledge of skiing. Lets treat this as knowledge that will need refining as we go along and our experience builds up.

Head angle, well a thorny subject and something I think is not particularly understood in the ski bike world. It has an implicit effect on how the bike handles, probably more than suspension settings. Head angle in mountain biking terms is there to give a caster self steering effect i.e. let the handle bars go and the front wheel should self centre, the slacker head angle you have the greater the effect, the less manoeuvrable, the more dead the front steering will feel. Now as we steer very little on a ski bike that may at first sight seem to be a good thing and I think that is where most of the manufacturers have gone, a relatively lazy or in MTB terms, slack head angle.

Good handling is all about slack head angles

I would also suspect they have done so to resolve a fundamental perceived handling problem of ski bikes, that of the front ski ( and to a lesser degree the rear ) feeling really skittish along flat trails. Anybody who has been ski biking will have particularly noticed this on fresh packed down snow, green trails or very flat runs, where the front handlebars constantly want to make tiny turns in either direction at random ( MXers call it head shake ) without the riders input, it can be quite disturbing unless pre-warned about it. What causes it, well it’s relatively simple and nothing to do with the bike.

Remember back in the early eighties ( prior to snowboards ) a monoski was the “derigour” for anybody who was a little bit offbeat and wanted to look cool, the big problem with them was they were almost impossible to ski on flat trails because the ski constantly fretted about until, with both legs locked side by side, the rider was ejected onto their arse. They didn’t last long and with the advent of boards soon disappeared. So what is the cause ? Skis have curved edges designed to carve radii in the snow, which ever edge is digging into the snow, the ski will want to radius around on, simple, that’s what they are designed to do. Now flat runs are not flat and have lots and lots of little mini hills where other skiers have left lines and indentations and little ridges. Each time an edge feels a higher part of the piste, it will want to take over and turn toward that edge. Flat monoski on a flat piste with the ski not knowing which edge it wants to radius on, means that tell tale handlebar waggle is going to happen. Equally the rear ski can feel all waggly and horrible for those very same reasons.

You can build the skibike with a slack head angle

How do we resolve it, well you can build the bike with a slack head angle or if you are converting a MTB then you are really committed to what you have already built into the frame ( downhill frames will have the slackest but will also weigh the most ). Mechanically we can lower the rear of the bike a bit or use longer travel forks than what the frame was designed for, use different length ski adaptors with a longer one at the front perhaps, but you will never actually fully stop it until the front angle is so slack that the front steering will feel very sluggish and with very little feed back. There are other downsides, a slack angle, the longer the bike will become, longer forks or higher ski adapters and COG suddenly becomes very high, mechanically the forks are not working optimally ( stiction ) with higher loadings on the headstock, its all a trade off of one form or another.

There is an alternative - just plain simple better rider technique

There is an alternative that lets you keep that sharp turning, lots of feedback from the front ski, lively feel, that we have come to expect from a good MTB setup. Just plain simple better rider technique. Never ride straight and flat, always make graceful long radius turns along any flat areas. By doing this you dictate which ski edge the ski is on and you will totally eliminate the shimmy and head shake you can get. The benefits of a tighter head angle are more pronounced for the Peggers amongst us, where we tend to ride standing up, we are inherently more unstable and by being unstable we are more manoeuvrable. Come those little tight flat access tracks between pistes, we can turn on a dime, sitting down is bit more taxing, but slacken that head angle, and that turning on a dime just becomes a whole lot harder.

So what is the optimum angles, sorry at the moment ski biking in the modern form we are talking about, is so new that we are really just experimenting, sooner or later an optimum angle will be worked out. For those starting with a MTB frames, back into the equation.

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OK the next thing to think about is the skis themselves, that will be discussed in Part 4.