The Joy Of Skibiking - No Pain All Gain

Posted: Saturday, 8 February 2014 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,
5

Without further ado, here's a great report on his recent trip to Ellmau, Austria by novice skibiker Andy Cadney.

I’ve got to admit I was desperate, trying to lean forward on a left knee that was pouring hot lava up my thigh while some smart alec Austrian sadist was yelling ‘no, you must more weight on the front have’ (or words to that effect and I’m not taking the mick, his English was still Kilometres better than my German).
Season 3 of snowboarding, this time in the Austrian resort of Galtur, and my past sins were catching up with me. Nine months before, walking down stairs I’d felt a stab of pain in my knee. Ah, a pulled muscle/ligament damage/sprain, off to the Doc, duly despatched to the physio who, after a moment of pummelling delivered the verdict ‘arthritis in that left knee, you’ve maybe 10 years with exercise and care, after that it’s an artificial one’. Oh crikey.

Maybe 10 years with exercise and care

Then ‘oh, can I take a photo of your legs, I can add them to the archive, for teaching purposes’. This wasn’t a come on, in the far mists of time, or 1979 as it was then known, I’d managed to bend a set of motorcycle handlebars into a ‘U’ shape by striking them firmly with my shins, during an attempt to vault the bonnet of a stationary Saab 99 while travelling at 70mph. Unfortunately the bike insisted on staying on one side of the car while I continued on my travels, in the process demolishing both shins, my left elbow, left arm, and collecting an impact fracture of the right wrist when the road came up to hit me.

Very bent shins

The result of this was not only bent handlebars and few scars on my arms, but also very bent shins, as all they could do to in the late ‘70s was slap plaster round broken bones (however badly fractured) and pump you full of penicillin.

Fast forward to the start of the 21st century and I start being able to afford skiing holidays. All great fun, but within 2-3 days of the start of each holiday unforgiving ski boots are wearing holes in my non-standard legs. I tried everything, gaffer taping (gaffer tape, the must have accessory for EVERY winter sports holiday) socks over the lumps, cotton wool, shaping bits of foam, coughing up for pricey boots and heat formable inners. I suffered for 5 holidays, gaining a lot of ski experience but never really being more than an indifferent skier, as I tried to learn carving turns not in snow like everyone else, but in a sea of pain.
Hence the switch to snow-boarding, ahhh...., comfortable boots at last  (but too late!). Now we find that like an awful lot of middle-aged people (how did that happen? Outrageous, in my head I’m still 21) my joints are falling apart, winter sports nemesis.

While all this had been going on I’d carried on with the motorbiking lark (are you MAD I can hear you shout, nope, merely reckless). I’ve largely switched to off-road motorcycle sport and I found that, despite snow-boarding causing excessive discomfort, I could still wear large motor bike boots and ride off-road bikes without succumbing to screaming agony.
So in an idle moment I did a little research on ski-bikes (I think I’d seen them in the ski-hire shop in Austria).
Thus I found Mark’s blog and also info about the Brenter bikes. Salvation!
I determined to have a crack, as it was my last chance to keep those wonderful winter holidays happening.
An Open University course and work meant that I had to wait a couple of years before trying it out, but finally, in 2014, the wife and I reckoned we had the time and the money to book a holiday.
I jumped on to the internet and fired off about 20 emails to hire shops in Austria which seemed to be the country where they were popular and common.
It was a mixed bag of responses, with plenty of ‘no’,  along with some ‘yes’ but quoting silly money or plainly only having one bike to rent out.
I finally got a line on a shop in Ellmau, Austria that was a Snow Bike centre. Prices were reasonable, and it was obvious there was a fair stock of bikes.

  Sunday morning - meeting Hans

I booked everything I needed, including tuition, and then booked a holiday with Thompson to match! (no point booking a holiday in a place with no bike availability!)
So, all set.
Once we arrived I rolled up on Sunday morning to meet the owner, Hans, who ran the snow bike business along with Mike who looked after the ski/snowboard side. Hans’ English was a bit limited, but Mike made up for it by being pretty fluent. Both Hans and Mike were really friendly and helpful and I was duly issued with a bike and all the related bits and bobs, and given a kit run through (mostly about how to hang the foot skis round my neck when walking).
I was also introduced to the instructor and despatched off with all requisite equipment and directions to the meet up point.
Unfortunately my appalling sense of direction meant that I missed the meet, as I went in the wrong direction, somewhat embarrassingly.
Once I finally clicked to what I did wrong, I found the nursery slope, but it was bare of instructional resources. After a little dithering I decided to best thing to do was just start.

I decided to best thing to do was just start

A bit of mucking about got me sitting on the bike with foot skis on in the obligatory manner. The whole plot (me included) did begin to slide off, toboggan style, but as in total I had 4 sets of edges I found it incredibly easy to control. Having lots of ski and board experience did help but it felt dead easy and basic to dig the edge of a foot ski in to stop any undesired movement. The simplicity was helped by only being required to emulate a sack of potatoes, none of that tottering, leaning and squirming associated with initial struggles with ski or board.

I duly carved a weaving track down the slope with a semblance of control, appearing I suspect to innocent bystanders something resembling a tired water boatman skating the surface of a pond. Round the bottom of the button lift (I wasn’t going to have a crack at THAT, thanks very much) I was just considering skittering towards a ski bus stop, with the intention of dragging this contraption to the Funicular (Ellmau has an excellent, if somewhat aged Funicular railway that serves the nearest, rather low at 1900 metres, Alpine foothill), so I could get a bit of height without having to face an unknown like a T bar or chairlift, when hey, ho, I spotted a fellow ski-biker.
Well several, as I’d found the instructor with the other poor saps trying to get their heads round this lunacy.

Something resembling a tired water boatman

I managed to kind of loop round them, skidding to halt next to the line. ‘Hi Andy’, ‘Hi’, and off we go. And first task is up the next steepest nursery slope on a T bar, a little instruction and it’s pretty obvious and easy, T bar under the bum like a skier, and just  let the bike ‘freewheel’ (if that’s the right term) with the bars against the legs. It all worked surprisingly well.
Then we are instructed to do gentle curving turns down the slope, in single file. It was all very smooth and easy, I mean crikey, unlike any other snow sport appliance you’ve got STEERING. Top.
The instructor, Gerhardt (I’ve got to call him something, rather than just ‘instructor’) had a quiet word with me. ‘Just slide your bottom back’, my bum promptly dropped into the slot designed for it, ‘and keep your knees together’ this helped a lot, but I never did really get the hang of it, more on that soon.

Unlike any other snow sport you’ve got STEERING

This success meant that we were led over to the Funicular (with a bit of sliding and slithering) so that Gerhardt could get us into the big time at the top of the mountain.
We all stumbled out of the station at the top, and lined up in the snow on our bikes. I had been really enjoying myself on the run down to the railway, feeling in control of speed and direction (and so easy, so fast!) , more than I’d ever done with snow-boarding or skiing (well, not without pain).
From here Gerhardt took us down a long blue, which I found easy, but unfortunately fairly soon one of the party managed to get carried away and shot off the edge of the piste. A bit unfortunate, and it resulted in a slightly twisted knee. This slowed everything down a little, but we navigated down this quite long blue in stages, pausing to allow the injured to catch up.
The piste was actually quite a testing one, and conditions were not nice and yet I did feel completely in control most of the time. Having steering, skis on the bike, and skis on the feet allowed lots of options, no matter how pear shaped it all seemed to be getting.
It was a pretty long piste, and though initially I been following one of the other group members, about half way down I kind of politely overtook and happily completed the rest of it on my own, even taking the last half mile red option without any difficulty (this was entirely accidental, but it gave me a lot of confidence).

Taking the last half mile red option without any difficulty

Arriving at the bottom of that piste ended the training session (I got a little Brenter driving licence from Gerhardt). It really set me up for the rest of the holiday. I had 5 ½ more days of snow fun with my missus, going on the slopes I wanted to, at the speed I chose, stopping where I liked and when I liked, without too much effort or importantly pain. Oh yes, and experiencing a major advantage of the ski-bike, when I stopped, unlike most other people, I had something comfortable to sit on. What a wonder for the person of later years.

In hindsight, one of the things I liked about the whole snowbike/skibike experience was that, unlike skiing, there wasn't endless 'more technique' to learn (or so I felt in my arrogant way!), with some bleedin' instructor going on 'you must lean more forward/backward/stand up more/sit down more' as I try to figure out what my body's doing apart from hurting.
Saying that, though I took to it straight away and could make my way quite rapidly down slope in uncoordinated flurries of snow, I did find sometimes I was forced to 'step off my machine'. I worked out that what generally caused any 'face first into the snow-ism' was my inside foot ski flailing about.
Though I was feeling a little prima donna-ish during the instruction session, feeling like I want to just rush off and have fun, Gerhardt was incredibly helpful, and every bit of input from him made a massive difference. You feel like it’s going well and you’re in control, but just a few minor changes would make a massive difference.

Towards the end could not crash pretty reliably

I tightened it all up through the week, and towards the end could not crash pretty reliably, so was feeling pretty smug, possibly even arrogant. This didn't stop me getting a lecture from Hans the snow-bike-shop-man about keeping my knees tight to the bike, so keeping foot skis parallel. He even produced a bungie cord to wrap round my thighs as a training aid. I was a bit miffed at the time, but looking at the photos my feet are out about a metre from the bike, so maybe he's got a point.
The really important thing about the whole experience was how the Brenter bike didn’t pound my existing injuries. Where both skiing and snow-boarding caused me a lot of pain due to the amount of stress that was put through my lower legs and knees, this just didn’t happen with the Snow Bike. Most of your weight is taken on your bum, and your legs just contribute to ancillary control. My poor technique meant I felt a little bit of strain, but it would be easy to tighten up, and to keep legs virtually strain free.

Some of the others in my instructing group seemed to find riding the Brenter a little harder to pick up than I did (I think my two wheel experience helped a lot) but the progress of the whole group was certainly a lot faster than the average group of ski or snowboard learners. Several of the students in my group that I spoke to were trying out the snowbike as an option due to leg injuries. They do seem a great choice for those who love snow sport but are now struggling with body wear and tear of one sort or another. Sports people with disabilities get a lot more publicity than they used to, and quite right too, but there seems to be a dearth of information about options on how to carry on once you succumb to the ravages of time and earlier foolishness. Several people I spoke to on lifts were interested, and a couple of people since I’ve got back, who I just randomly chatted to, who were on the verge of giving up on winter holidays have asked avidly for details.

Most of the people involved in snow-sport holidays (reps, ski instructors, ski hire shop assistants) are young, fit and enthusiastic about either skiing or snowboarding so aren’t aware of the difficulties some more ‘mature’ holidaymakers face, or the options to avoid them. The medical profession’s usual reaction (apart from discussing the quality of the resort you last visited) is to say ‘you better stop that activity then’. Maybe Brenter’s marketing department need to get together with the package holiday industry to fill a gap in the market.

I was quite surprised how much I did enjoy the Brenter

I was quite surprised how much I did enjoy the Brenter. My ambition was (and still is) to get into the ‘pegger’ style ski-bikes, probably building one, as these appealed to my motorcycle dirt bike sensibilities (and riding style), and I’d booked the holiday really to get a feel for the whole thing, how difficult lifts, t-bars were, what the reactions of other slope users was, that sort of thing. However I really did get into using Brenter, and mucking about with it (I was experimenting with 360 degree turns half way through the holiday). There seemed to be loads more potential to try out, for instance I didn’t get into carving turns, even dealing with steep icy slopes looks interesting and my speed was still building up. So, though my ambition is to get into ‘pegger’ style ski-bikes, I can see myself having a holiday or two renting a Brenter, to really find out what they can do.

With thanks to Hans and Mike at www.snowbike-ellmau.com

Snowbike Wilder Kaiser
Hans Selb,
Dorf 31 – A-6352 Ellmau (INTERSPORT-Skiverleih),
Tel. 0043 664 1528757,
info@snowbike-ellmau.com

5 comments:

  1. Thanks Andy
    Very good write up, Being in a similar situation as you, 40 years skiing to a good standard, then arthritis and both hips replaced, no longer have the hip swing needed and totally fed up with discomfort of only one run down the mountain when I used to ski six hours a day, so the first decent info I have read as everyone on the blog seems to be young and experienced with no little info for us oldies that have skied for years and want to continue. I tried hiring with a lesson in Grand Bornand, but no foot ski's, only pegs, so would have preferred foot ski's to start with to get confidence. I have built my own ski bike, intending to take to France next week to the massive Central but think I might not be able to use as not registered from what I read on the blog.
    Do you know if you can use your own bike in Elmau,? also do you need to take a lesson first?. I would always be interested in getting together with a few seniors for a week.
    Thanks Nigel

  1. Andy says:

    Hi Nigel
    Yes you can use your own Ski-bike in Ellmau, as there were a couple of British guys there who I spoke to who were using their own self built ski-bobs. Apparently these ski-bobs were about twice the weight of the Brenter, and I was informed this was a good thing. OK.

    As I mentioned in the write up I did receive a Brenter 'driving licence' after the lesson, but no one appeared to be checking all the various people carrying contraptions onto the Funicular.

    Just try to be nice to the lift guys, especially when you, er, fail to achieve your seat correctly. Perhaps, like crossing African borders it would be an idea to stuff your pockets with packets of fags, and soft porn magazines, to calm the raging beasts when you end up with your much loved piece of angle iron jammed in the lift cable, and you're hanging from the chair lift by your underpants, if you know what I mean.

    Andy C

  1. Nigel, if you're going to the Auvergne, you need to liaise with Cedric Sabatte, he is based nearby and will be able to advise which resorts will let you ride and which won't. He may also offer to join you on a ride, it's great having someone more experienced to ride with first time.
    Age is just a number - some of the contributors here are a lot more grown up than they act.

  1. Andy says:

    Hi Nigel

    To backup what Mark said, my initial response was essentially to confirm that, as far as I could tell, I didn't see any problems with using your own bike at Ellmau.

    However I would also say that, even though the Brenter felt easy to use and ride for me, and I enjoyed it, I'll certainly be looking to build my own 'pegger' style bike soon, as I suspect it will suit me.

    You've invested time and effort in building your own, as well as the commitment to get to get it done, I'd stick with gettng through the pain barrier of learning that style of bike. just research as much as possible to before you go, and Mark's contacts would be incredibly valuable.

    Just keep keeping on and take the pain.

    Cheers Andy C

  1. Just read Andy's great review on Ski Biking I am also in the same situation with my Right knee and would love to get together with some of you guys and try the biking so if anyone is interested in going before the end of this season could we all get in touch and give it a go ?? Tony D in Poole