SkiBike Tour 2013-14 - Les Houches SkiBikes

Posted: Sunday, 23 February 2014 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,

I wasn't expecting to be back in Les Houches quite so soon, but neither local skibiker Thierry Avrillon, nor Wayne or Lucille had visited; so it seemed an obvious choice to explore once more. Wayne was impressed by the laid back, almost Italian feel to the resort; perhaps not so surprising, as Italy begins just the other side of the Mont Blanc aka the European Community's biggest hill. Thierry was struck by the steepness of the slopes and vertiginous vistas, quite a difference from his local resorts of Grand Bornand and La Clusaz.

Thierry was struck by the steepness of the slopes and vertiginous vistas

We were here for a pleasant Sunday ride, but the day also lead to some interesting bilingual conversations about skibike design and the future of skibiking in Europe.

It is fascinating to see how European skibiking is diversifying, with the passing of each season it appears that we have less in common with our American cousins than the previous. Whilst many America designs are being driven by the demand for ever stronger (and heavier) machines to do increasingly wilder park stunts; the European market seems to be heading towards multi-purpose, light-weight touring and all mountain designs.
Both Wayne and Thierry's prototype rides seem to be ahead of the curve with this trend. As we made our way around the mountain, we swapped around skibikes and each of us gave them a full run to see how much they would compare and contrast.

European skibiking is diversifying

Wayne was riding a prototype design he has self-built from carbon fibre; with its lightweight skis, air shock and air forks, it's a weight weenie, a gnat's whisker over 8 Kg, remarkable for a freestyle skibike. Lightweight skibikes are normally Brenter territory, but this one has fully damped modern suspension, everything looks so right and the ride is great too; with plenty of feedback through the steering to let you know what's going on at the front end.
The skis fitted are Gaspo SnowBlade style units, I found the break-away to be a little bit sudden on the rear ski when drifting. I suppose you would become accustomed to it over time, but I guess some better quality boards and a bit of shock tuning would improve matters no end. If anyone wants to sponsor Wayne some fancy pants skiboards, you know who to contact.
Oh and did I mention how light it is? If this is to be the future of European freestyle skibikes, I can see great appeal for those who currently ride skibobs making an upgrade to exactly such a lightweight freestyle skibike. One that's easy to lift over a turnstile or haul back from the bar after hours. Something that can be used with comfy warm snowboard boots and no more waddling around on clumsy footskis.

Weight weenie freestyle skibikes - is this the shape of things to come?

Thierry Avrillon has built three skibikes in his home workshop, he is quite the handyman. But these are not crude D.I.Y. efforts, but inspired one-off designs built to a very high standard and often involving many hours of painstaking craftsmanship. He was riding his current favourite, with components carefully specified for an off-piste machine. The frame appears to be formed of ultra heavy duty T.I.G. welded aluminium, but like Wayne's ride, it too is another 8 Kg weight weenie.

The day also lead to some interesting conversations about skibike design

At first glance your attention is drawn to the modified Cannondale Lefty mono fork, apart from being a top end fork in its own right, Thierry explained that it creates very little drag when riding in deep snow and has the added advantage that there is less to strike should you make an "involuntary dismount".

For the ultimate glide off-piste, Thierry is currently running Romp Revel8 skiboards. I have to state that I had my doubts about the skis designed for American skibikes; in Colorado powder might be the norm, but over here in Europe, after two days it is often all gone for the season. I expected them to perform well in the rough, but how did they run on steep sections of Les Houche's rock hard and compacted piste? I am pleased to report that they also bite surprisingly well into the hardest of snow. Yes, there did come a point of sudden break away when they would let go, but this was on pistes scraped right down to icy caterpillar tracks, exemplary behaviour for such fat skis. Needless to say, performance on soft and fresh snow was delightful and lived up to their reputation as a premium product.

Testing skibikes on the steeps

Thierry has a brake system fitted, produced in association with Firem VS skibikes, such things are not my cup of tea, but Wayne was impressed by the systems ability to work on the steepest slopes and hardest of snow with great efficiently, even whilst mid turn. I know why this is so, but a confidentiality agreement with Firem VS skibikes prevents me from sharing this with you.

So how does my own retro D.I.Y. skibike compare to these futuristic rides? Much like the owner, it is hardly cutting edge, and as regards weight, a bit of a diet is in order, the legacy of a number of D.I.Y. modifications where cost and sturdiness have taken precedence over weight considerations.

How does my retro skibike compare?

Wayne was impressed with the performance of the Head Big Easy skiboards fitted to my skibike, complimenting their gentle and forgiving ride. He even acknowledged that my Alpine Skibikes mountain bike conversion has come along way since we first met and is now dialled-in pretty nicely. Rare praise indeed.

Head Big Easy skiboards - Wayne impressed

So how did Thierry get on riding my skibike? Rather well actually, he seemed to be able to perform the huge drifts I love so much. He headed straight down one of the steepest runs, before remembering that, unlike his skibike, mine has no brakes. Still, he can do a pretty neat impression of Fred Flintstone with his heels, Yaba Daba Do!

Although each skibike had their differences and took a good few minutes for you to acclimatise to the different sensations. It was noticeable that all 3 skibikes had common characteristics that made them a joy to ride.

They all gave quite a lot of steering feel, you always knew what was going on at the front and back ends. Whether the skis were fat or narrow, you were able to go from edge to edge smoothly without any clunky dead spot in the middle and all three skibikes drifted very predictably and progressively. Given some loose snow or better still, late afternoon slush, you could be a hooligan on them and get that tail ski wagging like a happy puppy. But they all carved to a greater or lesser extent, maybe not perfectly, but well enough to follow a predictable trajectory.

I think some of the skibike manufacturers might be so focussed on creating a device that tracks down a slope as if riding on rails, that they have forgotten how much the average person likes "vector motion". This is why people devote so much money and time to recreational devices that incorporate skidding into their D.N.A. For some it is called motocross, for others power sliding rear wheel drive sports cars or even sat on the latest big boys toy, drift trikes.

Our three strangely similar skibikes all had the naughty grin factor derived from sliding just a bit too much sideways. Perhaps in future skibike manufacturers may to accept a few imperfections in order to keep the fun element firmly in the equation.