Flying down the mountain on 2 inches of fresh powder, we hit a bump and lift off - one, two, three - catching air.
Bend after bend, we drop into one blue run or another, passing slower skiers and snowboarders. Suddenly the village of Mount Crested Butte is splayed below us. We dig in the edges of our skis ever so slightly and come to a sliding stop, small rooster tails of snow spraying ahead of us.
"Yeah!" I shout, grinning wildly.
Zipping down the slopes on a snow bike is a blast.
We'd come to Crested Butte the day before Thanksgiving to snowboard on Opening Day. We stayed for the fresh powder and to see what else the mountain had to offer. Testing our skills at snow biking seemed a no-brainer: We love mountain biking and we love snow; what's not to love about mixing the two?
It's every bit as fun as it sounds.
Snow bikes resemble small BMX frames with short skis in place of wheels. The skis, with tips and edges, can be turned independently (the front ski responding to a twist of the handlebars, the back by a twist, or shift, of your hips). You either rest your feet on pegs instead of pedals or strap mini skis to your boots to amplify your ability to quickly turn or stop. At the Butte, we rode pegless bikes, our snowboard boots bound to mini skis.
"It's like you're Fred Flintstone, using your feet to move across the flats and digging your heels in to stop," our instructor, Shawn McKeag, said as we crab-walked forward in the lift line. It didn't take long to get the hang of turning and stopping the snowbike, and that's a huge draw for first-timers, McKeag said. "I can get people riding down from the top of the mountain in a couple of hours. It takes most people a few days to do that on skis or a snowboard."
The bikes offer people who do not ski or snowboard a chance to experience the thrill of bombing down the mountainside, to capture a bit of the magic, a bit of the adrenaline rush, their family members and friends feel skiing and riding. The bikes also give people with disabilities and those trying to preserve old bones and ligaments access to slopes they may have enjoyed for decades but thought they were forced to give up.
Snow bikes, also called skibobs, have lingered on the fringes of ski culture for decades. They date to 19th-century Europe, according to the Canadian and American ski bike associations. The first American version was patented in 1892. In 1949, Austrian Engelbert Brenter won a patent for his Sit-Ski, which employed skis and a suspension system.
Snow biking grew in Europe through the 1970s, at one time supporting 70 manufacturers. The bikes' pop culture zenith came in 1965 when The Beatles played around on snow bikes in a scene in the movie "Help!" Yet they've never really caught on.
In the lift line and atop the mountain, our "biker gang" of three gets a lot of stares.
"What is that?" people ask, again and again.
Two snowboarders look me over.
"What is that thing?" asks Zach Williams, 12.
His dad, Mark, glides over. "Is it hard to ride?"
We discuss the merits of snow bikes for a moment. Zach wants to ride, Mark is unconvinced.
"Can you do tricks?" Zach asks.
A quick check of YouTube reveals riders taking snow bikes into terrain parks, landing flips just like at a skatepark or BMX track. Some ski areas allow snow bikes in their terrain parks, but most restrict the bikes to green and blue runs.
McKeag is a downhill biker who pushes the limits of the snow bikes as he explores the mountain.
"You can't ride the blacks," he says of Crested Butte's mountain runs. "Well, it's not that you can't ride them, you just aren't allowed to."
Romuald Bonvin, a speed ski biker, was clocked at 135 mph on a modified snow bike. The bikes' limits seem limited only by a rider's patience and hours devoted to practice.
I can't imagine giving up snowboarding in favor of snow biking, but riding a bike provides a fun change of pace on a multiday ski trip.
At the top of another chairlift, we head toward a run that's just opened. Fresh snow awaits.
McKeag rips down the hill ahead of us, blasting into pockets of deeper powder. I look up and he's facing me, grinning, gliding backward. With a twist of his handlebars and a shift of his hips, he's facing downhill. He motions for us to follow and leans into the hillside, picking up speed.
In seconds we're flying across the snow faster than I ever did in my first year of snowboarding, whooping with joy.
+ During a two-hour lesson at Crested Butte Mountain Resort, you'll learn to ride and control a snow bike and to get on and off a chairlift. An instructor will ride with you up the lift and down the mountain, discuss safety concerns and point out which runs are open to snow bikes before turning you loose on the slopes.
+ Upon completion of the lesson, you're issued a license that can be presented at any ski resort in Colorado, certifying that you have mastered basic control of a snow bike and can safely operate a bike.
HOW TO RIDE
If you can ride a bike, it's likely you can ride a snow bike.
+ Your basic stance is the same as on a bicycle. Saddle up, take a firm grip on the handlebars, keeping your arms strong and straight but ready to bend.
+ To begin, you probably want to keep your feet a little wide, to prevent entangling your foot skis with your bike skis.
+ Look the way you want to turn - turn your head and body and gently lean into the turn.
+ To slow down, use the ski edges.
+ To stop, use the ski edges. Lift the toes of your foot skis, digging in the heels as appropriate, to come to a complete stop or to remain stationary after a stop.
+ For sharper, more aggressive turns, shift your hips - lift your rear end off the seat and move your hips in the opposite direction of the way you want to turn.
"You shift your hips out to the side and slide that back ski, like stopping on ice skates," McKeag said.
RIDING A CHAIRLIFT
+ Ask lift operators what is preferred - bikes to the center or outside, bikes hooked over the chair seat or side bars or held on your lap.
+ Some resorts require you to tether your snow bike to the chair lift.
+ Let the lift operators know if you want them to slow or stop the lift when you reach the top.
+ Before you set off, learn which lifts and trails are open to ski bikes.
(In general, ski bikes weigh less than 20 pounds, so getting them on/off chair lifts is relatively easy.)
WHERE TO RIDE
About 35 U.S. resorts allow ski biking.
Arapahoe Basin: Allows snow bikes (pegged bikes have more restricted access); no lessons or rentals.
Breckenridge: bike rental, $40; highcountryactivities.com
Buttermilk (800-525-6200, www.aspensnowmass.com/buttermilk),
Copper Mountain: bike rental, $40; highcountryactivities.com; coppercolorado.com
Crested Butte: Lesson, bike rental, lift ticket and licensing, $120; full day bike rental, $89; half-day bike rental, $59; www.skicb.com/content/snowbiking
Keystone: Lesson, bike rental and lift ticket, $60; lesson and bike rental, $49; bike rental, $40 (must be certified to rent); keystoneresort.com; bike rental without lift ticket, $49; bike rental with lift ticket, $60, highcountryactivities.com
Purgatory: Lesson and bike rental, $98; bike rental, $49
Steamboat: Lesson, bike rental and lift ticket, $190; steamboat.com
Telluride: Lesson and bike rental, $85; lesson, rental and lift ticket, $160; bike rental, $45; tellurideskiresort.com
Vail: 2-hour guided nighttime tours, $90, vail.snow.com
Winter Park: Lesson, bike rental lift ticket, $139-$159; lesson, $119; bike rental, $59-$89; tours, $39-$49; winterparkresort.com
American Ski Bike Association: www.ski-bike.org
Brenter Snowbike: www.snowbike.net
Lenz Sport: lenzsport.com