Let’s start with some semantics.

First, if you’re thinking about fat bikes — those burly tires plowing through powder-packed trails — we are not talking about those. We are talking about snow bikes. Or snowbikes.

Or are we talking about ski bikes or skibikes? (The space appears to be widely accepted, but then there’s the American SkiBike Association.)

“A snow bike, with a space in between, is technically a motorized machine,” says Colorado Springs’ Laurel LaRose, who prefers to hit the slopes from the seat of a mechanism with handlebars and blades at her feet. “I call mine a snowbike, no space in between the ‘snow’ and ‘bike,’ because it is nonmotorized.”

We’ll let Roger Hollenbeck settle this. He’s the man behind Roger’s Snowbike Rentals in Breckenridge and also quite possibly the man to credit for the spread of the bikes we’ve seen mingling with skiers and snowboarders across Colorado’s resorts.

“We call ours snowbikes,” Hollenbeck says, “but we’ve decided for these little bikes, we’ll use ski bikes.”

Henceforth, we too will use “ski bikes” to refer to the gravity-powered rides.

By “snow bike,” we mean the motorized ones equipped with a ski up front and a snowmobile-like track in the back. Like the ones Matt Miller rents from his shop in Vail.

“We’re talking about two totally different animals,” he says.

Two totally different animals, but both steadily emerging onto the winter recreation scene.

The old with the new

The American SkiBike Association maintains a list of where the serious and curious can load bikes on chairlifts; most Colorado ski areas are listed. That’s while the backcountry is increasingly showcasing the innovation in snow bikes.

Take, for example, MoonBikes. French engineer Nico Muron brought his vision of a lighter, swifter, battery-powered machine to Boulder in 2021, opening his North American headquarters there. Since then, sales have jumped from around $1 million to closer to $3 million, the company reports.

“Everywhere we go, people are wowed,” says Jason Bonser, the general manager out of Boulder.

Miller says he’s been sending out thousands of snow bikers in recent winters, many of them dirt bikers acquainting themselves with their sport’s winter equivalent. Hollenbeck, meanwhile, says he rented close to 800 ski bikes last winter, a record for him.

Ski biking “is a newish winter sport combining mountain biking with skiing,” according to Denver-area outfitter Colorado Ski Bikes.

Newish, at least, in terms of competition; Purgatory Resort near Durango has been a race host in recent years. But the ski bike concept might be more than 150 years old, according to an account by the American SkiBike Association.

Blueprints dating to the 1850s depict a wooden bike fitted with skis for traveling European terrain. Austrian Engelbert Brenter went on to patent the concept he called a “sit ski.”

It was in Austria where Hollenbeck got to know those contraptions in the 1980s. He knew them as “skibobs” then. And when he moved to the heart of Colorado’s ski country, he thought they’d be a hit.

“We were told no, no, no everywhere,” Hollenbeck says.

Until, he recalls, the spring of ‘96. He helped arrange a well-marketed demo close to Winter Park that got the attention of widespread media and that of Vail Resorts.

“That was kind of the launching pad for the ski areas to justify them,” Hollenbeck says.

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While one might justify them as a cross between mountain biking and skiing, others, purists, might call them an insult to both sports, a nuisance. Acceptance continues to be a struggle, says Patrick Neelan with the American SkiBike Association.

“You know the story about snowboards, right?” he says.

Ski areas eventually made room for snowboards, and Neeland is hoping more make way for the bikes. He was recently at the industry’s national conference, where he handed out pamphlets aimed at quelling fears over lift-loading, safety and an uneven playing field on the slopes. Around Colorado, leashes are a common restriction — in the case of a fall, aimed at keeping bikes attached to the rider rather than a free-falling hazard.

Hollenbeck’s sense is that resorts would rather the bikes go away. Around Summit County, he’s seen on-mountain rentals and lessons dissolve. He says he’s aware of one resort in the state giving lessons.

“It’s like they’re not sure how to regulate it, or if they can regulate it,” he says. He shrugs. “We just keep renting them, because people love it.”

Uncharted territory

Just as ski bikes are in the midst of their racing season, so are snow bikes. The races through next month in Idaho, the National Championship Snow Bike Series, claim to be the first of their kind in the country. Ron Dillon launched the series in 2009.

“I’m one of a handful of people that were there at the start,” he says. The start, he means, of modern innovation.

Kits to convert dirt bikes were enhanced and popularized by an Idaho engineer who called his product Timbersled. In 2015, the brand was acquired by a global leader in powersports, Polaris.

Where once the configurations were “absolutely miserable” by Miller’s memory — heavy, hard to handle, downright dangerous — “now they’ve got huge money behind them,” he says. “Now the technology is jumping leaps and bounds, and they’re coming out with new things all the time.”

Battery-powered things like MoonBikes. Free of the typical, loud motor, they’re intended to grant a serene yet thrilling outing and access to high, wild realms that much heavier snowmobiles wouldn’t dare go.

“You can cruise into the forest, go behind the trees, make U-turns very fast,” says Muron, the inventor.

Dillon says today’s snow bikers aren’t all that interested in the motocross-like course he set up back in 2009.

“A snow bike is an incredible backcountry tool now,” he says. “Guys wanna take them up and play in the powder.”

Which causes some concern for Ethan Greene. He’s director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Snow bikes are “really, really maneuverable, so you can sidehill much easier than you can on a snowmobile,” he says. “You can end up traversing through avalanche terrain and being exposed to a lot of dangerous slopes.”

You can end up in places you shouldn’t go, Dillon recognizes. Places like wilderness areas where motors aren’t allowed, he says. Or places where you can get stranded, if overestimating the machine’s capabilities.

“I don’t think land managers or guys who build snow bikes or ride snow bikes ever envisioned it was gonna be an issue, but it has been,” Dillon says. “It’s an example of technology taking us places we’ve never been able to go.”

And probably, the semantics will change.

Back in Colorado Springs, the nonmotorized ski biking LaRose mentions another term.

“It’s called the SkiByk, b-y-k. I call them peggers, because they have little pegs for you to put your feet on, and you don’t have blades on your feet like I do,” she says. “It just keeps evolving.”

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