Inside the gutsy counterculture of the American skibiking scene
"I felt like I was a snowboarder in the 1980s."
Jim Cameron had spent his entire career in the ski world. But about a decade ago, the lifelong two-planker found himself getting bored with the sport that enthralls an estimated 9.2 million Americans.
His answer to boredom became skibiking, or as it’s historically titled, skibobbing. It’s a sport with a straight-laced European racing culture — Austria actually has a national team. But it wasn’t the sport’s racing culture that drew Cameron in. It was the ride.
It was the freedom of sliding down a mountain on a bicycle, paired with all the carving sensation of other snow sports. A mountain biker as well as a skier, Cameron says skibiking revived his license to shred without fear. Wiping out on snow isn’t pleasant, but it beats hard mountain ground.
“You have the carving sensation and the thrill of being in snow that you get with alpine skiing. The one thing that I love about it is I tend to go a little bit faster and, you know, go for it," Cameron tells Inverse.
Now as President of the American SkiBike Association (ASA), Cameron is presiding over the next chapter in the small sport’s history. There are still only thousands of amateurs, and probably only a few hundred people who really consider themselves skibiking athletes, he says. While those numbers grow, the U.S. is developing a culture that’s distinct from the sport’s European roots.
“Ten years ago, I felt like I was a snowboarder in the 1980s,” Cameron says of his attempts to bring skibiking to ski resorts around the country. Think back to old school feud between “elitist” skiers, and “punk kid” snowboarders, and you'll have a sense of what skibiking has been up against.
What makes skibiking a sport — Cameron says there are three styles of skibiking.
There’s type one, the traditional European style known as skibobbing. This involves bikes designed to be ridden with foot skis. There's type two, a more recent development built on the new technology borne of mountain biking’s explosive popularity. These bikes look slightly more like mountain bikes, are designed to be ridden without skis on at all, and are primarily for freestyle maneuvers.
Finally, there’s the sport’s newest arm, type three, which consists of tricycle-style ski bikes. A fourth option might include bikes that use snowboards as wheels, not skis, though SkiBike World, an "encyclopedia" for the sport calls those "Board Bikes."
The sport’s deepest roots come from type one, which is where records have been set, and European racing culture originated. Those roots run deep. The first skibob patents date back to 1892 when the "Ice Velocipede" — a bicycle with a ski for a front-wheel — was patented in the U.S. Racing didn't pick up until 1954, when the first international ski bob race was held in Oberaun, Austria.
In the 1960s, skibobbing enjoyed a fleeting moment of fame in the US as well. Back then, the Swiss skibob team put on a demonstration of the sport in Montana. The sport made its "first real run" in the 1970s, Cameron says, but it never really caught on.
Another run, and hopefully a more successful one, is in the works again.
“The holy grail of skibiking for me is running tight, technical tree runs."
In 2001, Rod Ratzlaff formed the ASA and became its first president, a term which lasted until 2009. Ratzlaff, who lives in the rural Colorado mountains and doesn’t have phone service (he corresponded with Inverse over email), called his 2001 experience with skibiking “love at first slide.”
Today, he still sees himself as a traditional skibobber — his personal speed record is 60 miles per hour, but the record for a ski-bobber is 127 miles per hour.
“The holy grail of skibiking for me is running tight, technical tree runs. The absolute best tool for that job is a skibob — smaller, lower, lighter, and much more agile than the others,” Ratzlaff says.
As the first president of the ASA, Ratzlaff was among the first to revive the sport in the U.S. — a job that Cameron, as current President, has since taken over himself.
The Michael Jordan of skibiking — Ratzlaff says he can’t think of anyone yet who can own the title of “the Michael Jordan of skibiking.” Cameron seconds that opinion, adding: “That's what we need.”
Though no one holds the star power of a Jordan in the skibiking world — for now — there are still records to be broken. In 2006, speed skier Romauld Bonvin went 127 miles per hour on a ski-bob. With that speed, Bonvin broke his own 2003 record of 125.3 miles per hour.
In response to his 2003 record, he told ski-bike.org: “Risk gives life a boost.”
In the U.S. — where racing isn't as well established — there are just two prominent races, sometimes known as Ski Bike festivals. These happen in Durango, Colorado, and Hoodoo, Oregon. They have a different feel than the European races do.
Whereas the European style is reminiscent of ski-racing (a single skier racing against the clock), Cameron says the races in Durango and Hoodoo are more like cyclocross, a style of bike racing requires riding the bike over an obstacle course with all racers on the course at once. The group start of the U.S. races is the major aesthetic difference.
Cameron envisions the future of American skibiking as more like freestyle skiing, where skiers perform high-flying aerials or spins.
“I just think it's our culture in the U.S.,” Cameron says. “It’s just more free riding or freestyle, and Europe is more traditional Alpine style racing.”
With that different approach to the sport comes a very different spirit, says Ratzlaff.
He compares the spirit of skibiking to the early days of snowboarding. A 1985 news broadcast from the Canadian Broadcasting Company sums it up. The report refers to snowboarders as “smart alecks,” and characterizes the boards as “missiles.” Ski-lift operators refused to let boarders ride the lifts to the top of the mountain. The snowboarders’ answer was to walk up the mountain on foot.
“They cause nothing but problems,” one angry skier told the CBC.
What's next — While the ski industry hasn’t completely shut the door on skibiking, a major challenge for the ASA is getting ski resorts to allow the use of their bikes, Cameron says.
Resorts raise concerns over unskilled operators (the sport isn’t widely known, so there are a fair amount of beginners), and the ease of getting the bikes safely on and off of lifts. Skibikers in the United Kingdom encounter a similar hurdle.
But once you learn to control the bike – and both Ratzlaff and Cameron argue this skill can be quickly acquired – you’ll find yourself embedded in a niche snow sports counterculture.
“Freedom,” “individualism,” and “rebelliousness against the norm” are the words that Ratzlaff chooses to describe the sport.
“It's a unique experience, unlike any other,” he says.