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June 30, 2017

ASPEN — Those snow bike guys, they’re an evangelical lot.

Timbersled was a growing mom-and-pop snowmobile company in the early 2000s, making after-market suspension systems in Idaho. In 2009, the company created a kit that converted any off-road motorcycle into a versatile, easy-to-ride snow bike.

“Once you ride them, you tell all your friends. When you jump out there in that powder, all your cares and worries just go away,” said Brett Blaser, a Timbersled enthusiast. “You get cramps in your cheeks from smiling so much.”

Those bikes debuted this weekend in the X Games, a big-stage showcase for a snow machine that promises to revolutionize motorized snow play. With a snowmobile-like track replacing the rear wheel, a massive rear suspension system that delivers 20-inches of play and a ski in place of the front wheel, the snow bikes can traverse steep slopes, plow deep snow and weave through tight trees.

“It’s kind of mind-blowing where you can go,” said Reagan Sieg, a snow bike pioneer who first straddled the bike in 2011. He now throttles his Timbersled off cliffs and into the deepest backcountry snow he can find.

“I used to not sleep at night thinking about going sledding the next day,” Sieg said. “All night just giddy. And now … I haven’t been on a snowmobile since 2011.”

Thirteen of the 16 snow bikecross athletes competing Friday in the first X Games race were riding Timbersled conversion bikes, racing the snowmobile snowcross course. Seven of the top 10 finishers were riding the systems. People have been trying to make a snow bike for decades but Timbersled “was the first to really figure out how to make it work,” said Chris Wolf, the head of snowmobiles at Polaris, the motorsports conglomerate that last year posted $4.7 billion in sales.

In April 2015, Polaris bought Timbersled in an undisclosed deal, elevating the growing yet niche sport as a viable rival to snowmobiling.

“What Timbersled was doing was really unique,” Wolf said. “And what we heard from consumers who were buying them, it was very easy to ride.”

The snow bike experience is much different from snowmobiling. A snowmobile is a like a car and a snow bike is like, well, a motorcycle. But it turns like a jet ski with more of a leaning carve than a handlebar turn. Polaris sees Timbersled — which has expanded into 200 dealerships across North America — expanding the motorized snow sports market into a new realm, Wolf said.

A realm where moms, dads, grandparents and kids can all ride together for a day on snow. You can’t do that on snowmobiles, Sieg said.

“Snowmobilers typically stick with people in their skill level,” he said. But snow bike groups can be experienced riders with kids or older riders. “Everyone just goes in a herd and they can get through the same terrain and you don’t get nearly as frustrated as you do trying to keep up with expert snowmobilers.”

Wolf sees snow biking growing along the same trajectory as snowboarding in the early 1990s, opening a new sport inside a venerable market. Polaris, the nation’s leading seller of snow machines, says snow biking is the fastest-growing winter motor sport. It’s reminiscent of Polaris’s introduction of its revolutionary side-by-side off-road utility vehicles, which have swept the off-road industry in the past decade. Snow biking is poised for that same surge, Wolf said.

“They are different and they appeal to a whole new group of people who can really grow the market,” he said. “Just like skiing and snowboarding can co-exist, snowmobiling and snowbiking can too with two very different experiences.”

Friday afternoon’s snowbike X Games debut on the Buttermilk snowcross course outside Aspen will expose the niche sport to the world. While most snowmobilers know about snow bikes, the X Games could open the sport to dirt biking motorcycle riders whose machines typically sit unused in winter.

With a couple of hours of simple wrenching, a dirt bike can become a snow bike. Timbersled kits — which fit any dirt bike made since 1990 — sell for $4,300 to more than $6,000 for high-end conversions. An installation kits can add $300 to $1,100 depending on the type of suspension.

“Now we can get the attention of everyone who rides motorcycles who might want to have their riding experience in the winter,” said Sieg, one of five Polaris Timbersled athletes on the company’s first professional snow bike team, which competed in last year’s inaugural American Motorcyclist Association’s Championship Snow Bike race series. The announcement about three months ago that snow biking would debut in Aspen’s X Games buoyed the sport, Canadian rider Brock Hoyer said.

Hoyer, a former motorcycle racer, initially got into snow biking as a way to stay in shape in winter for dirt racing. Now he rides on dirt in the summer to stay in shape for snow biking.

Just being included in the X Games “has opened so many doors for the sport,” said Hoyer, who won Friday’s inaugural event. “This shows this is a real sport, not just guys goofing off in the backcountry.”

But that goofing off — flipping off cliffs and racing down dense, powdery glades — is the same kind of play that pushed freestyle snowmobiling into the X Games, where, after several years, at least two athletes are planning to throw the first-ever double backflip in competition Sunday.

Could snow biking follow the same path forged by their snowmobile counterparts?

“No one over thought you’d be able to flip anything with a motor,” Hoyer said. “So anything is possible right?”

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