Did you ever sit on a snow bike? Well, me neither. Until recently, that is. A snow bike is a bike that can be used on snow (well, the name is telling, right?). And to be precise: It is meant to be used on the piste. Just like a usual bike the snow bike consists of a frame with a saddle and a handlebar. Instead of tires it has two skis mounted in line. I tested the unusual winter sports equipment in Obertauern and got my snow biking license.
Hermann Koch’s snow bike school is a small office on Obertauern’s main street. A desk, a counter, no more than 12 square meters. A purple sign on the facade, reading Schischule Koch attracts visitors to the office. In front of the open door is a ski rack. It is the kind of ski rack you’ll see in hundreds in Obertauern. Only if you look twice you’ll notice that there are no skis or snowboards leaning on it but two yellow constructions that vaguely remind of folded BMX cycles.
Hermann himself will teach me the secrets of snow biking today. If anyone wants to rent one of the bikes to go on a tour without an instructor he needs to identify himself. Not with an ID or a passport but with a snow bike driver’s license. It is important to know how to brake and even more important to know how to transport the bike in a chairlift. Without knowing the basics, you won’t get a bike.
I never stood on skis in my life. If I don’t count two short cross-country skiing excursions my feet have always been strapped to one single board in all winter sport activities. And I really do prefer that.
I ask Hermann how long it will take to get the certificate. He just raises his shoulders: “You’ll see.” I am sceptical. And I’m not convinced either when he tells me that even Paul McCartney could handle a snow bike – which was still called ski bob back in the times. The Paul McCartney from Liverpool who was a gifted musician but made a poor figure on skis during his lessons in Obertauern 50 years ago.
Snow Bikes Have No Brakes
I don’t even want to get on the piste on my own, I am glad that Hermann will accompany me. When he tells me to ride my bike the little hill down to the rope tow instead of carrying it, I have to swallow. Yet I’m brave, sit down, and lift my knees from the ground. Snowbiking feels exactly like riding a bicycle. Except that it has no brakes.
Before we start biking for real I get small skis tied to my feet to hold my balance and the bike. I also need them to be able to steer my bike and take turns. On a snow bike, you can only break by riding nice big curves, so being able to take turns is a prerequisite.
We take the rope tow two times. On our ride down, Hermann is going first and I follow, trying to do exactly as he does. Dynamic curves. Looking over the right shoulder means you will take a right curve, the left shoulder, a left curve. Unknowingly, I move my whole body and my feet and I am able to do it after only a few trials.
On our second ride, I even manage to do without the overdone glance over my shoulder and ride curves by lifting my hand from one side of the handlebar and leaning in the other direction. Hermann seems satisfied. “That’s easy as a pie, isn’t it”, he says. And then he takes me to the chair lift. We’ll go up further and take a red piste next. Luckily, we take a lift together. Because using the lift is a bit tricky, indeed.
The most important part: Be fast. You need to take one of the outer seats and position your bike next to you, lift it in the right moment, sit down, grab it from over the security bolt and mount it up there. Also, you mustn’t lose grip on the bike for the whole ride. If a bike comes down from the lift the damage might be enormous. Getting out of the lift is fairly easy. You just remove your grip, grab the bike from beneath the security bar and skid out of the lift with your hand on the handlebar and your feet on one side of the bike. Daring riders take up speed and swing their leg over the saddle without stopping to take a seat. Trying to do that I fall sideways into a heap of snow. It will remain my only accident.
We have arrived on the red piste and I am pretty excited about my progress. I feel pretty venturous driving down in high speed. This isn’t exactly comparable to snowboarding but it’s fun nevertheless. And after a few red piste rides I am a bit sad when our two hours are over.
Snow Bike Trivia
- Snow biking is a perfect winter sport for people with weak knees. It exerts a lot less pressure on the joints.
- You can learn how to ride a snow bike in no time. If you are able to ride a bike and have some experience on skis or on a snowboard, you’ll feel secure after an hour or two.
- Snow biking was invented in 1949. Engelbert Brentner fabricated a kind of sleigh that allowed for more control on the piste and was patented in 1952. It was a precursor of the ski bob from which the snow bike later developed.
- If you think that snow biking isn’t exhausting, you’re way off. You’ll need quite a bit of body tension on the bike.
Prices at the Skischule Koch Obertauern (as of February 2015): The two hour trial costs 63 Euro per person in a group (from two people). Renting a snow bike for a day costs 41 Euro.
I was invited to Obertauern by the Tourismusverband Obertauern.
Featured photo: © Tourismusverband Obertauern