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Handling the Snow

Published in the September 2008 Issue Published online: Sep 23, 2008 White Out & Wide Open—The Blog Mark Bourbeau
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"1995 SnoWest project sled the Ski-Doo Summit Project Projectile.
"2003 RX-1 Mtn. handlebar setup.
"2009 Arctic Cat telescoping handlebars.
"2005 Polaris Rider Select System.

In the not-so-distant past, the new millennium ushered in a new riding style for the manufacturers in the mountains, even though a more upright positioning along with added leverage for the rider wasn't new.

Thanks to the aftermarket suppliers, snowmobiliers out West were blessed with some nifty ideas and concepts that raised the riding ability and agility to a new level . literally.

In the early to mid 90s, the concept of increased rider leverage made boondocking in the mountains and off-trail riding much easier. As a result, the integration of the mountain bar or strap, the handlebar end hooks, and last, but not least, the handlebar riser block, were gaining a strong foothold-or should we say handhold. These bolt-on items were being added on to many a mountain rider's standard OEM handlebars that were fine for trail riding, but not for exploring the backwoods.

By the 2000 model year the manufacturers finally realized that this trend for off-trail riding had been established and began to offer these "western riding" amenities to the consumer as standard equipment from the factory. Needless to say, this move by the manufacturers drove a stake through the hearts of those aftermarket suppliers making a living selling handlebar add-ons. Some have survived thanks to other snowmobile bolt-on components, but several did not.

Even though the overall form and function of the mountain bar, end hooks and riser blocks are individually the same (increased leverage), each manufacturer has its own idea of what it thinks is the optimum design of each, resulting in some similarities and some differences.

Take the mountain bar or strap as the first example. In 2000, all four manufacturers' mountain straps were very similar-bolt-on pieces-parts. Along about 2002, Arctic Cat engineers came out with an innovative new handlebar package that had the mountain bar molded into the handlebar as a singe unit and Cat continues to use this design for 2009. The other three-Polaris, Ski-Doo and Yamaha-still use bolt-on straps. The Polaris and Yamaha strap is rigidly mounted and the Ski-Doo is very flexible to the point of being floppy and sometimes hard to find when you need it.

Like the mountain bar, the handlebar end hooks began life as a plug-in or bolt-on accessory. As an aftermarket item, there were a few different variations including the 45-degree angle, the 90-degree angle and the positive-stop designs. Snowmobile manufacturers opted to use 45-degree hooks-a more user-friendly design. Once again ideas took a major change in '02 with the all-new and improved Arctic Cat handlebar package that not only had the mountain bar molded in, but the bar hooks molded in as well. Ski-Doo and Yamaha have since followed suit with the permanent or molded in hooks, leaving Polaris as the lone maker still using the add-on hooks.

Some may think that seems cheap or behind the times for Polaris, but it is nice to be able to adjust the rotating position of the hooks for your personal preference or riding style.

Like the other boondock-enhancing handlebar components, the bars, in and of themselves, have been on the rise from the factories since 2000. In 1999 the average bar height from grip end to the top surface of the running board was a fuel tank-hugging 27 inches. For 2008 the shortest or closest distance between handlebar ends (measurement was taken from the bottom of the hook, not the grip itself) and the running board surface measures 32 inches. Discounting the drop of the end hooks, you're looking at a height increase of more than six inches . definitely a difference between being stooped over and standing straight up.

And it only gets better from here-especially for you string bean types. Polaris and Ski-Doo offer more that one height of their riser blocks and Arctic Cat once again breaks new ground for `09 with a trick new idea known as the Telescopic Adjustable Steering, which is being offered on certain models. The TAS steering post has four inches of height adjustment within 10 positions, anywhere from _-inch lower than the standard height of '08 M Series sled to 3.75 inches higher with the system only eight-tenths of a pound heavier than the traditional Cat steering post, which in our eyes is a minor weight penalty for a major advancement.

Some of the aftermarket riser blocks are adjustable fore and aft so as to be able to get that just right handlebar positioning for different size riders and a variety of riding styles. For 2005, Polaris integrated this idea from the factory with its "Rider Select" 7-position handlebar system. This was a unique feature but never became very popular as it was phased out after just a couple of years.

Another handlebar creature comfort that started life as an aftermarket add-on, much like many other mountain riding amenities, was the hand grip and throttle lever warmers. Thankfully, companies such as Hot Grips, the innovator of heated grips, made snowmobiling a lot more enjoyable clear back in the `80s with a very clever idea of heating the hand grips. Then, a few years later, the throttle lever. Before that it was called wear major heavy gloves or mittens or freeze your hands off.

Once again, by the early to mid `90s, all four majors finally caught on to this innovative idea and started to offer these warmers as standard equipment for their customers. The hand and thumb warmers started out as a simple on-off toggle switch, but later evolved into much more elaborate systems.

Currently, Arctic Cat and Ski-Doo's warmers are a high-low-off setup. Polaris is a high-medium-low-off for the hands and high-low-off for the thumb. Yamaha, meanwhile, has a heat or range adjuster with multiple settings for both the hand grips and throttle lever. All are at the control of your thumb while you ride.

In 2008, modern technology, spurred on by a weight-reduction craze for sleds, has led Ski-Doo (so far the only brand to do so) into a new era with aluminum handlebars. This is all fine and dandy other than the fact that aluminum soaks up the heat much more so than does steel. Fortunately, it didn't take Ski-Doo's R&D team long (less than a year) to come to "grips" with the problem and install some heat reflective material under the heat elements to help send the heat out to the grips, not into the aluminum bars. This, in turn, helped melt away that horrible 60s and 70s flashback of riding with cold hands.

With all four manufacturers having an average of 30-inch wide handlebars and all being nearly parallel to slightly curved, along with comfortable grips, throttle and brake levers, the ergonomics of today's mountain sled handlebars are so comfy and accommodating that they give the hardcore boondocker the ability to ride hard and land loose with very little fatigue.