For the most part, the West is experiencing the best start to a season in decades. Snow covered many riding hotspots starting in early November and continued to pile up through early December. It looks like this season could be the best in a while to get out and rack up some serious miles on a new mountain sled.
If you were going to buy a new 2011 sled, odds are you've already bought it. This article is a follow-up to the October 2010 issue's Tools of the Trade feature, where we dissected the 2011 mountain 800 sleds and got into how the three work with the current riding styles. We lined up the three machines and explained how their geometry affects their respective handling. So now that you have your sled, we're going to turn to on-the-snow analysis of how the three machines are best ridden to maximize their potential.
Achieve The Summit
The Summit XP 800 is best controlled with its skis. If you watch guys who ride the Summit with expertise, they will usually stay centered on the sled with each foot on its own running board. They keep their body mass centered. For downhill powder turns, the body mass is shifted forward and the front of the sled is handled like a huge snowboard. Lean to initiate carves.
For uphill riding, the weight bias is still centered with the legs straddling the seat. The rider shifts his weight back to make quick directional adjustments and shifts his weight forward to maintain lines. Foot positioning is important. If you want the Summit to have a light front end feel, move your feet farther back on the running boards. Of the three 800s, the Summit XP has the longest spread between the spindle ski bolt and the rear scissor arm mount. That and its engine placement give it handling characteristics of a long chassis. That makes for a stable ride that is very efficient at keeping the track planted in snow and making traction. And the Summit does best when the track stays planted. The key for the rider is to work with the chassis, staying neutral over the sled and using slight body shifts to manipulate the sled's direction.
You may not see as much sidehilling action from the Summit compared to the other two. But the Summit can carve a long line through technical terrain. The 2011 Summit's narrower front end and longer front shock give the sled an advantage over its predecessors on long sidehills. The chassis is very manageable and controllable in technical situations. It does respond to the wrong-foot forward style of riding, but still handles well with the rider centered over the sled. You just keep your feet back to keep the track planted in the snow and to keep the sled's body panels from lifting the track out. It's harder to make quick directional changes in this position, but it works.
The modern style of all-over-the-sled riding was born and bred on the Arctic Cat M-Series chassis. The M has been such a rider-friendly chassis over the seven-year span of its existence. Sure, it handles totally different in 2011 than it did in 2007, but it deserves a lot of credit for pushing mountain sled design in the right direction.
The M8 works best in technical situations on any sort of incline. For the most basic of mountain riding-riding down trails and playing off in openings-it's not in its element. Although it did get a revalved rear shock, the M8's rear suspension still doesn't handle the rough terrain as well as the other two 800s. But when you are in deep snow trying to pick your way through trees down an unfamiliar drainage, the M8 is the lead dog.
It doesn't matter how you twist the chassis or how you try to carve across a mountainside. The M8 doesn't have any glaring negative traits on the side of a mountain. A new body design on the M chassis would improve its sidehilling ability, but it's pretty solid as-is. That said, here's how to get the most out of it.
Find the sled's balance point before you go trying any sidehills above a cliff line (this is true of any sled). Go out in a meadow with some powder and lean the sled over. Try it in any foot position you can think of. The great thing about the M8 is how you can stand pretty much anywhere on it and make it do what you want. Then one thing you need to watch for is for the sled to come over too far when you pull it over or for the front end to come too far around when you try a quick turn. Being familiar with the M8's tipping point gives you the ability to predict what it's going to do.
The M8 also reacts extremely well to the wrong-foot forward riding style. That's where you put your left foot on the right running board and use your right leg to counter-balance or push with on technical sidehills. Keep the inside ski pushed into the snow and use it to control the sled's direction. To turn the sled uphill, move your foot back on the running board, turn the skis out to get sled to roll into the hill and then turn back into the hill as the sled carves into the turn. To drop to a lower line, there are a few things you can do. With the sled moving slowly across the hill, use your free leg to push the sled into a slide downhill. Control the slide with the throttle. That is, when you get on the gas, the sled starts moving forward and the downhill slide stops. Another option is to turn the skis downhill and let the sled begin to drive down, cutting it quickly back into the hillside to stop the decent.
The 2011 Polaris 800 Pro RMK takes a very similar riding style to the M8. The main differences between the two as far as handling goes is the RMK has a more stable feel in rough terrain and at speed. The M8 is more nimble in certain technical situations, but the RMK may have an edge when it comes to sidehilling and holding lines.
One reason for that is the narrow profile of the RMK's body panels. The track stays planted in the hillside better because there is less plastic being pushed into the hillside. Another reason the RMK holds lines as well as it does is the design of the running boards and toe holds. In the wrong-foot forward position on very steep sidehills at moderate to slow speeds, your inside foot can be turned perpendicular and placed at the very front of the foot bed. This allows you to get your body mass farther forward in situations where you need to keep weight over the inside ski to hold the sidehill. If you were to try this kind of line with your body weight shifted farther back, the track might drop out and leave you pointed straight uphill.
The Pro RMK's chassis also responds well to the rider neutral position, where you stay centered over the sled with both feet on their own running boards, using the sled's balance point to hold lines and leveraging the sled with the inside of your leg to control the sled's direction. On the IQ-based Dragon RMKs, you almost had to stay in this position to keep the sled from over-reacting to chassis roll and directional changes. You sometimes couldn't jump from one side to the other fast enough to correct how quickly the front end could change direction.
On the 2011 Pro RMK, Polaris changed to a straight rail beam in the rear suspension and redesigned the skid frame geometry to make the Pro RMK more predictable. But Polaris did not move the steering post forward or change how the rider's body is positioned relative to the steering post. It lets the sled track straighter without excessive ski lift. The Pro chassis also lays into a hill without wanting to set the outside ski back down.
The key to getting the most out of whichever sled you're on is to just get out and ride. Like we said, the snow season is off to a spectacular start. Let it be a record year for you.