March 27, 2011

Schooled



The Evolution of Mountain Sleds

Without admitting my age, I wonder how many riders out there remember steel skis and bogie wheels? Wait, am I really that old? How about carburetors? I don’t think I’ve changed a jet in a decade, maybe longer.

When I started riding sleds, a person usually had to have a dozen spark plugs and at least one spare belt, among other random parts. We rarely got more than a few miles from the truck without something needing to be fixed. Add to that the fact that there was no such thing as suspension travel—or trail groomers for that matter. The thing is, we didn’t know any better.

Knowing what I know today, I should have waited about 40 years to buy my first sled. That would have saved me a lot of grief.

In the late 1970s, the tapered tunnel was born. We took perfectly good El Tigres and put Panther tracks in them. This was an upgrade from a 16-inch wide by 112-inch long track to a whole whopping 17-inch by 118-inch track. The sleds were light and they made close to 75 hp, all with a free air 500cc engine. Just imagine.

Fast forward to the ‘80s, when liquid-cooled engines and bolt-on paddles were created. I can’t tell you how many paddles I installed, but if I had a dime for each one I would be writing this column from Cabo San Lucas. These were the home-built paddles made from UHMW polyethylene angle. There were the trail cleats and all sorts of theories on how many to put on and where to put them. Ultimately there were the molded polyurethane Simmons Flexi Cleats, which is what the best available tracks manufactured today are patterned after. Unfortunately the preferred two-inch paddle generally wouldn’t fit between the track and the tunnel. This created a whole new modification strategy as extending or rolling chaincases became the rage. Every good performance shop offered this service as well as do-it-yourself sledhead types who tried it on their own.

Then there was the era of long track kits. In my dealership, the most sought-after sled was a factory short track (121 inches) with a long track (136-inch) kit installed the minute it was uncrated. We did hundreds of these. Eventually the manufacturers started to build mountain sleds. In reality, these were just short trackers converted to long tracks at the factory level, not purpose-built sleds. There were a number of companies that would hand build mountain sleds from the ground up but these were very expensive and some were even impressive.

The thing is, these were purpose-built sleds and their purpose was to climb hills in the deepest of snow.

Enter the year 2000. Technology was advancing rapidly and the OEMs were racing to build the best mountain sled. We had electronic fuel injection, electronic engine reverse, suspensions were refined and track technology had evolved to deliver paddle tracks that not only would float in the powder, but would actually hold up to the demands of high horsepower sleds.

Arctic Cat released the M Series in 2005 as a purpose-built mountain sled. The driveshaft was in the right location, leaving plenty of room for high profile tracks. It had a shallow track attack angle which allowed the sled to climb out of the snow easily. The drive chain was eliminated which, because of the high profile tracks, was always a high maintenance and high failure item.

The clutches were improved to the point that they would go a whole season without failure. The batteryless EFI worked flawlessly. The handlebars came with a molded-in mountain strap and later a telescoping steering post. This sled set the standard for mountain sleds yet to be built.

An interesting turn of events started to come together.

Now, because the ultimate mountain sled was being mass produced and available to any one who wanted it, it became not as much a mountain sled, but a backcountry sled. Applying the right technique would allow the rider to do more than just climb hills. (Read, traverse through the trees.) A whole new style of riding (Rasmussen-style) evolved. More and more riders are discovering that they can enjoy new and varying terrain with ease and confidence.

As good a backcountry sled as it was, it still worked as a competition hillclimb sled. We no longer saw hand built mod sleds as the norm as stock appearing sleds ran competitively in the fully modified classes in professional hillclimb events.

My personal sleds are equipped to perform well with my riding style. I like a sled that will barrel down the trail and still work well in the backcountry. I’ve been working with Renton Coil Spring to develop a spring package that accomplishes this.

It started with Formula 1 race car application where those cars require a firm ride but will absorb the inside berm on the LaMans course. We have developed a package for the ski shocks that is firm enough to resist roll in the corners and then when you hit a solid curb-sized object the suspension will absorb all of the impact. We will be in final calibration this year and some kits will be available late winter.

The progressive rate springs for the Arctic skid are available now and offer a very cushy ride that won’t bottom out.

And for the advanced rider, the spring package for the EZ Ryde skid is second to none.

I consider my sleds to be the ultimate backcountry ride. I don’t hold anything back when it comes to selecting parts or components for upgrades. I use a Boondocker turbo that produces all the power anyone could ever want and it runs flawlessly. My special-built backcountry seat weighs in at only 4 lbs. and doesn’t trip up my feet when I jump side to side. Boss did an outstanding job on this. Black Diamond Xtreme supplies most of my lightweight parts as well as the Eye Pod, which tilts the speedometer head up so it can be seen and read. Also, it vents hot under hood air and triples as a glove or goggle drier.

With the sleds all working as good as they do now, I wonder what the future could possibly hold in store for me.

Wait. That could be another column topic. 








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