We've lost count of the times a product has been brought to our attention with the hype that it's going to revolutionize snowmobiling. That list includes everything from seats to goggles, ski carbides to gas racks. About 99 percent of what comes through these channels gets the boot. Some are decent concepts that have made their place in the industry (without the revolution, however).
So we have been equally skeptical of the dirt bike conversion kits that come with promises of converting you from riding snowmobiles to snow bikes.
Maybe it's because there's a hint of betrayal by leaving a perfectly good snowmobile in the garage to ride something that is supposed to be limited to the horrible months of the year when there is no snow on the ground. Maybe it's because of all the hype and bragging that surrounds these kind of engineering concepts. Maybe it's because we've worked hard enough at making snowmobiles as good as they are, we don't want something equally as good coming along in its first year. We rode some of the early versions of other conversion kits and weren't wowed. So we passed up chances to ride Timbersled's Mountain Horse earlier and didn't lose sleep over it.
That said, once Timbersled's Allen Mangum convinced us to spend a day on the Mountain Horse, we have to admit it was more fun than we ever anticipated.
And even borderline revolutionary.
Mangum brought three bikes down for us to try this past February. He's been so excited about the project and is such a well-respected industry player, we figured it wouldn't hurt anything to give up a day on sleds to ride these instead. Two riders from our office went, including me as the token sledder with bike experience and Chuck Harris (Admin on the SnoWest forums) went as the token dirt biker with sled experience.
Headed For The Hills
We drove east of Idaho Falls toward Pine Creek Pass and unloaded near Mike Spencer Canyon along Idaho 31. Mangum said that the bikes are best in places you wouldn't take sleds-narrow, thick trees, willows, steep canyons sidehills, open creeks, etc. We had it in our mind at this point that anyone who says you take bikes where you can't take sleds doesn't do much technical tree riding (that doesn't include my impression of Mangum-we've ridden with him before and know he's as serious a tree rider as they come).
We started up the canyon and peeled off up an untracked drainage. Nothing severe, but the type of bottom drainage you would just blow right by on sleds en route to the bigger woods and taller hills. This canyon was fairly tight at the bottom, with a fairly open south-facing side and a steeper, more wooded north-facing slope. Nothing a sled wouldn't go up the bottom of, but you'd be through it in two minutes. On the bikes, we spent 20 minutes carving around on the steeper north-facing slope. But we were just getting used to the strange feel of a narrow bike and one ski on a steep sidehill line.
A few canyons later and at a much higher confidence level, we turned up a very tight ravine that had a near-vertical west face with tall, thick timber and a steep east face with a little more room to move. That led to higher elevations with bigger trees and more technical terrain. The bikes crawled around like ants. A very skilled rider could put a sled where we went, but definitely not on the same lines. On the bike, you can start a sidehill, drop into the ravine and turn back the opposite direction, still going uphill. You can carve around knobs on the mountain so steep your front fender is cutting into the snow, and do it slow enough to maintain 100 percent control.
I started a decent off one ridge spur that turned into a single-line bomb off the hillside. I tried to get the bike into a turn, but wound up getting tossed. The bike self-arrested instantly (tail of the ski dug right in), but it was so steep that I slid on my back a good 60 feet farther down the hill before I was able to stop. It took a few minutes to get back up to the bike, but I got on and drove away around the side of the spur.
Bring It On
It was like that for the rest of the ride. Up trackless tight ravines, through the big timbers on the ridges, traversing down the open hillsides on the back and racing literally bar-to-bar through tree-littered slopes (Mangum likes to dice it out).
So it's not like we were doing what we couldn't do on sleds. We were doing what we wouldn't do on sleds. Riding the other half of the mountain ... that's covered in willows, drops into a V-bottom, flanked by walls that are too steep to sidehill or just woods that look too thick to bother with on sleds.
There are downsides. The bikes don't like hardpack trails. The ski darts and the track fights to stay flat. Fortunately, they are so fun in the willows and saplings right out of the parking lot that you can avoid trails. You wouldn't want to take a bike with a group of sleds or a sled with a group of bikes. You're just going to be looking at different parts of the mountain and going at different paces. A sled will cover ground a lot quicker and climb straight up long slopes. But the fun of the bike is hanging back and zig-zagging your way up that stuff anyway. You do a lot of leg lifting, like along long, steep sidehills. You have to suspend your leg to keep it from dragging in the snow. Surprisingly, I wasn't that sore after a day-long ride. It's a brand-new segment, which means that if you are interested, you're going to have to get at least one of your friends to buy one so you have someone to ride with.
Maybe the bikes can go where sleds can't, but sleds can go where bikes can't. But that's not the issue. It was just so dang fun, like how you feel when you explore a new canyon and find a whole new riding spot on sleds. I thought about it for the rest of the weekend. I wanted to get up and go again Saturday. I want to go again now. You don't go out and ride with the mindset you would on sleds. Rather than the rush of horsepower, the bikes have that go-anywhere appeal. It's kind of like single-track dirt biking, only there's not a trail you have to stick to. Go anywhere. The cool factor of being able to creep around the side of crap you wouldn't ever imagine on the Mountain Horse matches the feeling of pulling some insanely technical line through the backcountry on sleds. It's awesome.
Chuck Harris' viewpoint as a dedicated dirt biker:
It doesn't take much time on the bike to realize how incredible the Mountain Horse is. I have to say that I was pretty much blown away with how fun these things are.
As a pretty hard core dirt biker who has ridden all over the West, I have been intrigued with the various conversion kits for bikes but none of them really jumped out as something that would really work in the type of mountain terrain where I live.
As much as I am addicted to the dirt it would be hard to throw down that kind of money on something I was skeptical of. I do ride snowmobiles on occasion. I am a lightweight and throwing around a heavy sled ... well I find my skills lacking.
When I first saw the Mountain Horse, its design just made sense. I really wanted to ride one and jumped at the chance with my little brother. Mangum gave us a few pointers and away we went. I was surprised at how fast I adapted to it.
The hard part is rethinking how to ride the terrain. You can go pretty much anywhere which forces you to look at things differently. Boondocking was a blast and I was picking lines I never thought possible. Like Ryan said, we went up ravines, sidehilling on terrain steep enough where the shroud was digging in the side of the hill, carving in and out of trees-all with ease and precision. Unless you do something stupid, it's almost impossible to get stuck. I am hooked. For me it's way easier than snowmobiling and a lot more fun. The Mountain Horse opens up much more rideable area.
I have to disagree with Ryan though. I think with a little adjustment to the bike's setup, it would do just fine on hard pack. We were riding bikes that Mangum had brought and weren't setup to our individual preferences. Mangum tells us that everything is adjustable.
Trail riding most closely feels like riding sand. Just let the bike move under you and don't fight it. Even then I would minimize the hardpack and head for the fluffy stuff.
We rode most of the day and probably used about three gallons of fuel for each bike. They are a little heavier than a bike but you really don't notice it. They are just plain cool and I can't wait to ride one again.
For additional information about the Mountain Horse and other Timbersled products, check out www.timbersled.com or call (208) 255-5644.