Conversion kits turn dirt bikes into backcountry snow explorers
Over the past few years, backcountry snowmachine riders in Alaska have noticed odd, narrow tracks cut into the powder. Often spotted in strange, hard-to-ride places, these mysterious new trails seem to have shown up almost overnight.
“It’s been exponential growth,” said Andrew McConnell, sales manager at The Motorcycle Shop in Anchorage.
McConnell was referring to snow bikes, the narrow-track, single-ski machines showing up everywhere. Industry-leading brands like Timbersled and Yeti have exploded onto the scene recently, offering conversion kits that turn dirt bikes into snow-carving machines.
“As soon as someone rides one, they want to buy one,” McConnell said during a December interview at the Motorcycle Shop, which prominently features displays of both the Timbersled and Yeti in the middle of its large showroom.
In your dreams
McConnell said the reason the set-ups have gotten so popular is simple: Fun.
“It’s awesome. It’s totally different than a snowmachine and it’s totally different than a motorcycle,” he said. “It’s its own thing. It’s its own weird thing.”
He said snow bikes can cut through powder, weave through trees and fly up hills, opening up terrain riders would have never considered before.
“If you’re cruising along and are like, ‘I want to go up there,’ you just whip it around and you go,” he said. “On a sidehill it’s pretty amazing what you can do.”
His customers have raved about the kits, which allow riders to explore areas that previously seemed off-limits.
“It’s been cool seeing guys who have gone to Turnagain (Pass) their entire lives, they’ve ridden everything they could possibly ride up there and then they go up there on a Timbersled and they find places they never even thought of,” McConnell said. “It reinvents everything. It’s like going somewhere on a four-wheeler your whole life and then going out there on a dirt bike.”
McConnell said snow bikes do have some drawbacks. They’re not nearly as fast as snowmachines, don’t do well on ice, can’t haul much and aren’t much fun on bumpy, hardpack trails.
“If you live in the Valley and you go out to Skwenta, you ride the Iditarod Trail for hundreds of miles, it’s not for you, it’s not that kind of machine,” he said. “But if you’re going to Turnagain once a week or Hatcher Pass or Trapper Creek and playing around and you love powder and hill climbs and things, most of the people I’ve talked to have more fun on a snow bike than they do on a snowmachine.”
Anchorage’s Allen Fargo has been riding snow bikes for about six years. He started on a Snow Hawk and now uses the popular Timbersled system. Fargo recently purchased a 570 Husaburg dirt bike specifically for snow biking.
“You can get away with stuff that you wouldn’t even dream of on a snowmachine,” he said.
The lightweight machines can climb to dizzying heights – and Fargo said his riding buddies have taken notice.
“Most of the guys I ride with are like, ‘Well, you go up first and see if it’s doable.’ ”
The kits typically weigh around 150 pounds — sometimes much less depending on the material used.
“And you’re removing weight from the bike as well, so you’re usually only adding 60 pounds or so to the weight of a dirt bike,” McConnell said.
High tech, low cost
The conversion kits consist of two parts, a front ski assembly and a rear track. To install them, the front and rear wheels of the motorcycle are removed and the ski and track are hooked up.
“It only takes about two hours the first time you do it and about an hour the second time,” he said. “All you’re doing is pulling the wheels and swing arm and everything off your bike and then you just mount the kit up.”
He said the kits work with most bikes.
“If you have pretty much any dirt bike from the late ’80s until now you can get the kit for your particular bike,” he said.
They’re also relatively cheap. A modest kit can be purchased starting at around $4,000, with used kits running a bit less and higher-end set-ups going for a couple thousand more. For someone starting from scratch and wanting to go high end, McConnell said a bike and kit together would cost around $18,000.
But for someone who already owns a dirt bike – or buys a decent used one – McConnell said snow bikes are a pretty economical way to get onto the snow.
“You might have to do some work to it, but you can pay fifteen hundred bucks for a used bike and put a kit on it. So for a new kit and an OK used bike, it’d be five to six grand.”
Fargo said the versatility and cost of snow bikes is unmatched.
“If you already have a dirt bike, you’re insuring one machine, you’re maintaining one machine, you’re storing one machine,” he said.
And now that the modified dirt bike kits are gaining traction, McConnell said both traditional snowmachine riders and motocross riders have been taking note.
“By 2014 or ’15 it got to the point people were coming in and asking about them a lot,” he said.
There’s even a snow bikes division at this year’s X Games.
Long time coming
As it turns out, snow bikes might be the slowest overnight success story in motor sports.
The machines date back to rudimentary tracked vehicles built in the early 1900s, and the French and Germans were tinkering with purpose-built, motorcycle-like snowmachines during World War II. By the 1960s, several entrepreneurs were trying to create a market for the narrow sleds, and some even sold motorcycle conversion kits.
But these early snow bikes had significant problems. According to the YouTube documentary “Trax: The Evolution of Snow Bikes,” (which lists snow bike kit makers Timbersled, CMX, Moto-Trax and Yeti among its partners) one of the first such consumer kits on the market was called The Shrew. According to John Love, who bankrolled product in the mid-1960s, the kit was far from perfect.
In the film, Love recalled hopping aboard The Shrew was “a little like riding a Brahma bull coming out of chute nine.” To make matters worse, the machine had to be revved constantly, which caused it to overheat. The Shew was dead on arrival. Riders found it almost unrideable, and Love estimated fewer than 1,000 were ever produced.
“We didn’t have enough time for field experiments to ensure we had all of the bugs ironed out,” said Love, who told filmmakers he lost about $250,000 on the venture.
But Love said he knew the notion of modifying a motorcycle to ride on snow had promise.
“It was a good idea, it just needed a little fine-tuning,” he said.
Perhaps dozens of companies offered standalone snow bikes or motorcycle conversion kits over the next few decades, but the strange machines were always considered a passing fad.
“It was kind of a novelty, and people looked at it like something cool that’d maybe be really fun but wasn’t worth the hassle,” McConnell said.
Attitudes toward snow bikes began to change in the early 2000s, when the Snow Hawk arrived on the scene. Designed by Quebec’s AD Boivin, the machine was essentially a narrow track, single-ski snowmachine designed to handle more like a motorcycle. Unlike previous snow bikes, this one actually seemed to work as intended. Riders loved the Snow Hawk’s ability to sidehill, carve and climb.
The Snow Hawk turned heads, and by the middle part of the decade a slew of companies had popped up offering their own kits. One of the first was 2Moto, whose founder, Vernal Forbes, quit his job at Hewlett Packard in 1996 to work on his design full time.
The 2Moto went through a number of prototypes before it was finally tested on an Alaska glacier in 2007. One of numerous snow bike innovators interviewed in the “Trax” film, Forbes said the Alaska visit proved the technology would be a game-changer.
“It was really the acid test of this new design,” Forbes said. “The bikes worked phenomenally well.”
The Idaho-based 2Moto evolved into RadiX, one of several small brands that now offer conversion kits online.
Over the last decade, numerous companies based mostly in Idaho and Canada have been competing for a share of the market and pushing the designs forward. Among the brands are MotoTrax, Explorer (built by AD Boivin), the Western Power Sports Camso, and Crazy Mountain Xtreme (or CMX).
McConnell said the Timbersled’s biggest current competitor is Yeti, whose kits are made by C3 Powersports out of Alberta. The Yeti set-ups are higher end and feature a belt drive system and carbon fiber tunnel. They also average about $1,500 more than the more modestly priced Timbersleds.
“The Timbersled is like Toyota,” he said. “They just work. They’re less expensive but they’re a really well-known brand. … Whereas Yeti you’re using a belt drive instead of a chain drive. It’s a lot more efficient. They also are using a carbon fiber tunnel — which is way lighter and a lot more rigid — and higher level components.”
A novelty no more
In 2015, snowmachine giant Polaris purchased Timbersled, signaling that the surge in demand for the products is something the big companies are taking seriously. Arctic Cat is also planning to get into the market this winter with a standalone snow bike called the SVX 450.
With the explosion in the bikes’ popularity, it appears the fad could be for real.
“It’s not a novelty,” said rider Allen Fargo.
With its varied terrain and relative lack of groomed trails, Fargo said he thinks Alaska is the ideal place for the sport to grow.
“You’ve got people here who are a little, I don’t know – rebellious,” he said. “People who are outside the norm.”
Outside the norm perfectly describes what snow bikes have been to riders for decades. But it’s possible the weird little machines might finally catch on.
“I’d never go back,” Fargo said. “It’s just not the same.”
BECOME A CONVERT
Snow bike conversion kits are now sold at snowmachine and motorcycle shops across the country, including in the Anchorage area. Although Timbersled and Yeti are the most popular, several others can be found online. Here’s a list of several different brands and where to find more information about them online: