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From airboards to scoots, these snow toys fly
Snowboarders, take note: Your days in the limelight are over. Just as you once shoved two-plankers off the slopes with your insane rail spins and half-pipe jumps, a new generation of downhill rebels is ready to return the favor. You are yesterday's news. Cutting-edge snow demons now ride bullet-shaped inflatable sleds, snow-skimming bikes and double-deck snowskates that are so wickedly fast they are banned from most mountains (perhaps rightly so). But you'd understand. Snowboarding had that problem 20 years ago, right? So, put down your energy drink, shelve such terms as "biff" and "ollie" and prepare for the next snow craze.
AIRBOARD (a.k.a. INFLATABLE SLED)
Imagine lying prone on a flat inflatable projectile, plummeting down a slope with your nose only inches from the hard, packed snow. Your feet drag behind you, creating a white spray like a comet's tail. A skier is in your path, so you turn by shifting your weight to the left or the right. Channels on the bottom help keep the airboard from sliding sideways. But misjudge your speed or careen into a drift, and you are eating snow for lunch. Or worse. The airboard was introduced in Switzerland in 2001, and racers already compete in a professional circuit in Europe. Manufacturers claim it's as easy to ride as a sled or toboggan. At least if you crash, they say, you'll only fall 4 or 5 inches (at about 40 to 50 mph.) Sound nuts? It sure scares U.S. resort owners. Only a handful are taking a chance with airboards, allowing them under special, limited circumstances.
Want to try it? Go to www.airboard.com or rent one at Sugarbowl in Norden, Calif., on specific days (check with the resort for details).
SKIBOARDS (a.ka. SNOWBLADES or MINI SKIS)
When you first see skiboards, you have to wonder whether these are skis for toddlers. They're about half the length and nearly twice as fat as a traditional alpine ski. Regular ski boots and bindings mount smack in the middle of them. Forget the poles. Because of their shorter length, they are more likely to sink in powder. Ride them, and that's where the fun begins. Flex your ankles forward, bend your knees and get low. Spread your feet about shoulder width and hold your hands out as if you're Boris Karloff in "The Mummy." Sure, you look goofy, but on groomed runs, these little twin-tip skis can really carve up a slope. Once you get the hang of them -- and the learning curve is much shorter than with skis -- you can rocket down an advance run, bounce them around a terrain park and sail off half-pipes, while everyone stares and mutters, "Where can I get skis like those?" Feeling gutsy? Try gliding backward, a.k.a. "fakie." Then you'll really get attention.
Want to try it? A number of manufacturers -- Solomon, K2 and others -- have gotten on the skiboard train. They are allowed at almost every resort where traditional alpine skis are permitted, but not every resort rents them.
SNOWSCOOT (a.k.a. SNOWSCOOTER)
When you see Franck Petoud, standing on what looks like a scooter with skis fastened to the frame, gripping a set of handlebars as he carves graceful arcs on a slope, it might be hard to believe that it all began as a goof. But it did. In 1991, the Swiss BMX biker wanted to come up with a toy to play with until warmer weather cleared the way for biking in the dirt. He bolted two skis, one behind the other, on a scooter frame. Instead of sitting on a seat -- like the snowbike -- he stood on the bigger of the two skis, gripping the handle bars and leaning into the turns like a motorcycle rider. On the first few tries, Petoud found he could execute jumps and aerial spins, just like a BMX rider. By eliminating the seat, Petoud figured the snowscoot could be taken on and off a ski lift with ease. What began as a joke is now a growing trend, with more than 16,000 scooters sold so far worldwide and an international championship held annually in France. The Japanese, Petroud says, are buying snowscoots by the thousands but so far he can't line up a U.S. distributor. "I know it would do well in the U.S., because they love speed and freedom," he says.
Want to try it? Go to www.snowscoot.com or rent one at Sierra-at-Tahoe, Calif.
Boot bindings? You don't need no stinkin' binding on a snowskate. Stand at the top of a ramp, point your board toward a terrain park rail, push off with one foot and accelerate. Your board hits the rail, launches you skyward, and with a well-placed kick, you spin the board under your feet before landing safely on your trusty ride. That's right, you spring off your board. Which is the whole point. Think of a snowskate as a skateboard for the snow. Instead of axles and wheels, a snowskate has straight ridges along the bottom to guide it down the hill. This toy came on the scene about 10 years ago and is now featured as a demonstration sport at the X Games. But don't try it on any double-diamond runs, because a snowskate can't carve a sharp turn to slow you down like a snowboard. Instead, it's made for kicking skateboard-type tricks in terrain parks. If you want to ride a fast downhill run, try a modified snowskate called a bi-level or snowdeck. This board sits atop a second deck that looks like a mini snowboard and lets you maneuver curves on steep slopes. Be aware, though: Liability-minded resort owners are leery of snowskates because, without a leash, they can rocket out from under you, fly down a mountain and clip unsuspecting two-plankers and knuckle draggers along the way.
Want to try it? Go to www.premiersnowsk8.com to buy a board and try it locally at Boreal in Truckee, Calif., or Sierra-at-Tahoe in Twin Bridges, Calif.
SNOWBIKE (a.k.a. SKIBOB)
You're screaming down the mountain on a bike, but instead of rolling on knobby tires, you slide on fat skis bolted to the frame. No use reaching for the hand brakes. There aren't any. And don't assume that dropping your feet into the snow will stop you either -- not when a tiny ski is strapped to each boot. If you want to slow down, you need to carve a graceful curve by turning the handlebars slightly and shifting your weight. That's how skiers and snowboarders stop. Failing that, you'll be sailing down the hill at warp speed. These bikes have, after all, been clocked at more than 100 mph. For 50 years, snowbikes have been laying claim to European snow resorts, where they can be found conquering double-diamond runs and bone-grinding moguls. Manufacturers claim they are easier to ride than skis and snowboards, and that may explain why nearly 20 resorts across the country allow them on the slopes.
Want to try it? Go to www.snowbike.us to buy one, or rent it locally at Sugarbowl in Norden, Calif. (check with the resort for details).