Skiing & Mountain Biking: Alike, but Totally Different

Post by blogger | August 1, 2016      

Aaron Mattix

Sometimes the bike blends with the skis.

Sometimes the bike blends with the skis.

The reward of exploring untracked winter terrain has me daydreaming of snow in the midst of summer — and I’m not the only one. The uphill skiing scene has generated enough mass and momentum to merit a front page article in our local paper this past winter. A full moon Friday night at the warming hut on top of the mountain is as hopping as any downtown bar, the side country is webbed with skin tracks, and powder stashes are now about as secret as hacked internet passwords. Summer is short.

But it is bike season, so I’m thinking about that too. Some comparative thoughts:

Hang around in any gear-driven sport long enough, and you will get the hankering to upgrade. As proficiency develops, so does appreciation of gear function. My mountain biking background goes back about twenty years, my skiing only two. As my interest in skiing and ski-touring has grown, mountain biking has been my frame of reference for understanding the art of climbing up and sliding around on sticks.

The divisions of culture are broadly similar: the skinny and lycra-clad xc/skimo crowd; kitted-out DH racers, voluminously baggy free riders, tight pants for the urban scene. The dawn of the skimo racing scene in the US roughly coincides with the same period the weight weenie wars were fading off the mountain bike scene like purple anodizing, as the star of enduro rose. The Europhilic roots of bright colors and and lycra present in the skimo scene were a natural graft for the displaced XC mountain bike crowd, who were already conditioned to choose uphill performance over downhill control.

Despite the rise of ski touring, the predominance of the lift and the resort-based experience dominates ski culture in general. Conversely, in mountain biking the assumed paradigm is that you propel yourself up, down, and across wherever the trail leads. Unlike skiing, lift-accessed bike riding is a more specialized domain, requiring a separate set of equipment; often presumed to be limited to those with an advanced skill set.

Equipment expectations run somewhat backwards between the two sports. The standard expected performance envelope of ski gear is that of a 8” travel dual-crown dh/park bike (Santa Cruz V10, Kona Entourage) in the mountain bike world. The 5” trail bike (Santa Cruz 5010, Ibis Mojo) finds its counterpart in the classic tech binding system, with popularity reversed. Sound like Greek to you non bikers? Put simply, much like tech bindings, you can ride a 5” travel trail bike at the resort, but doing so requires a careful and conscientious touch and limits your access to rowdy terrain unless you’re deliberately compromising. Likewise, taking a DH mountain bike on a regular trail ride makes about as much sense as setting out on a Colorado forest hut trip with a pair of Scarpa Freedom boots, Duke bindings, and 120 cm waisted freeride planks.

In ski touring, clothing is just as much a part of the technical gear aspect as the hardware of boots, bindings, and skis. Go ski touring in your normal street clothes, and it’s not much of a stretch to say you could be putting your life at risk. Go mountain biking in Dickies shorts and your favorite t-shirt, and you might get a little sweaty, but you’ll still have a good time without worrying about the threat of hypothermia.

This makes the biking equipment checklist much shorter and less stressful than gearing up for a day of skinning laps. Sure, by mid-winter the checklist becomes second nature — but every time I switch up the routine to go mountain biking instead of skiing, I am astonished at how easy it is to get ready. Especially if you are rocking flat pedals, the transition from arriving at the trailhead to riding down the trail is far less of a hassle than stuffing your feet into plastic boots, remembering you forgot to put on your skins, doing the special binding dance, and knocking down your poles half a dozen times.

It appears to me as though the development of “Tech 2.0,” and the growth of skimo racing is parallel to to the recent learning curve mountain bike companies went through sorting out suspension design, and the subsequent development of enduro racing. As modernized tech bindings become more widely available, and consumers become more aware of their capabilities, and limitations, ski touring becomes a natural off-season compliment to the mountain biking experience that is becoming the growing normal for many mountain towns. While this could mean that your favorite secret stashes aren’t so secret any more, a larger user group also means more clout for access issues, and a volunteer base. Will ski route glading projects become the equivalent of bike trail work days? Could the two be combined?

(Guest blogger Aaron Mattix grew up in Kansas and wrote a report on snowboarding in seventh grade. His first time to attempt snowboarding was in 2012, and soon switched over to skis for backcountry exploration near his home in Rifle, CO. His skill level is “occasionally makes complete runs without falling.” In the summer, he owns and operates Gumption Trail Works, building mountain bike singletrack and the occasional sweet jump.)


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12 Responses to “Skiing & Mountain Biking: Alike, but Totally Different”

  1. Cameron Lawson August 1st, 2016 9:36 am

    (Editor’s note, when spamming please leave comments under the correct post.)

  2. Brian August 1st, 2016 12:39 pm

    we always laugh at the fact that when we are out riding we talk about skiing, and when we are skiing we talk about what bike we will be riding the next season and where we will ride. I’ve thought a lot about this on the skin track and the long bike rides, but I never can put my finger on exactly why the two sports are enjoyed so much by the same crowds in different seasons. I just leave it at “mountain biking is the closest thing to the beautiful sensation of skiing, so why wouldn’t we be doing it!”

  3. Jeremy C August 1st, 2016 1:53 pm

    Trial MTB riding and ski touring aren’t that different. Both are participated in by those of love being outdoors. Both involve route planning/selection and navigation. Both generally involve a sustained climb, or series of climbs, followed by the payoff decent. Both can be participated in on basic equipment, but are usually enjoyed more the better the equipment gets. One piece of equipment is never enough, be it bikes or skis………etc etc.

  4. Dan Powers August 1st, 2016 3:24 pm

    One big difference is that biking you’re limited to riding on trails and skiing you can go almost anywhere, including up big mountains. On the plus side, at the end of the mountain biking day I can put on flip flops and relax in the shade.

    I’m glad to have both.

  5. Lou Dawson 2 August 1st, 2016 5:15 pm

    Indeed, a big part of my life since I was a boy has been cycling. I don’t do as much these days, but there sure is a place in my heart. Mountain biking brought it all home, and for me is directly related to backcountry ski touring. I really appreciate Aaron exploring the relationship between the two, not as easy as writing a trip report. Lou

  6. Aaron Mattix August 1st, 2016 7:30 pm

    @Dan Powers – After spending spring, summer, and fall obsessively scouting & sculpting mountain bike trails, winter’s blank canvas of snow is a welcome reset. The gear and setup for ski touring is definitely more complex, but the possibilities of exploring are far more infinite. But I do love me some flip flops in the shade and a cold beverage after a good ride.

    The brilliance of today’s mountain biking technology and the enduro scene is that the focus is on bikes that are well suited general trail riding, not a specialized racing niche, as when the focus was split between gram-shaving XC racers, and “plow over everything” DH racers. Just as modern enduro bikes have developed into a capable enough platform eliminate the need the for a separate “trail” bike, and “DH park” bike for the majority of average riders, so I think the development of a tech binding strong & reliable to come within striking range of alpine binding performance, while being of moderate enough weight to be a viable ski touring choice (along with the inevitable rise of lift tickets) will be a major catalyst for expanding the human-powered skiing market.

  7. Dave Field August 2nd, 2016 8:27 am

    Quite the wall of gear you’ve got going on there! While your summers are full of biking, make sure you remove skins from any skis in storage or you’ll have quite the mess taking them off!

  8. Lou Dawson 2 August 2nd, 2016 9:10 am

    Thanks Dave, I’d agree that’s sometimes the case, but I’ve discovered that if I leave the skins on a clean unwaxed ski in my generally cool temperature studio it’s no different than storing them in a bag with release liner. Ptex is nothing more than HDPE and is the perfect thing to stick a skin to for storage, that’s what I’ve been told. The main thing is not to store glue-to-glue IMHO, or store them on a waxed ski. If I’m wrong, then I stand corrected. And sure, if in doubt just use the release liners as intended by manufacturers. Lou

  9. Dan Powers August 4th, 2016 11:24 am

    A second difference between touring and mountain biking comes to mind. I can’t think of any instance where ski tourers are prohibited but other users are allowed. Ski areas I guess but that’s hardly ski touring. Mountain biking is prohibited in Wilderness areas, National parks, and increasingingly Wilderness Study Areas (WSA’s). 180 miles of trail in the Bitterroots of Montana were just closed this year to bikes because they were deemed to be a threat to the “wilderness character” of the area. Not designated Wilderness or even a WSA.

    The Sustainable Trails Coalition is getting a bill introduced in the Senate which would allow local FS districts to open trails in Wilderness areas to biking at their discretion. I support it, primarily because I hope it will take away the stigma that biking is incompatible with wilderness character, and stop these nonsensical closures. I do think that many Wilderness Area trails aren’t suitable for bikes, especially those with heavy hiker use, so hopefully the FS will use its discretion wisely.

  10. Aaron Mattix August 4th, 2016 6:37 pm

    @Dan Powers – I’m pretty stoked on what the Sustainable Trails Coalition is doing. Certainly not all Wilderness trail are suitable for bikes, but there are also trails that have almost disappeared due to lack of use. Mountain bikers have proven to be one of the most active user groups in trail maintenance & construction, and could be a valuable partner in stewardship of remote trails. Limiting the amount of users also reduces the pool of trail maintenance resources to draw from.

  11. stephen August 8th, 2016 5:35 am

    Lou, when you talk about storing skins on an unwaxed ski, do you mean a) without grip wax or b) devoid of any glide wax?

    FWIW, I’ve found that skin glue can find its way into the pores of dry bases and is then hard to remove, and very grippy/grabby until it’s gone. Even leaving the skis skin-side-up in spring to dry the skins can cause this. 🙁

  12. Lou Dawson 2 August 8th, 2016 8:30 am

    Hi Stephen, I’m not recommending it as the best way to store skins, just saying it seems to work for me using a “dry” ski (without surface wax on base). Agree that sometimes certain skin brands will leave residue on base, and not only when the skin is stored for any length of time, but sometimes after 5 minutes! When possible I store our skins using release liners, rolled up in skin bag, inside my studio/shop where the temperature stays pretty much at room temp. Lou

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