NASTAR’s snowbike racers find joy, freedom on the Snowmass hill
Participants see national championships in Snowmass as opportunity to boost visibility of niche sport
There’s something about the muscle memory of riding a snowbike that makes the sport especially beginner-friendly, according to Mike Sparkman.
“For us, it’s been easy, it’s fun, it’s inclusive and retentive,” Sparkman said Monday after a warm-up slalom run at the National Standard Racing (NASTAR) national championships at Snowmass.
In other words, it’s a lot like riding a bike. Their gear includes two super-short skis with bindings for either ski or snowboard boots, plus a sit-down rig in which the “wheels” are two more short skis.
The “easy, fun, inclusive, retentive” tagline is almost a catchphrase for Sparkman, who competes at national championships this week with his wife, Donna Abner-Sparkman, and two other snowbikers, Anne Fields and Chris Marriott. Fields and the Sparkmans are based in Durango; Marriott hails from Dillon.
“He’s a real ham for the sport,” Abner-Sparkman said. She discovered snow biking two decades ago; as the sole non-skier in her family, she found in the sport a lasting way to join in on the fun of mountain recreation.
“It opened up a whole new world to me. … I wanted to see the view from the top of the hill, not down where I was always having to wait for them,” Abner-Sparkman said. “This is just miraculous.”
The couple see themselves as ambassadors for a niche sport that has started to gain traction in recent years, Sparkman said; they run a website dedicated to snowbiking (durangosnowbike.com) and work most winters as instructors at Purgatory Mountain Resort near Durango.
NASTAR has welcomed snowbikers to the course for over half a decade. The couple has competed in four NASTAR national championships including this year, according to NASTAR’s online database. This is their first year back at nationals after a three-year hiatus: Squaw Valley, the host in 2018 and 2019, doesn’t allow snowbikes on the mountain and championships were canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think as far as here, in my head, if it feels good — I feel like I’m back in the way I want to be,” Abner-Sparkman said.
The visibility of NASTAR national championships is something Sparkman views as a perk in their mission to get more people involved in snow biking. The grassroots racing program’s scoring system that gives alpine racers of all abilities and disciplines the opportunity to win aligns well with the inclusive ideology of snow biking, according to Sparkman.
“It hits at the heart of NASTAR,” Sparkman said.
He recognizes that there are high barriers to entry in alpine sports — learning to ski or snowboard is associated not only with a high cost but a steep learning curve, significant time investment and physical impact that can deter some people from getting on the mountain.
“These folks were left behind,” he said. Snowbiking allows them to quickly and easily join their families and friends on the slopes, according to Sparkman, because most people are already familiar with the motion, and the seated position places less strain on the body.
The low-impact nature of the sport is in part what drew Anne Fields to snow biking; she skied for years, but a chronic illness that affects her strength and stamina made it difficult to take the hits of the discipline. Snow biking gave her the freedom to continue recreating in the mountains, and at a higher caliber, too — she wasn’t an expert skier but considers herself a “double-black-diamond” snowbiker.
“For me it’s the only time I can escape my body. … It provides me with, literally, the nectar I need to be energized,” she said.
Plus, as Sparkman noted, it’s a heck of a lot of fun.
“It’s a visceral remembrance of when we were kids,” he said. “Everybody has a very visceral good time.”
Marriott, who has been snow biking for more than 20 years, agrees: “It is, hands-down, a blast. … It’s magical”
He ventured into the discipline after knee problems made it difficult to ski or snowboard. This is his third time attending national championships, according to NASTAR’s database.
For those curious about the sport, Marriott has a few words of advice paraphrased from ski movie legend Warren Miller.
“If you don’t try this year, you’ll be a year older when you do,” Marriott said.
Broadcaster Jim Williams of KSPN and KNFO is leaving the valley after eight years of serving as the voice of Aspen, Basalt and Roaring Fork high school’s sports.