There's an old saying that goes, "Every mile is two in winter," and it may be especially true this winter. Consider this forecast in The Old Farmer's Almanac for the Northern Great Plains: "Jan. will be cold and snowy, with western sections experiencing blizzards and extreme cold." For outdoor enthusiasts who can't afford a snowmobile and think cross-country skiing is plain hard work, it looks as if there won't be much to do to fight the winter blues but sit around and sip hot toddies. Unless, of course, they decide to splurge a little and buy a Sno-Runner, the new winter fun machine.
The Sno-Runner is a clever little snow bike, a sort of moped on skis that darts and circles like a squirrel. It was invented by Royce Husted, a 34-year-old engineer who lives in a Chicago suburb and knows all about the winter blues. A few months ago Chrysler began manufacturing the bike, and so far its plant in Hartford, Wis. has produced more than 15,000 Sno-Runners, at a rate of 250 a day. Chrysler sells them primarily through motorcycle dealers in the Midwest and Northeast. The bikes go for $645 to $700, well below the $2,000 to $3,400 cost of a snowmobile.
The Sno-Runner has a steering ski in front, attached to the steering column, and a drive ski in back that consists of two parts: a sliding ski joined to a gripper track at the rear. The chain-driven gripper uses 21 molded polyurethane cleats to propel the bike through the snow. "The cleats are only there to push." says Husted. "All the support comes from the sliding surfaces. It's a sliding vehicle and not at all like a snowmobile, which travels on a tread like an army tank. A ski, I feel, is still the most efficient way to move on snow."
Otherwise, the Sno-Runner is much like a moped, with handlebar controls consisting of a throttle on the right and a brake lever on the left. The tube that connects the steering column with the rear column also serves as a fuel tank and holds 1.3 gallons, enough to keep the 134 cc. engine running for three hours. The bike has a top speed of 30 mph and gets about 70 miles per gallon. Though the bike's seat is large and well-cushioned, the ride is made even more comfortable by an ingenious shock-absorbing system—the rear ski has been hinged to the gripper track so expertly that together they act as a leaf spring that bends with the bumps. You can fly off a mogul without fear of hurting your back or bruising your fanny. The Sno-Runner is less noisy than a lawn mower and weighs only 72 pounds (a snowmobile tips in at around 400). Pull a few pins and the Sno-Runner breaks down into three parts, almost small enough for a shopping bag. Three Runners can fit in a large car trunk.
Husted says, "I wanted to scale down the snowmobile and provide an affordable, easily handled fun vehicle for all of us who live in the flatland snow areas."
Fun is what the Sno-Runner is all about. It can slide through the narrowest passages in the woods, fly across fields, shoot to the top of hills and bounce off moguls. And it can even carry a 200-pound rider or pull a 200-pound load on a toboggan. It works in deep powder, in which it trails a white cloud, or on the first thin blanket of snow. "We had a lot of fun riding it in frozen swamps with the reeds way over our heads," says Husted.
Hold out one foot for balance and, like a motorcycle, you can bank it sharply to take the tightest turns. Or kneel out and use one leg as a third ski. When it comes to agility, the Sno-Runner will beat any snowmobile. "Racing at 30 mph on a snow bike is really exciting," says Husted. "A snowmobile doesn't get exciting until you hit 85 mph." And if the bike gets bogged down in deep snow, you simply lift it out.
It took Husted and two partners 10 years to develop the snow bike. Husted had always wanted to be an inventor. "As a kid," he says, "I was always building little putter cars out of lawn mowers." To develop the snow bike, Husted started out by mounting a small engine on a regular ski which he connected to a throttle on a ski pole. The engine weighed 6½ pounds, and it neatly pulled skis, plus skier, over flats and uphill. "We could go anywhere," says Husted. "We didn't need mountains or ski lifts. Then we thought of putting a scat on the ski."
It took five years just to develop the rear propulsion cleats, and there were times when Husted—who has poured most of his earnings as an engineer into the project—tried to sell his invention to snowmobile manufacturers. "It won't work," they told him. For Husted, the bike became an obsession.
When he finally perfected his prototype, he had no difficulty convincing Chrysler that it did indeed work. Now other companies, among them a Japanese firm, are planning to get into the snow-bike business.
Of course, the Sno-Runner is not a vehicle that the law would permit on a highway—partly because the sight of the bike tends to cause a commotion. One day last winter, as Husted and several friends rode their bikes in a field near a highway in Michigan, a number of cars pulled off the road to watch. "There was quite a crowd," says Husted, "and finally a policeman came and said, 'Look, you are not doing anything illegal, but would you please go back into the woods so we can get traffic moving again?' "