Tuesday, March 15, 2011

EXPLORER Snow Bike Conversion Kit

I can see nothing. My piss-poor vision is only exacerbated by the driving snow, which, of course, makes it impossible to remove my soggy, smeared goggles. Regardless, the fear of crashing does little to dissuade my right wrist so I stab the clutch and give the big 530 a healthy swallow of premium octane. The KTM’s rear end digs for traction and the front ski lofts skyward before returning to silently to knife blindly into the next corner.

AD Boivin s EXPLORER snow track system is a unique and relatively simple way to increase your motorcycle s diversity.
AD Boivin's EXPLORER snow track system is a unique and relatively simple way to increase your motorcycle's diversity.
That’s right, our KTM 530 XCR-W was propelled across the snow and without wheels. Some of you winter warriors might have heard of the Snow Hawk. This machine was created by AD Boivin and is essentially a snowmobile with a single ski attached up front rather than the traditional pair. For the rest of us who aren’t snow snobs, just know that while this alternative is a popular one with enthusiasts, it’s not generally accepted or found widespread across the sled-head spectrum. The Canadian company went a step further with the mono-ski concept and applied it to an entirely different group of enthusiasts – the moto crowd! The EXPLORER Smart All Terrain System turns your standard issue dirt bike into a powder hound. Our friends at OMA-KTM are dealers of this new product and owner Jeff Moffet loaned us one attached to the big 530.

Unlike other offerings on the burgeoning snow bike market, the ADB system separates itself by being universal and requiring no significant modifications. It’s basically as simple as removing the wheels and bolting on a track and ski. The rear sprocket stays attached to the hub/wheel to be tucked away in the garage, but the stock brake rotor is mounted to a drive wheel which sits on top of the track. The chain is routed through a series of sprockets which turn the drive in reverse, thus pushing the track forward in the proper direction. The rear track features 1.5-inch lugs that claw for traction and also acts as the direct interface with the drive wheel.

The track rolls on a single set of bogie wheels for extra stability and traction.
The track rolls on a single set of bogie wheels for extra stability and traction.
Under the 11.5-inch wide track is a single row of bogie wheels aligned through the center of the track. The bogies replace traditional sliders which gives the EXPLORER several advantages. First, the track is able to pivot from side to side which means that there is no need for rounded edges. The wide track is allowed to give the greatest traction available while minimizing lean resistance. Ultimately, the purpose is to leave as much of the 575 square inch footprint as possible when sidehilling or cornering while maintaining quick and responsive handling. A lack of sliders also allows the rubber track to flex and reduces friction heat. That means the EXPLORER can be ridden in the summer. Naturally, the first thing that comes to mind is a trip to the dunes where a continuous stream of paddles is much greater than what’s available from a standard motorcycle sand tire. Replacement tracks cost $500, but the sealed bearings and bogie wheels should help minimize damages from grit. We didn’t make it to the coast to verify, but check out the video to see for yourself.

The ski and track are both adjustable to accommodate snow conditions.
The ski and track are both adjustable to accommodate snow conditions.
The wheels obviously had to go, but otherwise, the only component that gets removed during installation is the front brake! Aside from climbing on a completely weird machine, the first thing I noticed after hoisting across the massive seat height was the disturbing lack of a front brake lever. As a regular dirt bike guy, this was pretty foreign, but once the riding got underway I never noticed it and had plenty of other things to keep my brain occupied.

We started our ride with the track in the middle of three positions; the standard setting for riding on varying surfaces. Moving it forward provides better performance in deep snow and extending it to the rear is preferable on hardpack. The entire process is as simple as loosening three nuts on each side of the aluminum frame and rotating the track as needed. Though possible to do on the trail as conditions change, Moffet was quick to point out that adjusting the track should be done on as even and level of a surface as possible to ensure equal adjustment on either side. Also, a set of stabilizer bars attach in front of the drive wheel and mount to a bracket on the footpegs. These keep the track square much like chain tensioners for a standard wheel.

Riding the EXPLORER takes some getting used to  but the learning curve is part of the fun.
Riding the EXPLORER takes some getting used to, but the learning curve is part of the fun.
The front ski is also adjustable. It’s the exact same as the unit found on the Snow Hawk with an anti-darting component that keep it from wandering and helps straight-line stability. By moving the fork adapter up or down, the front end has up to four inches of movement. The deeper the snow, the higher up to help increase flotation. Also, the Twin Axis ski can pivot six degrees from perpendicular. Allowing minimal flex in either direction while keeping the ski flat on the ground provides extra stability.

When people ask me what the EXPLORER is like, the first two words out of my mouth are fun and weird. There is definitely a learning curve associated with riding a dirt bike sans wheels. I’m no snow expert, but I quickly began an in-depth examination of the stuff. Crashing in the snow is generally much nicer than dirt, that’s for sure. The bike gets surprising traction from both ends. The track claws forward and our best results were found when riding a gear high and keeping the rpm levels down, much like regular sand riding. This can be difficult to achieve at times because it takes serious power to get around. AD Boivin claims the system can be used on any bike 250cc or larger, but we doubt it would be worthwhile on anything less than a 450.

Momentum is definitely a necessity, but the bike accelerates from a stop or slow speeds without digging excessively. The only time we buried the rear end was when the rider made a mistake and dropped into a hole. Otherwise it never got stuck. Moffet claims that deep powder will cause more problems, but a handy recovery bar is attached to the track frame and one on the front ski to help get things moving again.

We only had to dig it our once and it s definitely easier than freeing a sled.
We only had to dig it out once and it's definitely easier than freeing a sled.
Handling on the bike is quick compared to our expectations. The system is heavy but the bike still goes side-to-side with ease. We were disappointed in ourselves more than anything. The wide front ski never failed us, but we failed to put enough faith in it to really get the bike laid over. Moffet has ridden the bike considerably more and his familiarity showed. He confirmed that it only gets better the more you ride it.

One of the biggest issues was trying to figure out if sitting or standing worked better. Sitting definitely has the advantage in turns, but we were bucked more than once by a hidden obstacle. Standing also allowed us to control the bike more with our legs when riding through whoops. Groomed trails proved to be the worst sections for the bike. The packed snow is often icy or whooped and the EXPLORER tends to wander around. Again, the sensation is very similar to sand riding, but easing the throttle during a swap is even worse in the snow. We high-sided several times.

Getting off the groomed trails is where the bike does best. Get a few buddies on them and let the fun begin.
Getting off the groomed trails is where the bike does best. Get a few buddies on them and let the fun begin.
However, get off the trails and into the trees and the bike really shines. This is where it was designed to go. Being able to pick a faraway point and head straight for it without fighting the debris that hinders dirt trailblazing is a great feeling. The fork is better than the shock at absorbing impacts from buried logs and other forest debris. Even though we like not having to replace the swingarm and rear shock, we suspect that the leverage angles designed for a tire’s contact patch aren’t quite right for the longer track. The WP shock felt stiff and the stroke is shortened considerably.

Owning a snow bike has other benefits aside from the entertaining trail antics and a newfound sense of freedom. First off, at $3100 it’s a lot cheaper than a snowmobile. Secondly, storing and hauling a sled requires lots of garage and trailer space, but the bike kit can be tucked away on a single shelf. We all hate washing our bikes, but when the ski is attached you can basically just let the thing dry off, and when the trails thaw out it only requires 60-90 minutes to complete the swap.

Depending on who you ride with, the EXPLORER might be for you. If your buddies want to wail down groomed trails all day then it won’t work, but a snow bike kit can hang with the larger machines in boondocking and even work better carving the trees. Ultimately, this might be the best way to spend the winter months, especially if you could get a few of your pals to equip their bikes as well.

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