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Dream of the Mountain Man

The Design and Development of 2Moto’s RadiX.

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Cornice Bowl at Mammoth Mountain ski area blends a nasty reputation for difficult, dangerous ski runs with a stunning view of craggy, snow-covered mountain peaks, tall pine forest and, for most of the year, deep, powdery snow.

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On a sun-drenched afternoon, I sat on top of a KTM off-road bike on a lip of Cornice Bowl, soaking in the blue sky and eye-popping view. I reached this lofty perch by climbing a 700-foot black diamond ski slope with the KTM pinned in third gear and trailing a glorious 50-foot stream of snow roost.

As the sun warmed my jacket and snow hissed and melted on the bike’s engine, a little black cloud of concern floated into my brain. I came to the realization that now that I was on top of this sheer slab of snow, I had to ride back down the steep, snow-covered face. The longer I stared at the rippled white sheet of drifts hanging off the side of the mountain, the more my stomach churned.

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My predicament was created, at least indirectly, because of the efforts and interests of Vernal Forbes, a former Hewlett-Packard research and development product manager. Forbes worked and lived near Boise, Idaho and is an avid off-road motorcycle rider. A friend took him out snowmobiling in the early 1990s, and he found the experience lacking. He believed a motorcycle you could ride in the snow would be more fun.

Over the next few years, he began sketching the design for a machine that would add tracks to an off-road bike. When Hewlett-Packard closed his division in 1996, he opted to take early retirement to create, market and sell a conversion kit to transform a dirt bike into a snow-going
motorcycle.

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Development took time. Forbes invested all of his time and most of his money into building the track system. That was the beginning of an eight-year period of engineering and development.

By 1998, Forbes and his small team had a prototype machine that they tested on the snowy mountains near Idaho City. The tracked motorcycle wasn’t what they envisioned, but it worked well enough that the group knew that Forbes’ concept could become a reality.

In 2005, former Hewlett-Packard colleagues Bill King and Vard Williams quit their day jobs, permanently joined forces with Forbes and brought additional funds and manpower to the effort.

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In summer 2006, the 2Moto crew redesigned the machine. After years of late nights and long hours, they believed they finally had built a machine that would ride and feel like a dirt bike. They would need to test it in better snow to make sure they had it right.

After a long summer of waiting and tinkering, they would get their chance in October 2006.

The team found good snow on a glacier in Stewart, British Columbia, and put two prototypes on a truck and travelled 43 hours to the test site. Once in Stewart (which is only a few miles south of Hyder, Alaska), they helicoptered the bikes to the top of the Cambria Icefield and took a ride on a machine that embodied nearly a decade of investment and more than 15,000 hours of development. Within a few minutes, they had their answer.

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“We knew instantaneously that we had it right,” said Bill King, 2Moto vice president of research and development.

The crew tested the machine for two full days before they were rained off the glacier and found that they had engineered the tracks, suspension and ski such that the motorcycle performed as an off-rider would expect — in the snow.

“We aren’t selling a product,” King said. “We are building a new powersport.”

The RadiX is sold as a kit that you mount on your off-road bike. The kit consists of a driven rear track unit in place of the rear wheel, with a ski up front. It takes about 40 minutes to bolt the kit to a bike, and the kits fit most modern off-road bikes.

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The RadiX is a solidly-built piece of engineering that looks simple but incorporates more than 252 patent claims. The overbuilt unit consists of a 10.7  by 93-inch track with 2.1-inch lugs mounted on a custom-designed aluminium frame. The track uses super low-friction polyethylene slides similar to the hyfax sliders used on snowmobiles

The track is chain-driven, and the beefy billet drive train is designed to handle more than 100 horsepower with ease. The track can pivot left and right on a rear linkage, a feature that helps the machine navigate sidehills. A large disc brake on the jack hub slows the machine down.

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An adjustable 6-inch-wide, dual-carbide Simmons FlexiSki and a 6061-T6 aluminium extension bolt to the stock front suspension. The rear suspension offers 15 inches of travel at the rear of the track and uses two shocks. One is an Ohlins shock that mounts to the motorcycle and moves with the swingarm. The other is a custom unit on the track frame that dampens the front of the track.

Riders adapt very quickly to the bike. Pro rider David Pingree rode one of the bikes at Mammoth, and he became visibly more confident within about 10 minutes, throwing the machine into corners with gusto and leaping off a hump on the ski hill to soar 40 feet down. He later explained that the track-equipped bikes jump well, but you cannot correct much in the air.

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When I took a turn on the RadiX, I found it quite easy to ride. The front ski cuts and tracks tightly, and the bike feels natural and manoeuvrable. The track soaks up horsepower, and the normally eyeball-flattening RMZ450 had ample but not awe-inspiring power. Turning requires you to lean the motorcycle and turn on the throttle, and it takes a bit to adjust to that. While the ski bites very well, you can’t turn the motorcycle with just the handlebars.

King’s advice was to go out in the snow and lean it over until the handlebar dragged with the throttle on. I found an open meadow and leaned it over with the power on. After a few cuts, you quickly learn to trust that ski. It sticks far better than a wheel. Flick it over and gas it, and the bike will cut hard, tight and clean.

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Once you learn to turn, the real fun begins. You can snake the bike between the trees in a way that a snowmobiler can only dream about. The 2Moto bike transforms a snowy patch of woods into one giant piece of free-riding singletrack.     

The 2Moto crew hosted Ground Zero, a motocross race in winter 2009, and another race in Oregon in 2010. In 2009, they brought in John Dowd, Mike Metzger and a number of other well-known professionals to race the bikes. Dowd, in particular, adapted well to the bike, and 2Moto held a 2010 race at Timberline Lodge, a major ski resort on Mt. Hood, Oregon.

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Off-road riders also adapt well to the RadiX machines. Former Paris-to-Dakar racer Casey McCoy was on hand at Mammoth for a ride, and we went with him through open slopes and did some bushwacking snaking through the woods. The ability to explore remote areas struck a chord with McCoy.

“I’m not a moto-head. I like to be able to go places I ordinarily don’t go, and this thing does that,” McCoy said. “I’d do this over snowmobiling any day.”  
McCoy has it right. The RadiX makes snowmobiling seem, well, boring. I’d rather ride a RadiX, even when it led me to the top of a snowy mountain-rimmed ridge near Cornice Bowl wondering how to get down the mountain. The only chance I had was to ride, so I pointed the big KTM towards the bottom of the slope and dropped the clutch. The bike gained speed controllably. I leaned left and fed the engine a little throttle, and it rewarded me with a crisp cut that tossed up a six-foot-high wall of snow. I cut back right, digging in deep, and kept that rhythm rolling as I slalomed down the steep ski slope.

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At the bottom, I sat and grinned like an idiot for a few giddy minutes, then spun around and pointed the bike back up that hill to do it again.

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