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After injury, Sewell switches to ski biking

Sport provides way for adaptive athletes to continue riding
Kellus Sewell rides his ski bike down the slopes of a mountain in Finland. Sewell switched from skiing to ski biking after he broke his tibia. (Courtesy of Kellus Sewell)

Kellus Sewell said he started alpine skiing about 40 years ago when he was in his late 30s at the Eaglecrest Ski Area in Alaska. He moved to Durango in 1999 with his partner, Carol Woodward, and continued skiing.

He said his friends always wanted him to ski in front of them because he went so fast.

“They always used to make me go first because they because they didn’t want me behind them,” he said.

A bad crash on Upper Hades at Purgatory, however, resulted in a broken tibia and nearly ended his time sliding down the snow. After several surgeries, he tried skiing again, but fell and broke five screws in his leg.

Sewell, however, still didn’t want to stop skiing. Instead, he transitioned to riding down Purgatory’s slopes a ski bike.

“He broke his leg seriously and didn’t want to give up skiing, but it was too painful for him to continue,” said Barry Mason, a volunteer trainer for the past 19 years at adaptive sports in Durango. “I put him on a ski bike and he fell in love with it.”

“It’s so easy,” Sewell said. “It’s easier than riding a bike.”

There are two main types of ski bikes: ones where the riders still wear small skis on their feet and other ones where the riders ski with their feet on pegs where pedals would be.

Sewell straps skis to snowboard boots to help him control the bike. He also has different skis for different conditions that he can put on his Stahlmark bike.

“Skiing is skiing, whether you’re on skis or a ski bike,” Mason said, noting that you still have to pressure your edges the same way to turn. “Ski biking is the same as riding a bike, the only difference is bikes have brakes and ski bikes don’t.”

The bikes are also continuing to evolve.

“Ski bikes are the same as mountain bikes – the technology is constantly improving,” Mason said. “Originally, they had no springs or hydraulic dampeners up front, but they’ve made them more efficient and more comfortable. And now they’re also using shaped skis for hard pack and big wide skis to float powder.”

The shocks on Sewell’s bike, for instance, are designed to absorb the impact of dropping cliffs.

Sewell said the only disadvantage is the ski bikes are kind of heavy. The ski bikes also count as a person on the lift, meaning two ski bikers wouldn’t be able to share a double chair; they’d fill a quad chair.

Mason also certified Sewell to ride a ski bike at ski areas, but said Purgatory has since gotten rid of the certification requirement. The certification entails how to get on and off a chairlift without affecting other patrons, how to follow the skier’s responsibility code and also how to keep a ski bike under control and how to stop it.

Every ski area has different rules, however, and some only allow ski bikes for adaptive athletes.

Sewell actually traveled to Finland and Sweden to ride his ski bike above the Arctic Circle. He called the skiing in Finland “fantastic,” but admitted to getting cliffed out and needing help from ski patrol.

“He encouraged me to contact patrol tomorrow and they would be happy to load my ski bike in a wagon and accompany me wherever I wanted to go, which was very much appreciated and certainly not expected,” Sewell said.

Mason said ski bikes “are most optimal on groomed blues and greens.”

One of the women Mason trained, Anne Fields, can ride moguls and black diamonds on her bike. She also won a national Nastar Ski bike championship.

Sewell said his favorite runs are off of chair 8 at Purgatory.

“I immediately go to eight,” he said. “It’s steeper so you get more speed. And you can get away from the rest of the skiers.”

Ski biking has also grown over the years, with many adaptive athletes giving it a go.

“Ski biking is probably the fastest growing adaptive sport,” Mason said. “It’s easy to learn, fast to learn and learning curve doesn’t include a lot of falling. I’ve started a lot of people on a ski bike. It’s ideal for anyone with balance issues or weak legs.”

While ski biking is good for adaptive athletes, it’s good for everyone else too.

“I’m able-bodied and I love to ride it,” Mason said. “It’s a way anyone can do the mountain. It’s phenomenal for an adaptive person, but you don’t have to be distinguished as adaptive to be on a ski bike.”

Sewell said people who want to get out on the slopes but are scared of downhill skiing should try to ride a ski bike. “They’ll love it,” he said.

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