SEELEY LAKE – Better hope you see August Lockwood coming, because you sure won't hear him riding behind his mutant snow beast.
Somewhere between a dogsled without the barking dogs and Anakin Skywalker’s pod-racer without the throbbing engines, Lockwood’s “snow track” out-performs its underwhelming name. He packed a cart with 990 rechargeable AA batteries and an 18-horsepower electric motor, wrapped a snowmobile tread around it, and added a hitch. Then he does anything he wants in the snow.
“This is built for deep-snow exploration,” Lockwood said. “I designed it to create a trail for fat-tire biking. In the winter, I do a lot of grooming for snowmobiles and cross-country skiers, and this does the same thing as my $50,000 PistenBully.”
Except it draws a 2-foot-wide path instead of the 9-foot swath preferred by snowmobilers and skate-skiers. That’s ideal for fat-tire riders, who chase steeper grades and tighter corners. Lockwood hooks a tub-sled behind his machine; a workaday Santa Claus with invisible reindeer. The snow track all but disappears in the fresh powder ahead of him, occasionally bursting through a drift like a dolphin surfing a wave.
Winter bikers got to experience Lockwood’s handiwork two weeks ago at the Marshall Mountain Fat Bike Race, and at the Ranch Club’s “Snow Golf” day a week earlier. MTB Missoula board member Alex Gallegos said the bike-sized grooming made an impression.
“For a fat-tire bike to ride through the snow, the surface needs to be relatively firm and packed,” Gallegos said. “They don’t pedal through deep powder, but they will float on top of a firm snow trail. A regular mountain bike tire would sink right in. This gives an opportunity for fat bikes to go where they don’t interfere with classic cross-country skiing trails.”
Lockwood also grooms several miles of trail in the Twin Creeks area northeast of Missoula for both bikers and skiers. The FatBike Missoula organization keeps its members updated on trail conditions through its Facebook page.
The snow track’s sound, or lack of it, may be its most remarkable feature. Compared to the rumble and exhaust of a typical snowmobile, Lockwood’s motor gets drowned out by the creaks and groans of the plastic sled it pulls.
That silence unnerved Lockwood when he first started messing with electric motors. A dock builder in the summer months, he said he had eight trucks and vans that were constantly breaking down. But he never had that kind of drama with his battery-powered hand tools. So one day he pulled the $1,500, 2,000-part gas engine out of his van and replaced it with a $2,500, two-part electric elevator motor.
“I started it up and right away, I thought, 'Oh no, it’s broken,'” he recalled. “There was all this noise. Then I realized it was just the normal noises a car makes – every squeak of a brake pad, vibration of the suspension system, rattle of a window. All those things that are covered by the sound of the internal combustion engine.”
Electric motors also benefit from much greater efficiency than comparable gas-powered engines. Internal combustion engines explode fuel in a cylinder, which pushes a piston back and forth. That energy has to be transferred to a rotary motion to turn a wheel. They work best at the middle of their power range, which is why cars need gear boxes to adapt their force to start a stationary car or keep it running at high speed.
In contrast, an electric motor spins a magnetic field. So its energy goes directly to twisting a driveshaft, and all its torque comes to bear the instant you turn it on. That makes it much better than a gas engine at going from full stop to fast motion.
That becomes valuable in some of the other projects Lockwood’s working on this winter. For example, his electric boat motor would pull a waterskier out of the water much better than a traditional gas motor, because it has more zero-to-zoom power. Smaller versions can fit on a bicycle frame to provide extra pedaling power on summer rides.
“A rancher I know looked at it and said it was most amazing thing she’d seen,” Lockwood said. “It was 30-below that morning, and she had to feed her cattle with a wheelbarrow to carry the hay bales. My machine is electric. It will start fine at any temperature and deliver quietly. It would also be great for ice-fishing.”
At the moment, Lockwood says he knows of just three or four other people who are working on similar electric-powered snow tracks. His design uses off-the-shelf parts and electronics, held together by his extensive trial-and-error experience. Lockwood scrounges the Internet looking for cast-off battery packs from manufacturers who started and abandoned electric car projects.
“I’ve got about three months of 18-hour days invested in this,” Lockwood said. “This one would cost about $10,000 to make. Batteries are what’s killing the industry right now. But when they come around, in 10 years I can say I’ve been doing this for a while.”