Converting a snowmobile for use in the desert makes so much sense that it's a wonder no one thought of it before.
Over sand and sea
I couldn't help but think of Cloutier as this black, snowmobile-like machine was driven off the trailer in front of me, because I wasn't standing on a field of snow in my heavy snowsuit, but on the edge of endless sand dunes outside of Dubai in my desert riding gear, waiting to test the Sand-X 800 T-ATV (tracked all-terrain vehicle). The idea is simple, yet it makes sense for this terrain; so much sense that it's a wonder no one thought of it before. Partial machines come from the Bombardier snowmobile factory in Quebec, Canada, and about 250 different parts are added right here in Abu Dhabi to make it suitable for desert duty, including ribbed sand tyres instead of skis, a larger radiator in the front, special sliders for the kevlar track and sealed bearings.
Urs Eiselin, the man behind the venture here, says the Sand-X is safer than quad bikes or motorcycles because of its low centre of gravity. The track keeps full contact with the sand and the front wheels are spread wider than the body, making sharper turns at speed and traversing dunes sideways possible. Indeed, the seating position on the Sand-X is lower than a quad bike, and the machine feels solid. But when the 800cc, two-cylinder, two-stroke engine is fired up and the thumb throttle is pushed, you find that the Sand-X is different from quads in an entirely different way.
The acceleration of this beast is almost unthinkable - 0-to-100kph comes in less than three seconds. That's quicker than a Ferrari, and it's on sand. The grip from the track is impressive, as it grabs hold immediately, allowing the full 158hp of the roaring engine to slingshot it ahead and scare the life out of an unsuspecting rider. If there is enough space, the machine will power up to a top speed of 185kph, which should come quickly.
Going forward is just a matter of using the throttle. Power goes through a belt-driven, constantly variable transmission, so there are no gears to shift through, making the Sand-X even easier to ride. It has a brake, but the machine slows as soon as the throttle is lifted, which also makes going up and down steep hills easier. The very design of the Sand-X means that traversing dunes is a straightforward affair, and by that I mean point it straight up a dune, punch the throttle and go over the top, no matter how pointed it is or how steep the other side. The grippy track stays in full contact with the sand, and it won't ever get hung up. I even came to a full stop halfway up a steep dune, then started back up again with no problem. A truck, quad or motocross bike would have to come back down - and that would usually mean fall down - for another run up the face. I can't think of another vehicle that can do that; it's like this machine was designed for the desert as opposed to the snow.
Taking bowls and hills at steep sideways angles was a thrill, knowing that the manoeuvres would be impossible on other vehicles, especially at lower speeds. The stability is shocking to someone on a Sand-X for the first time, but with so much power on hand there are liable to be limits. I didn't find them, thankfully. Turning is incredibly similar to a ski-equipped snowmobile on snow. At higher speeds it shows some float but generally goes where you point it; at lower speeds, the front end pushes out no matter the turn on the handlebars, and it takes some technique to get a tight circle. In all cases, the rider must lean hard into the turns, which can get tiring after a while with such a heavy vehicle (around 200kg) that doesn't lean, especially if you have a lot of tight pivots to make.
But a short run in the desert showed the Sand-X is brilliant. At high speeds, even on rough ground and going around bushes and dunes, it was rock-solid with not a whiff of turning over. It's also comfortable and stable enough to stay sitting over all but the roughest of terrain, which makes it easier on your legs, though when you do have to get up you'll find it's a longer way to go compared with a motorcycle, because of the riding position. But a day's run in the desert would be no problem on the Sand-X, especially with its advertised fuel range of more than 300km.
Eiselin says he plans to run the Sand-X at the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, and boasts that he'll beat the quad bikes "by hours". But first, he must wait for homologation by the FIM, the international motorcycle racing body, for a special class for the Sand-X, as it doesn't fit into the quad bike class. He hopes to have a team ready for the 2011 event. Already, according to Eiselin, he's sold hundreds of Sand-X vehicles to the military and the royal families of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. But, at Dh105,000 each - around three times the price of a good quad bike - it's easy to see why you don't see more in the desert on the weekends. Which is a shame, really, because the Sand-X s an absolute blast for desert rats and adrenaline junkies alike. I just wish I had thought of the idea myself.