By Bill Gehn
Everyone has a different idea as to what constitutes the “perfect sled”. To some it would be one that climbs higher, to others it would be one that goes faster, to yet another it would be one that goes through the bumps with the least disruption. In reality, each of us has an idea of what would make a sled perfect, which in reality is a combination of our most favorable attributes.
With this in mind, there are a number of snowmobilers whose idea of a perfect sled would have adequate power to get them around, but not so much that it scares the hell out of them. It would have an incredibly smooth ride quality, able to soak up the bumps on the trail for great comfort. It would have light and easy steering, yet able to go around corners with precision. It would have an extremely durable motor, one that is both clean and quiet and gets incredible fuel economy. The sled would be light enough for one person to move it around, even if you got stuck. It would provide adequate protection from the elements, and have enough cargo capacity to carry some essentials.
If this sounds like a pretty nice trail sled, you are one of these riders who do not care about top speed, or high-flying jumps. You want a turn-key reliable sled that you can go snowmobiling with, trouble-free for thousands of miles. What follows is the quest by one individual named Bill Gehn at building what he believed would be his perfect sled. There are many snowmobilers who can identify with Bill’s efforts. Clearly not for everyone, but a sled like this is still, to this day, many rider’s idea of the “perfect sled”.
You and I, we snowmobile for the excitement. There is always the chance of a new experience. Roads & dirt trails are essentially the same, every ride. But give us winter! There is nothing like laying first tracks on your favorite haunt. Discovering a new area brings out the kid in most of us. Whether it is steep & deep, the local corridor, or that special trail you’ve crafted in your woods, you have an epic ride locked in your memory that keeps calling you back.
Part of the epic ride is having the “perfect sled”. Execution varies greatly among riders, often with strong opinions on what qualifies as a “perfect sled”. Several people have asked to hear about my latest “perfect sled”. I have spent 45 years riding & wrenching on these escape machines, so I hope you find my experiences valuable in your quest building your own “perfect sled”.
Back in my early days, reliability & speed were king for me. Getting stranded with fouled plugs or melted hyfax were buzz kills I learned to eliminate. Years later, I noticed my back was sore after long days on the trail. Middle age had arrived, comfort became the next quest, and the M-10 by Team Fast has been my answer since 1993, when my 1981 Polaris Centurion 500 got an M-10.
In 2010, after researching & riding many sleds, including several back-to-back sessions with the Polaris Rush, Arctic F6, & Ski-Doo XP, I decided that I preferred the industry-leading light weight, flickable and playful character of the XP 120” chassis. Besides the arresting stealth-styling, I was also impressed with the E-TEC engine and the modular design of the XP, which allows quick changes of seats, windshields, and baggage.
When Ski-Doo offered the black X package on the 2011 MX-Z, I was hooked, & got the 600 E-TEC. After 1 season of spinal abuse working with the stock skid, I gave up & installed the M-20 Airwave with on-board air compressor & on-the-fly pressure adjustment. The improvement was insanely huge. Ride all day, and your arms may be tired, but your back is fine, no matter the terrain. Gerard Karpik (of Team Fast) is a snowmobile wizard, and my thanks to him for extending my riding life. I added a tall windshield, the knee air deflectors from the Ski-Doo XP touring sleds, and the excellent Ski-Doo shape-holding handlebar gauntlets, to make it comfortable to ride below zero. This is my “perfect sled” for performance trail riding, and for playing off trail with the boys.
For relaxed cruising and leisurely jaunts in the woods, I wanted to try the new Ski-Doo 600 ACE. I also wanted to try the “then new” Ski-Doo rear suspension. I test rode 2 different sleds, dialing in the preload & damping to my liking, but found that the M-20 in 120” track length still had a superior ride for where and how I ride. I bought a used 2012 MX-Z ACE 600 Sport, and I have been charmed by this engine. This 4-stroke is light enough to pick up & drag out of a tight spot in the woods. It is so quiet that you can have a conversation with your passenger, and your cross-country ski buddies don’t complain about 2-stroke odor when you give their kids rides.
Again, I endured a few rides with the stock skid, and then duplicated my M-20 install, knee wind deflectors, plus mirrors. I also added the Hygear Sli-Cast adjustable castor & camber A-Arm kit, which eliminated the nervous XP headshake. I enjoyed a more settled steering experience, much like the Indy, while retaining the playful nature & excellent corner carving. I rode this setup for a week-long trip in Upper Michigan in 2105, and again in 2016, and was loving every minute of it. Yes, I had it pinned for 5 minutes on some rail grades, but the finger-walk to 70+ mph was enough to keep up with my group. Later one day, my co-riders fatigued on the relentless “U.P. Trail Chop”, and submitted to riding 10 mph through the torturous washboard. After a mile, I couldn’t stand it, so I spooled up to 50 mph & comfortably floated past them to lead the final miles into Grand Marais, MI. This was proof of the M-20’s falling rate & air ride concept; my spine was fine. A day of bumps on a conventional rising rate suspension takes a toll on your body. A co-rider admitted my M-20 sled rode better than his latest “improved” sled. We are riding through bumpy trails, not hitting driveway approaches at high speed, so why do I need a sled capable of doing that which sacrifices ride comfort for crazy capability? It’s not a matter of good or bad, it is a matter of matching your sled’s capabilities to how and where you ride.
As another direct comparison, in 2012, on the whooped-out Gunflint Trail, a co-rider 10 years younger than me was popping Advil for lunch at Hungry Jack’s, and had to grab his pant leg to lift & swing his leg over the seat of his sled. He was riding a 2011 MXZ Renegade 1200, and he was taking a beating on the rough trails. I was never so glad to be riding my 120” M-20, able to float through the bumps with ease.
Late in the 2014-2015 season, I installed Assault front air shocks, also from Team Fast. The feeling of riding on air, both in front and out back, with the rolling air bag technology isolating you from most all of the trail junk, is surreal; this ride comfort increase is amazing. Compared to the stock front shocks, it feels like there is a bit more lean into turns, but then the stabilizer bar takes charge & holds your line. High performance riders may find this unsettling at first, but you’ll get used to it and soon be railing the corners with reckless abandon. (Make sure to set your air pressure/ preload properly. I found that 40 psi works best for the 600 ACE Assault ski shocks, and 35 psi for the 600 E-TEC.)
With the Ski-Doo 2-up quick change seat, I can bring a passenger, and share with them the best possible ride experience that our sport has to offer. Granted, the seat is not heated, and it doesn’t have heated handgrips for the passenger, but you get the point.
Some may say that spending $2K is too much cha-ching for an accessory rear suspension. If trails were always as smooth as pavement or if we were always catching big air, I would agree, however, most of us know how frequently trail chop can appear on a busy weekend, but we ride the rough stuff anyway. I would ask you to compare the cost and inconvenience of visits to the chiropractor, or back surgery, or constant back pain. An M-20 is insurance for your back health, and money well spent; it will change the way you feel about bumpy trails; if you are like me, you will look forward to them! No longer do I need to slow down, I just ride right through the chop and let the suspension do its job.
As a MNUSA Region 5 Director, I plan to continue my work as a snowmobile “ambassador”, and my custom 2012 MX-Z ACE 600 Sport is my “perfect sled” for the job of introducing future riders to snowmobiling, for relaxing rides, and for week-long saddlebag tours.
Good luck in your quest building your “Perfect Sled”. I’ll look for your grin out there in the white stuff.