Wednesday, March 20, 2013

At Long Last...Bobsledding!

This March, I did something I've always wanted to do. I took a ride on a bobsled.

Affinity for Bobsledding
Ever since I first saw this sport on TV during the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, I have been fascinated. The speed, the athletic ability needed to get the sled going, the bullet-like look of the sled, international competition...everything. Very cool.

A Team USA bobsled rumbles down the track
But, no mater how interesting I thought it was, where the heck is someone ever going to ride one? Certainly back in the 1980s, there was only one track in the entire North American continent - in Lake Placid. By 1988 Calgary had one when it hosted the Winter Olympics that year. So, I'm just saying, zero chance to experience the sport living in Seattle.

So, over the years I'd make a point to view the bobsled competition each Winter Olympics. Usually, it's dominated by European nations such as Germany (and in the old days the East Germany), Switzerland, Austria, Italy and similar. Until very recently, the only U.S. success was way, way back in the early history of the sport. None the less, I always thought there was something compelling about the competition...and of course always a team to root for in the USA.

And then there was the 1993 movie, Cool Runnings that told a Hollywood-ized version of the real life formation of the Jamaican bobsled team - which, by the way, while obviously ironic given the tropical climate of Jamaica, is not all that absurd given the spectacular athletes they have in that nation.

In 2002, Salt Lake City hosted the Winter Olympics and another bobsled track was added to North America. And then in 2010 Whistler, BC hosted the Winter Olympics...building by all accounts the fastest bobsled/luge/skeleton tracks in the world.

Booking a Ride
Even though Whistler is about a five hour drive from Seattle, it never occurred to me that whoever ran that facility would have public rides available.

Then, this year we planned a ski weekend up at Whistler with some friends. For whatever reason, I decided to look into whether or not the bobsled run there had any public access. Lo and behold, yes...yes they did! For a price, you can book a spot on one of their public ride sessions. I knew I was in, but checked with my wife and the other couple we were to be at Whistler with to see if they wanted to do this too - and they did.

I booked us spots and looked forward to checking this sport out first hand after so long.

Our Bobsled Experience
We arrived at the designated time at the Whistler Sliding Center, which sits on the hillside above the Fairmont Hotel at Blackcomb, but not right at the track. There, we checked in, received a briefing on what to expect and got our helmets. The assembled group was pretty big. Since the sled can only hold three people + the driver, the groups were broken up to accommodate. Of course, our group was four people. That meant that one of us had to go alone with another two people. The Sliding Center team had already made that person me, so we just stuck with that. Diane and our fiends Kristi and Chris would be a group, and I'd go with another couple who were there own group of two. Not idea, but OK whatever.

The Whistler team drove groups up to the track where we stood at the start line.

Ready to bobsled!
Now, we were not starting at the very top start line, but rather about a third of the way down from there. They never said why this was, but it probably has to do with avoiding extremely high speeds and G-forces that any sled - filled with pros or novices - would generate if starting all the way at the top.

We also for the first time saw the sled we'd be going down the track in. The staff said that this version was "the luxury" model compared to competition sleds because it had higher sides, padded seats and cords to hang onto inside. In competitions, you would have lower sides so it'd be easier to jump in after pushing the sled to its start, you would not have seats and you would not have anything like chords to hold onto.

The sled we rode
My group's time came up and we got in. The other two people in my sled were a couple from Australia. The guy was quite tall...6ft 6 maybe and in good shape...and his girlfriend small. I'm 6f 2 and (I believe) in good shape. Anyway, he joked that with me and him in the sled we were bound to have the fastest time.

With this "public" sledding, you don't push the bobsled yourself and jump in. Back at the check in center, the lady there said that the reason they don't do that with us is that she could "guarantee that not all of us would get in the sled." I am 100% sure she was correct. So, instead, we took our seats one in front of the other and all behind our driver. With the construction of the first class track for the Olympics, Whistler has become a haven for bobsled teams - new, old, training or otherwise. So, there is no shortage of drivers willing to take some tourists down the track for a little extra dough.

In the sled with my new Australian friends. No driver yet.
Sitting at a standstill, the track manager gave us last minute instructions on how to ride. Among the things he said was to grip onto the chords on the inside of the sled walls for balance and to push out with our arms against the inside of the sled. Both these actions help cement your spot in the sled as it jolts down the track. He also said that while competitive bobsled teams all duck down behind the driver for maximum aerodynamics, he encouraged us to keep our heads up and look around as we went down.

And that was that. Next thing you know, the driver jumped in, the track staff slapped down the visors on our helmets and shoved us off down the track.

Push start from the crew
So what was it like? Wow. I'll just say wow. The push got us going, but not too fast. This changed quickly. The sled picked up speed and as it entered the first turn it rode up just a bit on the curved wall. From there, the sled just seemed to accelerate. All of a sudden we were absolutely ROCKETING down the track. The white walls blurred by, the roaring sound of the fiberglass and metal bullet announced our presence and I was loving it. Again, wow!

Inside the sled, you move around a little bit...kind of a shaking, but not too bad in my opinion. As for what you can see, well, moving your head around a lot is not too advised because of the speed and G-forces. You don't want to hurt yourself. I kept my head as still as possible and looked around just with my eyes. Mostly what you see is the track in front of you. It was fun to see us climb the curving walls in the turns and see how straight the driver could keep the sled in the flat straights. Right at the end of the run, the sled hit the biggest turn. This meant we were at max speed hitting the longest turn...and that generates the most G-forces on the body. From there, we straightened out and hit the finish line and then the inclined section that naturally slowed the sled to a stop in the finish area.

Coming into the finish
All of this was exhilarating and a bit scary...exactly what I thought it would be like. The sensation of speed was unlike anything I'd experienced before. And the whole thing was over in about 40 seconds. Which, as it turned out, was the fastest time of the session at that point. The Australian was right.

As I stepped out of the sled, my two thoughts were: this was AWESOME and I WANT TO GO AGAIN RIGHT NOW! But, that was not to be. The whole experience you pay for only gets you one ride down the track. Want to do more? Come back for the next public session with your wallet or get involved in the sport. Neither are options for me. So, I reluctantly stepped out and onto the platform.

Next, I waited for Diane's sled to hit the track. Standing down at the finish, you could hear the track staff announce that the next sled was on the track. Very soon, you could hear the sled coming down the track and then it flashed by in one of the turns visible at the finish...and soon enough, Diane and our friends were arriving at the finish.

And with that, we were done. They unloaded from their sled, we chatted up one of the drivers for a few minutes and then it was back in the bus and back to the Siding Center where we returned our helmets and said goodbye to the staff. We made an immediate bee-line for Creekbread Pizza for dinner and to relive our runs.

All told, I am very pleased with our bobsled experience. If you get a chance, you should do this too. It really was as fun as I thought it would be and I was at long last able to fulfill one of my long term ambitions. Next time I watch the Olympics bobsled competition, I'll have just a bit more appreciation of what's going on and how it feels to be screaming down the track in one of those machines.

NOTE: All pictures in this post except the Team USA sled were taken by Marc Osborn. Pictures taken by Marc Osborn are not permitted for any use without prior written permission from him.

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