Europe | Norway
December 4, 2007
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Bobsleigh - Weekend Report

Norwegian adventure on the Lillehammer Olympic track.

Bobsled Approaching 5G
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Want to do something really different for the weekend? How about bob-sledding down a full length, no-holds-barred Olympic course? Bobsledding and cousins, luging and skeletoning, offer the fastest way of moving on ice. Not just that, Olympic standards dictate a minimum of 15 sharp turns, giving you a privileged first-hand view of what it’s like to whip through hairpin turns at 90 mph clamped to a vertical wall of ice by centrifugal force alone. (Hint: think spin drier in a deep freeze, except that it’s worse.) Pulling over 5G’s acceleration, bobsleigh leaves even the mightiest roller-coaster in the dust. The only rides more extreme are a jet fighter in a dogfight or a rocket launch.

For information on organising your own bobsled weekend click here.

Your local track

Given the huge costs of constructing a track, bobsleigh is not a sport you can reasonably expect to find down at your local leisure centre. In fact, there’s not a single course in Britain. But of the approximately 20 tracks worldwide, over half are within around two hours flying of London. There are a handful of runs scattered across the Alps, former East Germany, and, bizarrely, pancake-flat Latvia as well. But Lillehammer in Norway makes the ideal weekend choice, with hassle-free access, de facto use of English—very reassuring when last minute safety reminders are shouted out, and a reliably arctic winter.

Olympic Lillehammer

Little-known, Lillehammer arrived on the scene as the surprise venue for the 1994 Winter Olympics. At the time there were arched Gallic eyebrows and mutterings about lack of slope, but one thing there wasn’t ever any argument about was the Arctic cold. This is a town where salting the roads in winter is a waste of time—there are cheaper ways to make frozen brine; Each December pedestrians dig out their trekking poles and crampons to negotiate the streets, and shoppers tote sledges rather than shopping trolleys. Even the grannies are issued with all-terrain Zimmer-frames.

But cold as it is, the Olympic bobsleigh facilities aren’t to be found in Lillehammer itself. They’re around 15 km away, on the shadowed slopes of the sombre glacial trench that runs through the bleak moors to the north of town. And even here, where the course laces its way through sparse birch forest, much of the track is also shielded from any residual sun by heavy-duty canvas awnings.

Meeting the beast

So much for the stalling—sorry, background. I’m here to check out how it feels. Stepping out from the taxi in snow-soft quiet, I decide it might be sensible first to walk the route. In the weak afternoon light my eyes are drawn to the dully gleaming ice on the vertically-banked curves. It’s old and greying, patterned by the scars of the season’s steel runners. At intervals the shiny surface is streaked with unfortunate red—steering guides to help the drivers judge the curves. (At this point I wonder whether Norwegians have a more refined sense of humour than I had previously given them credit for, or is the choice of colour merely intimidatory?) In the silence and isolation, the atmosphere is malevolent.

“Scary but manageable” is my considered verdict—although the ‘manageable’ bit wavers slightly when I take a close peer down the track from the lower women’s start—I decide against doing the same from the men’s start at the top: best save that for later.

No return

Course inspection over, I’m summoned by tannoy back to base and bundle into an old crew bus with my driver, brakeman and fellow passenger. Soon enough, we reach the (very) top and it’s time to go. While the bob is being winched into place, I’m breezily briefed. “Everything’s simple: grab a helmet, climb inside, brace your knees, and grip like hell."

It’s at this point—inside the stationary bob, beyond turning back—that fear takes brief but forceful hold. Brief because, as the bob begins inexorably to move away, I find my thoughts rapidly flicking onto more practical issues (like am I slipping out).

With gathering speed, the dull rumble of the ice grows beneath my legs to reach a growling roar. The first turn sees a surge of adrenalin, then a second, third, fourth—each sharper and faster than the last. Once gravity really gets a grip, the bob hurtles through the course with the turns now coming one on top of the other too fast to count. As the twisting acceleration nails me to the sled, and my shoulder and neck muscles start to scream, the dominant and not wholly attractive sensation is of my head being forced slowly, but irresistibly, between my knees. (It’s at a time like this that you appreciate that the sport’s powers-that-be are not simply killjoys in limiting bob runs to a minute or so in length.) Thankfully, just as I am beginning to think my neck won’t hold out much longer, the track abruptly straightens up, the brakes are flung on, in we grind to a halt in a freezing spray of ice.

Where at the beginning there was gnawing fear, it’s now replaced by unconstrained euphoria. I’ve survived, and, hey, it was actually sort of fun.

Some, a few, climb out and set up another run right there and then. If that’s you, beware: you’re well on the way to being hooked, for if you’re a speed junkie there really is very little to match the cold, the ice and the G’s. For me, however, once is enough. It’s an experience I’ll never forget: an amazing adventure, even if next time I’ll leave it to the pros.

For information on organising your own bobsled weekend click here.
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