What A Rush! Coach Tries Bobsleighing
Who can resist the gravity-powered rocket that is the bobsleigh? Coach accepts an invitation to “make a descent”
Coach has a go on a seven seater bobsleigh at Igls and interviews bobsleigh coach Sean Olsson, winner of an Olympic bronze medal for four-man bob. Plus the best places to try bobsleighing around the world.
What a Rush! Coach Tries Bobsleighing
Few announcements cause the mind to wander faster than a safety briefing, but the words “A crash will go on for ever” can certainly snap a passenger’s attention back into focus when preparing to board a ride. “If you do go over though,” the safety official went on, cheerfully, “and you feel your skin scraping against the track, just hold tight, tuck your shoulder in, and jam your helmet against the ice.” Reassuring words.
I had earlier witnessed first hand exactly what a helmet “jammed against the ice” looks like, on arrival at the foot of the “Bobbahn”, in Igls, Austria; 1,478 icy metres of Olympic bobsleigh, luge and skeleton track. Standing on a little metal footbridge over the slippery chute, taking in the steep descent for the first time, I (not unreasonably, I felt) imagined that the heroic “sliders” – to use the jargon – would be coming down the track.
Instead, a red blur shot under the bridge from behind me and rocketed up the slope. Bobs, luges and skeletons generate such velocity as they plummet down the mountainside that they require a steep climb at the end to help decelerate. Unfortunately two members of the Austrian military had flipped their two-man bob over, and it was now scraping its way up the hill on its side, the occupants kindly demonstrating the correct way to jam one’s head against ice at 100km/h. I noted that it generates a sort of speedy rhythmic bounce.
As the overturned schlitten slowed at the crest of the slope, this test of the soldiers’ fortitude seemed mercifully complete. But no. Gravity being nothing if not dependable, especially where ice is involved, the unfortunate sportsmen then slid back down the slope, gathering speed and providing a second safety demonstration to those of us waiting to experience the thrills of the bobsleigh for ourselves.
The bobsleigh has always held an appeal to anyone who has watched the winter Olympics – it’s the only sport which approximates a ride at the funfair. Who wouldn’t want a go? Traditionally a sport of German-speakers, soldiers and toffs (Prince Albert of Monaco used to pilot his national team, and bobsleighs are one of the most expensive pieces of equipment in the sports shop, after all), its popularity has recently surged for stag events, bucket-listers and sundry seekers of thrills. This ride came courtesy of Nissan, who decided to celebrate the success of its seven-seater X-Trail SUV by challenging its engineers to build a seven-seater bobsled and invited the media to sample its delights.
Unlike the handsomely appointed X-Trail, a bobsleigh is a little basic inside, primitive even, with the feel of a high-sided canoe, entirely devoid of safety features and unvisited by the padding supplier. Even loading the beast with passengers was an event – the great mystery of bobsleighing is how competitors slot themselves in so efficiently. Getting the astronauts on the space shuttle probably required less fuss than our “boarding”. Once accommodated, you just sit on the floor, hold on to a piece of rope along each side and wait for someone to push you over the edge.
If you’re looking to shed some flab or are seeking the best way to sculpt washboard abs, the bobsleigh is not the fastest route to satisfaction. As the fastest route down this particular mountain, though, it’s peerless. From an initial gentle slide, it accelerates quickly through the banked curves until the sensation of speed is thrilling. It travels at over 100km/h, but speed is relative – a function of how close one’s head is to a very hard surface, multiplied by the degree of impossibility of getting out. So, very fast.
At the bottom, all too soon, all you are left with is an adrenaline surge, a hot face and a sense of what it must feel like to try to get out of a bath with six other men at the same time. The realisation also dawns that it’s perhaps not quite as dangerous as it first seems to the spectator – there are no ambulance ranks or itinerant hawkers of neck braces hovering at the journey’s end. But it is a great source of pleasure, and as Coach’s mantra is “do something”, this is definitely something one should do. After all, the tyranny of the scales shouldn’t be the only motive for wishing to quicken the circulation.
The Bobsleigh Coach
Sean Olsson won an Olympic bronze in the four-man bob at Nagano, Japan, in 1998, and is now bobsleigh coach to the British Army. He also “chauffeured” Coach down the track at Igls
How do you coach a bobsleigh team?
If it’s novices, then the basics of how to train, understand the track and the principles of driving. With the more senior teams, it’s refining those aspects. It’s a sport where you’re dealing with hundredths of a second, so rather than trying to create a second in one particular area you try and create a tenth of a second in ten different areas.
What makes a good bobsleigher?
The athleticism [required] is a power-based combination of speed and strength, so a lot of guys have a track and field background, rugby, powerlifting, and then they bolt a specialist training programme on. The technical side of the push is quite unique. We’ve had top athletes who were very quick sprinters, but pushing a 200kg object on ice and then downhill where the object begins to run away from you and you’ve got to decide to either get in or let go because this thing is travelling faster than you… It doesn’t automatically follow that a world-class sprinter is a world-class bobsleigher.
How do you train people to jump in so quickly? It took Coach literally minutes to get in whereas you have less than a couple of seconds…
In preparation for the ’98 Games we’d spend hours sat in the garage just jumping in and out until it got to the point where we could do it blindfold. There’s also a sequence to sitting down. You don’t just become an individual and say, “Right, I’m in, I’ll get myself sorted”, you wait for your millisecond of time so that you all sit down together as a unit and it keeps the energy of the group push going forward. It’s almost like a gymnastic exercise with the stealth and how “quiet” it’s got to be.
Have you ever left a passenger behind?
It’s happened to me in a two-man where a guy didn’t make it. I’ve also seen guys bundled in facing backwards, but it was an area I identified very early on in my four-man career and was something I religiously practised with a new crew, so as well as maintaining the optimum performance you must never lose a guy – that’s instant disqualification.
How can people get involved in the UK?
In the military you can attend ice camps for the sliding ice sports – skeleton, bobsleigh and luge – and that’s something I’m one of the head coaches for, but as a civilian, I guess you just approach the British Bobsleigh Association. They don’t actually run a bob school, you have to try and get involved as an athlete and then develop as a driver. It’s not something you find on the street corner or at your local gym, but if you were really keen it’s not impossible.
What would you say to people who might be interested?
It’s a little-known but fantastic sport. The excitement of the team thing, the discipline, the equipment, the technology, the travel and locations, these are the reasons why I stayed in the sport for so long and persevered to win a big medal.
The Best Places To Bobsleigh
A run-down of the nine best places all around the world to try bobsleighing, from St Moritz to Salt Lake City.
St Moritz-Celerina, Switzerland
St Moritz was the site of the invention of bobsleighing – first conceived by a British hotelier attempting to entice tourists to stick around through the winter. The track opened in 1904 and has evolved with the sport, being reconstructed several times to keep up with faster and faster sleds. It’s also the only naturally refrigerated track in the world and, just as importantly, the only one where a standard ticket for a run with a professional pilot entitles you to a free glass of bubbly afterwards. Until 6th March, then closed until December, from CHF250 (around £179), olympia-bobrun.ch (opens in new tab)
La Plagne, Meribel, France
France’s only bobsleigh track, La Plagne, splits its week into two parts: Monday to Thursday is for competitors from all over the world, while at the weekend anyone can hop in a sled (with a driver – they’re not maniacs) and have a go. The track, featured in the 1992 Winter Olympics, boasts an impressively disorienting 19 turns, and the Kanye Wests among you can travel to the top by helicopter. Until 8th April, then closed until December, from €122 (around £95), winter.la-plagne.com (opens in new tab)
Pronounced a lot like “Eagles” and often referred to by the name of nearby Innsbruck, the track at Igls functions as something of a prototype for other bobsleigh tracks – rebuilt in 1975 after hosting the 1964 Olympics, it was the first permanent artificially refrigerated one in the world. Primarily used for training and competitions, it features one of the only Kreisels in existence – a 270° turn that will test the sturdiest of constitutions. Until 31st March, with summer options in July and August, from €30 (around £23), olympiaworld.at (opens in new tab)
As popular with stag parties as with athletes, this track an hour outside Riga offers visitors the chance to ride with the Latvian bobsleigh team. They took a silver medal home from the last Winter Olympics, so they know what they’re talking about. The 16th and final turn is particularly notorious, earning the nickname “The Wall”. Until 31st March, with summer bobsleighing from May to October, from €50 (around £39), tourism.sigulda.lv (opens in new tab)
Cortina D’Ampezzo, Italy
The Eugenio Monti Track proudly holds the title of being the only bobsleigh track to ever be skied down by James Bond. Roger Moore’s Bond does it in For Your Eyes Only, casually waving to the bobsleighers in front of him while being chased by a baddie on a motorbike. The baddie ends up throwing the bike at him, naturally. Tragically a stuntman was killed filming the sequence – far from the only death to have occurred on one of the world’s most dangerous bobsleigh tracks. One for serious competitors only. Bobsleighers only, bobclubcortina.jimdo.com (opens in new tab)
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
If your knowledge of bobsleighing begins and ends with Jamaica’s Olympic efforts in Cool Runnings, you could do a lot worse than retracing the team’s steps. Canada Olympic Park remains intact from the 1988 Games, giving you plenty of opportunity to practice your delivery of “I see pride! I see power! I see a bad-ass mother who don’t take no crap off of nobody!” It doesn’t host anything competitive any more, but even enjoying the tourist experience, the Labyrinth – four turns in a row – is a doozy. Until 12th March, with summer bobsleighing available, from $149.95 (around £80), winsport.ca (opens in new tab)
Whistler, British Columbia, Canada
Built for the 2010 Winter Olympics, Whistler Sliding Centre is the fastest bobsleigh track in the world. Visitors being piloted down the track by an experienced driver will easily reach 125km/h, and competitors in the many events hosted there regularly exceed that – the record stands at 148km/h. Turn 13 (of 16) is particularly notorious, earning the name “50/50” in the run-up to the Games after a day on which half the sleds going through it crashed. Until 3rd April, then closed until December, from $169 (around £90), whistlersportlegacies.com (opens in new tab)
Salt Lake City, Utah, USA
Built to host the 1998 Olympics they hadn’t yet won the bid for (and subsequently missed out on, winning the following Games in 2002), Salt Lake City’s track is still the second-fastest in the world, which a pilot will take you down at speeds of up to 110km/h. The finishing straight is known as “The Graveyard”, but is less scary than it sounds – a lot of drivers hit the wall there and slow down, but it’s their chances that are killed rather than their team-mates. Until 27th March, with summer options from May to September, from $175 (around £125), utaholympiclegacy.org (opens in new tab)
Lake Placid, New York, USA
Plunging down Mount Van Hoevenberg in a bobsleigh not only means you get to see the beautiful Adirondacks, it also gives you membership in the US Bobsled & Skeleton Foundation. The original track, built in 1930, was America’s first, and the US’s Olympic victory two years later led to a huge surge in popularity. The current track was built in 2000 for the Goodwill Games, boasts a terrifying 20 turns and hosts the annual Chevy Geoff Bodine Bobsled Challenge, which sees NASCAR drivers turning their hands to the bob. Until 1st March, then closed until late November, from $95 (around £68), whiteface.com (opens in new tab)
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Ed Needham was the founder and editor-in-chief of Coach magazine, a free health and fitness magazine published between 2015 and 2016. He now edits the magazine Strong Words.