Monday 28 January 2008

I leaned on the wall and the wall leaned away...

The bobsleigh events at the 2006 Winter Olympics took place at the Cesana Pariol venue, just around the corner from Sestriere in the village of Sansicario. The track there measures 1435 metres and has 19 curves and a vertical drop of 114 metres. A 4 man bobsleigh here is capable of reaching speeds in excess of 130km/hr and the passengers can experience up to 4Gs of pressure as they hurtle round the bends to the bottom. The gold medal winners in the Men's four man bobsleigh at the 2006 games were Germany. Their fastest time down the track was 54.80s.

The track was built especially for the 2006 games, and as you can imagine, now that the games are over, the organisers are keen to try to get some payback on that investment (it costs about a million Euros to keep the track frozen during the season, even this high up in the mountains). As a result, if you are so inclined, it is possible to pay to team up with a driver from the Italian national team and take a ride down the track in a four man bobsleigh.

And so I did.

The team huddle: l-r, Keith, Drives, Ian, me

The talk on the bus prior to arrival at the track was pretty scary, so when we actually arrived at the top, I was keen not to do any hanging around and volunteered to be in the first run. I signed a disclaimer, and before I really knew what I was doing, I was wearing a helmet, putting on a compression belt ("to hold your spine in place against the G force") and was being introduced to my driver.

"If your helmet bangs against the side of the bob, don't worry: this is normal. Try to sit up straight and look out for the corners as they come up."

Then, with a final word that the person sitting directly behind him should make every effort not to touch him (who wants to have their driver knocked out when he's trying to steer your sled down a tube of ice at 130km/hr?), we were seated in the bob. I was in position four, and with three hefty lads in front of me, it was a real squeeze to get in. I struggled to get my hands far enough down the sides to be able to grasp the cable that was supposed to help me stay inside the sled, and I had the ridge at the back of the bob digging into the small of my back. On top of that, I immediately began to get cramp down my legs from the forced position. Oh well, this wouldn't take long. With the gentlest of push starts from a couple of guys at the top (as opposed to the sprint starts that the Olympic teams have), we were off.

The first of the 19 corners didn't seem too bad, although even at this pace, the force of the turn was enough to push my helmet against the side of the bob as we first climbed into the corner and then again as we came out the other side.

We began to pick up speed.

I'd been told to try and hold my breath or to breath in as we approached the corners - the air in my lungs would help hold my body upright. The simple truth was that, even as early as the second corner, I really couldn't hold myself up high enough to see round the three guys in front of me and to pick out the corners. Frankly I'm amazed the driver could see them coming. Each one came and went in a flash; each one hurled my head violently one way and then the other, smashing my helmet with increasing force into the sides of the sled. My forearms, braced against the edges of the bob, soon began to feel the pressure too as we were thrown from side to side. I could feel the back of the sled digging into my spine, and -- alarmingly -- I could even start to feel myself rising slightly off my seat.

I hung on a bit tighter.

We flew down the track, faster and faster and faster. I began to become disorientated as we went through bend after bend with increasing speed and my head smashed from side to side. The pressure on me increased, and I could feel my head being forced down towards my lap and I was struggling to breathe. We shot through a chicane and BANGBANGBANGBANG went my head against the sled. We must have been at maximum velocity now, around 130km/hr and with about 4Gs of force pushing down against my body.

...and it looked a little something like this

And then just as I thought I couldn't take any more, it was all over. We came out of the slightly covered track and into the open of a gently inclined run-off. The sense of exhilaration was immense. I struggled out of the bob and found that I wasn't quite in control of myself and my legs had turned to jelly. I had to be helped off the track and out of my helmet, but I couldn't stop grinning. We had a team photo taken with the driver and checked out our time: 1m 02.24s. A little over 62 seconds. Seven seconds slower than the Olympic gold medal winning time in the same track, but without the benefit of a running start and without the need for any lycra.

That was probably the most brutal 62 seconds of my life and I felt like I had been beaten up. Apparently I had the worst deal sitting on the back seat, but my head ached, my neck hurt, my arms hurt, I had a huge bruise on the small of my back..... but my God, it was worth every penny. I was never really scared at any point in the ride, I was just in total awe of the forces that I was experiencing and the speeds that I was travelling at. Quite how anyone is able to concentrate enough under those kinds of forces to think about steering and braking, or how they are able to react fast enough to do either at those speeds is completely beyond me. All I could do was clench my teeth, and at one point let out a scream of pure exhilaration.

What a rush.

It probably sounds terrible, and it certainly wasn't easy, but what an incredible experience. I'd do it again tomorrow if I could, and if you ever get the chance, then have a go. Seriously.


Compared to that, going down the Olympic Men's Downhill course on skis was a relatively sedate affair....

So, skeleton or luge next year, do you think?


  1. You look like you're in Daft Punk and act like you've just been in On Her Majestys Secret Service.