Anyone can bobsled in Utah
Ensconced in a shell of fibreglass and steel, I stare straight forward, my heart hammering at a staccato pace. My quivering hands grip steering-cable D-rings. I test each, but nothing budges. The runners remain locked because I'm at a dead stop. That will soon change.
Ahead lies a twisty, kilometre-long chute of ice-covered concrete. My banged-up bobsled will hurtle through it at speeds approaching 100 kilometres per hour. I sit in the driver's seat, realizing that only skill and experience separate me from a gurney ride to the ER. I, of course, have neither.
"You ready?" one of the attendants asks.
"Sure," I lie. "Let 'er rip."
Ever since I saw the John Candy movie Cool Runnings, about the Jamaican bobsled team, I've wondered what it would be like to pilot one of these gravity-powered bullets. The Stephan Bosch Bobsled Driving School at Utah Olympic Park has given me the opportunity to do just that.
Located near Park City, Utah Olympic Park was built for the 2002 Winter Games, which were held in and around Salt Lake City. Besides the bobsled track, it offers ski jumps, a freestyle hill, and museums covering skiing and Olympic history. Today, the park is a training ground for winter athletes that includes camps for otherwise sane folks who think that careering down a frozen trench might be fun.
"You could crash," instructor Stephan Bosch tells us upfront. "It's not likely if you do what I tell you. If you do the opposite, you probably will crash. In bobsledding, anything can happen."
We will be driving two-person bobsleds, with the driver in front and the brakeperson in back. Each sled weighs about 170 kilograms. When new, they cost more than a well-equipped Lexus, but these ones are far from new. Mine has liberal amounts of duct tape.
With the sport dating back to the late 1800s, the first bobsled runs were built from blocks of ice piled on slopes. Today, tracks are moulded from concrete and laced with cooling tubes. There are only four in North America—in Park City, Calgary, and Lake Placid in upstate New York, and now at Whistler Blackcomb.
"Nobody builds a track without getting the Olympics," Bosch says, laughing.
Utah Olympic Park's track offers 15 turns over its 1,335-metre length, but we will not be launching from the top. Our rides begin at the Junior Start, located at Curve 6.
"We had a deer jump into 6," employee Tyler Beck tells us. "He went down the track at about 20 to 30 miles per hour. We got him out, and he shook it off. Fifteen minutes later, the deer walked back up and did it again. We like to think it was on purpose."
To keep from doing our own deerlike slides, my colleagues and I strap cleats to the bottom of our shoes for a bottom-to-top hike up the course. Turn by turn, Bosch tells us where to "run" and where to steer.
"Curve 15 is the finish curve," he says. "Where you see out to the straightaway, you start steering down a little bit."
At Curve 14, we should pull softly when we reach an expansion joint. Curve 13, he assures us, is relatively easy, as long as we get the entry right. That means negotiating Curve 12 correctly. It's the toughest turn on the track, and we'll soon discover that coming through on target is like trying to lace a needle with 100-kilometre-per-hour thread.
"It's a big curve. Don't let the sled ride up. You see the red dots up here?" he asks, pointing to two egg-sized circles. "You have to start squeezing on the right-side handle here. You want to go straight with the curve. If you go to the right wall, you're not going to have much fun, believe me."
We cover the nuances of curves 11 through 7 as we continue up the track. Just beyond Curve 6, our sleds await, lined up like cars on a freeway on-ramp.
In competitions, driver and brakeperson push their sled at the start, but we begin already seated. I strap on my helmet and squeeze into the driver's position. My brakeperson, a fellow student, slithers in behind.
The PA system blares our names, telling nonexistent spectators who we are. I take a deep breath. It's possibly the last one I'll enjoy for 50 or so seconds.
The attendants push, and we start moving down the track. Curve 6, our first turn, comes slow and easy. It's like driving through a school zone. Speed builds, and Curve 7 comes swiftly.
Walls flash by, seemingly at the speed of light. Runners scream, steel against ice. Their zing becomes a raspy, high-pitched whine.
Like an ice cube in a martini shaker, I feel jolted and jerked. There is no resting, no thinking. I focus straight down the track, praying that I don't tip or flip. It's a fleeting prayer—no time for an "amen".
The bobsled whips through the turns they call the Labyrinth. As speed mounts, the sled rides higher, nailed to the wall by centrifugal force. We swing through 10, clear 11, and head toward Curve 12, the crux of the run. With the track a blur of featureless ice, there's no way I'm going to see expansion joints or red dots.
The sled rides upward on a trajectory toward Great Salt Lake. I pull the steering cable. At 100 kilometres per hour, a little pressure begets a lot of turn. In my adrenaline-crazed state, I jerk too hard. Way too hard.
We descend, reaching the bottom of the track well before the transition into Curve 13. That can only mean one thing.
The bobsled whacks the track like a cue ball banking off a concrete pool table. We continue, caroming through curves 14 and 15. Finally, a one-minute lifetime after we started, the sled cruises across the finish line and coasts to a stop. I pry myself out, grinning like a chrome-toothed Buick.
I didn't tip! I didn't flip! It wasn't pretty, but I did it! I've joined the select group of individuals who have actually driven a bobsled. Just like that deer, I look forward to improving on the next run.
Access: The Stephan Bosch Bobsled Driving School introductory clinics run two hours and cost US$250. The Advanced Driving School is held from December 16 to 20. Participants spend the first few days learning the finer points of the sport with launches from the Junior Start and do runs from the top of the track, where the Olympians launch. The cost is $600.
Utah Olympic Park offers rides in modified four-person sleds driven by professionals. Starting from the top of the course, rides reach speeds of 130 kilometres per hour and cost $200.
Lake Placid offers a 1,455-metre course with 20 curves. Public rides start at the midway point, reach speeds of 100 kilometres per hour, and cost $75 for adults.
Calgary's bobsled track is 1,475 metres long and sports 14 curves. Public rides cost $165 per person and descend the entire track, reaching speeds of up to 120 kilometres per hour.
Whistler Blackcomb's new Olympics Sliding Centre (4910 Glacier Lane, 604-964-2401) offers a 1,450-metre track with 16 turns. Spectators can watch athletes train for the Games. Details are still being worked out for public rides after the Games.
The writer was a guest of Utah Olympic Park and the Park City visitors' bureau.