“Always remember: your bones won’t break in a bobsleigh, they shatter.” Never have the late John Candy’s words been more pertinent, but right now I’ve bigger fish to fry. I’m huddled in a small tube with six-other lycra-wrapped men and uncomfortable doesn’t come close. While the driver is pampered with a seat and a small backrest and the brakeman has a cushion to perch on, I’m at number six and have no choice but to cosy up to the gentleman behind me.
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Riding shotgun in the world’s biggest bobsleigh
We take our chance to ride flat-out in the world’s first seven-man bob, but can’t remember why
As we’re given a push and start sliding I realise I’ve had literally no tuition. What do I do with my hands? My feet? My head? I decide clinging to a small piece of rope next to me and trying not to scream is my best option in the circumstances. If I had a lucky egg, I’d be kissing it now.
And so it begins, slowly at first - the runners humming along the surface of the ice – but overlaid with that inescapable sensation that gravity has the throttle welded to the floor whether we like it or not. I assume this is what catastrophic brake failure in your car at the top of a particular steep, narrow and winding hill must feel like – a situation I’ve been trying hard to avoid.
We’re shifting now. I sense the forces all around me increasing exponentially and grip the rope tighter, causing my white knuckles to bash against the fuselage. We enter the ‘Horseshoe’ – bobsleigh’s equivalent to the Carousel at the ‘Ring – and for a few blissful moments we float weightlessly half way up the banking, before smashing into the next straight. Oddly, it’s the flat bits that are the bumpiest and most violent. We enter the ‘Labrinth’ – a quick left-right-left – at 62mph and my helmet pinballs off the sides of the bob. I’m a rag doll to the G-forces.
And then it’s over – the brake man does his thing, stabbing levers into the ice as the track turns uphill and we’re static, still in one piece. I extricate myself from the death-tube, hop out and promptly fall flat on my face. It’s obvious the crew – experienced bob racers – can tell I have potential. We load the bob onto a trailer, hook it up to our seven seater and I’m back in my element again as we pile in and I drive the team back to the top of the hill.
Winter Olympics enthusiasts among you will have spotted something a bit off. Bobsleighs come in strictly four and two-man flavours, this has space for seven. It’s an idea dreamt up by Nissan to help market their seven-seater X-Trail SUV, and frankly it’s tenuous – the bob doesn’t even have sat-nav or a decent stereo. But like all good ideas, it presents a unique set of problems…
You see, bobsleighs are supposed to be light, around 620kg for a four-man bob including the people inside it, and because you want those men to be strong and fast off the line (one tenth of a second saved during the sprint start is worth three tenths at the bottom) you need the bob to be light. A seven man bob is not light, in fact it weighs almost 900kg fully-stuffed with humans – and as we know from the world of cars, a porky kerbweight does not make for sprightly handling.
Which is why Sean Olsson, the bronze-medal winning pilot for Team GB at the ’98 Nagano Olympics, has been drafted in to steer us safely down the Innsbruck track. “Innsbruck is famous as a training run – 99.9 per cent of drivers start here because it easy to learn, but difficult to master,” he tells us, making no bones that he’s firmly in the latter category.
Sean is the archetypal bob racer: fiercely disciplined with a no-nonsense attitude and built like a small barn. He’s ex-military, too, like many of GB’s most successful racers. “Before lottery funding it was nearly all military boys that did it, they were the only ones that could get paid while they were out there,” he explains. Now the net is cast wider, and we hear British sprinter Mark Lewis Francis is working his way through the ranks.
“In my time we trialled Linford Christie and John Regis, both were in the twilight years of their careers, but the fact that it’s a team sport and a winter sport didn’t work for them.” That’s Ian Richardson, former Team GB principal. “The thing is, this is bobsleigh, it’s not glamourous, there’s a lot of waiting around in the cold. That’s why more top-level athletes aren’t keen.”
Now our run is safely over I turn back to Sean and ask him my burning question. “Sure I’ve had crashes – about five in total in 30 years, mainly at the start of my career. Last one I knew I was six-inches too late into a corner and just rolled it in. Thing is, it’s not just about the corner in front of you, it’s a game of snooker, it’s about setting yourself up for the next one.”
“Whether it’s the Olympics or today, I’ve still got to get a bob down a hill. As a driver you’ve got a responsibility for other people’s lives,” he says.
Turns out a life lived hurtling down an ice-tube breeds a need for speed elsewhere, as Sean demonstrates by reeling off his car and bike collection that includes a Sierra Cosworth, E46 BMW M3, Harley Davidson, Suzuki GSX-R 1000 and, erm, a Hyundai Tuscon. Given he’s already saved my life once today, and the sheer size of him, I decide to let the last one slide.