Runners and riders

On Tuesday, Michelle Coy and Claire Nex will steer a bobsled through a dozen breakneck turns at over 80mph in pursuit of Olympic gold. David Atkinson joined two of the British women's bob team as they trained for the ride of a lifetime
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The Independent Online

I never thought of myself as built for speed before. At least, not until I had been strapped into a bobsled by two budding Olympic medallists and launched down a training track at 80mph while I lay back and thought of England.

Of course, for Michelle Coy from Kent, currently ranked 17th in the world (only sled drivers are ranked), and her Gloucester-born brakewoman Claire Nex, hurtling down 1,500-metre runs and negotiating between 14 and 20 turns at high speed is everyday stuff. For together they form the GB2 bobsleigh team for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.

As I emerged beaming from my virgin run, my head woozy with the adrenaline thrill of sharp turns and high velocity, they instantly recognised my Cheshire Cat grin. "Couple more runs," Michelle, my pilot for the day, nods knowledgeably , "and you'll be hooked."

Bobsleigh was invented at the end of the last century in Switzerland by wealthy British holidaymakers, and featured in the inaugural Winter Olympics at Chamonix, France, in 1923. Early competitions stipulated that at least two women must be part of the five-person team. However, this requirement was dropped during the 1930s.

After weight limits of 350kg for a two-woman and 390kg for a two-man sled were fixed in the 1950s by the Federation Internationale de Bobsleigh et de Tobogganing (FIBT), modern bobsleigh was born. This week, two British two-woman bobsleigh teams, each with a reserve brakewoman, will be competing for Olympic gold.

Michelle and Claire, both aged 30, will line up at the start at Utah Olympic Park on Tuesday for the inaugural women's Olympic bobsleigh event, pushing the tally of women's Olympic events this year to 34. But GB2 will have to strike fast to beat the hotly-tipped German and American teams to the medals, as the Olympic event comprises only two runs (the winners are the team with the shortest cumulative time recorded). Britain last won gold in bobsleigh in 1964 with Tony Nash and Robin Dixon. Michelle and Claire are hoping to emulate this achievement.

So, given that I'm now pumped up and raring to get back on the ice after my debut run, could I also cut it as a future bobsleigh Olympian? Peter Gunn, erstwhile British men's team driver turned ice coach and manager of the British Women's Bobsleigh Team, shakes his head wearily.

"Everyone sees bobsleigh on television and thinks, 'I can do that.' But it's not that simple," he says. "Speed and strength are the two key skills. To make the team, we're looking for rugby players and 100m runners who don't mind taking a few knocks."

"It's very precise," contends Michelle, who got into the sport by joining a volunteer bobsleigh programme in the RAF. "As the driver, I'm trying to achieve the fastest, cleanest line down the track, while for the brakewoman it's more about having the brute strength to get us off to a good push-start."

Over the past 10 years, women's bobsleigh has been increasingly recognised in its own right, with greater sponsorship opportunities and many former luge or skeleton athletes joining the sport. Canada, Britain and Germany have led the world, but teams now exist in many countries, including Japan, New Zealand and Jamaica.

The women joining the sport don't seem deterred by the injuries involved in throwing yourself down a track of water-soaked snow on a concrete base in a sled made from steel, aluminium and composites. "Whiplash and neck injuries are the most common. Concussion less so," explains Claire, who is currently on a one-year sabbatical from the RAF. "I've had one major crash in the French Alps when my bobsled left the track. You just put it behind you. Otherwise, it's mainly ice burns to contend with."

She adds: "I think my husband is more worried watching me than I am in the bob. I'm too focused on the track to notice the bumps and scrapes." And if you don't want to end up like the 1992 Russian men's team, it's worth concentrating on the task in hand: when brakeman Aleksandr Bortyuk slipped at the start he ended up completing the run facing the wrong way, nose-to-nose with a colleague.

Unfortunately for potential bobsleigh converts, opportunities to get involved in the sport are limited in the UK, as there is no dedicated bobsleigh track. Furthermore, it's an expensive sport for amateur wannabes, as they have to buy their own equipment. A new bob costs £15,000, the runners £4,000 and each run around £30.

"The only opportunity for the public to have a run down the mountain is if they go to a bobsleigh track and pay to take a 'taxi' bob," says Peter Gunn. "That, or come down to the University of Bath's push-practice facilities for a development day to have a free athletic ability assessment and see if they would make a brakeman or woman."

But I'm not deterred. It's my turn for another taxi bob, and I approach the track with a gleam in my eye and a tiger in my tank. Michelle catches my eye. "Of course, it's a huge buzz – fear, excitement and adrenaline all at once," she says. "And when you make that one absolutely perfect run, the sense of fulfilment is huge."

"Ready?" she grins. "I'll drive."

The facts

In late autumn each year six non-British Bobsleigh Association (BBA) places are available to the public to try out at an ice camp in Lillehammer, Norway. A place costs £350. The British Bobsleigh Association can advise on this, and also run free-of-charge development days at their push-practice facility in Bath. Details from 01225 826 802, www.british-bobsleigh.com, email bba@dial.pipex.com

The Radisson SAS Daugava hotel in Riga, Latvia, offers weekend bobsleigh packages all year round at a cost of $122 (£85) plus 18% VAT per room per night. The rate includes double room with breakfast, use of fitness centre, airport transfers and two bobsleigh runs with an instructor. For further details, call toll free on 00 800 3333 3333 or visit www.radissonsas.com

The official FIBT website is www.bobsleigh.com; the Team GB website carries team news at www.olympics.org.uk

Do and don't

Do get a good start. The momentum from that essential first push has a huge influence on your overall run.

Do keep your head down. With 18in-high ice walls and 180- degree hairpin bends, the last thing you want to do is catch your head on an overhang while sneaking a better view.

Don't forget to steer. The front two runners move left to right to tackle the bends and are controlled by two D-ropes.

Don't slack off at the gym. Full-time bobsleigh athletes train six days a week, dividing their time between track practice and weight sessions.

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