An Olympic holiday: learning to bobsleigh

On a new holiday in the Norwegian resort of Lillehammer, James Stewart feels the G-force as he tries out the terrifying Winter Olympic sports of bobsleigh and skeleton

It’s only when you’re an inch above the ice, only when you realise that what appears to be a tight corner below the start is gentle compared to the body-crushing bends to come, that you fully comprehend the madness of riding an Olympic bobsleigh track on a teatray.

That teatray is otherwise known as a skeleton bob, and it is one of the medal hopes for Team GB in the Winter Olympics in Russia, which starts on Friday. Lizzy Yarnold, top of the Fédération Internationale de Bobsleigh et de Tobogganing skeleton-bob rankings, arrives at Sochi on the back of gold at the federation’s World Cup in January and will be attempting to replicate Amy Williams’s gold medal from Vancouver in 2010.

Williams has now retired, so Yarnold is Britain’s reigning ice queen. She probably skis to the corner shop for a pint of milk between training. My idea of winter sports, on the other hand, is trying to negotiate an icy pavement without twisting an ankle. And that’s not the only reason why the skeleton bob at Lillehammer, Norway, may be one of the most nerve-wracking rides on the planet.

It can’t help but cross the mind of the novice that the skeleton bob – basically, a steel platter on skids with handgrips at the back – only supports you from shoulders to thighs. In other words, my head is to be a bumper as I hit speeds of up to 60mph. Without brakes. Alone.

The ice glints in the winter sun, as appealing as concrete.

The skeleton bob is the most extreme activity open to complete novices as part of a new winter-sports weekend from Exodus in the venues that hosted the 1994 Winter Olympics. The trip is not all high-adrenalin kicks. Tobogganing, snowmobile rides and skiing are also on the menu, and Lillehammer, two hours north of Oslo, complements Alpine adventures with homespun Nordic cosiness. Five minutes from the ski jumps where champions train are shop windows showing knitted ski jumpers, and wood-panelled, cabin-like restaurants such as Nikkers.

However, once you hear about the mind-numbing speeds of the bobsleigh and optional skeleton bob, everything else feels like a warm-up act. Or it does until you ask around. Then doubts creep in.

The end of the bobsleigh run in Lillehammer The end of the bobsleigh run in Lillehammer “Nearly two kilometres of twisting, turning, icy terror,” is how James May described the Lillehammer track when he raced Williams for Top Gear in 2011; she on her sled, he in a top-marque rally car. May won, but only by 1.3 seconds. Oh yes, it’s absolutely horrific, one of the few locals who’d ridden the skeleton bob told me. “You can’t steer, you can only hang on and pray.  At the end corner, my head shook so much I thought I was going to bite my tongue off.” You’ll feel more alive after a run on the ice, the marketing manager of the Olympic Park assured me, then undermined it rather by adding: “You know: more lucky.”

To steady the nerves, your ice baptism comes in a bobraft. This runs on the same 1.4km Olympic track as other sleds, but it is the Fisher Price of the bobsleigh world – a box made of crashmats, with all the aerodynamics of a Tonka truck. The bobsleigh, on the other hand, is the real thing. A bullet-like four-man sled identical to that in which the Germans won gold here in 1994, it looks like a jet fighter compared with the bobraft. It certainly pulls the same sort of G-force – up to 5g when it hits 75mph around Turn 13, the tightest of the 16 along the track. The space shuttle developed only 3g on take-off.

Lillehammer Lillehammer I walk through the forest to look over Lillehammer’s famous 180-degree bend beforehand. The walls are steeper, the turn far sharper than I’d anticipated. A bobsleigh approaches with a roar and rockets past halfway up the wall. I giggle nervously in a decidedly un-Olympian way. The thing to remember, says Ivan, my 20-something pilot with hundreds of runs behind him, is to relax and remain calm. Easier said than done when five times the weight of gravity is trying to force your head through your pelvis and crush every organ. Small wonder that bobsleigh riders wear a weightlifter-style kidney belt for protection as well as a helmet.

I’m just glad that I’m not the tallest of our group, the person who will bear the brunt of the G-force at the back of the sled, with nothing but cold air behind him. It’s hard to describe the impact of such forces. At Turn 10 my breathing is wheezy under the pressure. As we slingshot around the icy U-bend of Turn 13, it becomes almost impossible. A dull knocking sounds above the bobsleigh’s roar – my helmet slamming into the sled’s side, I realise afterwards.

Still, by the time we slide to a halt, 55.81 seconds later, I’m euphoric; reeling from the ride’s violence, but never worried, thanks to Ivan. My brain fizzes with endorphins, which is how I now come to be lying on a teatray in body armour, feeling exposed without the cocoon of the bobsleigh and an expert driver like Ivan.

He offers some final words of advice. “Keep your head low,” – the neck of a skeleton bob rider has enough to contend with without being bent backwards – “and don’t let go when you slide off on corners.”

Slide off? At 60mph?

He takes his foot off the sled and I accelerate downhill. Actually, the tips are superfluous. The novice rider is just ballast as the sled  finds its own route. Mine gains momentum rapidly and, after some preliminary swoops, it rips up the wall of Turn 10 at blistering speed. I slide dangerously sideways as we explode out of the bend.

Survival instinct kicks in. There’s just time to grapple myself central again before the sled whips into Turn 13, skittering across the frozen chute and generating 2.5g that attempts to paste my chin across the ice.

A blurry 10 seconds and three bends later, I am easing uphill beyond the finish line – the only way to brake a skeleton bob. I am simultaneously exhilarated and shattered by the adrenaline. (My neck aches for days afterwards.)

I’m also elated at my time – 67.23 seconds, only 7.2 seconds slower than Williams in Top Gear. Only then do I learn that we amateurs ride just 1km of the 1.4km track. Some things really are best left to Olympians.

Travel Essentials

The writer travelled as a guest of Exodus (0845 863 9601; exodus.co.uk), which offers a four-day Lillehammer bobsled weekend from £999 per person, including return SAS flights from London, hotel accommodation, breakfasts and activities, departing on 21 March and 22 November 2014.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
News
i100

Other places that have held independence referendums
Sport
Jonas Gutierrez (r) competes with Yaya Toure (l)
football

Newcastle winger is in Argentina having chemotherapy

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Blossoming love: Colin Firth as Stanley and Emma Stone as Sophie, in 'Magic in the Moonlight'
film

Actors star in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

News
peopleThe Times of India said actress should treat it as a 'compliment'
News
news

Watch this commuter wage a one-man war against the Circle Line
News
We are phenomenally good at recognising faces; the study showed that humans have been selected to be unique and easily recognisable
science

Human faces unique 'because we don't recognise each other by smell'

Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show?
Property
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
lifeShould we feel guilty about keeping cats inside?
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
news

Man's attempt to avoid being impounded heavily criticised

Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
Student
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama is to offer a BA degree in Performance and Creative Enterprise
student

Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum
theatre

Returning to the stage after 20 years makes actress feel 'nauseous'

Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams in the video of the song, which has been accused of justifying rape
music...and he had 'almost no part' in writing it
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week