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.

Arts and Entertainment
filmPoldark production team claims innocence of viewers' ab frenzy
Life and Style
Google marks the 81st anniversary of the Loch Ness Monster's most famous photograph
techIt's the 81st anniversary of THAT iconic photograph
News
Katie Hopkins makes a living out of courting controversy
people
News
General Election
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
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
  • Get to the point
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

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders