Going downhill ... fast!

It's probably safe to say that as long as there's been snow and people, there have been sleds. Early sleds were for work and transportation - to move logs out of the forest, for one. Somewhere along the line, loggers decided to hop on.

Today, sledding is low-tech fun for anyone with an inner tube and a snowy hillside. But it's also a high-tech Olympic sport that requires years of training and lots of expensive equipment.

Here's a look at some of the fastest rigs on ice.

Bobsled

Bobsleds were first used by lumberjacks in the 1830s as a way to transport timber. The original bobsleds were made from two long toboggans connected by a wooden plank on pivots. Up to six people piled onto the sled, lying down. It was steered at the front with ropes. The brake was a garden hoe dragged at the back. They may have been called bobsleds because riders would "bob" from side to side to make the sled go faster.

Bobsledding has two positions: drivers and pushers. Most people start as pushers and become drivers. That's what happened to Mike Dionne, a driver for the United States bobsled team. (His story is on the next page.)

"Bobsled driving is a lot like golf," Mr. Dionne says. "To do well, you have to be consistent throughout the course." At the start of the race, Dionne and the others push the sled for about 100 feet. They wear spiked shoes for traction and must be careful not to poke one another jumping in. Dionne gets in first, followed by his crew. Former football players make good pushers. Every fraction of a second counts. If you're one-tenth of a second slow at the start, that translates into about three-tenths of a second slower at the bottom. The top finishers are often separated by hundredths of a second.

In the off-season (April to October), bobsledders train the way football players do. They work out six days a week, three days running and three days lifting weights. They need strength and explosive speed to push the heavy sleds. (The four-man sled, for example, weighs about 400 pounds.)

Luge

The first luge (pronounced "loozh") race took place in 1883. Lugers flew down a 2-1/2-mile course from St. Wolfgang to Klosters, Switzerland.

Those 19th-century sledders would hardly recognize modern lugers. Today they wear pointed, aerodynamic shoes, skintight suits, and helmets with large, clear face plates.

Lugers sit on the sled and "paddle" their arms on the ice three or four times to get going. They have special spiked gloves for this. Then they assume the racing position: lying on their backs.

The heavier the luger, the faster he or she goes. Lighter lugers can add weight to even out the advantage. Mark Grimmette, a luger for the US Olympic team, wears four or five pounds of lead weight around his waist. But that's nothing compared with the 4 or 5 Gs he may experience going around a corner at 80 or 90 miles per hour. (G-force, or gravity force, is a measure of acceleration. Four Gs means that you feel as though you weigh four times your normal weight.)

The G-force pushes a luger's head toward the track. Lugers must have strong necks. To further support their heads, they wear a strap that's clipped to their helmet and wrapped around their legs.

It may look as though they aren't doing anything, but luging is not for the lazy, Grimmette says. "We're definitely not lying there; that's for sure." In a double luge, the person on the bottom has to figure out how to steer judging by the way the top luger's head is leaning.

Lugers steer by pressing their legs against the curved part of the runners, and with subtle weight shifts and shoulder movements.

Skeleton sled

You've never heard of a skeleton sled? It's a head-first version of luge that will appear in the 2002 Olympic Winter Games for the first time since 1948.

Skeleton sledding is quite old. It was first organized in St. Moritz, Switzerland, in the late 1880s. The icy path down the hill was called a Cresta run. Men and women flew down the mountain for three-quarters of a mile. They were called skeleton sleds because of the open, ribbed framework of the design.

What's it like to zip down a mountain with your chin two inches off the ice? US skeleton sledder Bill Cochran has compared it to "strapping yourself on the hood of the car and driving down the freeway at 70 to 80 miles per hour, moving the steering wheel with your feet."

At the start of the race, sledders bend over the sled and run alongside for 100 feet or so. On the sled, subtle movements of the rider's shoulders, legs, and feet help steer.

Cresta

To most people, a sled means an inner tube, and there's not much skill involved in piloting an inner tube. "You scream and go downhill - it's not really a sport," says sledmaker Rick Hartford. A sack of potatoes can make it to the bottom of a hill in an inner tube.

Mr. Hartford and his partner Mike Glenn decided to put some skill back into sledding. Ten years ago, they saw a Norwegian sled pictured in (of all things) an old Beatles poster. So they built one, based on what they saw, and named it a Cresta sled, after the famous skeleton-sled run in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

At first their sleds were not strong enough. In practice runs, they failed from stress or smashed into splinters. Gradually, the men improved and strengthened the design. Now they can zoom down ski slopes at up to 60 miles per hour.

Did you say "ski slopes"? That's right. The Lost Valley Ski Area in Auburn, Maine, is the only place in the world where you can rent a Cresta and cruise down a ski slope devoted only to sledding. And thanks to the chairlift, you never have to walk back uphill pulling your sled.

"This is not your little brother's sled," Glenn says, smiling. "This is serious." He's right. I tried it.

Because of powdery snow, I didn't come close to 60 miles per hour, but I still felt as though I was flying. I steered by leaning, pushing the runners, and dragging one or both of my feet. The sled only makes gradual turns, as I learned when I veered off the trail and plowed harmlessly into a pile of powder.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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