The contender with a 90 m.p.h. 'tea tray' and a PhD
TURIN, ITALY — Kristan Bromley has two passions in life: speed and steel. Never, though, did he expect to marry them so dramatically and become Britain's best hope for a gold medal at the 2006 Winter Olympics.
Twelve years ago, as a young materials engineer at British Aerospace, Dr. Bromley was assigned an unusual task: design a new skeleton bobsled for the British team, which his employer was sponsoring.
Applying his academic knowledge of friction, aerodynamics, and tensile strength to the challenge, he came up with a model. Bromley took it to Altenberg, Germany, where the British team was training, for the riders to test it on the hardest, fastest ice run in the world.
"I expected one of the guys to have a go," he recalls now with a laugh. "But they said the designer had to ride it first. It was a bit of a joke, to see what I was made of."
He passed the test. "I absolutely loved it," he says. "It was almost instinctive." Bromley, whose competitive background included a 7-year motocross racing career, got increasingly involved in the sport. Ten years later, on that same run in Altenberg, he clinched the 2004 World Cup championship.
Skeleton, named for the spare outlines of the first sleds, "is an incredibly simple sport in one sense," says the British skeleton team's performance director, Simon Timson. "It's what every kid does when it snows - get out with a bit of plastic and slide down a hill."
Essentially, sliders lie on their stomachs on a high-tech tea tray and careen head-first down an icy corridor at speeds approaching 90 m.p.h., flying around banked curves that exert five Gs of pressure on their bodies with their noses three inches from the ice.
"It's not like anything you've ever done before," explains Adam Pengilly, Bromley's teammate. "I suppose it's a bit like being strapped to a skateboard and towed very fast along a motorway."
To do it well, says Bromley, currently ranked fifth on the World Cup circuit, "you need the sprinting ability of an athlete, the spatial awareness, balance, and control of a gymnast and the adrenaline-fueled enjoyment of speed of a go-cart racer."
And when a few hundredths of a second often decide the race, there is scant margin for error.
Seeking the fastest line down a sinuous, steeply sloped and banked bobsled run, the sliders have to think in three dimensions as they steer their carbon-fiber sled on its steel runners by exerting subtle pressure with their shoulders and thighs.
"You are making a lot of complex calculations very fast indeed," says Jonnie Woodall, president of the British Bob Skeleton Association.
Beyond those skills, and the athletic ability to create strong momentum during the running start, you need the best possible sled. That's where Bromley, with his background in materials research - and a doctoral dissertation in factors affecting a skeleton's performance - has an edge. "What really interests me is the technical aspect," he says. "It doesn't dominate the sport, but it allows the athletes to have a little individuality."
All sliders pay careful attention to their sleds, polishing their runners with diamond paste, and bowing them a little more or a little less to suit the temperature and consistency of the ice on race day. (The more the runners are touching the track, the more control the slider has; the less they touch, the faster the sled will slide.) But Bromley is the only man on the World Cup to design and build his own sled.
Indeed he is known in the skeleton world as "Dr. Ice," a nickname he earned before the Salt Lake City Games when he imported water from the mountains of Utah so as to freeze it and test different steel runners on the ice it produced.
That meticulous attention to detail extends to the notes he takes on all of the World Cup runs, to remind himself of steering instructions on each of the bends. When a slider has only six practice runs and two competition runs at each venue annually, it is important to recall what one did right and wrong the year before.
None of those runs is to be found in temperate Britain, the only world-class skeleton power lacking a home track on which to train. Bromley and his teammates have to make do with an indoor slope at the University of Bath for practicing starts, which is not quite the real thing.
But Mr. Timson, puts a very British brave face on the drawback: "It works in our favor," he says. "The Canadians are strong at Calgary, the Americans are strong at Lake Placid, but our athletes learn to be flexible, they are used to adapting quickly to a track. In some ways we can turn a disadvantage to an advantage."
That, at any rate, is what Bromley will be hoping on Friday evening as he hurtles round the turns at the Cesana Pariol run in a bid to match - or better - Britain's record of a skeleton bronze medal at each of the three Olympics when the event has been held: 1928, 1948, and 2002, when it became an official Olympic sport.
"For me it means everything to ride as well as I can at the Olympics," he says. "If I do that, we'll make a challenge."