64 seconds where time stood still

When I drove up the steep, winding road to the top of the bobsled track at Canada Olympic Park I had no idea what to expect.

Images of Georgian rider, Nodar Kumaritashvili’s fatal luge crash on the opening day of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics were passing through my mind. But I quickly shut them out.

This was a bobsled — much safer and more secure than a luge, and piloted by a professional driver with experience on the national team. “It’s going to be fine.” I told myself, just a free rush of adrenaline on a beautiful, sunny winter’s day. 

Calgary Journal reporter Travis Borstmayer sits in the back seat of the bobsled as it rounds the final turn. Riders in the back feel forces up to five Gs and hit speeds up to 120 km/h.

Photo courtesy of Caitlin ClowThe tension in the starting tent was electric as the chatter of dozens of first time bobsledders filled the air, as they eagerly awaited their shots of adrenaline. I was tingling with excitement and anticipation as if I had a 9-volt battery stuck to my tongue, getting jolts each time I saw another sled disappear down the track.

The Rundown

When I met my two ride mates, we immediately had to decide who would sit where. The difference between front and back is vast. Riders in the back seat can feel forces as high as 5 Gs – stronger than an astronaut experiences during liftoff. And as they fly down the track at breakneck speeds, there is nothing but a breezy opening behind them.

I soon found out that this would be my seat.

I began to clear my mind, mentally preparing for the ride that would momentarily make my body feel five times it’s actual weight — a hefty 378.75 kilograms — roughly the weight of a pony.

Seasoned bobsled pilot, Richard Christensen, would take me down the rack. He reassured me, “It’s a safe track with lots of drivers who have been doing lots of runs.” He added that he hadn’t crashed in 8 years. He holds it steady down the track every time despite seeing people peeing, throwing up, or clinging to him for dear life in his five years as a public bobsled pilot.

Once we were all in the sled, Christensen got in last. There was a casual, “Ready to go?” and a resounding, “Yes” from the inside of what I was starting to consider a casket with running blades. The point of no return had arrived. I was committed to going down.

The Ride

With one final push from our two launch men, we were on our own. Left alone with nothing but the sound of blades on ice, frantically approaching the first turn of the 1,475 metre track.

Navigating through the first three curves of the track was comparable to a nice Sunday afternoon drive. But as the fourth turn came into sight it — an ominous 90-degree turn — it switched into a full on police chase. The turn launched us like a hammer throw, increasing our speed from 60 to 80 km/h in what seemed like a fraction of a second.

Coming out of the turn, I realized that this wouldn’t be a cakewalk. There was no time to be scared, to scream, or even think. I had to focus my entire consciousness on holding on to the narrow lengths of rubber tubing along the inside of the sled that only barely resembled handles.

The g-forces towed the sweat down my face as we rocketed towards the Omega turn, which is named after the Greek symbol that shares its shape. The quick succession of lefts and rights had my head feeling like dice in a Yahtzee cup, leaving me utterly disoriented and completely oblivious as to where I was on the track.

Once we approached the straightaway at highway speeds, I knew where I was — the 270-degree Kreisel curve. I was about to weigh as much as a pony.

As the force of five Gs compressed my neck and back, the scraping sound of the steel running blades engulfed the inside of the sled at an astounding volume. Meanwhile, the sled climbed so high onto the bank that we were completely sideways on the same turn that crashed the Jamaican bobsled team 25 years prior.

The Finish

Coming out of the intense curve we were at our top speed of 117 km/h heading into the Labyrinth — named for a series of alternating curves with no straightaways. Between the break-neck speeds, powerful g-forces and the unbearable noise inside the sled, the last third of the ride seemed eerily similar to those last moments on the zipper at the Stampede.

Calgary Journal reporter Travis Borstmayer (front) moments after the end of the thrilling run. The sled reached the bottom of the 1,475 m track in only 63.61 seconds.

Photo courtesy of Caitlin ClowYou completely forget you are supposed to be having a fun ride, and are more concerned with not passing out before it ends.

Before I had time to even think, the “finish” banner flashed above my head and the pilot was in full braking mode as we approached the upward incline at the end of the track. All in all, my ride had lasted a meager 64 seconds. But as I was going down the track I thought it would never end, and I was just happy to make it out alive.

Since the experience is thrilling, Christensen says COP offers public bobsled rides every weekend over the winter between 2:45 p.m. and 4:45 p.m. for a $169 charge for individual riders. With two other professionals piloting alongside Christensen, the public bobsled offers one of the most adrenaline filled experiences to be found in Calgary.

tborstmayer@cjournal.ca