Zip slidin’ away – and no brakes
Tarquin Cooper aims to burn off the mince pies with a 60mph terror ride
For anyone feeling a little overwhelmed by the challenges that lie ahead in the new year, here is a suggestion. It’s called the bob skeleton. After descending head first on a tea tray at 60mph down a tube of ice, nothing will ever daunt you again.
I was at Norway’s Olympic park in Lillehammer, witnessing a recruitment drive to promote the sport among British university students. Over three days, 32 students aged from 19 to 24 made almost 400 descents of the famous track, with only four minor crashes. (From the top, the track is 1,300m long; from the “junior start” it’s 1,000m.)
“It proved to be a great way of letting people experience the sport and reveal the fact that there are people out there who never get the chance to show their talent,” says Tony Wallington, the course organiser.
I was also there to have a go myself. Bob skeleton is almost identical to riding the Cresta Run, but for a subtle difference – the track is designed so that you can’t come out of it. But it is no less hair-raising.
“You go a lot faster on bob skeleton because you can’t come out of the run,” says Wallington, former performance director for the British Bobsleigh team.
“And you don’t have brakes on your toes like you do on the Cresta,” he adds.
“So what do you use as brakes?” I ask, nervously. “You don’t have any.” Waiting in line before it’s my turn, I feel like a soldier about to go “over the top”. Wallington calls me forward and I lie on the board.
“Engage your pelvis. Relax your shoulders. Elbows in,” he commands. I’m staring down at a kilometre of ice, my face just a few inches from the surface and am absolutely petrified. Then the starting horn blasts, the red light turns to green, Wallington takes his foot away and I begin my descent. The rest is simple gravity.
The scheme is the brainchild of Wallington, who competed in bobsleigh at the winter Olympics of 1980 and 1984, and Matrix, a financial services group. Their aim is to introduce the next generation to the thrill and excitement of the skeleton, one of the few winter sports that Britain is any good at.
At the 2002 Winter Olympics, RAF officer Alex Coomber took bronze. In 2006, Shelley Rudman won silver at Turin, Britain’s only medal.
During the week, all the students, who were split 50/50 between the sexes, had a go from the top. “That’s no mean achievement,” says Wallington. “I’ve never experienced that before. They showed some real talent.” But I’m not sure the same can be said of me. A good descent should be graceful, and have rhythm. On my first time down the junior run, I fish- tailed from side to side like the ball in a pinball machine. All I could do was hold on for dear life and try to stop my head from being pulverised against the ice by the intense G force pushing it down until, after 72 of the most adrenaline charged seconds of my life, I was spat out at the bottom. On my second run I managed to keep my eyes open a little longer.
Off the track, my euphoria at making it down alive was off the scale. I punched the air with delight. Then Wallington said something that took me straight back to cold terror: “I’ve arranged for you to go all the way from the top, if you like.”
It was the same all over again. The pit of fear in the stomach, the shortened breath, the thumping heartbeat. And the adrenaline. In a matter of seconds I was flying down. I took a bad line and smashed from side to side. I tried to regain control, but it got worse. Somewhere between corners three and five, I banked too high and came off the sled. But I clung on. With gritted teeth, I hauled myself back on, roaring like Braveheart, and made myself go as fast as I could to the bottom, adrenaline coursing through my body. Now that was exciting!
“This sport is about riding fast,” Wallington said beforehand. “There are risks. But what I can promise you is that I’ve never seen anybody leave without a broad grin.”
As the new year beckons, the smile is still on my face (just below the slight shiner) and I’m wishing I was still at university.
The next Matrix Challenge is in St Moritz on February 17-20. For details, see www.matrixgroup.co.uk/skeleton. You can also book through the Ultimate Travel Company on 0207 386 4646 or www.ultimatetravelcompany.co.uk. The two-day experience costs £795 per person, plus flights. See also www.sys-ultimate-events.com and www.bobskeleton.org.uk.
Sleigh away: Tarquin Cooper getting kitted out for his bob skeleton ride and (main picture) in full flight