Zip slidin’ away – and no brakes

Tar­quin Cooper aims to burn off the mince pies with a 60mph ter­ror ride

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Active -

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

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