If you ever watched the film 'Cool Runnings' and wondered what bobsleigh was all about, head for Latvia. In Sigulda, an hour from Riga, you can climb aboard and experience a 5G force for yourself
In 1964, against all the odds, Tony Nash and Robin Dixon won the gold medal for Britain in the two-man bob at the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck. For a young impressionable youth like me, it was a truly inspirational moment. I dreamed of glory. However, Britain had no bobsled track. Worse still, for most of the winter it had no snow either. How could a callow 16-year-old rise from obscurity to become a bobsleigh hero?
I soon discovered that bobsledding was dangerous; people died. It seemed that, if you wanted to risk life and limb hurtling down a snaking track of solid ice at more than 80mph, the minimum requirements were a) a commission in the Guards, b) a rich and preferably slightly dotty uncle and c) an overwhelming need for counselling. I was forced to admit that, in my case, one out of three was never going to be enough.
Then, out of the blue, a chance conversation rekindled the dream. I met a chap from Baltic Holidays who had been down the Latvian bobsleigh run with a member of its national team. What’s more, he told me, his company could arrange such an experience for anyone. It was obviously fate. A couple of weeks later, I arrived at the excellent and extremely well-priced Hotel Albert, in the Latvian capital Riga, to meet up with Ivo – Baltic Holidays' local guide.
The Latvian course is one of only 14 used in the World Bobsled Championship. A rare positive legacy from Latvia’s years of Soviet occupation, the track is one of the longest in Europe and regarded as pretty extreme. Both the Austrian and Russian national teams regularly hone their skills on its testing curves.
The course is located in Sigulda – about an hour’s drive from Riga – in an area known locally as “Little Switzerland”. Ivo had two other clients that day, a Frenchman named Frederic and his Australian girlfriend Kerri. Like me, both had come to Latvia to bobsleigh. As he drove us to the track, Ivo offered us reassurance that, although there were still fatal accidents, modern-day bobs had higher sides, so we were less likely to have our heads ripped off if things went wrong.
Ivo was obviously well-known at the track and, on arrival, we were waved through almost immediately. For everyone, the first run is always in the “soft bob”. This gives novices like myself some idea of what the fast bob will be like – and provides a final opportunity to pull out. If you are hung up on Health and Safety and risk assessment, this is not the place to be. Nevertheless, we put the conspicuous scrapes and gouges on our helmets to the back of our minds, signed some kind of Latvian disclaimer and clambered nervously into a driverless orange foam “sardine can”.
The soft bob may be soft, but it was quick enough to make us gulp on occasions. One of the guys in our sled came away with serious reservations about the real thing. His mates, however, talked him round and later we heard his terrified screams as he hurtled round the final gut-wrenching loop. The soft bob travelled the mile-long course in about 1 minute 40 seconds: the fast bob did it in less than a minute. Progressing to the next stage clearly required a triumph of determination over imagination.
A brief calculation told me that a mile in a minute equated to 60mph, and something in my brain flagged that as acceptable. Had I thought about it a little more closely, I would have realised that this was from a standing start. At some point, we were going to be travelling a lot faster than 60mph – and that point was likely to be where the track dipped, reared and coiled like a demented cobra.
I had been warned to expect a force of 5G (ie, five times greater than gravity) on the bends, but I had no concept of what this would feel like. As we were pushed off the start line, I suddenly remembered an old poster I’d seen on a pub wall featuring a lone canoeist, tipping into a cauldron of rocks and rapids. The caption read “The best view of heaven is from the way into hell.”
Our driver, when he showed up, was a member of the Latvian national team – and he wasn’t holding back. Hitting about 80mph, something stamped hard on my neck. Vertebrae compressed painfully. Air slipped from my lungs in a series of involuntary groans. Blood boiled behind my eyeballs. One second we were dropping vertically, the next we were almost upside down, tipping into a 360-degree loop that shuffled internal organs and distorted faces. The noise of runners on ice was disorientating. Vision blurred by wind and speed and gravity, we clung to two thin ropes running lengthways along the floor. It was total madness.
I was "last man" and, while the sides of modern bobs may be higher, they have no back. Foolishly, I hadn’t bothered to wear gloves; the ropes dug deep into my hands but they were my only anchor to the bob. I couldn’t let go. At the finish, it took us all a few seconds to recover our composure. We sat silently, minds racing to catch up with our bodies.
So was it worth the 45-year wait? Well, we all had varying degrees of whiplash and a few bruises – but of course it was worth it. To paraphrase the bald guy in Cool Runnings, albeit slightly out of context, bobsled “ain’t no little thing”.