I treated myself to a 1h30m skeleton taster session at the Team GB Training Site at Bath University today. The regular price is £90. I booked the combined skeleton & bobsleigh experience for £160. The skeleton session was from 12:30pm to 2pm, followed by the bobsleigh taster session from 3pm to 4:30pm.
As you might or might not know, skeleton is a winter sport involving an athlete riding a small, baking-tray shaped, sled, known as skeleton, down a bobsleigh track head-first, face down.
THE SLOWEST BOBSLEIGH TRACK SPORT (130KM/H)
It is the slowest one of the three bobsleigh track sports (the other two being bobsleigh and luge). Nonetheless, competitive riders still reach speeds of up to 130km/h and experience forces of up to 5G (five times their body weight). Astronauts are exposed to 3G, a fighter pilot to 8G, to put this in perspective.
The sport was invented in the late 19th Century in Switzerland and became a permanent part of the Olympic program 20 years ago. The name is believed to come from the look of the early steel frame sled models which somewhat resembled the rib cage of a human skeleton.
HOW TO GET TO THE SKELETON TASTER SESSION
Getting to Bath from London by train takes a mere 1h20m. From the train station you can take a bus (every 15mins, takes about 15mins), a taxi (10mins), or simply walk (40mins), which is what I did. You’ll enjoy beautiful views of Bath on your path, and you pass by some lovely architecture and gardens. The push track is located on the campus of Bath University, a little bit outside of town.
THE PUSH TRACK
Covered in hard, synthetic running track surface that looks like tarmac, the track is about 150m long. It has a set of rails running all the way along it in its middle, from one end to the other end. This is where the practice skeletons (or alternatively the practice bobsleighs) are placed. Instead of skids they have metal wheels that hold them on the rails.
The start and the end of the push track are elevated. So you gain speed while going downhill, then you decelerate while going uphill on the far end. The downhill section is longer than the uphill section. The uphill section is significantly steeper than the downhill section.
The skeletons (or bobsleighs) first go down the downhill section, then up the uphill section. Then, initially due to gravity on the uphill section (going backwards/downhill) and then momentum on the downhill section (going upwards), they run back. Almost all the way to the starting point. A relatively low level of friction on the rails helps. The riders (or instructors) only have to push their rides back up to the starting point for the last 25m or so.
ARRIVING AT THE PUSH TRACK FOR THE SKELETON TASTER SESSION
As requested, the other guests and I arrived half an hour early to check in, find the right helmet, and walk the few metres from the reception shed to the track. I do a fair few of these organised activity events. Usually I’m slightly above average in terms of fitness, compared with the other guests. However, as my fellow trainee skeleton riders arrived one by one, often with friends or family, I could immediately tell that these folk were different.
This was not the standard mix of middle-aged, slightly overweight men, with a few sons and nephews and maybe the odd bored female thrown in. The vast majority of those people seemed to work out. A lot. There were a few middle-aged, slightly overweight men, yes, but just a handful out of our group of 17. Moreover, there were four ladies.
SERIOUS PEOPLE AT THE SKELETON TASTER SESSION
Throughout the session, as everyone got to chat with each other, I learned that two of the women were competitive amateur athletes. One lady was on the Team GB equestrian team and was open about her plan to become a professional skeleton rider, another one took part in international weightlifting contests. Among the men, there was one guy from the Airforce, who was contemplating a career as professional skeleton rider, just like one of the younger chaps, a university student. Several others had dabbled in competitive sports.
Our instructors introduced themselves. Donna became a full-time trainer for the Team GB skeleton and bobsleigh teams a couple of years ago. Prior to that she competed on international level for the UK’s bobsleigh and skeleton teams. She had been on the reserve for the Olympic Team and taken part in world championships. Donna did most of the talking.
Freya, roughly 20 years old, was part of the national skeleton team, competing in world championships. She assisted Donna and gave everyone useful advice on technique.
STRUCTURE OF THE SKELETON TASTER SESSION
The structure of the session is very simple. Safety briefing and housekeeping (where to find the toilet or where to get food and coffee, etc.). Then you are being shown how to lie on the sled and the instructors push you downhill. It’s an unexpected thrill. You are going no more than maybe 28km/h or so. But because your face is just three inches above the ground and because of all the shaking and rattling it feels much faster.
What follows, is a demonstration on how to push the skeleton, how to hop onto it (load it) and how to ride it. A bit of dry practice where you pretend to run, while in a stationary position. Next you do actually run slowly, pushing the skeleton alongside you, and practice the running and your moves, but you slow down and stop, before you gain speed.
Once everyone feels comfortable with the mechanics, you start running slowly down the track, jumping onto the skeleton, then going downhill properly and gaining some speed. Gradually you increase your running speed, until, for the last three or four runs, you give it your absolute best. The last two or three runs are timed, so you compete against your fellow riders, which is fun.
BASIC TECHNIQUE EASY TO PICK UP
In a way, it is easier than expected, to pick up the technique on a very basic level. You learn how to avoid accidentally falling over your feet or stepping onto the sled, how to switch from grabbing the skeleton’s handle closest to you with the arm closest to it, to grabbing that handle with the arm further away from it, while the arm closer to it switches to the handle further away from you. Once you’ve practiced it a few times, it doesn’t feel so awkward anymore.
A BIT SCARY
That said, it is a bit scary. The ground is hard. If you don’t get it right, the sled might shoot off without you and you will faceplant. Equally, you might actually become top heavy, overshoot the front of the 35kg metal sled and faceplant. There will be two impacts. Your face hitting the ground and then the heavy sled hitting your face.
TRY NOT TO FACEPLANT AT THE SKELETON TASTER SESSION
This happened to one of the trainee riders. He hit the track surface in front of the skeleton at top speed with his face. He lived to tell the story, so to say. No serious medical attention required. But some pretty bad bruising, a bit of blood, and a concussion. He had to discontinue the session and sit down with a staff member from reception, who cleaned the wounds and put some band-aids on.
MAKE SURE YOU WARM UP
Make sure you warm up before the session starts. Apparently it is not uncommon that people pull a hamstring, strain a tendon, bruise their knees, and so on. It happens every now and then that riders do not stay on the skeleton until it has reversed all the way back to near the starting point or that a body part like a hand or foot touches the ground while the sled is still moving. However, in our group there were no further incidents during this session.
DON’T DAMAGE YOUR SHOES
As it is easy to damage your running shoes, if you accidentally let your shoes slide over the track surface during the phase just after you jumped onto the sled, it’s best to wear an old pair. Equally, you’ll want to avoid loose clothing and to make sure you don’t have anything in your pockets.
A GREAT EXPERIENCE
Everyone agreed, that the session had been a great experience. Even the guy that had injured himself, assured us that he didn’t regret joining. We all learned so much in those 90 minutes. Donna and Freya made everyone feel at ease and they had a great way of giving everyone pointers without making it sound like constant criticism. They made us all give our best. All we had in us.
HARD TO DETERMINE A FAIR RATING
It is difficult to give the session a rating. Going simply by how much fun it was, I would say 5 out of 5. For huge fans of skeleton the overall rating will also have to be a 5 out of 5. However, for me personally, I had just been looking for something fun and slightly adventurous to do on the weekend. In terms of thrills, this session is of course a lower level to, say, flying circles above the water at up to 80km/h with a jetlev (a water-powered jetpack) or doing some rock-climbing or caving.
While everybody else seemed to think that the £90 price tag was entirely justified, I can’t help thinking that I could drive three different supercars around a racetrack for that kind of money. For the price of the combined session (£160) you can find tandem skydives, if you shop around. I also wasn’t happy with the booking process. I had to chase more than once for a booking confirmation and then again for detailed information about the event. This is why it’s a 3 out of 5 from me.