A couple of weeks ago, I took part in a 1h30m bobsleigh taster session at the Team GB Training Site at Bath University. 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.
A CONVERTIBLE ICE BULLET-TRAIN
As you might or might not know, bobsleigh is a winter sport involving one, two, or four athletes riding a sleigh down an ice track. The sleigh is covered on all sides at the nose like a tube, but has an opening all the way throughout the rest of the top and at the end, allowing riders to stick their heads out to see where they are going.
THE FASTEST BOBSLEIGH TRACK SPORT (UP TO 150KPH)
It is the fastest one of the three bobsleigh track sports (the other two being skeleton and luge). Competitive riders still reach speeds of up to 156kph 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.
MAD BRITS CAUSING HAVOC AND MAYHEM IN QUIET SWITZERLAND
The sport was invented in the late 19th Century in Switzerland by mad Brits who were holidaying in the area and looking for a thrill.
With Victorian ingenuity and adventurous spirit those crazies converted delivery sleds and traditional toboggans into the first few prototypes. Clearly unperturbed by the risk to life and limb, these deranged winter sport pioneers raced down the public streets of St. Moritz.
Once half the residents were maimed in accidents and the rest wouldn’t leave their houses any longer, the first purpose-built bobsleigh track was constructed. It is still in operation today and has hosted two Olympic Winter Games.
Since the very first Winter Games in 1924, the four-man event has been a constant feature, with only one exception in the 1960 games, when the organisers were too greedy to invest in a track. Bobsleigh runs remain rare and there are currently only 17 tracks worldwide, 4 of which are located in Germany, 2 each in Austria and the U.S. I used to live right next to one of the German runs for a year.
There are no bobsleigh tracks in the UK, which is why the national team trains on the push track at the University of Bath. For a couple of weeks each year they purchase practice time on one of the bobsleigh tracks abroad, to up their game before the season starts. Ahead of each international competition every team gets some more practice time on the respective track. Considering the difficult situation Team GB find themselves in, it is amazing that they won several medals, including a gold medal.
To this day, bobsleigh remains a very dangerous sport. 17 people have lost their lives in accidents.
HOW TO GET TO THE BOBSLEIGH 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 bobsleighs (or alternatively the practice skeletons) 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 bobsleighs (or skeletons) 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.
OUR INSTRUCTORS AT THE BOBSLEIGH TASTER SESSION
Our instructors introduced themselves. Donna became a full-time trainer for the Team GB bobsleigh and skeleton 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.
John, a sturdy-looking guy in his twenties, putting 105kg on the scales at a height of 185cm, is part of the national bobsleigh team, competing in world championships. He assisted Donna and gave everyone useful advice on technique.
STRUCTURE OF THE BOBSLEIGH 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 jump onto and how to sit inside the bobsleigh, and the instructors push you downhill. It’s an unexpected thrill. You are going no more than maybe 35km/h or so. But because of all the rattling and shaking, it feels much faster.
What follows, is a demonstration on how to push the bobsleigh, 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 bobsleigh in front of you, and practice the running and your moves. The instructors will help you to 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 bobsleigh, 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 push the sleigh and how to maintain your balance while jumping onto it from the back. Then you learn how to do the same thing from the side of the sleigh, which is much more difficult. The side of the sleigh might not look very high while you are standing, but when you are running fast, jumping into the cockpit from the side becomes a serious challenge.
You are being taught to respect the 130kg bullet train. Early on you realise that touching the ground in front of it, for example when reversing back to the starting point, is something you want to avoid at any cost. Equally, you don’t want to get too close to its side, should you fall. And you definitely don’t want to hold on to it should you miss your jump and being pulled behind the sleigh.
A BIT SCARY
So, while it’s true that you gain confidence quickly and learn the basics, riding a practice bobsleigh on the push track is without any doubt a tad scary. The ground is hard. If you don’t get it right, the sleigh might shoot off without you and you will fall to the ground.
TRY NOT TO MISS YOUR JUMP AT THE BOBSLEIGH TASTER SESSION
There were several mishaps during my taster session, despite the close supervision and clear instructions. Two fellow taster trainees missed their jumps from the back and were pulled behind the sleigh for a couple of metres before letting go. One lady missed her jump from the side and got precariously close to the rails when falling to the ground. Luckily none of the colleagues were injured seriously.
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 bobsleigh 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 sleigh is still moving. However, in our group there were no further incidents during this session.
DON’T DAMAGE YOUR SHOES AT THE BOBSLEIGH TASTER SESSION
As it is easy to damage your running shoes, if you miss your jump and get pulled behind or alongside the sleigh, 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 fellow trainees who had fallen, assured us that they didn’t regret joining. We all learned so much in those 90 minutes. Donna and John 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 bobsleigh 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, riding a jetski at up to 80km/h across rocky waters or doing some motocrossing or canyoning.
While everybody else seemed to think that the £90 price tag was entirely justified, I can’t help thinking that I could take a flying lesson 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.