Hunkered down in the pilot’s seat of a 120kg two-man bobsleigh, 1,613 metres up in the French Alps, my brakeman and I waited for the starting light to turn green. Not so chatty now were we?
I fixed my gaze 30m ahead to a towering, curved concrete wall, skimmed with striated ice, that bends sharply away, dazzling my vision in brilliant sunlight.
I tried to breathe more slowly and deeply, instantly misting my helmet visor. First retinal burn, now fog. Not good. La Plagne’s twisting, hurtling Olympic bobsleigh track takes no prisoners and it was too late to question why no venue has ever let punters pilot a bobsleigh before, or the meaning of the overheard word ‘cobaye’ in English – ‘guinea pig’.
I’d joined the first-ever group of ‘civilians’ to undertake the Bob Experience. For many years, La Plagne has offered rides down the track as a passenger, or in a special safety-caged luge, but no one has ever been taught to pilot a proper bobsleigh on a one-day course.
The morning’s coaching and track-walk tips, where French Olympian Thomas Gerod pointed out the critical entry and exit lines to take, were now turning over in my mind like a crazed tombola, but one word fought through to this moment: focus.
The light turned green and we were eased into a sedate trundle by Gerod, heavy steel runners crushed the ice to float almost friction-free on a thin water layer instantly created within the twin grooves. I tested how the hanging steering loops, deep within the sled’s nose, moved the front runners: left then right, but aware, as we reached 40kph within seconds, that the start was the first and only time to practise this and the first turn was already approaching. There was an unavoidable element of learning on the job.
Built for the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics, the La Plagne track is a 1,500m-long, 6,800-square-metres ice rink, refrigerated with glycol, water and ammoniaque (ammonia not brandy: I misheard) through 90km of piping between December and April. Profilers continually scrape and shape the serpentine walls, ensuring smooth transitions between the vertiginous banking and the base of the track.
And it was that smooth transition I was after as the sled thrummed round the bend, vibrating and shaking, the thunderous noise amplified within the track and the curtains that hang on the open side. My slightly open visor was now entirely clear and my focus, in every sense, attuned to gently steering with the turn, then as we left the wall and flattened out, aiming to stay in the centre of the track floor.
As beginners, we used the junior start, entering the track at turn 12 of 19, a mere 769m run with a vertical drop of 54m. The full-length course of 1,507m drops 125m and sees a four-man bob reach 120kph, experiencing forces of up to 5g on bend 16, the fastest turn of the track – so long it almost comes back on itself.
We entered this turn at 80kph, barely pulling 1g and I needed more progressive steering to the flick-turns at 13 and 14.
As the sled rose a metre up the banking, I steered gently to keep parallel with the inside wall of the long, long bend. Once there, I slackened the handles and the sled stayed put, held in place by centrifugal force. It acted on me too, as I tilted my head left to counter the pressure that wanted to rip it the other way. I kept looking ahead to anticipate what was coming but there was little time to think and no time to correct.
Towards the end of the bend, the sled dropped towards the bottom and then snaked back upwards, all perfectly normal, and only at this point did I flick back down to exit the turn. Steering up the banking, against the turn, can flip the sled over but “keep your head inside, you will still finish,” said Gerod – maybe a little shaken.
At the finish line, my brakeman, until now just ballast, heaved violently on the handles between his legs when I screamed “brake”, levering a steel rake into the ice.
It’s hard to compare the exhilaration of my four 53-second runs with other sports. There is genuine jeopardy involved. This is no zip wire plunge or tandem jump thrill. Your fate is in your hands, and for me, that is what extreme sport is all about.
The training is thorough and safety paramount, but there’s an assumption you are sporting enough, not just to have a go but also to engage with the demands of one of the most intense winter sports out there. Thanks to La Plagne you can try it – not often, not in great numbers, and at some expense, but if you have a need for speed, don’t miss the chance to sign up.
La Plagne’s ‘Become a bobsleigh pilot in a day’ experience (bob-incentive.com) costs from £505 per person (aged 16 and over). The price includes coaching, FFSG licence, insurance and equipment, such as helmets and crampons. The next course takes place on Feb 9 2024. A week’s stay at Hôtel Le Terra Nova (belambra.fr) costs from £567 per person, B&B. Return flights from London Gatwick to Geneva cost from £55 with easyJet (easyjet.com).