I have never engaged in a sport or activity that required the use of a helmet.
So it was an unnatural feeling to have this gray sphere snugly nested around my noggin as I, along with my childhood friend, Pedro Rosado, prepared to hurtle ourselves on the bobsled run at the Mount Van Hoevenberg winter Olympic complex in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Our goal was to discover what bobsledders competing in Sochi might feel like.
Thanks to the New York Olympic Regional Development Authority, which runs the winter venues from the 1932 and 1980 Olympics, the public can enjoy the “Bobsled Experience,” an abbreviated 10-turn, half-mile course, compared to the full-length 20-turn course.
Trust me, this was no simulator.
Crowded into a bathtub
Imagine four people seated — their legs extended around each other in V-formations — in a 500-pound Fiberglas bathtub.
Now imagine taking that bathtub and its passengers and hurtling it at speeds in excess of 60 mph (80-plus mph if you are competing in the Olympics) along a twisty water park slide that’s coated in ice.
The experience is a bit like getting into a cab in New York City at 3 a.m. barreling down First Avenue with all the traffic lights green. But bobsledding is less dangerous.
First, some technical terms:
There’s the driver, who uses a pulley system called “D-Rings” that he pulls and tugs on to steer the sled where he wants it to go.
And then there’s the brakeman. He’s the guy who launches the sled with a running start and then jumps in as it’s headed down the track. Our brakeman did this with the ease and grace of someone pushing a shopping cart down the dairy aisle.
The driver was seated first, followed by me and then Pedro. However, Pedro was not prepared for the brakeman’s abrupt arrival after he shoved the sled and jumped in. There was no mistaking the brakeman’s presence after his legs suddenly enveloped Pedro’s and their lower bodies were, um, embraced.
Next time, Pedro insisted, the bobsledder would have to at least first buy him a drink.
Ahead of our launch, the driver warned me to keep my hands inside. No problem there. He also gave me straps to hold on to. It was like trying to rein a runaway horse. My fingers were still cramped the next day from holding on so tightly — and that was with gloved hands. Incredibly, Pedro forgot to put on his gloves.
Since I am no fan of rollercoasters, I was relieved when the ride started out gently enough. I thought, “Oh, this isn’t too bad. This is pretty good.”
But faster than you can say “Jamaican bobsled team,” the sled started to pick up speed. Things became a blur of white. I strained to sit forward as the driver had instructed, but one of the forces that works on your body — aerodynamic drag — kept pushing me back.
I would no sooner start to collect my thoughts when “WHAM!”
We’d accelerate through a turn at teeth-rattling speeds. Sledders can experience g-forces from 1g on straightaways up to 4g or 5g on tight, high-speed bends, says Mark Denny, author of “Gliding for Gold: The Physics of Winter Sports.”
And to top it off, we were sideways to the track, like a spider hanging off a wall.
Jon Lundin, public relations coordinator for the Olympic Regional Development Authority, explained it this way:
“As the sled maneuvers its way down the twisting icy chute and reaches speeds of between 55 to 60 mph, participants will feel the pull of the sled as it climbs halfway up the curve, with some curves as high as eight to 10 feet.”
The curves have such innocent-sounding names: “Shady.” “The Labyrinth.” “The Heart.”
Really, they should be renamed: “The Vomitron.” “What Was That?!” and “Oh. My. God.”
What is mind-boggling is that ORDA drivers and brakemen can make as many as 40 trips down that track on a busy day.
Just as I was thinking I could not bear another turn, we skidded to a slowdown.
Forty-eight seconds.
That was it.
Once we were stopped and climbing out, we were so disoriented. Pedro put down and picked up his helmet three times for no apparent reason. I was so dazed and confused that I almost didn’t turn the right way when ORDA staff were taking our “team” photo.
As it is, the photo captured me with the earpiece of my eyeglasses clenched between my teeth because I had just taken off my helmet and lacked the presence of mind to put my glasses back on.
Victorious finish
Our wives greeted us like conquering heroes, and Pedro and I enjoyed a celebratory Kodak moment on an Olympic medal podium, each of us sharing the No. 1 platform.
With each chest-thumping retelling of our experience — for the benefit of our wives — we amped up in increments our alleged speed.
So when we started telling our tale, we said we were at speeds in excess of 100 mph (big exaggeration), but by the time the weekend was winding down, we were bragging of having gone 512.5 mph (whopper of a lie).
We’re even convinced that we came away from the ride younger since we were going so fast that time reversed itself (pants on fire).
So now when you watch the Olympic bobsledders in Sochi go for the gold, you can recall the efforts of Pedro and I going for the aluminum.
At 516.7 mph.
The Olympic Regional Development Authority uses two tracks for the Lake Placid Bobsled Experience. In the summer, guests ride on wheeled bobsleds down the 1932 and 1980 Olympic track, which was completed in 1928 and refurbished in 1978.
In the winter, the combined bobsled/luge and skeleton track is used. This track was completed in 1999, in time for the 2000 Winter Goodwill Games. This track replaced the outdated 1980 Olympic luge track.
Today, this track plays host to World Cup or World Championships in the sports of bobsled, luge and skeleton on an almost yearly basis. It also serves as the training track for the U.S. bobsled, luge and skeleton teams.
It’s one of only two tracks in the United States. The other track is in Park City, Utah, the host city for all of the sliding sports during the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.
Christopher Mele is executive editor of the Pocono Record in Stroudsburg, Pa.