February 14, 2014 10:59 am

FT Masterclass: Bobsleigh with Lee Johnston

The former commando who trains Britain’s Olympic hopefuls explains the rules and joys of bobsleigh
British Bobsleigh team©Paul Kranzler

The team begins thepush start at the track. Jeremy Taylor is on the right-hand side of sled, farthest from camera

There’s only one way to stop an 80mph bobsleigh and, unfortunately, I’m sitting on it. I’m in a four-man sled and have unwittingly managed to block the brakeman’s route to a handle that will slow us down before we run out of ice. Despite intensive training, it’s not a good time to realise that nobody has told me what happens next …

This is my first attempt at bobsleigh and I know I’m a liability, especially as I’m starting at the top of the sport. A scratch team has been assembled at the British Bobsleigh Championships in Innsbruck so I can try the four-man bob; a 10-strong bobsleigh squad has since been named for the Winter Olympics at Sochi. Surprisingly, I’m competing in a real race – the organisers believe this is the first time a journalist has been allowed to do this.

Our bobsleigh has just hurtled down the 1,217m course in less than a minute. The Innsbruck track used for the 1976 Winter Olympic Games is an unforgiving, brutal assault on the senses – 14 corners that remind you why bobsleigh is one of the riskier sports ever invented by foolhardy Englishmen.

Above the roar of four metal runners searing across ice, I can hear the driver Lee Johnston, manager of the British bobsleigh team and the squad’s development coach, howling for brakes. The finish line has flashed past and a steep safety incline isn’t slowing our progress. There’s a sudden, stabbing pain in my right thigh as, behind me, the brakeman Scott Allaway scrambles for the handle. Despite his efforts, a combined 550kg of man and sledge is racing unchecked towards the end of the track.

This wasn’t in the training or, if it was, I’ve forgotten it. Two weeks earlier, I’d learnt the basics of bobsleigh at the Bath University outdoor training track, where bobsleighers can practise the all-important push start, using a simple wooden trolley set on rails. “In Austria, you’ll get rattled around and bruised from start to finish,” warned Johnston, a former commando who has competed in 13 world championships and three Winter Olympics, winning a bronze medal in Nagano, Japan, in 1998. “Sixty seconds in a bobsleigh will make you feel like you’ve been in a five-minute fight.”

Co-ordinating the push and load has to be second nature to a bobsleigh team: for every 1/100th of a second shaved off the running start, 3/100ths of a second is gained at the finish. Competitors wear spiked running shoes in order to keep their grip when they take to the ice, bringing another warning from Johnston: “If you don’t get the load right you can expect 150 tiny spikes in your leg. The guy behind will be trying to force his way into the bobsleigh before the first bend. Sit in the wrong place and it can be painful.”

Jamie Lafferty, Lee Johnston, Jeremy Taylor, Scott Allaway

Bronze medallists, left to right: Jamie Lafferty, Lee Johnston, Jeremy Taylor, Scott Allaway

In Austria I have my first glimpse of a real bobsleigh. It looks like an aerodynamic coffin, with a composite body and two pairs of glinting steel runners. Johnston will steer it using two metal rings, each attached to a pulley system to adjust the front runners as we career down the track.

The first bobsleighs date from the 1870s, when English gentlemen in the Swiss resort of St Moritz devised a novel way of making the winter sports season last longer. They raced makeshift wooden sledges down public roads, until purpose-built bobsleigh tracks were erected to reduce the casualty rate. The sport has been part of the Winter Olympics since the first in 1924.

The casualty rate is on my mind as we haul our sled on to the Innsbruck start line. The ice track slopes away into the distance and I grasp the sled handle, ready for the shove. My ice spikes grip the surface perfectly and neat adrenalin keeps me from feeling the cold in my flimsy Lycra onesie. Johnston has the final, encouraging word: “Once we begin our push there’s no going back. We either cross the finishing line together in the sled – or we cross it individually on our backsides. The sledge can be upside down but as long as we cross the line, we get a time.”

bobsleigh

The bobsleigh aka 'an aerodynamic coffin'

Minutes earlier, Britain’s top bobsleigh team, driven by Sochi team member John Jackson, recorded a run of 52.21 seconds. We aren’t going to come close to that time but with testosterone and liniment fuelling our sled, Johnston counts us down to a mad dash into oblivion.

Splinters of ice and shouting fill the air as our bobsleigh gathers speed. The sides of the sled come up to neck height on the bends and the first right-hander shoves me sideways. I’ve been told to press my helmet into the back of the man in front of me, so I can’t see. I’m trying to count the turns but they are coming so fast and, with the runners so noisy, it’s impossible.

The worst moment is when we reach the Kreisel, a 360-degree corner that has the same effect as somebody dropping a sack of coal on to the back of my neck, forcing my head down into my knees. Somewhere ahead of me, Johnston is steering us through a head-jolting fairground ride that doesn’t want to end. At several points we are at 90 degrees to the ground, banking high on the track before another turn slams my body against the opposite side of the sled.

It’s only when we cross the line that Johnston starts shouting for the brakes. Brakeman Allaway somehow pushes my leg out of the way with his foot, leaving a rash of bloody spike marks on my thigh. It’s too late to stay on the track and we shoot off the end of the ice into a bobsleigh trap, a device that grips us like a cork forced into a bottle.

Completely disorientated, I stumble out and help Johnston slide our sled to safety. Then I see the stop clock: 54.58 seconds. Incredibly, our scratch team has just won a bronze medal in the 2013 British Bobsleigh Championships. I feel like I’m walking on air, before I discover I’m still on ice and slide over backwards.

Johnston is happy: “Two seconds is a lifetime in this sport but it shows how important the start is,” he says. “There are very few people who get to experience bobsleigh but despite the dangers, it’s addictive. I’m 41 now and it’s hard to imagine a time when I will have to stop.” My bobsleigh career ended there in Austria but it’s one helter-skelter ride I will never forget – and I have a medal to prove it.

The first four-man bobsleigh competition at the Winter Olympics in Sochi is on February 22.

sochi2014.com/en/bobsleigh

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