Travel Writing Awards Entry
I unwrap my legs from around the torso of my travel partner Chris and gingerly stand up. My frame is supported by nothing more than two quivering pylons of jelly, formerly used for walking and running. Chris in turn unwraps himself from around Adrian, the 22 year-old American we’d met just five minutes earlier, and attempts to stand up for himself. Eventually Adrian too rises onto trembling legs. Adrian reaches into his jeans pocket, pulls out a cigarette and lights up, exclaiming “that was better than sex!”
Minutes earlier Chris and I were standing alone at the top of the icy Sigulda bobsled track, training ground for the former Soviet bobsled and luge teams. Having waited there for half an hour, the day proceeding quickly towards evening, and the temperature following suit, we’d seen very little sign of life and wondered if we would get our chance to ride a bobsled.
Prior to departing Riga, a 90-minute train ride away largely through picturesque snow covered pine forests, enquiries had been made regarding the track’s availability. Being the end of the bobsled season we were told that a bobsled ride could not be guaranteed. Weather conditions were affecting the track’s integrity, and the minimum number of bookings had not yet been reached to warrant readying the track, drivers and bobsleds.
When a white truck resembling a rental vehicle used to move house backed to the start of the bobsled track, doors opening to reveal two sleek, shiny bobsleds, painted metallic blue and purple, our spirits lifted instantly! As quickly as the excitement arrived, it was replaced by a feeling of apprehension – what are we getting ourselves into?
No time to ponder. A minibus of American travellers arrived, and we now had enough riders to ensure our place on the track. Whilst standing at the top of the run, watching the late afternoon sun glinting off the paintwork of the purple bobsled as it was manhandled from the truck to the track, our Latvian driver who spoke English about as well as Chris and I speak Latvian, motioned for us to select our helmets.
Sliding the motorbike style helmets over our heads, we start towards our shiny new ride. There would be no Cool Runnings moment today. In fact, there would be no running at all, which was probably a good thing! The idea of falling over on the ice and sliding down the track face first had worried me.
And as our Latvian driver started playing charades to indicate that I should sit down in the bobsled, on the back seat, I suddenly had many questions to ask; and without a translator in sight, there was no-one to answer them. The driver taps a small metal bar tucked right behind the seat in front of me and indicates for me to hold onto it. Time to get a grip, time to focus.
“But what happens if I accidentally let go? Will I fall out the back of the bobsled?” With a broad smile on his face, perhaps due to my Academy Award worthy performance of pretending to fall out the back of the bobsled, the driver repeats his opening and closing of the hands, and gives an extra hard shake, which I can only presume to mean, “Hold tighter, and just don’t let go”.
As Adrian clambers into the number 2 seat it becomes apparent that there is little chance of actually falling out of the bobsled. I hadn’t found a seat belt tucked under the seat, or spied a roll cage that would fit over the entire bob sled, just waiting to be mounted on – no, these safety additions must have been optional extras in this vehicle, and the Latvians had only picked up the base model. Instead, with my legs straddling Chris’ torso, and my feet wedged against the fibreglass bobsled shell, either side of Adrian’s behind, I’d have struggled to get out, even if I wanted to.
Our driver skilfully jumps into his seat, and from my position at the back, I can only presume he’s completing a routine check of the brakes – surely they have brakes on this sled don’t they? Before I can ask, we are pushed down the start of the track. Somehow, my grip on the bar gets even tighter as we glide towards the first corner, a sweeping left hander.
Through the bend, and despite gaining speed each second, I start to think this isn’t so bad. Then like a scary rollercoaster, releasing the brakes at just the right time, the track drops away at an even steeper gradient and we shake hard around the second bend. As if the gliding start had just been in slow motion, corners start to approach at a terrifying rate, our driver trying his hardest to keep a clean line through the bends. Inevitably the bobsled bumps into walls, our heads shaking from one side to the other.
Turns come thick and fast; sharp turns, interspersed with long, fast, sweeping bends, seemingly curling a full 360 degrees, but in reality much less. There is a distinct absence of sound, with the only discernable noise coming from the bobsled skates slicing and grinding down the track.
We continue to build speed, clocking over 100 km/hr as we approach a series of consecutive long bends. As we come out of the final left hand bend, corner 16, the track starts climbing and the driver applies the handbrake, digging into the ice and causing the bobsled to swerve violently. Having lasted less than a minute, it was over much too soon.
As we stand in the back of the bobsled transport truck returning to the top of the hill, Adrian still puffing away on his cigarette, Chris sums it up perfectly. “That really wasn’t so scary was it? Wanna go again; maybe they’ll let me drive this time!”