Feel the Rush of Rolling Thunder

Images by Joern Rohde

The final few turns of the Whistler Sliding Centre (WSC) bobsleigh track are called the Gold Rush Trail for a reason: It’s where world-class bobsleigh, skeleton and luge athletes, competing on the world’s fastest track, win gold — or lose it. And almost invariably, those who have taken rides down the track, in winter or summer, exclaim afterward that it certainly is a rush.

Participants in Rolling Thunder, the summertime bobsleigh program at the track, are advised to arrive 30 to 60 minutes before the start of their sport experience. Once they’ve done the weigh- in, received their seat assignments and are fitted with helmets, guests are given an orientation and safety briefing, then go for an educational walk down a section of the track — educational because it helps guests see how steep the walls are when entering and exiting the turns, said Silke Jeltsch, communications specialist for Whistler Sport Legacies  (WSL).

The main mission of WSL, the non-profit society that operates the WSC and other “legacy” facilities from the 2010 Winter Olympics, is to “grow sport.” Proceeds from Rolling Thunder and other public programs help support both upcoming and established athletes in the sliding sports. On this day, Anna, one of the presenters at our safety briefing, offered advice on what to do “in the unlikely event you see a bear.” Two minutes later, as our group was standing on a terrace outside the briefing room, a bear ambled out of the forest just across the road but at a safe distance. Bonus!

The sleds used for the summer program are somewhat different from the bobsleighs used in the winter. Instead of stainless steel runners, they have wheels — larger in the back, smaller in the front. There are also side wheels for stability on the banked track. The summer sleds’ nose sections are articulated so that they move separately from the main body of the sled, said Philippe Melun, WSC guest services manager and Rolling Thunder pilot. In addition, the pilots in the summer sleds steer from the back, not the front. “With the steering from the back and the nose articulated, you can go higher on the wall and then when you come down, the descent is a lot smoother,” Melun said. “That way it feels almost like the sleds in the winter.”

Four years ago, when WSC employees (including some who also compete in bobsleigh in the winter) were being trained to pilot the summer sleds, the ride was extremely rough until they learned the feel of the steering/braking mechanisms, Melun said. “When you go around 70 (km/h), it’s very bumpy and it doesn't negotiate the turns very well,” he said. “When we reach 88 km/h the ride is a lot smoother. So, we say faster is better.”

Having experienced it in both summer and winter (the latter with speeds more than 120 km/h), I didn’t notice much of a difference in speed. In a confined space, fast is fast! But the side-to-side buffeting was similar, and in both instances, I just held for dear life onto the cables inside the sled. That was especially true after we dropped out of Corner 11 and hurtled toward the Gold  Rush Trail.

Melun recalls being the pilot for twin 13-year-olds who came to the track with their grandparents. The youngsters were keen, but because each 12- or 13-year- old must be accompanied by a parent or guardian, the grandparents were told they’d have to be in the sled, too. “The grandmother, we told her she needed to go, otherwise the kids can’t go. And the kids had to go,” Melun said. “The grandmother said she hadn’t even been in a rollercoaster before. We started down the track and she started screaming, and she screamed all the way down.

“When we finished, she was laughing so much that she couldn’t move, and when she finally got out, she was hugging everyone with tears in her eyes. For her, it was one of the biggest things she’d ever done.”

The 2017 Rolling Thunder program rumbles down the track from July 1 to Sept. 3. This year, youngsters aged 12 to 18 ride free with a paying adult.

For more information, visit whistlersportlegacies.com.

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