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The Globe and Mail

The rush of riding Whistler from the 'champagne seat'

David Ebner (L) and Pierre Lueders get ready to make their way down the bobsled track at the Whistler Sliding Centre in Whistler, BC January 25, 2012. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)


I sit behind Pierre Lueders, Canada's greatest bobsled pilot. A sticker on the back of his helmet is a cartoon of a blasting-off rocket whose tip is a snarling shark's head.

We are in a four-man sled at the Whistler Sliding Centre, halfway up. It's the novice start but, by at the end, blasting around Thunderbird corner, we nearly crack 125 kilometres an hour. It is quite the rush, a blur of 45 or so seconds, sitting behind Lueders in the No 2 perch that he jokingly calls the "champagne seat."

Canada's bobsleigh team, which also includes skeleton sliding, is in a difficult spot. The squad has won medals at three of the past four Olympics - including a 1998 gold and 2006 silver for Lueders - but has suffered financially as the glow of the Vancouver 2010 games fades. For two decades, credit card Visa was the principal corporate backer but a long-term deal has ended, leaving the team without a title sponsor.

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The 2011-12 budget is about $4-million, down 10 per cent from the previous winter. More than half - $2.3-million - is from Own The Podium, as Canada aims to extend its 2010 success. At the Whistler, Canada's three medals - gold, silver and bronze - tied perennial power Germany for total bobsleigh medals.

As the budget is crunched, every dollar counts. Lueders last week promoted the sport and publicly available bobsleigh rides ahead of this week's World Cup at Whistler. Lueders piloted several four-man bobs down the track, what one local Vancouver television reporter billed as the "ride of a lifetime."

It is indeed zippy. However, it is of course not quite like the Olympics. The sleds themselves are more "bus" than the "Ferrari" piloted by top competitors (the best sleds cost more than $100,000 per). And there's no running start and hopping in, a tricky thing that takes much practice. Still, the ride is a blast - it is easy to see how one gets hooked.

Available for years at Calgary Olympic Park- at $169 a person- public bobsleigh is new to Whistler, for $149, where public skeleton is also available. Lueders, now a retired pilot, has staked his professional future on Canada, having signed on as a development coach, teaching the nuanced art of bobsleigh driving to up-and-coming Canadian pilots who compete on circuits below the World Cup. Lueders had been courted by other countries, including Russia, host of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

"We've got a nice tradition of success at the Olympics," says Lueders. "That's a tradition we want to keep going."

Justin Kripps, a 25-year-old from Summerland, B.C., is poised as one of Canada's next World Cup pilots. A former brakeman to Lueders, Kripps makes his World Cup pilot as a pilot at Whistler this week. The margin of error between success and also-ran is nearly invisible. At the Vancouver games, there was less than a second - over four heats of about 50 seconds each between - between gold and bronze in men's two- and four-man bobsleigh.

"It can be real finicky," says Kripps, who took driving school in the summer after the last Olympics. It can all depend on a tiny pull of one or both of two metal rings, which are connected to cables and then pulleys, driving the sled left or right. Kripps talks about how a coach like Lueders will note the need, for example, of a small adjustment necessary on a track in a late corner of the course.

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"You've got to be three inches lower," Kripps remembers, and emphasizes the challenge: "You're going 145 kilometres an hour."

Crashes loom. Pilot Chris Spring and his crew suffered a bad one in Germany in early January, on the notorious course at Altenberg. Spring and two crewmates were sent to hospital. The worst injury was a broken fibula by Graeme Rinholm. Spring, who had a broken nose, had to get a piece of wood and glass fibre surgically removed from his back.

Helen Upperton said crashes are a continual part of the sport, though Spring's was worse than most and, at first, looked harrowing. The crew was less scathed than people had feared.

"Athletes have a bit of a superhero mentality," says Upperton, a pilot who with Shelley-Ann Brown won silver in 2010, behind Canada's Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse who took gold.

"When something bad happens, it's a humbling experience."

On the recreational bobsleigh side, a preparatory session at the Whistler Sliding Centre does review what to do in the event of a crash, though one has never happened with a tourist onboard.

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There are cables that run along the inside of the sleigh that those seated behind the driver hang on to. In a crash, there are four simple words of direction, emphasized in capital letters: "Do not let go."

The best do crash. Upperton, in her ninth season as a driver, half-jokes: "I crash all the time. I'm either real fast, or upside down."

Lueders remembers, "The first time in Calgary from the top I crashed."

At Whistler, the 180-degree turn 7 is called Lueder's Loop, so named in his honour after he crashed on the turn in the track's early days in 2008. "Do they still call it that?" laughs Lueders.

For the adventurous who get on board at the sliding centre, a rip down the bobsleigh track is fun and nothing too radical. Granted, visitors aren't put behind the reins. The exhilarating view from the champagne seat is a lot easier.

For Canada's bobsleigh and skeleton teams, the 2011-12 season hits its high moments, at home in North America, although there remains the worrying absence of a title sponsor. A World Cup in Calgary follows Whistler, and then the World Championships in Lake Placid, New York.

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