Sunday, February 8, 2009

Awesome 4 Man Bobsleigh at Whistler

After the quick trip to San Francisco, I flew back to Bellingham and on Saturday, Genny and I drove up to Whistler, BC to watch the 4 Man Bobsleigh World Cup. The Whistler Sliding Center will be the site of the 2010 Olympic bobsleigh, skelton, and luge events and while I hope to be back next year for some of that action, the World Cup afforded a much better chance to get really up close. Also, the tickets for the event (which was sold out...more on that in a minute) were only $5 compared to $45 or more for the Olympics.


The drive up was effortless, taking just 3 hours even though we had to stop off in Vancouver to pick up our tickets. In my typical fashion, I had neglected to purchase tickets in advance. So on Friday night, I posted a "Tickets Wanted" ad on Craig's List and got an immediate response from Leoni Milano, an Aussie who had recently moved to Vancouver. She had purchased tickets for both the bobsleigh and the snowboard World Cup events (which were also on Saturday at Cypress Bowl in North Vancouver). She decided to go to the snowboard and so was very happy to sell me her tickets. My sincere thanks.


We were able to park in Blackcomb lot 8, which happened to also be the staging area for the competitors, so we literally parked right next to the bobsled shipping containers and got to see the competitors before the event. I doubt spectators will have anything near this level of access during the Olympics, another reason why the World Cup events are so incredibly cool.


We also got a good look at what powers this bobsled team.


From where we parked, it was just a short walk to the entry of venue, the beautiful new Whistler Sliding Center. The Sliding Center has been constructed in the valley between Whistler and Blackcomb, just above the Blackcomb Base 2 area, near the tubing hill. It's nearly hidden from the ski area itself, but easily accessible from the village. And I must say, the organization at this event was incredible. It was the exact opposite of what we experienced a few weeks ago at the World Cup Ski Jump event. There were more than 100 volunteers there to assist spectators, telling them how to get around the venue and where the best places were from which to watch. And with the exception of the start and finish areas, the crowds were small enough that we were able to get right up to the edge of the track.


Since we arrived nearly an hour before the start of the first heat, we made the climb from the entry point (at the bottom of the track) to the starting area, a climb of 152 meters (approx. 500 feet) over a length of 1,450 meters (just over 4750 feet, or 7/8 of a mile). The track has 16 corners and a maximum slope (at corner 2) of 20%. It is the newest facility of its kind in the world and the fastest. (Visit the Whistler Sliding Center website for more info.) The first team of the day, Latvia 1, immediately set a new track record and a new bobsled speed record of more than 153kn/hr.


We watched from the first few teams of the first heat from the starting area. The neat thing about watching from here is that you really get to see the teams up close, you can feel the adrenaline at the start, and the sleds aren't moving fast yet, so you can actually see everything.


Once the sleds get moving, it's tough to get a perfect photo, as they get up to speeds of 90 miles per hour or more.


As the event progressed, we made our way back down the course. It was much easier going down than our initial hurried climb up to the top. The closer we got to the bottom, the more difficult it became to photograph the sleds.


The track announcer would come on the PA and let the spectators know that a sled was on the track. Then I'd just have to listen for the sound of the approaching sled and time my shot.


Here's a short video that will give you an idea of just how fast these things were moving.

The challenge of photographing bobsleigh is considerably greater than auto racing, made more so by the fact that you only get one shot. In most cases, you can only see a short segment of the track before it reverses direction and the sled gets hidden behind the banking of the next turn.


I had to pretty much listen for the approaching sled, focus on a spot on the track, and then pray that I was quick enough on the shutter.


Sometimes I was...


And at other times, even a shot that didn't turn out how I planned ended up conveying much more about the sheer speed of this sport.


A total of 22 teams competed in the first heat. The Latvia 2 sled flipped over in turn 11, ending up with a slow time (even if the sled flips, it still gets a time if it crosses the finish line). The next slowest sled, the team from Korea, was also eliminated, leaving 20 teams to compete in the second heat. Since they started the second heat in reverse order, the fastest teams (Russia 1, USA 1, and Latvia 1) were the last to go, the winner being the team with the fastest combined time from heats one and two.


As we watched, it seemed that each run got faster and faster, with a new leader each time. A huge cheer went up when the Canada 1 sled moved into first place and the USA 2 sled, the next to go, failed to overtake it by a mere 0.03 seconds.


By this time, it was well after dark, with the track illumination providing the only light. Genny and I were at the bottom of the track. I could watch and photograph the final turn and Genny positioned herself in the runout area beyond the finish line where the brakes from the sleds threw up a tremendous shower of ice.


With just two sleds left to compete, the USA 1 sled driven by Steven Holcomb, moved into first place with a second heat time of 50.99 seconds, a new record. (Yes, you read that right! It takes less than a minute from start to finish. That's 94.8702 miles per hour. I told you these things were fast.)

But there was still one sled left, the Latvia 1 sled driven by Janis Minins. This sled had been the fastest in the first heat with a time of 51.20. As we stood watching and hoping for a USA victory, Minins drove his sled to a new record of 50.97 seconds, beating the USA 1 sled by a mere 0.02 seconds, for a total time of 1:42.17, just 0.06 seconds faster than the combined USA1 time.

Rather than get stuck in the crowd leaving at the end of the event, Genny and I stayed for the medal awards ceremony. Unfortunately, this proved to be about a 20 minute wait as they got things organized. During the lull, I got interviewed by the local TV/track announcer. I have no idea where this might have aired. (If I find a link to it online, I'll add it to this posting.)


Once the awards ceremony actually got underway, it was pretty cool. And since most of the spectators had already left, we were as close as the public could get. Here's the USA1 team with its medals.

Before the playing of the Latvian national anthem, they replayed the team's final heat on the big screen. The final results were Gold: LAT1 Minins (1:42.17), Silver: USA1 Holcomb (1:42.23), Bronze: RUS1 Zubkov (1:42.67).

Back in the parking area, we watched as the teams packed their sleds back into the shipping containers.


Again, the access to the competitors was amazing. Here's one of the Team USA pushers.

It was an incredible experience. I can only imagine how much more exciting the Olympics will be next year. After leaving the sliding center, Genny and I had dinner in the Whistler Village and then drove home in just over 2.5 hours (no traffic and no line at the border). It was a great day.

I may add more to this posting, so check back. You can also view additional photos on my Flickr site, where you can also view my 4 Man Bobsleigh photos as a slideshow.

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