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Val Thorens’ Luge Cup: Getting in touch with your inner mountain child

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Remember those wild toboggan runs when you were a kid? Flying down the hill, hanging on for dear life, hoping you were going to be able to make it to the flats without crashing? Or not…

Well, last weekend I got to relive those moments. And then some. I don’t really know how it happened actually. I was supposed to be an innocent bystander. But I should have known better…

“It’s right up your alley,” said the always-garrulous Jean Pierre Baralo, the organizer of the inaugural Luge Cup. “You’ll love the course. It’s fast. It’s fun. And there’s virtually no chance of getting hurt. Really — it’s a truly unique experience.” He tried not to smile (and that’s when I should have suspected something was up). “You could watch it if you want, Michel,” he said, grinning broadly. “But wouldn’t you rather race it?”

What was I going to say? Held at France’s Val Thorens — the highest resort in Europe — the Luge Cup was all about Snoweaters getting together and having some light-hearted on-mountain fun (or so said Baralo). There were ski coaches, ski instructors, racers, snowboarders, liftees, locals, weekenders and even foreign tourists — over 160 people had signed up for the race. How could I say no?

So I didn’t…

Imagine a six-kilometre long track with huge snowbanks on either side (to keep lugers from going “offpiste”) that drops 2,500 vertical feet and features countless hairpin turns, long straightaways, more turns, more straightaways and WAY too much potential for speed. That, in essence, is what the Val Thorens luge track is all about.

Now imagine sitting in a kid’s over-sized red plastic sled, with straps at the front for your feet, a leash around your leg in case you should get separated from the sled, and goofy hand brakes on either side that help you “control” your descent. “But don’t use the handbrakes,” said local freeride star Thomas Diet. “They’re way too slow. We’ve been experimenting with different techniques this winter and we’ve found that using your hands works best.”

And then he laughed. “It’s a pretty serious descent,” he said. “We’ve run the course a bunch of times now. But I’ll tell you, the first time I went down this year I almost pissed my pants. If you let your sled go, man, you can get some good speed going…”

That’s when I started to realize that I might have gotten myself into something bigger than Jean-Pierre had intimated.

The longest “permanent” course on the continent, the start of the Val Thorens track is at a lung-churning 10,000 feet of altitude. But the view of the Tarentaise Mountains that surround it — particularly the Peclet Peak that looms above the course — is stunningly beautiful.

Unfortunately for me, I’d just arrived in the Alps the night before, and had virtually no time to acclimatize — or even familiarize myself with the course. I was supposed to get two runs in, but of course I misunderstood when the start time was, overslept and arrived at the event tent mid-way through the race.

“If you really push it,” said Baralo, drawing a big sigh at my tardiness, “you can make it for the second run. But you can’t dilly-dally. You’ve got to pick up your sled and helmet, sign the release form and zoom up to the start zone pronto.”

Helmet? Once again, I started to doubt the wisdom of my decision. But it wasn’t too late. I could just sit back, have a glass of Savoyard wine and watch the second run. Couldn’t I? “But why would you ever want to do that?” asked Baralo. “You’re going to have a great time. The sun is shining, the track is fast and everyone here is expecting you to race. You keep talking about mountain culture. Well, this is a true celebration of mountain culture, Tarantaise-style. How could you not participate?”

Oh well, as they say, when in France…

Minutes later I found myself sitting in my very own little red sled, sliding down the hill at way too fast a pace, totally out of control, and wondering how the hell I’d gotten myself into this. And I hadn’t even gotten on the lift yet.

“This thing is a lot harder to control than it looks,” I thought to myself as I tried to correct my over-steering and suddenly discovered how easy it was to go backwards. “Damn,” I thought, “I can’t even make this thing go straight on the flats. What’s going to happen on the course?”

As I fought my way through the Sunday crowds and into the Val Thorens Funitel — a kind of super-charged gondola that only the French could love — I also realized just how funny I must look to conventional skiers. Here was this middle-aged, silver-haired guy carrying a little red sled and wearing a too-big helmet that kept dropping over his eyes. Decidedly, this day was shaping up to be quite an adventure.

From the top of the Funitel, you have to ride down the main piste a few hundred metres to get to the start of the luge track. Some people chose to walk, but I needed the practice. Mistake. There’s something uniquely terrifying about sitting in a sled, going downhill while skiers and riders zoom in and out of your way.

Fortunately, I made it to the start without any major collisions. But already I looked like a snowman. I don’t know how many times I fell between the Funitel and the luge course. What I do know is what little confidence I had at the beginning of the day had completely evaporated by the time I made it to the start.

I watched the race for a while and tried to psyche myself up a bit. The other competitors made it look so easy. Surely my form was going to get better…

“You’re up,” said starter William Revenaz. And then he smiled encouragingly. “Etes-vous prêt?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” I answered. “Alors, allez-y maintenant.” And suddenly I was knuckling my way out of the start gate and heading into the first pitch.

I’d love to say I finally got the hang of it and redeemed some of my bruised pride by the time I reached the finish line. But I’d be lying. It was hell. It took me half the course to figure out how to use my hands and arms to control my descent — kind of like a sitting-down cruciform pose. “This is finally working,” I thought as I stretched my arms as far as they would go. “Maybe I’ll be OK after all…”

Alas, just when I was finally get the hang of it, I encountered a series of big banked turns that just kept coming at me faster and faster. First one passed. Yes! Second one, just by the skin of my teeth. Third turn and I knew I was in trouble. I was riding as far up the bank as I could go. The sled was wobbling madly by now. Should I bail? Or just damn the torpedoes and hope I could make it through the fourth and last turn and fight my way back onto the straightaway?

The god’s were definitely not smiling on me that day. I didn’t even come close to making the last turn. Instead I went straight up the bank, flew off the lip — something everyone had assured me was impossible — and experienced luge freeriding in 15cm of new snow interspersed with nasty, rocky outcroppings. By the time I managed to stop myself, I was a long way from the track…

The walk back up the hill was embarrassing enough (especially given the standing ovation I received from the safety guys on the course). But when I got myself back into my little red sled and started moving down the hill again, my speed was so slow that I was passed by just about everyone. The final straw was watching a father-and daughter team (she must have been all of four years old) blithely go by me in full control and with big smiles on both their faces.

The finish line couldn’t come soon enough.

I really don’t know what my time was for the six-kilometre course. But as I sat in the festive finish area, eating Tartiflette (a near-legendary bacon-and-potato dish in these parts) and listening to a French band play Rolling Stones covers, I was humbled once again to discover that the fastest lugers had made the descent in just over six minutes. My own run had easily taken twice as long to complete.

Still, the sun was shining, the wine was good, and everybody seemed to be having a good time. As Jean-Pierre had tried to tell me, this was indeed a great celebration of mountain culture. Maybe next time, I might even get a few practice runs in before race day…