The FIBT Skeleton and Bobsleigh World Cup events held at the Whistler Sliding Centre last weekend were notable for several reasons, including the fastest speed ever recorded in a competition.
The Latvian four-man bobsleigh team, first out of the gates on fresh ice, posted a speed of 153.3 km/h, the first sled to break the 150 km/h mark and one of 13 sleds on Saturday to reach that milestone. In winning the four-man bobsleigh World Cup, Latvia set a new speed record for the Whistler Sliding Centre course, upsetting the 149 km/h mark set by Canadian luge athlete Jeff Christie, which the world's top luge athletes will challenge next week.
Latvian driver Janis Minins noted that the team went 149 km/h at the previous event at St. Moritz, but said the corners at the Whistler track were much more challenging. In fact, the Latvian 2 team crashed in the first run, and a sold-out crowd of 3,000 spectators watched in awe as the team came down the bottom of the course in an upside-down sled.
The competition was so tough and there were so many crashes in training that Turn 13 earned the nickname "50-50," suggesting that skeleton and bobsleigh athletes had a 50-50 chance of tipping over.
Course crews went to work on a few troublesome sections, shaving the ice back in some places and adding to the ice in others, and as a result there were only a handful of hits and tips in the actual World Cup event. There are rumours that some nations are requesting changes to the track before the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, but most athletes interviewed said they loved the track after maintenance was completed.
In skeleton - a sport where a lone slider goes down the course on a sled head first and on their stomach - the contest was rough, with several riders hitting the walls coming out of corners. Everyone stayed on, however, with speeds increasing to over 130 km/h.
The Canadians had a very good day Thursday, as Jon Montgomery moved up from second place after his first run to win the gold medal, and Jeff Pain picked up the silver medal behind Gregor Staehli of Switzerland with two solid runs.
"I am absolutely thrilled," said Montgomery. "We had a slow start to the season, but it is great to get back up here on top of the podium, especially in front of our own fans."
The women's team was also poised to win a medal with Melissa Hollingworth setting a new track record time of 54.81 seconds on her first run. On her second run she skidded in one corner and hit the wall, which dropped her back to ninth place.
"I think that I was maybe a little too aggressive on my second run... and almost went over on Corner 4. The amount of speed I had carried me a little sideways into the corner," she said.
"It's a dangerous track and you don't have to always be aggressive, is what I've learned from this."
Her teammate Michelle Kelly placed 10th, and was not happy with her run. "Right from the start something was wrong," she said.
Sarah Reid was 14th, and was also disappointed. "I let (the sled) run too much, and took some big hits," she said, adding that it can be more painful to hit a wall than to fall off a sled. She also said that any hometown advantage they hoped to have was reduced by the number of changes made to the course for safety reasons. "I know there was an issue with bobsleighs crashing and tipping, but I liked it before, it was really fast and really technical."
The two-man bobsleigh and women's bobsleigh races were Friday. The women's Canada 2 sled - nicknamed Hot Lips - placed second with Kaillie Humphries in the driver's seat and Heather Boyse on the brake. It was Humphries' best result to date.
Shauna Rohbock and Elana Myers of the U.S. took the gold medal, while Erin Pac and Michelle Rzepka of the U.S. placed third.
The Canada 1 sled of Helen Upperton and Jenny Ciochetti placed fourth despite Upperton's rib injury and difficulty pushing at the top of the course.
On the men's side, veteran Pierre Lueders and David Bissett of the Canada 1 team took the bronze medal behind the Germany 2 team, and the Swiss 1 team. It was their third consecutive podium this season.
Lueders and Bissett were leading after the first run, but a mistake near the top of the course bumped them back to third.
"It was the same as the problems I've had all year here, turns four and five," said Lueders. "It's not something to jump off the cliff over, just a technical thing I need to come to grips with."
The Canada 2 team of Lyndon Rush and Lascelles Brown jumped five spots in the second run to place fourth, their best World Cup finish yet.
Saturday featured the four-man bobsleigh. Lueders again captained the Canada 1 team, using a special sled designed in part by Bombardier. They placed fourth by a third of a second, moving up from ninth after the first run.
It was the team's best result of the season, improving their overall ranking heading into the world championships. The better your ranking, the earlier you get to start and the better the ice is for your first run.
"After the first run we saw the ice start to deteriorate, which is pretty normal in four man where there is so much weight," Lueders said. "We'll have to see where we stand, but I think we're a little closer to being in the first group of 10 teams for the world championships.
"It's our first race with a new sled, and I know a lot of people would be happy to have a first-time sled finish fourth and be as competitive as it is. There are a few things I can do with it."
Lueders's team included Ken Kotyk, David Bissett and Justin Kripps.
The first place Latvian team finished with a two-run time of 1:52.17, followed by the U.S.A. 1 in 1:52.23 and the Russia 1 team in 1:52.67. Lueders was 0.32 seconds back of third place.
In 14th place was the Canada 2 sled, piloted by Lyndon Rush and crewed by Rob Gray, Chris Le Bihan and Lascelles Brown. They placed 14th, their best result this season.
Rush is also excited by the possibility that his team will be able to move up in the rankings.
"On the first run when we went through, in 18th or something, the track was destroyed," he said.
The rough ice can't throw off a four-man sleigh - the sleds are too heavy at over 600 kilograms said Rush - but it can slow a team down.
Rush wants to be more competitive and also crack the top-10, where ice becomes less of a factor in the first run. He also wants to improve his sled to make it faster.
"Right now we have a stock sled, and I'd like a souped-up sled," he said.
Lessons learned from World Cup test events
Organizers of the FIBT Skeleton and Bobsleigh World Cup are calling the event a success, despite some obvious hiccups with a few of the corners.
Crowds welcomed the events with 2,500 people watching skeleton on Thursday, and sold-out crowds of 3,000 for the two-man, women's and four-man bobsleigh events. Saturday was a particularly hot ticket, and scalpers were reportedly selling tickets - available for a nominal $5 - for $45 a piece.
"If people are scalping tickets, that's a first for bobsleigh," said Canadian veteran Pierre Lueders, who walked away with a bronze medal in two-man bob and a fourth place finish in four-man. He said the crowd probably helped the team shave an extra few hundredths of a second off their time.
"It added motivation, a real home field advantage," he said. "In between runs the guys were saying that they were extra motivated. That's something we've been missing in other races, and why we're excited to race here in 2010 when the crowds are even bigger."
Some spectators that couldn't get tickets at the gate climbed up to a knoll overlooking the track to view some of the action.
As for the course, the events put the track crew to the test as they adjusted the corners for safety, and to level the playing field.
"With the changes in temperature, our team really had to make the profiles on the fast corners more forgiving on an as-needed basis," said Craigh Lehto, director of the Whistler Sliding Centre.
The event also tested a workforce of 118 people, plus 276 volunteers that helped out for two weeks as the athletes arrived and began training.