Luge: courage and high speeds

Twenty years in a sleigh are in a moment. Armin Zoeggeler

To fully understand Zoeggeler’s words just look at any race and watch the luge athletes chase like bullets at a speed of 140 km/h: madness if we think that these athletes are protected only by an aerodynamic suit, helmet and their courage. Crazy, perhaps, but still courageous.

Luge, bobsleigh, skeleton... the sport discipline changes but speed remains among the main ingredients and what makes the competitions so exciting. Unfortunately it can also be fatal: we remember the tragic end of the Georgian athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili, who in 2010, in Vancouver, was jolted off the track at a speed of about 145 km/h.

Another athlete recorded the sledding speed record in a training session, reaching 154 km/h. That was then the fastest track in the world.

Lugers look like colourful chips on ice white, almost like impressionist spots that cameras struggle to follow. Speed is made even more extreme because it is without brakes. In fact, one of the peculiarities of tobogganing is that it doesn't have a braking system, the same is true for the skeleton while in the bobsleigh the brakes are there but they can only be applied after the finish line.

But let's go with order and try to understand what the luge consists of and the differences with its closest relatives: skeleton and bobsleigh.


A brief history
In the beginning it was the sled or sleigh. A true historical means of transport, its origins date back to the VII-IX century A. D. in the countryside near Oslo. As with many winter sports, therefore, its use is closely linked to the daily life of that time.

In the cold northern European countries, lugeing was in fact the only means of locomotion, an instrument widely used immediately for its usefulness and relative simplicity. Lugeing appears in the 16th century Scandinavian chronicles and in the valleys of Erz in Norway. Czech miners used it to move down the valley.

According to historical evidence, one of the first challenges was disputed on the icy hills of St Petersburg in the 18th century. And it was still in the 1700s that the first rudimentary artificial tracks were born, in St. Petersburg and Berlin.The discipline then spread to northern Europe and Switzerland, and in 1883 Davos held the first official race, in which 21 athletes took part. The first World Championships took place in 1955: 52 athletes for 8 countries, hosted by the Norwegian capital Oslo, which tradition has it as the home of the sleigh.

The recognition of lugeing as an official discipline came in 1957, with the establishment of the International Federation (FIL), and the inclusion in 1964 among the Olympic sports of Innsbruck.

The run
When we talk about lugeing, we immediately think of what is played on the artificial slope, also called a run. The tracks are characterized by long straights, parabolic curves and often even kreisel. Usually these circuits are currently built of masonry, before the race the structure is covered with snow which is then wetted to form the layer of ice. The length of the track must be at least 1000 metres for male and 800 metres for women's competitions, with a maximum gradient of 12%. They may or may not be equipped with a refrigeration system.

There are also examples of natural ice rinks that are created by digging, adapting and shaping the ice on the route: the most famous is undoubtedly the Cresta Run of Sankt Moritz. However, there are also other types of runs: natural ones whose tracks are drawn from existing trails or mountain roads; in general, every forest road with a certain slope can become a luge run. Unlike in other types of slopes, the curves are not parabolic but rather common hairpin bends, which for safety reasons have at the edge of the protections in wooden planks. Refrigeration is only natural. The length varies from 700 to 1200 m.

Finally, there is also the road lugeing on asphalt tracks: a series of small rollers replace the skid blades.

The race
Speed is what makes the difference in lugeing competitions that are nothing more than races against the chronometer: in fact, those who drive the track in the shortest possible time win. All the lugeing competitions provide for the passage of the athletes, in succession, along the same track and at the end of the competition are added the times obtained by the same athletes for each heat of which the race is composed.

In individual competitions, athletes start from a sitting position on top of a ramp. At the start, the competitors swing the lugeing back and forth a few times, giving themselves a boost of a few metres, then with a jump they stretch out on the luge and start the descent. In the male double, the athlete at the top of the starting ramp is pushed by two fixed handles while the second athlete puts his hands in straps that connect him to the athlete in front of him. In both cases, this thrust is essential to gain speed.

The descent is only possible if you stay in a sitting or supine position on the sled and keep your feet forward, but still the athletes stay as much as possible in a horizontal position, to seek maximum aerodynamicity and guide the sleigh along the track by moving their body weight to the right or left so as to engrave more on one blade than the other and acting with their feet on the curved part of the shoe that is flexible. For example, to make a left bend you need to use your right foot, left shoulder and both hands.

During the descent it is mandatory to be in contact with the sled, even in case of crashing against the walls of the track or overturning, otherwise disqualification; in the same way it is forbidden to push, except in the starting phase, called "thrust", or walk through sections of the race. Arriving without a sledding means disqualification, but it is allowed to stop during the descent and resume the race with a push after having repositioned the sleigh on the track. Once the finish line has been crossed, the athlete gets up by pressing on the tip of the skates and thus gradually braking the sledding.

The different specialties (single, double, team and sprint races) run along the same track and always follow the same basic principle of competition, although they differ from each other in some specific regulatory details.

The equipment
The sleigh is equipped with very resistant wood and metal alloys, with an aerodynamic and lowered structure that minimises air friction. It consists of two decks underneath the seat and attached to the skids formed by rounded metal blades for maximum gliding capacity on ice, as well as for the safety of sportsmen.

It is interesting to note that the temperature of the blades is also precisely regulated: the skates cannot be heated because this reduces the friction of the blades on the ice. The blades' temperature is measured 30 minutes before the start of the race and the control is repeated every 15 minutes; a 50 cm long blade is taken as a reference for the temperature: this blade is placed away from the sun and wind.

The sledding also features two handles that keep athletes tightened during the descent. The maximum width of the luge run is 55 cm, the distance between the two blades must not exceed 45 cm and the weight must be within 23 kg for the implement used in the single and 27 kg for that used in the double. The athletes are also weighed before the race: the maximum weight allowed is 90 kg, including ballast and clothing. double the maximum weight is 180 kg. Lighter competitors may add ballast (discs or lead belts) under the suit, but it is strictly forbidden to add weight to the sled.

As far as clothing is concerned, lugeers wear an integral suit sewn in a single piece and made to be as tight as possible for aerodynamics. It is always accompanied by a pair of FIL approved sled shoes. It is mandatory for each athlete to wear a helmet specifically approved by the Federation. The helmet is always fitted with a visor, usually made of transparent plastic, but some athletes prefer a coloured visor to protect their eyes and improve visibility.

Studded gloves complete the clothing: the small nails five millimetres long are used by the sledder during the start phase to have sufficient grip on the ice when the athlete pushes into the initial part of the course.


A brief history
We could say that this is the cousin, not too far away, of sledding. Its origins date back to the end of the 19th century in the town of St. Moritz. Here, in 1885, the Cresta Run was built: a natural ice rink 1214 metres long, still considered to be the most prestigious downhill run of this sport. In 1887 the participants in this race began to go down to a prone position. The inventor of this variant was the English McCormac, when people realized that his downhill time was much shorter. In fact, the position he used allowed for a higher downhill speed, thanks to greater aerodynamics. The skeleton was born.

The name of the discipline was given later, in fact it dates back to 1892 when a new type of luge was introduced, essentially consisting of a metal frame that remembered the structure of the human skeleton.

For decades, skeleton competitions were held only in St. Moritz. It is no coincidence that the skeleton was included in the winter Olympic programme of both editions of the Games hosted by Switzerland in 1928 and 1948. Because of its dangerousness and inadequate slopes, this sport was absent from the Olympic scene for more than fifty years, it was re-integrated into the Olympic program starting from Salt Lake City 2002.

Races and equipment
The skeleton runs are the same as for lugeing and bobsleigh. The races are in time, which means that the athlete has to cross the artificial ice rink as quickly as possible.  As in lugeing there are several runs with different starting orders.The start is the same as bob. At the green traffic light, the skeletonist has a maximum time of 30 seconds to start. After the race/thrust phase, which varies from 25 to 40 meters, the athlete takes his place on the sledge and begins his descent. After the finish line, the track develops uphill to allow braking. The position of the skeletonists is face down. Athletes must be prone, with the face downstream and arms along the body. This is definitely the biggest difference compared to lugeing. The speed they can reach can reach up to 130/140 km/h. Only the thrust force of the athlete and the force of gravity are allowed to move the slide. To impress direction and movement there is only the thrust force: the contraction of a muscle is sufficient to determine a variation.

The sled shoe used in the skeleton has a steel frame and the upper part is padded for the athlete's comfort. The skids are also made of steel and have a constant diameter of 16 mm. The total weight of the skeleton may not exceed 33 kg for men and 29 kg for women, while the length is between 80 and 120 cm and 8 to 20 cm high. The distance between the two skids must be between 34 and 38 cm.

The skeletonist's uniform includes helmet, suit and shoes, while the athletes wear a very light, aerodynamic helmet. Aerodynamic appendixes are not permitted in the tracksuit. The footwear can have a maximum of 8 nails, 7 mm long and 2 mm in diameter, to avoid damaging the ice of the track. The total weight, sleigh and athlete, must not exceed 115 kg for men and 92 kg for women. To reach the maximum total weight, you can add ballast to the slide. Adding ballast to the body of athletes is forbidden. Any steering and brake elements of the slide are forbidden, as well as any hydraulic and pneumatic installation.

The main competitions, in addition to the Olympic Games, are the World Cup and the World Championships. The international competitions were initially open only to men, but between the end of the 1990s and 2002, the skeleton was dyed pink and women entered the world of this sport.


A brief history
Often cinema brings sport to the forefront. As was the case for bobsleigh thanks to the film Cool Runnings, which focused on the participation of the Jamaica bobsleigh national team at the 1988 Calgary Olympic Games. Bobsleigh was already a discipline known to the public, in fact, but this film had the merit of bringing it even closer to people, making those ice athletes more human.

Sport was invented in the 1880s in Albany (New York) and then introduced to Switzerland. The first races were held on snow-covered roads and the first competitions took place in Davos in 1883 and St. Moritz in 1884. The first club was formed in 1897 and the first runway specifically built for bobsleigh was opened in 1902. Initially the crews were 5 or 6 people, then they were reduced to 2 or 4 in the 1930s. The bobsleighs were completely made of wood and then the steel skids were introduced.

The Fédération Internationale de Bobsleigh et de Lugeing (FIBT), currently known as the International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation (IBSF), was founded in 1923 and sport has been part of the Winter Olympic Games programme since its first edition in 1924. Initially only the bobsleigh competition was played at 4. The bobsleigh 2 was added in 1932, while women's competitions made their Olympic debut in 2002. Germany is the nation that has achieved the most successes in bobsleigh, including the European and World Championships, the World Cup and the Olympics.

The run
The track for international races is at least 1500 m long (1200 m in the case of tracks with artificial refrigeration) and includes at least five curves, whose radius must be greater than 25 m. Each curve is composed of an external elevated surface, connected with the entry and exit straight line by means of an inclined plane called' spoon', which is used to facilitate the transition from horizontal to vertical position. The upper part of the elevated curves is concave so that the bobsleigh, driven by centrifugal force, is not projected out of the track. The bottom of the runway is made with beaten snow and watered at night so that a thick layer of perfectly smooth ice forms. The introduction of artificial cooling systems (the first was built in Königssee in Germany in 1968) represented a revolution in sport, allowing athletes to train in any season.

The starting line consists of a wooden board that marks the entrance to the track. There are three phases in the initial part of the race: a) the first one corresponds to an almost flat section (approximately 1% incline) 15 m long, followed by another one, where the timing starts about 50 m long; along this section the bobsleigh, under the impulses of a coordinated and powerful action, is accelerated; (b) the second shall correspond to an inclined plane, along which the bobsleigh shall accelerate as a result of the component of gravity; (c) the third shall correspond to the section along which the vehicle reaches the maximum possible speed.

The race
A bobsleigh crew at 2 is composed of a pilot and a braking device, to which are added in the bobsleigh at 4 "lateral" which have as their main task to help in the thrust. It is not uncommon that athletes from athletics, especially sprinters, are used as lateral athletes. At the start of the race the crew pushes the bobsleigh for fifteen metres before jumping on board. This sequence is extremely delicate and important both because it has to give positive energy to the medium and not drag the bob back, and because the insertion of the hibernators in the middle has to be carried out very quickly, while respecting the balance of the masses that have to be placed in the vehicle with precision, without negatively affecting the bob trajectory that at that moment is out of the tracks and therefore very sensitive.

At the end of the race, when the bobsleigh has reached maximum speed, the athletes literally jump on the bobsleigh with perfectly coordinated movements and each one glides along the backrest and ends in a sitting position. The rider takes up his position with his hands on the steering handle.

During the descent, the first bobsleigh driver drives the vehicle by controlling the steering with the tie-rods equipped with a handle: he is the head of the crew and requires exceptional coolness, visual perception and reflections. The tail man, the so-called braker, must apply the driver's contribution to the initial thrust in the 15 m of throwing ahead of the start line; he only touches the brakes after the finish line, to facilitate the stopping of the vehicle. In the bobsleigh, the other two crew members cooperate in the initial thrust and try to keep the vehicle along the ideal trajectory during the descent with specific body. movements. For the descent to be valid, the crew must be complete when the bobsleigh crosses the finish line. The races are held exclusively by time trial and involve one crew at a time, according to an order drawn by lot. The rankings are determined by the sum of the downhill times (in hundredth of a second) obtained in two or four races, depending on the weather conditions and the track conditions at the time of the race. Women began participating in this discipline in 2002.

The speed in the thrust phase is around 40 km/h; the maximum speed in a descent is about 135 km/h in some curves the crew is subjected to lateral accelerations equal to five times the acceleration of gravity (5g).

The equipment
The bobsleigh consists of a metal frame mounted on two pairs of steel skates and covered with a tapered bonnet, equipped with side handles to facilitate the start by pushing. The front pair of brake pads can be swiveled by a system of pulleys and tie rods with handles and allows the vehicle to be driven even at very high speeds ; the rear pair is equipped with lever brakes that act on the ice with a series of metal teeth. Modern bobsleighs combine light metal alloys, steel skids and aerodynamic composite bodies. Competition bobsleighs must have a maximum length of 3.80 metres for the bobsleigh at 4 and 2.70 metres for the bobsleigh at 2. In both cases, the maximum width is 0.67 metres. The maximum weight (including crew) is 630 kg for the bobsleigh at 4 and 390 kg for the bob at 2. Ballast weights can be added to reach the limits, as the greater the weight, the faster the vehicle.

The athletes' clothing is similar to that of the other disciplines previously mentioned. It basically consists of an  aerodynamic helmet and an aerodynamic suit made of uncoated technical material. Shoes must have small cleats that are used to grip on the ice during the pushing phase; their maximum diameter must be 1.5 mm and must not be longer than 5 mm.

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