RAF Bobsleigh and Skeleton Bob Team

Cool Run-Ins with the RAF Bobsleigh and Skeleton Bob Team

By Flt Lt Matt Sharrock

For over 40 years, the holiday village of Igls, near Innsbruck, has been a true Mecca for bobsleigh fans, hosting important national and international competitions in bobsleigh, luge, and skeleton disciplines every year. Among them are the European Championships, World Cup, and Challenge Cup races in all categories and classes. What the RAF came for was far more important – The RAF Championships and the Inter-services. In the idyllic village on a low mountain plateau, two separate man-made, concrete runs were constructed for the Winter Olympic Games back in 1964, for which the Tyrolean capital was the venue. On the occasion of the second Games in Innsbruck in 1976, these were removed and replaced with a combined bobsleigh, luge, and skeleton run: thus for the first time all three competitions could be carried out on the one run. A speedy 1,270 meters (4,128 feet), 14 bends, a 270° gyroscope bend called Kreisel and labyrinth were the impressive result.

Cpl Michelle Coy & Jnr Tech Caz Grey For most tourists, turning your head to keep up with the bobsleds, luges and skeleton sleds hurtling down the track might be thrill enough; but for others, the ones who can push the limits of mind and body, the ones with the right stuff, nothing but the real thing will do. Drivers pilot the 200kg sleds down the course at breakneck speed with total responsibility for sled and crew. Bobsleigh has evolved over the years in to a dramatically exciting and demanding sport. Competitions are run on ice tracks that are at least 1500m long and with at least 14 banked curves. Speeds of over 90mph are not uncommon. Women’s bobsleigh became an Olympic discipline for the first time in Salt Lake City in 2002 and for the first time in a long time, the RAF in 2007, put forward both men’s and woman’s 2/4 man bob teams to rival the once mighty Army, Royal Navy and Royal Marines bob teams.

Flt Lt Matt Sharrock So do you need to be a kamikaze, Alpha orientated speed freak to be part of the team? Well not quite; the RAF Team has a full range of personalities with different styles and personas. From drivers to brakemen, there are a few constants: ability to focus, think fast, react under pressure, process information and place your complete and unwavering confidence in your fellow team mate. Let me be frank. It’s not for everyone, but for those who put themselves forward and try, the benefits are off the scale. For your first few outings in the sled you will be driven down the track by an experienced driver. There you can feel the speed build, look over their shoulder and see the corners flash up and whiz by, take the pressure of the negative 4 G corners and suck all the air your lungs can muster through the tinted visor of your helmet. It’s then that you come to one of two conclusions: That scared me out of my mind and I’m unable to stand up at the moment. Thanks but no thanks. Or, as in my case, I want more! Much, much more!!

Flt Lt Matt Sharrock & Cpl Sean Buttler This year proved to be ideal for continuity, with the Novice Ice Camp and the Inter-services taking place at the same track, it enabled the drivers to develop sled control and track knowledge to a greater extent than on previous years. The ice camp takes the novice and exposes you to the world of Bobsleigh. Start at the beginning; learn the controls of the sled using the two toggles for left and right. Walk the track with some of the most experienced coaches on the circuit. Memorise each pressure point and corner, always thinking of what will come next. Sit in the back and experience the thrill all before the main event. At some point it becomes time to find out if you are a driver or a brakeman. In this world there are no simulators, no dry runs. Talking through the theory is fine however; it all comes down to one simple fact. Can you safely get your crew down the track? It’s rare that on the first drive you will remember anything bar the speed. Hearts race, breath quickens, but you make it. Here begins the discipline that is Bobsleigh, with you skills developing more and more after each 60 second run.

It’s hard to appreciate the achievements of the RAF team when stacked against the training opportunities, finance and experience of the other Service teams. The Army and Royal Navy arrived at Igls following a grueling season on the international circuit. Although the RAF does not, currently, have the luxury of being able to train year round on the world’s circuits, it has started to reap the benefits of its RAF Bobsleigh Development Program. Constantly looking for new talent through selection weekends and Ice Camps, as well as developing its current athletes, the RAF is leveling the playing field.

Bobsleigh As for the results from this season’s Inter-services and RAF Championships it was a clean sweep for the RAF. Chief Tech Steve McFall, RAF Brize Norton and SAC Richie Sharman, RAF Odiham proved to be the team to beat next season coming first for the RAF entrants. In the ladies discipline, the proven power and experience of Olympians Cpl Michelle Coy, RAF Lossiemouth and JT Caz Gray, RAF Kinloss saw them take both the RAF title and second place in the Inter-Services.

The RAF team is hot on the heals of the other Services and we are making the competition take note. If this article has sparked an interest and you wish to find out more about training and forthcoming bobsleigh selection events, then please contact the RAF Bobsleigh Team Manager. The team is grateful to all the personnel who put in hours of work behind the scenes in kit preparation and maintenance. A huge thanks are also extended to the Stn Cdr and all the personnel from RAF Honington who assisted us with catering, MT and Movements.

The Skeleton Crew

So, head first at 100kph with your face inches off pure ice. Sound like fun?! It certainly is! This is a sport with an adrenaline rush; it requires quick reactions, power and nerves of steel! Skeleton Bobsleigh calls for mental strength as well as brute force and it certainly isn’t for the feint hearted!

Prepare yourself for a bit of battering, body armour is a must for any and every novice, but with experience, and come race day, you’ll find yourself going ‘skin to win’! Your Skeleton Bobsleigh becomes part of you, you must learn to love it! It will get you down the track in one piece at high speeds or it will spit you out of a bend looking at the sky if you don’t treat it with a bit of respect!

Skeleton is a sport that requires you to think ahead, to learn the course – you need to know each bend and understand how much or how little pressure to apply to your sled to steer and hold the best line. All steering comes from your shoulders and knees and eventually you’ll learn that the odd toe tap also helps to keep you on your line!!

Learning the course and time on the ice through track walks and sliding helps you gain more experience and you will soon learn to feel the ‘pressures’ in the bends. As with all Bobsleigh tracks you experience G force around the bends, most noticeably around ‘The Kreisel’ (a 270° bend at Igls (in Austria) – the RAF’s preferred course, especially for novices) where you naturally find yourself fighting the G force which is trying to push you into the ice! If you don’t get things quite right, as I recently experienced, you’ll find yourself staring at the white ice. I had no chance of altering my position to allow me to spot the exit of the bend – at that point it was a matter of feeling the bend, holding on tight and hoping for the best!

During your novice week you progress from the Ladies Luge start (about half way) to the top of the track to the Bobsleigh start so that you get to experience the full length of the track. A gentle push from your coach for the first few runs soon turns into to you walking off the top. Before long the competitive edge takes hold and everyone is running full pelt from the top of the track, hoping for the best times (the quicker the start the better!)!! The coaches are responsible for ensuring that you’re safe to slide, and if you aren’t quite ready they will give you the opportunity to improve and build your confidence before you progress through the different stages.

For the lucky ones, you will progress to the Combined Services competition. The two weeks gives you time to train, learn the course, develop your techniques and try to find the best lines. You soon learn the intricacies of balancing, polishing and adjusting your sled. After the training and adjusting everyone begins to focus on racing, both for the Single Service Championships and the Combined Services Championship. Most people can be found plugged into their MP3 player, helping them to ‘get into the zone’, whilst they go through their own warm up routine. You’ll also find everyone mentally running through the track, each going over the different pressures they will use on each bend. The atmosphere is great, each Service helps each other out and encourages one another. Each of the other disciplines are also full of encouragement and support for each other; there were many times when the Bobsleighers and Lugers were stood at the start line cheering us on – as well as the Army and Navy. It certainly gets the adrenaline pumping!!

Skeleton is an excellent sport, it gives you a real rush and a buzz; for those of you thrill seekers this is a sport for you! It’s a great sport for welcoming newcomers and encouraging the potential from its athletes. At our Novice Week this year, we all picked up lots of great advice from some world class skeleton athletes who were at Igls training for the forthcoming World Cup competition! It’s certainly not every day that, as a novice, you find yourself surrounded by some of the worlds best - all cheering you on!!

As for the results from this season’s Combined Services and RAF Championships it was a clean sweep for the RAF Skeleton. The RAF won both the Men’s and Ladies Combined Services championship. The Royal Navy also held a guest race, where the RAF Flt again excelled.

Check out the RAF BLSA site: www.cranwell.raf.r.mil.uk/live/BLSA/Homepage.htm for contact information and further details.

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