A spectator's guide to the Luge Worlds 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MIKE CRANE, TOURISM WHISTLER - FAST TRACK Despite the lower start gates, athletes are expected to break 140km/h this weekend as the Whistler Sliding Centre hosts the luge World Championships.
  • photo by mike crane, tourism whistler
  • FAST TRACK Despite the lower start gates, athletes are expected to break 140km/h this weekend as the Whistler Sliding Centre hosts the luge World Championships.

Luge is one of the fastest non-motorized sports in the world, with athletes roaring down tracks at speeds over 140km/h while experiencing gravitational forces that exceed what most astronauts face.

In fact, the track records at sliding tracks around the world are usually split between luge, which features a lone athlete (or two athletes in doubles) on a 46-55 pound (21-25kg) sled pulling from a set of gates at the top, and the sport of four-man bobsleigh, where the combined weight of the sled and athletes is over 1,300 pounds and all four athletes sprint from the start.

This weekend, Friday, Feb. 1 and Saturday, Feb. 2, the Whistler Sliding Centre is playing host to the International Luge Federation (FIL) Luge World Championships. It's the biggest sliding event to take place on the track since the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.

Here's what you need to know:

How to Watch the events

Tickets to watch the event are $10 and are available online at www.whistler.com, at the information centre outside the Conference Centre or at the venue itself if you bring cash. Kids six and under are free.

There's no event parking, but you can upload the Excalibur Gondola in Skier's Plaza and get out at Base II to access the track, which is a five-minute walk away.

Once inside the venue, there are a lot of different viewing places. Many like to watch at the final corner — also known as Thunderbird — where athletes are travelling the fastest and will exceed 140km/h.

Before the luge starts were lowered as a result of the death of athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili on the opening day of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, the top athletes were breaking 155km/h after just once season — and tracks do get faster over time as crews improve and athletes learn the track.

There's an area to watch near the finish line that's near a big screen and which also gives spectators a view of a technical section of track known as the Gold Rush Trail (after Olympic medallist Lyndon Rush), which is sometimes called 50-50 because at one point athletes said you had a 50-50 chance of crashing. A little further up is a high-speed corner known as Shiver, and above that is a corner called Linx where athletes have to make a pair of 90-degree left turns with all the speed they carry out of Corner 7, also known as Lueder's Loop after Canadian bobsledder Pierre Lueders.

Because of concerns about track speeds the men will start between corners two and three, formerly the women's luge start, while the women's and mens doubles have been lowered to the novice start area at Corner 6. As a result the athletes won't come close to the course record of 155km/h set by Germany's Felix Lochin in 2009, but they will still break 140km/h.

How are the Canadians doing?

Extremely well. Historically, luge has been a weak sport for Canada, but Calgary's Alex Gough broke through in the 2011 season as the first Canadian to win a World Cup medal, then later as the first non-German to win a race since 1997. She was also the first Canadian to medal at a world championship race — a feat she's now accomplished twice with bronze medals in 2011 and 2012. She's been Canada's best luger this season as well, kicking things off with bronze medals in her first two events. She has two fourth place finishes to her credit and was in the top six in two other events. She now ranks fifth overall on the tour.

The Germans are still the favourites and have the top three athletes in the women's rankings with Natalie Geisenberger first, Anke Wischnewski second and Tatjana Hufner third.

While Gough is usually Canada's top medal hope, her teammates are improving from week to week and finding their way into the top 10. In doubles, Justin Snith and Tristan Walker have finished sixth twice this year.

In women's luge, Arianne Jones has broken the top 10 several times while newcomer Kimberley McRae has posted her own personal best results and also cracked the top 10. Dayna Clay joined the team late in the season but has finished in the top 15.

In men's luge, veteran Sam Edney has yet to win an individual podium but has already tied his career-best sixth place result this season.

But while Canadians are improving individually, collectively they shine in the team relay. The team has two silver medals so far this season, with Gough racing first, Edney second and Walker and Snith starting last. They missed one event with Walker suffering a mild concussion in a training accident, but were back racing two weeks ago.

They have a solid chance of winning a medal at home this weekend in the new team discipline, which will be part of the Olympics in 2014.

In relay, athletes have to hit a target hung over the course at the finish line as they pass through, which in turn allows the next team member to start. It's a one-run format, and rankings are based on combined time.

What's the deal with luge? How hard could it be?

It takes a decade to develop a luge athlete, and athletes are typically recruited around the age of 10. Most talent identification camps won't talk to athletes once they're 15 or older because it's too late to start, and so older athletes who get into the sliding sports late tend to gravitate to bobsleigh and skeleton.

It takes years for athletes to learn to use their legs to steer the runners on their sleds, how to corner properly and how to deal with gravitational forces that top out around 5g — the equivalent of having four times your own body weight pressing down on you. To put that into perspective, astronauts blasting into space on a Soyuz rocket experience 3.6 to 4.2g.

Starts are extremely important, and athletes spend years practicing their pulls so they can snap out of the gates with as much speed and power as possible.

Each leg rests on the outside of a runner, and by exerting force onto the runners an athlete can steer their sled through the icy corners. The goal is to follow the fastest line and to carry the most speed out of corners and features, while avoiding bumping into the walls or other mistakes that can cost an athlete speed.

Races can be extremely close, which is why timing is in the thousands of a second versus hundredths of a second for other sports like ski racing.

Athletes can see down the course while they're racing, but athletes spend a lot of time training and studying courses as well, so they can make split second decisions as they go.

Who will be watching?

The audience for luge and the other sliding sports is relatively small in Canada, but is growing thanks to a strong Olympic performance and the increased number of events hosted in North America since the Whistler Sliding Centre was built. Now, in combination with Calgary, Lake Placid and Salt Lake City, there are enough tracks to host a North American leg of the World Cup Tour.

The race events will be broadcast worldwide, and are a big draw for Eurosport. Last season the European audience was 400 million across 59 countries, with Germans accounting for 320 million of those viewers over nine events.

The World Championship is an annual event, but this is the last one before the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, and athletes will be looking to earn quota spots and lock up their own spots in the Games.

The men's doubles start at 3 p.m. on Friday, followed by the men's individual races at 5:15 p.m. The women race at 3 p.m. on Saturday, followed by the team relay at 6:15 p.m.

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