March 01, 2019 Features & Images » Feature Story

Need for speed 

The records keep falling at the world's fastest sliding track

click to enlarge Need for speed - The records keep falling at the world's fastest sliding track - PHOTO BY SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
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  • Need for speed - The records keep falling at the world's fastest sliding track

The numbers don't lie.

The world's lugers, skeleton athletes and bobsledders are coming out to the Whistler Sliding Centre to seek the fastest speeds they've ever achieved in their respective sports—and the track itself is certainly willing to cooperate.

At the centre's most recent major event, November 2018's Viessmann International Luge Federation (FIL) World Cup, the men's singles event saw 21 of the 64 attempts best the previous track record, while in the women's event, 26 of 56 did so. Perhaps most impressive was in doubles, when over half—18 of 30 tries—topped the previous best.

There was not a single crash in any of those three competitions, so for the moment, these athletes are clearly comfortable finding speed on the track and chasing down records.

But to paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park, is there an approaching threshold where these elite athletes and coaches will be so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they don't stop to think if they should?

Of course, there is a caveat: a record speed means nothing on a poorly executed line, so it's only one element of what makes a champion.With the Whistler Sliding Centre set to host its first-ever International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (IBSF) World Championships next month, Pique talked to some of Canada's top sliding competitors about how they tackle the fastest track on Earth.

click to enlarge Reid Watts completes his run - FILE PHOTO BY DAN FALLOON
  • File photo by Dan Falloon
  • Reid Watts completes his run
The luger's take

It's probably no shocking M. Night Shyamalan-like twist that seasoned, motivated competitors feel there are always little things they can do to get better, that they haven't achieved their respective levels of maximum greatness and, in the case of sliding sports, that there are additional kilometres-per-hour they can add—and milliseconds they can shave—each and every time down. As they pursue this goal, they're not only fine-tuning their bodies, their minds and their techniques, but their equipment as well.

click to enlarge Reid Watts - PHOTO COURTESY OF LUGE CANADA
  • Photo Courtesy of Luge Canada
  • Reid Watts

Whistler's Reid Watts believes he's nowhere close to maxing out because the lugers have a lower start height in Whistler than their skeleton and bobsleigh counterparts.

Even after safety upgrades following the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili in the lead-up to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, the lowered start height remains in place.

"I believe that we should be sending luge sleds from the original start height before the accident during Vancouver 2010," the 20-year-old Watts says, reiterating the increased safety precautions, such as an additional 30 metres of wall and changes to the ice profile that have been instituted since then. "It's much safer now and I believe that we should be going back to sliding from the original start heights where the sleds could be reaching up to 155 km/h."

Though FIL has subsequently made moves to cap sliders' speeds on newly built tracks at 140 km/h, Watts says other international competitors hope to see the Whistler start height raised.

"It's just a lot of talk in the athlete community so far, but that's the end goal," Watts says.

If there were interest in moving up the start height, Luge Canada would have to initiate the process, and if the FIL accepted the change, Whistler Sliding Centre would have to complete the FIL's safety approval process once again. However, spokesman Chris Dornan said in an email that there are no plans to do so at this time.

Watts explains that he got a taste of the high life earlier this season, as he tried a run from the bobsleigh start, which is two corners higher than the men's start, and achieved a top speed of 147 km/h.

"In those two corners, it's a nine-storey drop, so you're picking up a lot of speed faster," he says. "It's fast. It's incredible. That bottom section of the track comes at you really quickly. You don't really notice how fast you're going because your mind's in that high-focus mode where you're not thinking 'Oh, this is incredible.' But it is awesome. There's nothing like it."

click to enlarge Jane Channell in race gear - PHOTO BY VIESTURS LACIS/IBSF
  • Photo by Viesturs Lacis/IBSF
  • Jane Channell in race gear

Keeping up with the guys

North Vancouver skeleton racer Jane Channell and her cohorts haven't hit the men's speeds quite yet, but they remain confident they are more than capable of doing so.

  • Photo courtesy of Canadian Olympic Committee
  • Jane Channell

At the most recent World Cup here in November 2017, 19 of the top 20 men topped 140 km/h on at least one of their two runs, with winner Sungbin Yun exceeding 145 km/h. Only four of the women topped 140, with winner Jacqueline Loelling's 142.8 km/h standing as the best top speed.

"Is there room for more? At least on the women's side, there for sure is, just because the men go x-many kilometres faster than us," said Channell, who was left off the Canadian World Championships team after a ninth-place finish on the World Cup circuit this year. "It's whether or not we're able to find the speed and have the correct conditions.

"We need to have the perfect setup in order to do that."

Loelling, notably, built up to her top speed in spite of posting the fourth-slowest start time in that particular run. In most cases, however, the starts are the first place where women can make up ground. At the 2017 World Cup, the top women's starter, Yulia Kanakina, had a start time faster than only one of the 30 men.

Channell, who was second to Loelling in that World Cup race without exceeding 140 km/h, nearly topped her speed record during a run last March, when she finished two-hundredths of a second short of the track-record time.

"I knew it was going to be a quick run," she says of the attempt in which she reached 142.5 km/h. "When you're standing at the start and you can see the reflections of the mountains in the ice at the start, you know it's going to be a quick day at the track. It was just a matter of putting the run together and ... through the transitions of (corners) 11, 12, into 13, you can really feel the speed developing. I knew it was going to be a fast run, but I didn't know it was going to be that quick.

"It was something else to be able to be that close."

click to enlarge Justin Kripps (far right) celebrating with his team - PHOTO BY VIESTURS LACIS/IBSF
  • Photo by Viesturs Lacis/IBSF
  • Justin Kripps (far right) celebrating with his team

The big bob

It's simple physics that the more something weighs, the more speed it picks up as it descends.

It's a major factor in why the male sliders have outpaced the women, and why the bobsleigh pilots' answers to the question of whether they can go faster are a little more complicated.

For 2018 Olympic gold medallist Justin Kripps, there are still ways to safely find more speed even after surpassing 150 km/h.

"I set my personal best speeds here over the last few days," the 32-year-old Kripps says during a break from training in Whistler in late January. "It's still possible to get a little bit more out of the track—and the equipment and technology is always improving."

With praise for the Whistler track crew, a common refrain among athletes, Kripps explains that when he's here, instead of finessing his sled to eke out some extra speed, he generally just needs to ready himself for a quick ride.

"They're so good at prepping the ice, and the better the ice is, the less your race preparations for the sled make a difference," he says. "For example, polishing the runners (the steel blade that makes contact with the ice), we put a really high polish on that for the race, but if the ice is really fast, it only makes a small difference, whereas if the ice is slow, that race prep makes a really big difference."

click to enlarge Chris Spring - FILE PHOTO BY DAN FALLOON
  • File photo by Dan Falloon
  • Chris Spring
Chris Spring, who boasts a 2017 World Cup victory at the track, feels that sometimes during competition here, sledders' speeds are hampered by uncooperative early-winter weather conditions.

"I don't remember a time where it's been absolutely perfect conditions to go as fast as possible," says Spring, who turns 35 next month.

Spring stresses that the lower speeds on other World Cup courses are necessary, as crossing the finish line safely at Whistler speeds would be incredibly unlikely given the curvature and frequency of those tracks' turns. With more straight sections at the local track, though, Spring feels the upper limit is nowhere near being reached.

"Definitely, we can handle much more speed on a track, and especially on a track like Whistler because it is so open and the radius of the curves, especially at the bottom, aren't super tight, which allows for a higher speed on the track," he says. "If you're driving down the highway at, say, 160 km/h in a straight line—which I'm sure not many people do, and neither do I—driving in a straight line at that speed is not that difficult.

"If you're doing 125 km/h around some twisty, turny roads, then that is extremely difficult."

click to enlarge Robb Zirnhelt finessing the track surface at the whistler sliding centre - FILE PHOTO BY DAN FALLOON
  • File photo by Dan Falloon
  • Robb Zirnhelt finessing the track surface at the whistler sliding centre

The quickest ice

As track operations manager at the Whistler Sliding Centre, Robb Zirnhelt is responsible for the ice on the world's fastest track.

However, setting the stage for record-setting events isn't top of mind for Zirnhelt and his crew—fairness and safety rank well ahead. Zirnhelt says the track boasts a crash rate of under two per cent, and of those crashes, the injury rate comes in under two per cent as well.

"For us here, safety is going to be our No. 1 focus, (and we) work on the shapes of the ice to maintain that," he says. "As long as we can prepare the best we can and go for consistency, I think that's the real goal for us.

Although the easiest approach would be to make ice that is fastest for the first handful of challengers and no one else, Zirnhelt says his crew balance a variety of factors to ensure the last sliders of a heat experience the same ice conditions as those dropping on fresh ice.

"A lot of it is what the weather is throwing at us and how we're dealing with it. If it's quite warm, it's when we're going to run the refrigeration plant for how long and when we're going to shut it off to keep the ice surface temperature consistent," he says. "Between heats, we do a spritz, typically, and slush in any ruts so that anything that's developed, any inconsistency through the heat, we take 'er back."

Zirnhelt goes on to add that the crew strives for consistency during training runs as well to allow the athletes to replicate race conditions as closely as possible as much as they are able.

On race day, however, there have been occasions where the ice was slower than during practice—which is by design. In past World Cup races here, Zirnhelt says the IBSF's technical delegate has stepped in to demand that speed-limiting factors be undertaken. These particularly irk Zirnhelt, as he explains they make it difficult to achieve consistent conditions for all athletes.

However, no such requests have been made in recent World Cups here, and with the cachet that Zirnhelt and several of his crew members have built by working on Olympic ice in PyeongChang last year, he doesn't expect any decree at World Championships.

"When that call comes down, hands get tied," he says.

click to enlarge A Skeleton athelete practises at the Whistler Sliding Centre File - PHOTO BY DAN FALLOON
  • Photo by Dan Falloon
  • A Skeleton athelete practises at the Whistler Sliding Centre File

What to expect at Worlds

Those who come to the sliding centre to take in the two-man and women's bobsleigh action, from March 1 to 3, and skeleton and four-man events from March 7 to 9, can likely expect some speed records to fall.

After hosting the 2010 Games in February, Whistler has tended to host its international events at the start of a season, but this time, it gets to serve as a campaign capper.

That's significant, Zirnhelt explains, because at this time of year, there is less moisture in the air, and therefore less frost on the ice to mess with speeds.

Even so, the Olympics' top four-man speeds only just nosed past 153 km/h, while the track record is now upwards of 158 km/h—all within the past decade, so Zirnhelt is anticipating some new heights to be hit.

Kripps, meanwhile, is eager to see what the best in the world can throw down in these favourable conditions on the sport's second-largest stage, after the Olympics.

"The guys that I'm racing against every week on the World Cup, they're really experienced pilots. They're all really talented and they can definitely handle the speed," he says. "It's going to be a battle for winning the medals and I don't think any of these top guys are going to be worried about making it down—they're going to be worried about attacking and hitting as high a speed as they possibly can and trying to win a World Championship.

"That's the way I think it should be."

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