Luging and Lovin’ It

First published in Recreation News

It’s cold. Very cold. Ice falls from the sky in semi-solid ribbons. The wind shoves stray ice pellets inside parkas. Even the most avid skiers are thinking that an early apres ski by the lodge’s fireplace is a good idea.

But here on the lower slope behind the lodge at Seven Springs Resort, a burly Russian named Dimitri squints through the precipitation and grins.

“Ice very good. Makes course run faster.”

“The course” is a banked, curving track molded into the snow and ice. It’s the essential element of the sport of ice luge. Long a staple of winter sports in Scandinavia, it’s still relatively new in the U.S.

In its simplest explanation, ice luge means sliding 100 miles per hour feet first down a mountainside on an oversized Flexible Flyer. It’s fair to wonder if the first lugers weren’t a couple of Nordic good ol’ boys stumbling up the fiord after downing a few at the local Viking social hall.

This workshop is part of the U.S. Olympic team’s efforts to increase awareness of the sport and to scout for youngsters who have the mettle to make the team. It’s held at ski resorts throughout the mid-Atlantic, sponsored by Verizon, the team’s corporate sponsor. It’s marketed to families, so it has to be safe, right?

Dimitri, a former coach of the U.S. team, exudes enthusiasm like the sky is exuding sleet.

“Is very simple,” he explains as he demonstrates how to lie on the luge. Feet are braced against a support at one end. Riders hold ropes which run from the outside edge of the supports. They lift their heads just enough to peer through their toes. By pulling on the ropes and pushing their feet in the direction they want to go, riders steer the luge. To stop, they plant their feet and sit up.

That’s it?

“We practice,” Dimitri says, and leads the way to the bunny slope – a gentle, open hill. A few orange traffic cones are scattered across the snow. That’s to practice turning when the beginners feel ready.

Standing at the top of the slope, the apres ski idea sounds awfully appealing. The snow glimmers with the sheen of ice that crunches underfoot. Hay bales stacked at the farthest end of the run to stop runaway riders appear as solid as a barn wall.

Once stretched out on the luge, though, the fear evaporates like an ice cube in a bonfire. Lying down means the hill is no longer steep or threatening. There’s nowhere to fall, since the luge sits only a few inches off the ground. Rolling off is about the worst a rider can do.

And Dimitri is right. A little tug, a little shift, and wheeeee…. it’s down the hill and around the cones. The stop is more of a skid than a halt, but the hay bales don’t get bumped. This is fun!

Now for the real course. Dimitri explains how to glide partway up the bank to maintain control and speed and how to angle for the center line in the final straightaway. There’s a competition planned before the day is out; each rider against the clock. No gold medals, but bragging rights, at least.

The ice keeps falling and people keep turning up to try the sport. The organizers ask riders to limit themselves to only 30 minutes so that everyone has a chance to luge.

Thirty minutes? That’s only time for maybe six runs. It’s not enough to go inside and either thaw or dry out. Most riders stand around in the central tent, stomping their feet and draining the urns of complimentary hot chocolate while waiting for a luge to free up.

Then it’s time for the competition. Unlike the Olympics, the top speeds here will only reach about 30 miles per hour. Anything under 25 seconds is excellent. A bad push-off costs me time, and I finish in a sorry 24.7 seconds. The winner, one of those youngsters with a calculating eye and supple body language, rolls in at 18 seconds even. Dimitri and the Olympic people get his name.

The rest of us file back to the lodge, wondering what we can do that’s as much fun before next winter.

It’s hot. Very hot. The humidity is so high, you can feel the mosquitoes breeding. The breeze doesn’t begin to penetrate my thick leather pants and jacket.

Bob Swartz nods in understanding, his ponytail bobbing limply in the heat. “I was in a race out in Utah. 102 degrees, and we were in leathers. I drank 13 liters of water that day and sweated it all out.”

Bob’s tried ice luge and says it was fun. But for his thrills, he stretches out on a mutant version of a skateboard and careens down the hilly roads of Waldorf. In his ‘real life’ job, he’s an analyst at the Naval Warfare Research Center. Away from the office, he’s one of the top-rated racers in the new sport of street luge. His 14-year-old son, Scooter, is the junior world champion.

Started by skateboarders looking for variations on their passion, there’s no official sanctioning body, no Olympic team, no formal training facilities, not a lot of corporate sponsorship. ESPN brought street luge to the public’s attention by featuring it as an X-treme sport. That cemented its image as something of a renegade activity in the eyes of many of the more conventional sportscasters and spectators.

That’s a pity, because street luge is about as much fun as you can have on the roads without breaking the speed limit. Actually, you are breaking the speed limit. Street lugers routinely top 60 miles per hour while practicing on road running through housing developments. The current world record is just over 80, and Bob expects the century mark to be broken soon.

It’s not unlike ice luge in some respects. Speeding down a curving course is the object, but unlike ice luge, racers compete simultaneously, like in auto racing, instead of against the clock. That adds extra elements of strategy and technical finesse.

The first street luges may have been skateboards on steroids, but the boards now bear little resemblance their ancestors. The long, lean luges are aerodynamic, wheeled arrows. Feet rest on a sharply pointed brace, but there are no ropes to help with steering. Hands grip bars down near the thighs, giving the rider as streamlined a profile as possible. Steering means shifting weight from side to side and even tossing in a little
body language by holding a foot or elbow out to the side like a rudder. Stopping means dragging feet along the roadway. The smell of hot rubber is a familiar one at the finish line.

The biggest drawback for street lugers is finding a place to play. Lugers scout for dead end or lightly trafficked streets, the more hilly and twisted the better. Bob considers himself lucky. His neighborhood has several suitable roads. He plans his practices around the rhythm of the day – midday when there are few cars, evenings after everyone has finished their commute. Someone at the other end of the ride gives traffic
updates via walkie-talkie.

“People have this idea that street luge is very dangerous, but that’s not so,” Bob says. “People don’t get run over.” He is the unofficial safety director for the sport, acting as an information gatherer, analyst, and clearing house. Most injuries are caused when riders are distracted. “Because steering is so sensitive, even at slow speeds, most accidents are beginners getting fixated on something by the side of the road. They look at it, even for a few seconds, and they end up running right into it.”

Like ice luge, any trepidation rolls away once the ride starts. It’s like riding a rail, smooth and easy. Just thinking about where I want to be puts me there. I rumble down the street, wondering if there isn’t some way to make street luge a viable form of commuting. There’s no road rage when you’re grinning while you ride. As the street levels out, I drag my feet with the best of them, reveling in the acrid scent of hot rubber.

The next challenge is the 90-degree turn at the end of the road. It should be simple, but I can’t seem to get it, rolling into the lawn on the other side of the street, and missing in successive sequence, a drainage ditch, mailbox, very large pine tree, and septic tank pipe. Bob is stymied.

He frowns. “What are you looking at when you make the turn?”

Oops. Fixation. I’m checking the obstacles on the other side of the road, just in case I can’t make the turn.

I’m tired and hot and melting inside my leathers, but I am determined to conquer this turn. Approaching it, I fixate on a mailbox on the correct side of the road and aim for it. Gravel crunches and I feel the wheels of the luge catch on the grass at the inside of the turn, but I don’t shift my stare. Then I’m through the turn and coasting down the street. You go, girl!