Short Stops

Whistler's Bobsled Ride Delivers Bone-Rattling Realism

Cue the Olympic fanfare and hold on tight.

By Allison Williams January 30, 2023

Missed your calling as a winter athlete? Glory is still an option.

The secret is in the push. To be the fastest sled on the Whistler Sliding Centre bobsled track on any given day, one must convince the staffers who do the pushing to give it some extra oomph; the passengers who sit inside need do little more than hold on for 45 seconds of twists, turns, and a few G-forces.

That starting shove is one of the only major differences between the tourist's ride and an actual competitive bobsled run, like the ones held on the Whistler track in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Sure, the Passenger Bobsleigh (Canadian for "bobsled") Experience uses only about two-thirds of the track length, but the four-man contraption that whips through the turns can reach 125 kilometers per hour—not all that far off competition speeds of around 155 kph.

The Whistler structure is one of only 15 in the world, a figure that registers as somehow both very low and very high for the number of kilometer-long snakes of ice. It sits between Whistler and Blackcomb ski areas, a niche sport tucked within a slightly more familiar one. What outsiders know of bobsled mostly stems from off-hours Olympics coverage and Disney's Cool Runnings; riders love to cry "Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme, get on up, it's bobsled time!" (The pushing staff gamely chants along.)

But when Calgary demolished its bobsled venue in 2019, Whistler's became one of only two in North America, kept company by the one in Lake Placid. Canada's bobsled, skeleton, and luge community flocked to Whistler, where athletes and coaches work the tourist experiences between trainings. With ongoing maintenance that costs upwards of $10,000 Canadian per day, the track depends on these $209 CAD (about $155 in American currency) rides.

Which means that after a short orientation and a helmet fitting, bobsled riders climb in behind a pilot who might be on the World Cup circuit, or even an Olympic athlete. Given their skill and familiarity with the course's many curves—the banked contours have nicknames like Shiver and Thunderbird—the pros easily handle steering and braking while guests watch the icy walls whizz by. Think Disneyland's Matterhorn ride, on steroids.

A Public Skeleton program goes one step further, putting newbies on the one-man sleds that send riders down the track face first. In winter the Sliding Centre juggles the for-fun usage with training schedules for youth and adult athletes, plus competitions. In summer it moves to running dry runs in wheeled sleds. A portion of the track is often open to the public for viewing, and after watching a few runs the ballsy pastime of barreling down an ice chute almost seems normal.

Even without the spandex suits and the running start, gravity can't tell this isn't the Olympics. About 3 to 4 G-forces press riders into the sled on tourist rides, not quite the 5 to 6 felt in competition but enough to disqualify anyone with neck or back problems. It's a little chaotic and a little too fast to quite understand; to ride is to immediately consider ponying up to go again.

Tall folks will get the best view, and shorter ones risk seeing little beyond the helmet of the guest in front of them even as they sense the speed. As staff members stress when they welcome tourists, the experience is no roller coaster. Rather, the rough ride is something even more thrilling: a peek into what an Olympic moment feels like in person.

Whistler Sliding Centre

4910 Glacier Ln, Whistler, BC

Travel time from Seattle: 4 hours

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