The sled soared up the high wall of the Vercors curve at 60 miles an hour. Suddenly, it snapped upside down and Eugenio Monti, world champion bobsledder, came churning toward the finish on the top of his helmet, his arms thrown up in front of his refabricated face. His brakeman spilled out like a broken doll, and the sled did another roll, with Monti half out of it, dragging along. It wedged into the trench a few feet from the finish line and bounced to a stop.
There was a moment of silence, as though the crowd had just seen an execution. Then everybody ran toward the trench. Monti waved the medics back up the ice chute to where his brakeman, Sergio Siorpaes, lay with a broken arm. It was 6:30 a.m. in the cold blackness of Alpe d'Huez, France last week and the world bobsled championships were slamming to a premature halt.
The French racers called the scene un massacre. The French press said it was a triumph that the thing got as far as it did. Everybody agreed on one point: this was not a vintage year for bobsledding. There were two explanations for the insanity high in the Grandes Rousses on the rooftop of France. One is simply that bobsledders are slightly crazy, the lunatic fringe of winter sports. The other is that France is the host for next winter's 10th Olympics, and this is the shakedown season for all the sites. The Games will headquarter in Grenoble. Mountain communities on all sides will stage the more glamorous Alpine and Nordic ski meets, and lucky-little old Alpe d'Huez, 40 miles out in the skiing suburbs, drew the bobsleds. The town should demand another drawing.
The French are going all out for their first Olympics since 1924, spending $200 million at Grenoble. The bob run they built at Alpe d'Huez was intended to be the best in the world. Italian Architect Luciano Galli, whose bob course at Cervinia is one of the finest, was chosen to map out the new track high on the shoulder coming down from the Col de Poutran.
February 20, 1967
The finished product, a snaking, undulating concrete chute, dropping 459 feet in less than a mile, coiling through a labyrinth, six near-hairpins and four monstrously speedy curves, cost $800,000. Its thick concrete sides rise to a height of 15 feet at the curves. Before the snows came it looked deadly enough to please the craziest sledder: one wrong move and he could fly, no hands, all the way to the Riviera.
Then France iced up the run and invited the sport's top practitioners to try it out. Bobsledding was once a daytime activity. But at Alpe d'Huez it was scheduled at night when the ice is hardest. Anyone but a bobsledder would have panicked at the Dantesque spectacle. The run glistened evilly under yellow sodium vapor lights that are supposed to provide greater depth perception—a point that is disputed. They made everybody look coldly embalmed, and the mountain landscape on each side vanished murkily in the gloom.
"Allez voir un peu," the committee said, and they sent the sledders clattering down. Near the finish, on the glassy vertical wall of the Vercors turn, the sled was a fine blur of color against the eerie light.
Photographer Jerry Cooke turned from his eyepiece and murmured, "I swear, if I didn't know better, I would say that sled was empty." It was. The two gutty Frenchmen who had jumped into it at the top of the run had been bounced out along the way and scattered into the hills.
There was a long pause. Then, out of the blackness, the committeemen and the world's best bobsledders came walking down the course, kicking at the ice here and there, arguing in a babble of languages. They shrugged and climbed out.
The next sled came racketing around the Rousses and Vercors switchbacks, and everybody could see right away that there was a marvelous improvement. This sled had one man in it, hunched over tightly and hanging on across the ruts with all his strength. His brakeman lay sprawled far behind. In two runs, one man had suffered a mild concussion and all four had been pounded lumpy.
The too-soft ice was badly rutted. The run had been built facing south, because the ski runs take up all the other slopes, but nobody counted on the fact that the thing lay in bright sunshine all day. Alpe d'Huez claims to be the sunniest ski resort in the world, and for weeks, through usually cold, gray January, it had more than lived up to its claim. The bob run during the day took on the characteristics of a drunken irrigation ditch. When the temperature plummeted after sundown, the ice jelled—but not enough. The first part of the course looked as if it had been run with tractors, and the officials decided to start the runs 500 meters below this area at the 1,000-meter mark and, if necessary, to limit the championships to one, two or three runs instead of the customary four.
The beginning of the meet was postponed one day, two days while work was done on the piste. The starting times were changed from 6:30 p.m. to 6 a.m. so that workmen could hose the ice all night, building up what the day's sun had washed down the course. The world's longest shower curtain was strung along the course to shade it but that did not help, for the ice was not bonding properly to the concrete walls. Worse yet, serious faults in the construction of the course began to show up when practice was resumed—the inruns and outruns were mysteriously wrong. The committeemen listened to the complaints and said, "√áa ira," which means, "It will go."
At one high point, during dinner, one of the Swiss sledders burst into the Ours Blanc Hotel. "I can't stand it," he cried. "I absolutely cannot stand it. There are 11 men up there working on the course and five of them are drunk, waving wine bottles and singing."
But the reaction was calm. "Six out of 11 sober," one bobsledder shrugged, "is not a bad average for any country. Don't worry about it. This run is so bad that nothing else can hurt it."
With revolt smoldering all over the village, Francois Missoffe, the French Minister of Sport, made a run on the course himself, a move he figured might help calm the storm. Missoffe is a tall, angular man who will do anything for his office—like Bobby Kennedy running a river or Stewart Udall climbing a mountain—and he strapped on the crash helmet with a look of cold dedication. The French four-man bobsled team sandwiched him in behind the driver, and they pushed away.
"It is a splendid run," said Missoffe at breakfast. "On the Vercors curve you go up very, very high. I started out looking ahead, over the driver's shoulder. But when I saw that one coming, I just closed my eyes. It is the first time I am ever inside a bobsled. Next I am going to parachute into the snow. It is a new sport for French skiers." And would he also go off the new 90-meter ski jump at St. Nizier to convince the world it was all right? "The jump is all right," he said. "Don't worry about it."
But the bobsledders remained unconvinced. "It doesn't cut any ice with me," growled one American, his best line of the week.
Meanwhile, with practice dashes, the course grew more rutted and bumpier. French soldiers assigned to maintain the track would leap into the trench and disguise the ruts with a chill, pasty mixture of snow and ice, like vanilla frosting. Flashing by on a trial run, Italy's Monti hit one of the gouges and set the new course record for freestyle flying, landing on one runner and barely under control. In a few minutes he came walking back up the course and said calmly, "I didn't see that rut. It was hidden." He took an ax from a soldier and swung at the wall, chipping the frosting away. "There," he said, "the course it is fixed."
Monti, who is 39 years old and nine-time world bobsled champion, may be the toughest man in the sport. In a memorable smashup in 1958 at St. Moritz, he was dragged down the course under his sled and emerged battered and scraped beyond recognition. At Alpe d'Huez, he explained, "It is really me. I have got a new face since then."
Great Britain's Tony Nash, reigning Olympic two-man champion, showed up with his original face—but wore it twisted into a look of contempt.
"This is a plaything," he said. "We are trying to get this meet stopped. If not stopped, we want to call it merely an international meet, not a world championship. Running a sloppy course for 1,000 meters does not prove anything.
"It could be a fabulous course," he said. "But the entrances and exits are flat and throw the sleds off line at the most crucial points. Remember, a two-man bob is exerting 40 tons per square inch of pressure on the ice and using only a small portion of its runner. The slightest mistake in course design can throw it off."
America's Fred Fortune, 45-year-old racing veteran and 1948 Olympic bronze medalist, figured the Col de Poutran might make a fine addition to Disneyland. "It is only dangerous because of the flat spots on the inrun and outrun. The throats between the curves are supposed to blend in and throw a sled from one curve to the other, but here you come off a curve and hit this flat area and you go flying into the next curve."
"The half mile at Lake Placid is faster," said Two-man Brakeman Philip (Bear) Duprey of Raybrook, N.Y. He stood at the starting point and buckled on a padded leather girdle as a kidney protector and donned thick leather elbow guards. "Here all I have to do is hang on for the ride." Would he grab the brake on the way down? Duprey scowled. "Hit the brake? We're here to race. I wouldn't think of it."
At the end of the first run, the bobsled meet had shaped up the way the handicappers figured: Italy's Monti and Brake-man Siorpaes were leading, Austria's Erwin Thaler and Reinhold Durnthaler were second, Britain's Nash and Robin Dixon lay seventh, but only .66 second off the leader, and America's Howard Clifton and James Crall were eighth, just .86 second off.
Then came Black Wednesday. The ice, under the lights, lay glittering sickly, chopped and rutted. Monti crashed, kicking up a plume of shaved ice and gouging a new slash near the finish line. "I had a beautiful run until that curve," he growled. "Then I hit that bump, and the sled went wild."
Back at the start, the other sledders shook their heads. If Monti couldn't make it down, could they?
Nash and Dixon could not. They came roaring off Vercors, and everybody winced. They could see the accident taking shape. There was another explosion of ice. Another sled bucked off its riders higher up on the course, and still another, jouncing over the ruts, seemed to disintegrate at the finish line—spewing its rear runners and slamming from wall to wall, with the riders practically finishing on the seats of their pants.
With only one sled to go, the Americans stood at the bottom as sure medal winners. "Who cares about the medal," said Clifton. "All right, so we won a medal. All we want right now is for everybody to get off this hill alive. Pray for this last sled."
The sled made it. It was over. Austrians Thaler and Durnthaler had won, Italians Nevio de Zordo and Edoardo Tinter de Martin were second and America's Clifton and Crall were third. The other American sled, with Bob Said and Duprey, was ninth, and everybody still had all their fingers and toes.
The 1967 world two-man bobsled championship was history. "And tomorrow," said Amilcare Rotta, president of the International Bobsled Federation, "we start training for the four-man, no?"
Yes. No. One four-man sled, the Italian, made it down the course, and that was that. French officials made a desperate plea to competitors to keep practicing, but by now the sledders were ready to march on city hall with truncheons. Finally Rotta called it off. "Next year," he said, "will be perfect."
Next year, indeed. The Col de Poutran needs considerable work before the Olympics. How can it be repaired on time?
"The best thing to do with it," said Franz Kapus, "is to break it up and put it into trucks and drive it back down to Grenoble."
Kapus is the 59-year-old sledding expert from Zurich who is in charge of care and maintenance of the run, and Kapus knows bobsled runs: he broke his back on one in a spectacular accident at Cortina in 1954. He was a four-man world champion in 1955 and Olympic champion in 1956. The entire course, he said, is an $800,000 mistake. There is nothing to do now, he says, but rip out all the cement and rebuild it with earthen walls. That way mistakes can be repaired with shovels.
Gaudenz Gartmann, the Swiss Chef de Mission who had observed the construction of the run, said, "Plans for the course were perfect, but mysteriously, somewhere between the architect's plans and the finished run, something went wrong. On the curves the spaces have been changed and the whole thing is off enough to make it a monster."
"The best remedy for the course," says Fred Fortune, "is to dynamite it and start all over again. We tried shaving the ice down to eliminate the humps," he said, "and we hit solid concrete. Blasting is the only answer."
Prospects now are that the course must be entirely rebuilt this summer to satisfy all the critics and remove all the imperfections.
Meanwhile, the world's biggest, snakiest white elephant lies in the hills above Grenoble—the most unloved bob run in the world.
RUN FLATTENS TOO QUICKLY, SLAMMING SLEDS
THE ROUSSES: DIFFICULT HIGH TURN.
SLEDS OUT OF CONTROL AT 60 MPH
THE VERCORS: WORST TURN
THE COURSE AND ITS DANGER POINTS
The Alpe d'Huez bob course has all of the requirements of a classic bob run: a head-jerking labyrinth, some brutal switchbacks and soaring curves. From the official start to the finish line, it drops 459 feet over a distance of 4,920 feet, enough for sleds to gather record-breaking speeds when the ice is smooth and fast. The trouble was that even if the ice had been as hard as diamonds, such serious mistakes had been built into the concrete shell (map above) as to make the facility unusable. A lot of jack-hammering, dynamiting and money will be needed to correct it before the Olympics.