Sportswear and sporting equipment are not, of course, interchangeable terms. Parkas, slacks and swimsuits are useful but not necessary to skiing, golf and scuba diving. But now an imaginative New Hampshire businessman has come up with a curious-looking article of apparel that doubles as both.
Behold the bobsled shorts. Manufactured by Wevo AG in Switzerland (and available for $32.50 through Hammacher Schlemmer, 11013 Kenwood Road, Cincinnati, Ohio, 45242-1815), it is exactly what its name implies, a sort of washable, wearable Flexible Flyer perfect for sledding without a sled. It is made of waterproof Naugahyde and worn over a snowsuit or one-piece ski outfit. On the business end—your seat—is fastened a 9½ inch by 8½ inch hard plastic "glide shield." When, sitting down, you push off down a snowy hill, six small plastic runners keep you headed in the right direction; just tuck up your legs and let gravity take over.
The first American to recognize the potential of this down-to-earth invention seems to have been Garlan Hoskin, 50, an importer of cast iron. Hoskin, traveling through Germany on business in 1983, came across some young kids in the town of Winterberg bob shorting "like bats out of hell" down a local hill. Hoskin tracked down the inventor, Werner Vogel, in Switzerland and offered to market the product in the U.S.
"Vogel was eager to reach the American market," says Hoskin, but there was one small problem. In Germany, where 70,000 bob shorts (or, as the label reads, Luge Culotte or Schlittelhose) are sold each year, they were considered playthings for children. "European adults are somewhat more inhibited than we are," says Hoskin. To gauge reaction to the product, G. Marc Bauman, chief operating officer of Hammacher Schlemmer, the giant mail-order house, squeezed into a pair Hoskin had sent him at his Chicago office. Bauman liked them well enough to insist on a line of shorts large enough for downwardly mobile grown-ups too, or it was no deal. Vogel agreed, and so far, reports Bauman, Hammacher Schlemmer is selling two large versions for every small one.
"Wevo was a little surprised, but they went along with it," says Bauman. The operating instructions are simple enough for an adult to understand. "Just pick up your feet and go," says Hoskin.
Well, not quite: Before pushing off, you tighten the shorts around your waist with two strategically placed strips of Velcro. A series of test runs on hard-packed snow revealed some interesting handling characteristics—to go left, you lean right; to go right, you lean left. Once you've reached peak velocity, using your hands or feet to stop is wishful thinking, so make certain there are no obstructions in your path. The foot of the hill arrives soon enough and provides the best brake. Because the rate of speed of the bobsled shorts can exceed their rather modest cornering abilities, especially on icy patches, some interesting skids and slides can occur—but no damage. It is, after all, impossible to fall down. "You're already there," says Hoskin, cheerily, and that's the bottom line for sure.
Andy Meisler is a self-described seat-of-the-pants writer who lives in Los Angeles.