Speed. Terror. Joy.
The sport of downhill started in the late 70s in a series of speed runs held on Signal Hill in California. Over the years the sport evolved into more technical racing. The last speed run was held in Fountain Hills, Arizona almost twenty years ago. This year the speed run was revived as l’Ultime Descente, held on an embankment heading towards the St Lawrence River in Quebec, Canada. The goal of the event was to try to break the Guinness World Records in both stand up and street luge, and possibly a few other disciplines. The hope was to smash the old record and break 100 MPH on a street luge.
Overlooking the St Lawrence River in the middle of the Charlevoix crater, is Mont des Éboulements. Heading down this mountain to the river is one of the deadliest roads in Canada, and the home of l’Ultime Descente. The road starts innocently, with barely a decline, just several signs warning of the steep grade ahead. The road begins to pick up with a 10% grade before a gentle turn. Coming around the turn offers an incredible view of the vast St Lawrence. And then the road hits the crest and drops away at 18%. The road rockets down the grade, heads across a flat intersection, and dives into a right turn with a 10% grade. To prevent run away vehicles from slamming into oncoming traffic there is a cement barrier separating the two lanes in the turn. The road finally levels out, just a few feet higher than the river.
There is a small village at the bottom of the hill, and a ferry out to the island in the river. The ferry schedule dictated the schedule of the event. The ferry ran every hour. So the race had a half hour of closed road, and a half hour of open road. Because the schedule was dictated by the ferry, the event itself started on time (weather permitting.) The first run left at promptly at 8:40 AM.
While the main goal of the event was to set the world record, everyone had a personal goal of going faster than they had gone before. My personal goal was to hit 100 MPH. But how do to you prepare for doing something that has never been done? While most of the riders have been in the 80s, a few went over 100 on powered luges. One got towed to over 100 MPH to prepare. But none of us knew exactly what to expect from a hill like this.
In many events you want to take it easy on the first run. Perhaps braking harder and more often than necessary. The idea is to get a feel for the course. But how do you take it easy on a hill this steep, that doesn’t require braking? And how do you get around the turn at the bottom at 90+ MPH? There are really only two ways to slow down at speed, air brake, or foot brake. The simplest way to air brake is spread your arms, it will slow you down a little. But I didn’t want to take let go of the luge! Sitting up isn’t really an option either. And foot braking down a steep slope will do more to wear your shoes out than really slow you down (at one point I had to “abort my run”. So I sat up and braked, and was clocked at 80 MPH!) I decided the only thing I could really do is slow down a lot before the crest. We were hitting the top of the crest at about 60 MPH. On my first run I slowed down to about 30 MPH before the crest. Taking it easy, trying to go slow, I officially went 135 KPH or almost 84 MPH, the fastest I had ever been!
At the bottom of the run is a right hand turn. There isn’t really anything special about this turn, in fact it mirrors a turn at the top. Except that there is a bare concrete barrier separating the right lane from the left lane. The barrier is to prevent a head on collision if the downhill car can’t quite make the turn. This wall looks very intimidating when you are travelling at over 90 MPH. It doesn’t help that most of us are running lower angles, or fairings that leave little room for the wheels to turn.
As you rocket down the incline the first issue is an island encroaches on your lane. If you are on the right side of the lane it won’t affect you, but if you are on the left, then you have to move over. As you pass the island you start to approach your maximum speed. The board will flutter as air is forced under it, and the board will bounce over every imperfection in the road. You will need to fight to keep the board straight. The lane is about 12 feet wide, but really you can only use about 10 feet as you don’t want to get too close to anything. You want to stay straight, hold your body stuff, but you need to fight the bouncing. You know the crowd is there, cheering you on, but you can’t really pay attention, as your focus is on the turn.
And then suddenly you will be in “the Turn”. 90 MPH is 132 feet per second. It takes about a second to pass the island and enter the turn (about the time it took to read this sentence.) There is a guard rail on your right, and a concrete wall on your left, and everything is turning. With a 10% grade you aren’t slowing down. Putting a foot down is the wrong thing to do, so you need to sit up instead. This will slow you down, but you are still going fast. But sitting up isn’t easy.
Everything is fighting you. The road is narrowing, making it seem like it is faster than it really is. The wind is pushing you back. The road is turning and still going downhill. Your board doesn’t feel like it has the traction you need. And your brain is trying to tell you that you will hit the wall. Despite all this, the turn is makeable.
And then it is over. You’ve made it through “The Turn.” You made it down the hill at close to 100 MPH, inches from the ground. And you are still alive. You rush to the bottom to discuss your run and load the bus, ready for the next run.