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Building a better skeleton sled the Canadian way

CALGARY—Getting Brian Dorn to talk about his job is like coaxing a reluctant patient into a dentist chair.

It’s not that he doesn’t love what he does, it’s just that he doesn’t want the Germans to find out about it. Or the Brits. Or the Americans for that matter.

He’s leading SAIT Polytechnic’s program to build skeleton sleds for much of Canada’s Olympic team. “I just don’t want to give too much away,” Dorn says, as he gives absolutely nothing away in the manufacturing shop of the Calgary school.

Dorn isn’t alone in his secretive ways. This sport, where racers hurl themselves head first down an icy chute on a sled that has no steering wheel or brakes, is in the midst of a design arms race. Everyone is keen to find out what advancements their competitors have made while keeping their own under wraps.

“People are always going around trying not to look too obvious staring at everybody else’s sled,” says Vancouver gold medallist Jon Montgomery, who is on a parallel track to SAIT and building his own sled. “I’ll sometimes crouch down and pretend to look at my runner and I’ll be looking at the runner on the sled next to me,” he says, referring to the steel rods on which the sled glides over the ice.

Often, there’s not much on display. British racer Kristan Bromley, who manufactures sleds, covers his at the bottom of the run and the German racers, whose sleds are built by their national equipment development program FES, put runner guards on immediately.

The sleds to beat used to be built by Canada’s Ryan Davenport. Montgomery won his gold medal on one. Most Canadian skeleton racers relied on them until he stopped building new ones in 2010.

“When Ryan closed his doors it left a big hole,” says Nathan Cicoria, high-performance director for Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton.

SAIT’s program is an effort not just to fill that hole but to leapfrog other nations with advanced sled-building programs. Everyone is hunting for the same thing: a way to build a faster sled while staying within the material and design rules set by FIBT, the sport’s international governing body.

“What we’ve seen in the last few years with Schneider, Bromley, Blackroc and some of the stuff the Latvians are figuring out is that there is enough latitude, enough grey area in the rules to offer some creative solutions,” Cicoria says, referring to international builders.

Dorn is hoping the creative solutions being worked out on the shop floor in Calgary help put Canadians on the Olympic podium in Sochi, Russia next year.

SAIT’s high-tech program began with a modest $ 4,000 investment. That’s what Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton paid for the intellectual property of Rocket sleds, a defunct builder out of Canmore, Alta. That’s where SAIT got its start.

Dorn remembers the early days in 2007 when he was working out of a closet. They started off building sleds for younger athletes still learning the sport on Canada’s development team. When they got good enough, they moved on to research, design and building high-performance equipment for World Cup-level athletes.

Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton gets $ 150,000 from an Own the Podium program designed to foster equipment innovations and much of that goes to SAIT, Cicoria says.

The look of a sled has changed over time. They are longer now to help with aerodynamics by getting more of a racer’s legs on top of the sled instead of dangling off the back. The shape of the front of the sled has changed, too, making it easier for a racer to steer through shoulder pressure.

But most of the engineering involved in building a better sled — which is about the size of a large flat-screen TV on its side — is so fine that there’s not much to see with the naked eye. The real secrets are hidden in the chemical makeup of the steel itself and how the individual components are put together to affect the sled’s driveability.

In skeleton, sliders use subtle body shifts in their head, knees, shoulders and toes to steer the sled at speeds that can top 140 km/h.

Now that the SAIT designers feel they can build sleds that can compete with the best in the world, they’re starting on the runners. The steel has to be sanctioned by FIBT, but it’s pretty wide open about what can be done to the shape of the spine, the raised portion of the runner that aids in steering.

“What is the perfect spine? We just don’t know.” Dorn says.

And what’s perfect for one track may not be for the next. Air temperature and ice affect the choice of runner at any World Cup race. At the track in Calgary, for example, the cold temperature and dry air create brittle ice. The Whistler track, where it’s warmer and a lot more humid, has completely different ice.

What’s Sochi ice like, then?

“I can’t discuss that,” says Alex Zahavich, SAIT’s director of applied research and innovation services.

But you know about it? “Very much so.”

To Zahavich, like Dorn, no piece of information about Canada’s skeleton program is too small to be kept under wraps in the effort to beat the likes of BMW and other big names involved in sled building.

“We’re every bit as good as they are, if not better,” Zahavich says, “and we do it the Canadian way.”

That’s often code for a smaller budget, but Zahavich bristles at that notion.

“I don’t know if budget comes into it,” he says.

With a warning that he’s jumping on his soapbox, he continues. “What you have here is evidence of a country that is probably the most innovative in the world. We’re innovative because we have to be. We’re a big country with limited resources and this is the kind of quality stuff we can turn out.”

Canada is perhaps better known as the country that does very well in new sports but then falls down the rankings when other nations catch on and put their focus, population and budgets behind it.

That’s part of what SAIT’s sled design and Canada’s broader skeleton training program is designed to combat, Cicoria says.

It isn’t just about beating the world. It’s about finding a sustainable Canadian way to do it.

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