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.
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.