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Originally published Friday, February 26, 2010 at 7:05 PM

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Ron Judd

Six crashes on '50-50' curve mar four-man bobsled qualifying

U.S.'s Steve Holcomb sets two records as six crashes at Whistler Sliding Centre turn four-man bobsled into a war of attrition.

Seattle Times staff columnist

WHISTLER, B.C. — The panic rises, the sledders say, when everything goes silent.

A bobsled careening down a mountainside at 95 mph sounds like a freight train. Hardened steel on bulletproof ice reverberates through a fiberglass shell, creating a roar you feel into your marrow.

Silence comes when runners leave the ice. You have about a half-second to get ready to get upside down and go the rest of the way down the mountain on your head, an 800-pound sled driving it into the ice.

"It gets quiet, for a second," said Charles Berkeley, a crewman in USA-2, who had experienced it only moments before. "Then you're on your head and it gets really, really loud."

Berkeley is 6 feet 5, the tallest guy on the U.S. Olympic team. That can be an advantage when you're pushing a sled out of the start house. It is a decided disadvantage when that sled turns upside down. Keeping your body "safe" inside the sled is like trying to cram a German shepherd into a glovebox.

"It's a lot of weight on your head," says John Napier, the 6-foot-3 driver of USA-2, his speedsuit unzipped, a shaken stare in his eyes. "There's a lot of pressure. You have 4, 5, 6 G's pushing you into the curves. Now they're pulling you out, and now the ice is pinning you. It's kind of rough."

Twenty-four crewmen heard that eerie silence, then felt that crushing force, at more than 90 mph during the first two runs of men's four-man bobsled here. All six sleds failed to negotiate the "50-50" curve, so named long ago by American driver Steve Holcomb, who managed to keep his sled right-side up through it twice.

Holcomb mastered the track to the tune of successive track records, gaining a healthy .40-second lead over Lyndon Rush of Canada and the legendary Andre Lange of Germany, who trails by .44 going into Saturday's final two runs.

The size of Saturday's field is as uncertain as Whistler weather. It has been steadily shrinking. Four crews withdrew from this, the premier sliding event, before it ever began.

Bobsled, like luge before it, has turned into a war of attrition here. The Canadian crowds at these Olympics have been fantastically enthusiastic — even here. But Friday's onlookers spent most of the afternoon standing glumly in wet snow, waiting for the next victims.

Today's roster of victims: sleds from Russia, Great Britain, Japan, Austria, Slovakia and the U.S.

It's not just rookies making the sort of "pilot errors" track and Olympic officials cited as the reason for earlier track carnage, including the death of a Georgian luge slider. The Russian sled that went runners-up was piloted by Alexsandr Zubkov, the silver medalist from Turin.

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Nobody is immune from this track, Napier says.

"A lot of the best drivers in the world, Andre (Lange), Holcomb, all of them — everybody's gone over."

Once again, the please-let-us-get-down-this-thing-alive vibe stole the show here. The perils of the track shoved the big story — the Holcomb-Lange showdown in one of the Games' iconic events — to the back burner. Which is too bad.

Lange, 36, is 4 for 4 in Olympic competition, with golds in every race he has entered. Holcomb, in his flat black "Night Train Express" sled, built with NASCAR know-how via the Bo-Dyne Bobsled project, surpassed him on the world circuit last year, and hopes to send Lange into retirement with his first Olympic defeat.

But once again, the Whistler track — made even more tricky this day by heavy, wet snowfall — became the story.

"The track's great. It's fine," says Mike Kohn, driver of USA-3, summoning classic bobsled bravado. "We've got a lot of people out there doing the best they can, representing their country," he says, "some of them on their heads. God bless 'em."

Holcomb was coy about his own approach to 50-50 — almost as if he's afraid to anger the curve, which he is now referred to as a living, breathing, medal-stealing thing.

"I have a pretty good relationship with 50-50," he says. "We've had our, you know, words. He almost put me over last week. Hopefully, he'll be a little nicer to me this week."

Holcomb saw all the crashes on the HD-TV screens that line the walls of the start area.

"You can't let it get to you," he says. "As soon as you let it get to you, you've been defeated. It's part of the sport. It tells me that I've got to stay focused and prepare myself."

And that is what he has done. With carnage all about, friends in the medical tent, and pieces of mangled sleds literally being raked off the course, Holcomb, 29, the rounded man from Park City, Utah, has kept the blinders on — and the Night Train rolling.

Two more runs to a date with destiny — the first U.S. gold medal in four-man sledding in 62 years.

He has had his words with 50-50. It has said some things back. But Holcomb has yet to hear the unspeakable silence, then the horrible roar, of a bobsled gone upside down.

For the moment, the truce holds.

Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or at rjudd@seattletimes.com

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