By Alan Baldwin
BATH, England (Reuters) - The push for Winter Olympic glory becomes concrete right from the start for Britain's aspiring bobsleigh and skeleton athletes.
The dry push-start track at Bath University in south-west England gave Amy Williams, skeleton gold medalist at the 2010 Vancouver Games, a first taste of the sport and Sochi 2014 champion Lizzy Yarnold has honed her technique there.
Shelley Rudman, 2006 Olympic skeleton silver medalist, also graduated from the undulating 140-metre run, on the campus edge alongside muddy playing fields and across the road from a cats and dogs home.
On a dank December morning, under a steady drizzle and occasional hail bouncing off the concrete surrounds, a group of athletes practiced their starts in circumstances far removed from the icy World Cup venues.
Sam Blanchet, a former rugby professional who played for the Exeter Chiefs and Bedford Blues as well as England in the 2014 Hong Kong Sevens before falling out of love with the contact sport, was one of them.
Working his way back from a recent injury sustained in a bobsleigh crash in Whistler, Blanchet pushed a makeshift welded metal sled on wheels as fast as he could along a set of rails from a standing start.
"We never really push this thing over the winter because we’re normally away (competing)," the Montreal-born athlete told Reuters.
"I can tell you it’s far better during the summer.
"(But) the Olympics are definitely the end goal and it does drive you on," added the 25-year-old. "It could be worse, I could be on a rugby field getting beaten up for 80 minutes."
Blanchet raced the two-man bob at last February's world championships in Koenigssee, Germany, and has also competed on Pyeongchang's Olympic track.
His immediate focus now is a test push at the Bath track at the end of the month that he hopes could put him back into contention for Korea.
"As a brakeman, you’re ranked on how well you start a bobsleigh. So if I was to go out for the second half of the season, I’d have to do well in the push starts," explained Blanchet. "There’s still a lot to do."
Built in 2001 with lottery funding, the push-start track was refurbished in 2015.
"Because we don’t have our own sliding track, this is the place where we spend seven months of the year, in the gym, grinding all the training out," Yarnold told Reuters on Wednesday.
"The dry push track that we have here at the university is only practicing the start element, where you are running next to the sled and jumping on. Then we come back up to the top and do it all again."
Initially designed with a bungee brake arrangement that needed replacing every six months, the Bath track now has a magnetic system to return the sled automatically to the start after every run.
"It’s a lot of fun; Very different from actual bobsleigh but really good for grooming your technique and getting those training adaptations that you look for," said Blanchet.
The practice sleds are heavier than racing ones, and real sleds are a lot quicker on ice, but the push track is all about explosive starts.
British Bobsleigh reckons a 10th of a second gain at the top of a full length run, where athletes push the sled over 65 meters from a standing start, can be three tenths by the finish.
The real learning inevitably comes on ice, however, and that can be a shock when the time comes to graduate from starts on concrete.
"It was horrific," said Blanchet of his first ice run. "I got about three nosebleeds a day. I didn’t think it was for me, to be honest.
"I didn’t know how to breathe properly so I was holding my breath the whole way down and it caused a lot of pressure in my head. I learned how to do it the hard way, I guess."
(Additional reporting by Jack Tarrant, editing by Toby Davis)