For all the complexity of navigating a luge course, the equipment involved is pretty limited. There's a sled, a racing suit, gloves, boots and a helmet. Every piece of equipment in luge is designed for utmost aerodynamics, minimal friction and top speed.
A luge sled is a high-tech machine. It's made primarily of fiberglass and steel, and it's custom built for each athlete based on his or her height, weight and proportions. Luge teams contract companies to design and build their sleds based on custom specifications. Olympic slider Georg Hackl actually took his sled to the Porsche Engineering Group for some speed tweaks prior to the 2002 Olympics. But it's not just about design -- it's also about using the best materials. In 2004, the USA Luge Team called on US Steel to design a new type of steel for its sled runners in order to improve speed and performance.
The sled weighs between 50 and 60 pounds (23-27 kg) and runs from the slider's shoulders to his or her knees, and there is no head support.
The sled consists of:
- Two steels - The steels are the only part of the sled that contacts the ice. Steels are made of metal and are very sharp.
- Two bridges - The bridges are made of steel. They connect to the runners and support the pod.
- Two runners (sometimes called kufens, which is German for "runners") - Runners are usually made of fiberglass and are the main steering mechanism of the sled. The curved section (the bow) of each runner is flexible. Using their legs, sliders apply pressure to one or the other runner bow in order to steer through the course (they can also steer by making small movements with their shoulders to shift their weight).
- Racing pod - The pod is the platform on which the slider lies. It's usually made of fiberglass.
- Two grips - There is a handle on either side of the pod for the slider to hold on to during the race.
A slider's racing gear consists of:
- Helmet - A luge helmet has a rounded visor that extends all the way under the slider's chin to minimize air resistance.
- Racing suit - A luge suit is a smooth, rubberized, skin-tight suit designed to minimize air friction. Sliders typically compete in brand-new suits so there's no chance of flapping or rippling. Photo courtesy San Diego Low Speed Wind Tunnel
- Spiked gloves - Luge gloves have spikes sewn into the fingertips and/or knuckles to provide traction when the slider is paddling over the ice at the start of the race.
- Racing booties - The zippers on luge booties draw the sliders' feet into a straight position (as opposed to flexed). This position minimizes frontal drag (see "The Physics" section).
During a race, something like a snag in a racing bootie can affect the slider's aerodynamics enough to mean the difference between a win and a loss. Sliders typically race in brand-new gear to reduce the chance of an unnoticed imperfection.
In the next section, we'll put this all together and see what happens during a luge run.