How Street Luge Works


Image Gallery: Extreme Sports The thrill of street luge is on display at the Extreme Sports Luge in Victoria, Australia, on Nov. 28, 2000. See more pictures of extreme sports.
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For many of us, our only experience with the luge takes place every four years when we catch a few hours of Olympic Games television coverage. Those who think it may be fun to slide downhill at top speed may have difficulty finding a spot to try this sport. If you'd like to experience the thrill of luging without locating an icy track first, consider giving street luge a try.

Street luge is an extreme sport that's popular with many skateboarders and outdoor sports enthusiasts. It combines the best of skateboarding, sledding and sheer guts to form one of the most thrilling and dangerous sports out there. Riders use a wheeled sled to speed down paved surfaces, often reaching speeds of 60 mph (96 kph) or more. The sleds are similar to those seen in the Winter Olympics, but they have wheels instead of runners. As you ride, your body rests mere centimeters above the ground, allowing you to feel every bump and twist in the road [source: Ryan].

This sport is believed to have started in the 1970s, when skateboarders learned they could increase their speed by lying down on their boards. This technique was known as "buttboarding" and was performed on traditional skateboards or long boards. Competitive riders used this technique to win races, though high injury levels led most boarders to discontinue the technique by the end of the decade [source: International Gravity Sports Association].

By the 1990s, riders found that they could modify their boards to enjoy the speed of lying down while lowering the risk of injury. Since that time, street luge has become a sport in and of itself. Some riders take part in this sport recreationally, while others follow a competitive track. Street luge has played a part in extreme sports events like the X-Games and the Gravity Games, while serious riders head to the annual Street Luge World Cup to show off their skills [source: Ryan].

So what does this sport have to offer? For many, luging is the ultimate adrenaline rush. It combines high levels of speed and risk, allowing riders to push the limits of the body's ability. Street luge is also easy to learn, and can be performed almost anywhere with little specialized equipment. Riders of any level will find plenty of excitement as they learn to master this extreme sport.

Before you get ready to ride, let's take a look at the physics of street luge. By understanding the forces you'll be facing, you'll be better prepared to meet the demands of this sport.

 

Physics of Street Luge

Much of the appeal of street luge lies in the sport's simplicity. Participants use boards that are powered just by gravity. Because of this, street luge can only be performed on hills or other sloped surfaces. The higher the slope, the greater the force of gravity will be, resulting in higher levels of speed. Steeper slopes yield greater levels of momentum, which means that riders will take longer to stop and the force of impact will be much greater in the event of a crash.

Much of the thrill of street luge comes from the high levels of speed involved in the sport. Because riders are lying down, there is very little wind resistance, resulting in a faster ride. No matter what the slope of the course is, riders can increase the speed of their run by working to make the body as aerodynamic as possible. They do this by keeping their toes pointed, heads down and bodies as flat and level as possible [source: Ryan].

Terrain also plays a major part in the street luge experience, as does the weight of the sled. Smoother roads will produce less friction with the wheels of the sled, leading to a faster ride. Rough surfaces or bumpy roads will create more friction and slow the sled down. Heavy sleds or those supporting a heavier rider will tend to be slower than those made with lightweight materials. Modern street luge sleds are often made of fiberglass or carbon fiber, which are relatively strong compared to their total weight.

Street luge is often compared to other extreme sports, such as skateboarding or ice luge. In many ways, street luge is safer than skateboarding. Riders sit closer to the ground, resulting in a lower center of gravity. This improves balance and control. It also means that riders have a shorter distance to fall during a crash, which may lead to fewer injuries. But because the speeds involved in street luge are often much greater than in skateboarding, there are still plenty of dangers around every turn. Participants in ice luge often travel at far faster speeds than street luge riders, but they're in a more controlled environment, which often means fewer injuries [source: O'Neill].

Street Luge Boards

Can you imagine racing down the street on this tiny board?
Can you imagine racing down the street on this tiny board?
Tom Hauck/Getty Images

The modern street luge sled closely resembles the sleds we see on the ice luge track in the winter. It's made of aluminum or fiberglass and can vary in length depending on the size of the rider, though most luge sleds are 8 feet (2.4 meters) or shorter. Sleds may feature two or three axles that hold up to six wheels [source: O'Neill]. The wheels measure between 2.75 and 3.5 inches (70 and 90 millimeters) on average and are made of hard plastic, which holds up better than softer rubber tires [source:International Gravity Sports Association]. Steel bearings connect the wheels to the axles. Newer ceramic bearings are much more durable than steel, but are also more expensive, which means that most recreational riders are still stuck on steel.

For a sport that allows riders to travel at such extreme speeds, it's surprising how simple most street luge boards really are. These boards have no suspension systems, so riders are at the mercy of the terrain. You'll feel every bump in the road as you speed downhill.

Depending on the style of your board, your feet may rest on a set of handles or foot rests. In this type of street luge, riders steer with their feet. Simpler boards may not have a footrest at all, with riders steering by shifting their weight. On this type of board, your feet will rest straight out in front of you on the board itself.

New riders may want to consider starting with a basic long board, or buttboard, instead of a steel or fiberglass sled. Buttboards are similar to skateboards, but are generally about 4 feet (1.2 meters) in length. They're also slightly wider so the rider has more space to fit on the board. Buttboards are made of wood, with steel bearings and hard plastic wheels. They're heavier than a sled, but also slower and easier to learn on. These boards often cost just a fraction of the price of a street luge sled, making them the perfect choice for riders looking to give this sport a try without breaking the bank [source: O'Neill].

Those who think that street luge isn't extreme enough for their tastes may want to give powered street luge a try. Powered street luge boards are connected to gas or electric motors, allowing riders to push the limits of speed (and, as some say, sanity). These boards are often powered by modified motorcycle engines, and may feature a slightly larger body or frame to offer a bit of extra protection to the rider. This sport combines the thrill of street luge with the speed of auto racing and is considered a separate event within the street luge competitive circuit.

Street Luge Basics

Picture yourself on a curvy road high in the mountains. In your vehicle, you'd likely slow down to accommodate the curves and steep terrain. Take away the car and imagine yourself in a small metal sled traveling 60 mph (96 kph) or more on the same roads. Now, imagine that the sled you're riding has no brakes. If this sounds like fun, street luge just might be the sport for you.

Before you begin, it's important to gear up with the right equipment. New riders may want to start with a buttboard (also known as a long board or lay-down board), rather than a true street luge sled. Not only will you save money this way, but you'll be better able to control your speed as you master your riding techniques. Take advantage of every piece of safety gear you can get your hands on, and don't take the danger of this sport lightly [source: O'Neill].

Most street luge riders who live to ride another day start by walking the course they plan to ride. This allows the rider to understand the terrain and prepare himself or herself for possible problems with traction or skidding. Look for imperfections in the road such as potholes or cracks, which could throw you off your board or damage your wheels. Finally, keep an eye out for obstacles like lampposts, mailboxes, fences and anything else that you could potentially crash into while you ride. Only after you know where all of these items are located should you begin to plan your route down the course.

It can be tempting to find the closest big hill and let yourself fly, but new riders should be prepared to start small. Start your first ride just a few yards before the end of the slope, making sure there's plenty of level ground beyond the hill for you to practice braking. These first few rides will seem short, but they'll allow you to get a feel for braking, steering and controlling your board. As you get more comfortable with luging, move further up the hill to enjoy longer rides and higher levels of speed.

Start by sitting on your board with your hands resting on the ground on either side. Use your hands to push yourself along the road until gravity takes over, then lie down on your board to enjoy the ride. On a sled, you'll steer by applying pressure with your feet. On most buttboards or simple sled models, you can steer by leaning in different directions. Powered street luge riders face tremendous levels of speed which may make steering difficult, so many of these boards will feature some type of mechanized steering system for better control.

Now we come to the most important part of street luge riding: braking. The majority of street luge boards don't have brakes, and competitive racers may not have any type of mechanical braking system, according to the rules of race governing bodies. Instead, street lugers stop by dragging their feet along the ground. The friction between the feet and the road surface will slow the board and eventually bring the rider to a stop [source: O'Neill].

Of course, riders need special protection to allow them to stop safely with their feet at high speeds. Most wear special riding shoes made of leather or rubber. Others add thick sections of tire treads to the outside of their shoes to help keep the feet protected. Because of the tremendous amount of friction created by braking, street luge participants should be prepared to maintain footwear often and to add new rubber after almost every day of racing [source: Lott].

Street Luge Safety

In a street luge competition, the only thing between your body and the road is the board. Wear proper safety gear.
In a street luge competition, the only thing between your body and the road is the board. Wear proper safety gear.
Mike Powell/Getty Images

Like all extreme sports, street luge is not for the faint of heart. Riders are subject to high levels of injury and even the pros admit that this is an extremely dangerous sport. With the body so close to the road, some of the most common injuries are those that occur when body parts hit the road surface. Simple steering can cause the elbows or shoulders to hit the road surface, resulting in bumps and bruises, broken elbows or dislocated shoulders.

Because street luge participants reach great speeds, they're also subject to frequent crashes and wipeouts. This can occur if the rider loses control around a curve, collides with another rider during a race, or encounters obstacles in the road. When you fall off a street luge at high speeds, be prepared for serious injury, which may include broken bones or even head and neck injuries [source: Lott].

To lower the risk of injury, riders wear specialized safety gear on both recreational and competitive rides. Leather suits are worn to protect the skin from road rash and cuts. The elbows, knees, shoulders and spine of the suits are often lined with body armor to further protect the body during a crash. Heavy-duty leather gloves are used to protect the hands, and may have rubber pads on the fingers to help with pushing off. Because of the demands of braking, shoes must be very heavy-duty, with extra rubber padding to hold up against heat and friction [source: O'Neill].

All street luge riders should also wear a helmet equipped with a full-face mask. It may seem uncomfortable to ride with a helmet on, but it's nothing compared to the danger of hitting your head during a major wipeout. The facemask on the helmet protects the eyes and face from flying stones and debris and can also keep road rash at bay during a crash.

To fully prepare yourself for the dangers of street luge, think of crashes in terms of when, not if. Plan your rides with the knowledge that eventually you will wipe out. This way, you'll be more likely to wear the proper safety gear and to choose routes that will keep you safe while still providing big thrills.

Once you're suited up, keep these safety tips in mind as you start learning to ride:

  • Start slow. Find small hills to begin. You'll be surprised just how fast your ride will feel on a street luge sled, even at a relatively low speed.
  • Consider taking classes. By learning from more experienced riders, you'll get a more realistic view of the dangers involved in street luge and also learn how to minimize your risk.
  • Choose safe riding routes. You'll have enough to think about as you learn to control your board. Don't add traffic or obstacle-filled routes into the mix, too.
  • Maintain your equipment. Some of the most common causes of wipeouts for street lugers are equipment failures. A wheel falling off the board or a broken axle can quickly ruin your ride. Keep your gear well maintained, and invest in high-quality equipment to help lower your risk of accidents and injuries [source: O'Neill].

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Sources

  • Borgenicht, David and Joshua Piven. "Worst Case Scenario Extreme Survival Handbook." Chronicle Books, 2005.
  • International Gravity Sports Association. "What is Street Luge?" IGSA. June 3, 2009. (Dec. 18, 2009).http://www.igsaworldcup.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=269&Itemid=25
  • Lott, Darren. "Buttboarding Safety." Buttboarding.com. 2008. (Dec. 18, 2009).http://www.buttboarding.com/Safety/Safety.htm
  • O'Neill, Todd. "Street Luge: How to Get Started." DoctorDanger.com. 2002. (Dec. 18, 2009).http://www.doctordanger.com/streetluge/streetlugestart.html
  • Ryan, Patrick. "Street Luge." Capstone Press, 1997.