Home Gear box The American bobsleigh and Marc van den Berg have big ambitions

The American bobsleigh and Marc van den Berg have big ambitions

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“When we finished in Beijing,” recalls van den Berg, now technical and equipment manager for USA Bobsled/Skeleton (USABS), “I had to Google ‘bobsleigh’ because I didn’t had never seen one. I started with a blank sheet. I had no idea.”

But it was okay, he added: “Because I can see things.”

So it was that the man now seen as perhaps the world’s most talented builder of elite international bobsledding – a mysterious figure whose word “genius” is sometimes invoked and whose services have sparked wars of transatlantic auction – debuted.

And its journey from that starting point to Team USA, which hopes to launch a prosperous new era for its bobsled program in Beijing this month, has been almost as twisty and bumpy as that 2008 Trans-Eastern Rally from the shores of the Baltic Sea to the Great Wall of China, when his future found him via satellite phone.

This trip took him from Holst, the Netherlands – where Eurotech Sports is headquartered and where van den Berg built his first bobsleigh, helping the Dutch team win the first World Cup medals in their history. and a shocking 10th place in Vancouver – Alberta, where he moved after Team Canada, intrigued by van den Berg’s success for his home country and later success on a contract basis for Canada itself , convinced him to cross the Atlantic to build his sleds full time.

And it took him, in August 2020, from Alberta to Lake Placid, NY, after his relationship with the Canadiens soured and the USABS stepped in and robbed him – a decision that is perhaps to be the most visible manifestation of the great ambitions of the American programme. Due to the timing of van den Berg’s hire, so late in this Olympic quad, he only tweaked and tuned the Americans’ existing fleet for Beijing. The biggest mission, to build a new fleet among the best in the world from scratch, is looking to the future.

“He was that piece of the puzzle that we think could help us into 2026 and beyond. He’s one of the best in the world,” said USABS CEO Aron McGuire. “…If you don’t constantly try to redesign and develop this sled, the rest of the world is literally passing you by. We don’t just want to keep pace, we want to be ahead of the rest of the world.

While the United States has won nine Olympic medals in bobsleigh since 2010, six of them have been won by just two pilots: Steve Holcomb (gold in 2010 and silver in 2014 in four-man, silver in 2014 in two), who died in 2017, and Elana Meyers Taylor, 37 (silver in 2014 and 2018 in two-man and silver in the Olympic monobob debut here).

Meyers Taylor, No. 1 in the World Cup standings this season in women’s two-man, is the only American rider to place in the top three in any team bobsleigh event heading to Beijing. Hunter Church, No. 10 in the four-man, is the only male pilot ranked in the top 10.

From a distance, 50-year-old van den Berg is an unlikely figure around which to build an international powerhouse in bobsleigh. He has no formal engineering training. He was a self-taught equipment builder who hooked up with Eurotech Sports in 1996 – spending most of his time working on race cars at early Dutch and Belgian circuits – and quickly gained a reputation at the times for his immense skills and solitary, solitary spirit. working style.

“He’s a genius,” Eurotech founder Wim Noorman said of van den Berg. “His skills are at Formula 1 level. [But] he’s such a genius, he can’t work with others. His talent is not to communicate. He is still working, still thinking about the problem, suffering with it. Then he comes back three hours or three days later with the solution.

Noorman recalled a time in 2000, at the British GT Championship at the Brands Hatch circuit, when the gearbox on Eurotech’s Marcos Mantis failed, sending van den Berg into a smoldering, red rage. No one could approach him to discuss a cure. No one dared get their hands on the car without him. Finally, van den Berg reappeared as though out of a cloud of smoke and proceeded to replace the gearbox on his own within an hour, to which the rest of the team celebrated with applause.

“This guy,” Noorman said, “is an old-school lone cowboy.”

Van den Berg bristled at the label of “genius”, but acknowledged that he possesses God-given gifts which he has honed through experience, trial and error and an insatiable curiosity about how whose things work. “I do a lot of things go fast,” he said. “By trade, I am a mason. … I can make things better. I know how to get speed. I can see things in the aerodynamics.

When he started working on Dutch bobsleigh in 2008, van den Berg faced a fundamental problem that ran counter to his training: in his motor racing endeavors he was always looking for new ways to generate speed. In bobsleigh, the mission was to try to avoid its loss.

“It’s a gravity sport,” he said. “In racing, you have an engine. You put fuel into it, so you create something. We don’t create anything [in bobsled]. We are going down. We have ice friction, air friction. I reduce the loss of speed.

After the Dutch team’s unexpected success in Vancouver, other countries began to use Eurotech to manufacture their bobsleighs, and at the 2014 Sochi Games the company was working with both the Netherlands and the Canada. In 2017, Canada fired him from Eurotech and moved him to Calgary to run its sled-building operation. In 2018, at the PyeongChang Games, Canada’s two-man sled, driven by Justin Kripps, won gold for the first time in this event, and the two-woman sled driven by Kaillie Humphries won bronze.

When he decided to cut his own skates — the metal blades of the sled that touch the ice — because no one else could make them to his satisfaction, “At first everyone laughed: ‘This man is trying to cut his own skates.’ And then we won the gold medals for Canada with my riders,” he said. “…Everyone buys runners from Germany’s leftovers. But if you’re buying the same runners anyone can buy, there’s no benefit to that. I can build a runner that is better than the runner you can buy or the one you make.

But van den Berg’s relationship with the Canadian bobsleigh federation soon became strained over what he described as a lack of communication from his superiors and less than promised project funding. Canadian officials, meanwhile, painted him as a mercenary whose stint on Team USA in 2020 came down to an age-old thing:

“He told me he left because his paycheck is bigger…with the US program,” Chris Le Bihan, High Performance Director of Bobsled Canada Skeleton, told Canada’s Postmedia in 2021. But Le Bihan also acknowledged the funding issues that frustrated van den Berg. “It’s public money, and it flows when it flows, and sometimes it gets delayed, and that’s how it is.”

Asked about hiring van den Berg outside of Canada, USABS’ McGuire cautiously said, “I knew he was available. And certainly his reputation was there. … The timing lined up. I don’t know the details [of what happened between van den Berg and Team Canada]and I don’t necessarily need to know.

For Team USA, van den Berg’s motivating principle will be efficiency. In Beijing, American bobsledders run largely on BMW/Designworks sleds built the last decade at a cost of around $250,000 each, in part because every part – cowling, frame, slides, steering gears – was built in different places, by different companies, and assembled piecemeal. Once van den Berg’s sled building project kicks off after Beijing, everything will change.

“They hired me to replace the fleet,” van den Berg said of USABS. “We’re going to put it all together, put it in place, weld it, everything [in Lake Placid]. It has never been done. So if there is a rule change, we can adapt quickly. In the past, if they wanted to change something, it took three years. Now we can do it between races. Because we build everything ourselves. We have materials. We own all the designs, so we have the [intellectual property] rights. And in the end, it will make it much cheaper.

It should also make the sport of bobsledding more accessible as a sporting activity. Despite all of Team USA’s success with BMW sleds – including four medals in Sochi – the partnership has produced only elite World Cup caliber sleds. Athletes on USABS development teams, not to mention young hopefuls just getting started in the sport, had to choose from used sleds, many of which were in such poor condition that they were dangerous for their occupants. .

That’s a lot of trust, funding and expectations to place on one man’s shoulders, but those are the costs of global ambitions. And van den Berg wouldn’t have taken on the mission if he hadn’t thought he could pull it off.

“I’m pretty good at what I do,” he said evenly. “There’s no one else in the world who can do what I do.”