RICK KARLIN Staff writer
Section: TRAVEL,  Page: G10

Date: Sunday, February 11, 1996

Inside the shack where they hand out helmets at the top of Mount Van Hoevenberg's half-mile bobsled run was a faded photo of a bobsled flipping out of control. I couldn't believe it was on the wall. As the helmet line moved forward, a closer look at the aging picture showed that the sled wasn't flipping at all. It was doing a high-speed banked turn.

My glasses must have fogged over when I came in from the 3 cold that had descended on the Lake Placid area last weekend.

Or maybe my imagination was careening out of control.

After all, this would be my first bobsled ride. Afternoons from 2 to 4, Wednesdays through Sundays, the Olympic Regional Development Authority lets anyone with $30 and sufficient intestinal fortitude take a crack at the only operational bobsled run in the United States.

Granted, these tourist bobsleds are slower than those used by Olympic-class competitors. One bobsled racer I spoke to said it was like comparing a passenger bus with a Porsche.

But there was no escaping the fact that we'd hit 50 mph near the end of the course and would feel twice the force of Earth's gravity as we snaked through the same curves negotiated by Olympic racers.

Hiking up the footpath that follows the track to the starting area, I steeled myself. A bout once a minute, a bobsled whizzed by in a blur. Some of the passengers were screaming, but I couldn't get a good look at their faces.

Inevitably, questions raced through my mind.

Like: What am I doing here?

Or: Why did I drink three cups of coffee earlier in the day?

I had another question when my driver was showing us how to sit in the bobsled.

Did I hear him right? I thought he said, ``If the bobsled flips, cross your arms in front of you.''

Sensing my panic, he repeated himself. ``If you lose your grip, cross your arms'' was what he'd really said. Our job as passengers on this fast, icy bus was to simply hunker down, hang on to the nylon webbing along the seat bottoms and enjoy the ride.

Sticking one's hand out of the sled at 50 mph in a narrow icy track clearly was not advisable.

All three passengers and the pro driver settled in. The brakeman gave us a gentle push, jumped on board, and off we went.

My only view was of the helmet worn by the guy in front of me. It was reassuringly free of dents and scratches. I tried to peer around him, but the G-forces were building too fast.

There was the constant chattering sound of metal blades skimming the ice. Then came an abrupt crunching noise, which I quickly realized was my stomach being forced down into the rest of my digestive tract. We had entered the ``zig'' portion of the famous zig zag curve, which pretty much speaks for itself.

This wasn't what I expected.

I had anticipated a graceful, swooping sort of sensation as we rounded the banked curve -- kind of like a skier making a fast giant-slalom turn.

This, however, was like being in a turbocharged cement mixer. It felt as if we were being slammed from one curve and then another.

A s we bounced out of the ``zag,'' I opened my eyes, but the view was unchanged -- the same white helmet.

What the heck, I thought, I'll just close my eyes and concentrate on not clenching my teeth too hard.

We rocketed through one more curve and started sliding uphill toward the finish line. I opened my eyes in time to see the quick left turn our driver made at the end of the course, pointing the sled toward the bed of a waiting pickup truck, which would haul it back up the mountain.

There was one problem. I couldn't get up. That was because my fingers were stuck in a viselike grip around the nylon straps.

A passenger behind me said he felt as if he just gotten off a monster roller coaster.

The Olympic authority folks describe it differently, calling it the ``champagne of thrills.''

But I'd say it was more akin to a shot of hard liquor -- a short high octane rush mixed with a bit of terror followed by the sobering stop. The whole trip had taken less than a minute.

As I staggered out of the bobsled complex, I swung by the ticket booth. The guy selling tickets mentioned that for $100 and with advance reservations, I could buy a trip on the full mile-long track, with speeds of 80 mph and almost twice the G-force. That, I suppose, would be like a double shot.

I might just try it, once I thaw out, get my vision checked, and get my imagination under control.FACTS:IF YOU GO The Olympic Regional Development Authority operates the winter sports venues in and around Lake Placid. It offers several rides on the bobsled and luge runs at Mount Van Hoevenberg. Passengers go at their own risk and must sign a release form for all rides. If you don't want to ride, you can simply watch. Visitors are advised to call ahead to confirm schedules. Special events and weather may affect operations. Call (800) 462-6236 or 523-1655. Bobsled riders must be at least 48 inches tall, luge riders 60 inches. The authority recommends riders be at least 14 years old. Bobsled: The mile-long run in a four-man sled is dubbed the ``champagne of thrills.'' It costs $100 per person and is open by appointment only from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. Half-mile rides are available from 2 to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays and cost $30. Try the short ride before the longer one. Luge rocket: The ride begins at the women's start of the luge run, is about a half-mile long and includes 11 turns. It costs $30. Hours are 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays and 12:30 to 4 p.m. on weekends. Ice rocket: Formerly called the ice glider, it weighs 411 pounds, is well-padded and seats four. It costs $30 a ride, begins at the women's start of the luge run and offers the smoothest ride of all. It operates the same hours as the luge rocket. Luge: A short lesson on how to steer the sled is given and then you're off alone along the bottom third of the run. A ride costs $30. Note: Additional hours are offered on holiday weekends. The sliding season ends March 3. -- Associated Press