Street luge turns you into a leather bullet – fast enough to overtake cars, but without breaks or steering

“It’s not illegal, illegal. Kind of a grey area really,” grins speed merchant Russell Naudé as he duct-tapes the motorcycle suit around his ankles. A car appears over the top of the Fair Cape pass and slows down. The driver and his girlfriend stare as I struggle into my borrowed black leathers. “Some days the tra??c cops greet us and drive on, other days they chase us away,” Naudé continues, unfazed by the onlookers (and, it appears, the whole cop situation). Then again, it does take a particular kind of guy to feel comfortable getting dressed in a leather bodysuit next to a national road.

The couple finally move on, I zip the suit up to my neck and am instantly sweating – unsure if it’s because I’m about to race down a mountain pass, or get arrested. Probably both. I watch the other downhill luge riders bomb around the turns faster than the 70km/h speed limit, and wonder what it’s going to feel like when it’s me who’s shooting through there on my arse. You could find yourself lying two centimetres off the tarmac on a modified skateboard, hurtling down a mountain with nothing but your feet for brakes. Suit up, pull on your helmet, aim your feet downhill and get ready to ride.

If you think the pilots (that’s what luge riders like to call themselves) are tattooed punks who graffiti walls and say words like “gnarly”, then you’re skating the wrong road. More than half the guys in the Tygerberg Hills that day were MSc graduates. Most, like Naudé, mechanical engineers. Why does it attract such practically-minded folk? You can’t just go to the local sports shop and buy a new sled (although some have found their way into dusty corners of secondhand stores). Most luges – especially in South Africa – are home-made. “From three-dimensional CAD (computer-aided design), FEA (finite element analysis) to CNC laser-cutting and bending,” Naudé outlines the creation of his latest racing machine. And lugers don’t only work in carbon fibre, steel, aluminium and wood (from which their sleds are made). They’re pretty crafty in rubber too, gluing tyre tread to the soles of their sneakers to fashion those all-important brakes. Listen to a pre-race tread debate and you might mistake it for a Formula 1 strategy session. “There’s a bit of drizzle around; I’m going for the semi-slicks.” “No bru. What if it rains halfway through the run. I’m goin’ for full wets. The grip’ll be fine in the semidamp too. Worth the gamble I reckon.” It wasn’t always this technical. Luging evolved from skateboarding in the mid-Seventies, when some Southern California kids found they could go faster sitting or lying on their backs. The first official race was held on the famous Signal Hill (the one in California) in 1975, and steep roads the world over were never the same again. South Africa was no exception, producing some worldclass pilots over the years. And it was with the current top crop that I found myself training.

Our guy points his feet downhill. Notice the blind corner – traffic control is crucial, don’t tackle any run without the input of experts and plenty of buddies around. As in motor racing, the real masters are identified by the way they attack the corners – Russel Naudé leans into the apex. Seventy-kilometres-an-hour my arse.

The road blurs by and the only sound is that of a supercharged grocery trolley rattling over pavement. We must be flying

I sit at the start on my buttboard (kind of an oversized skateboard, bigger and slower than a true luge and considered the stepping stone) next to Naudé. “Try not to go fast too soon,” he shouts from under his helmet. He’s using his hands to move back and forth in a kind of Jamaican bobsled team start sequence. The well-worn gloves finally make sense to me. “Just follow my line and I’ll try scream advice as we go.” We’re into the first corner a helluva lot faster than I’d expected. I lean into the right-hander about five metres behind Naudé, doing my best to focus on his helmet and copy the way he’s bending his inside knee. The roadside blurs by and the only sound is that of a supercharged grocery trolley rattling over pavement. Jeez, we must be flying. That corner comes and goes, as do two more rights and a left. It’s all happening without too much thought. I manage a smile, reckoning I’m a bit of natural at this. After all, I’m keeping up with Naudé. Although breathing’s a bit of a struggle with the helmet tucked into my chin, and my abs burn with the tension of keeping my head upright. A tight S-turn blends into the final straight ahead, but Naudé’s gone. He’s lifted his feet (turns out he was braking to stay with me) and attacked the rest of the course at full speed. My party is nearly ended with a speedwobble, but after five scary slo-mo seconds I just manage to hang on and not become a crash statistic. Apparently luge crashes aren’t too serious: you’re so close to the ground, you just slide. Apparently. Naudé’s waiting as I come to an ungraceful stop. “Dude, those shoes I lent you must be worn through. You braked just about all the way. I reckon you clocked about 80 flatout in the straight though.” Considering that in a race they hit around 110km/h, mine is a pathetic first effort. So much for being a natural. At least I beat the speed sign at the top. Embarrassed about going so slow? Nah. Stoked? Damn right. Again? Yip, and this time with less brakes.

Essential Skill

Naudé claims if you follow the steps to proper straight-line braking, “even if you’re going 100km/h, you can stop your luge quicker than the latest BMW”.

1. As you approach the finish, place your heels on the road.

2. Start applying gentle pressure to the road with your feet.

3. Your feet should not apply instant grip but rather have a sliding action. (If your foot catches, a broken ankle could be a very real outcome.)

4. Grab the handlebars and lift the front wheels off the road; this will instantly transfer all your body’s weight to your feet and bring you to a gradual stop.

5. The more pressure you apply the greater the stopping power. TIP When you’re in a race situation and need to brake without breaking your momentum, airbreaking can be used. Simply sit upright to create enough wind resistance to slow you down.

Essential Gear
Lasertec street luge, R1 000 for the frame, contact Russell Naudé on 074 134 2149. Contact For race info, specials on equipment and a useful (and pretty entertaining) forum, contact the South African Gravity Racing Association at For rules, regulations and other info, it’s also worth visiting the International Gravity Sports Association at