It used to be a common form of transport and fun in winter months centuries ago, but its popularity receded with the introduction of motor vehicles and skis. Now luge riding is making a comeback, with several specially designed luge natural-tracks sprouting across the country. One of them is located in Smržovka, a winter sports centre in the Jizera Mountains that also hosts an annual luge racing competition.
Located in the northern tip of the country between the Lusatian Mountains and Krkonoše, lie the Jizera Mountains. Less massive than their famous neighbour to the east, they nevertheless attract thousands of Czech and German visitors every year.
One of the local ski centres, Smržovka, offers winter sports enthusiasts more than just the usual slopes for skiers and snowboarders. A special luge natural-track was recently introduced that is becoming increasingly popular.
Miloš Morávek was instrumental in its establishment. Having represented Czechoslovakia’s luge team in his youth he has maintained his enthusiasm for the sport into old age and is now pushing for proper training programs that would pave the way for a new generation of internationally competitive Czech sportsmen.
“First there was the idea of establishing the luge track somewhere in the Jizera Mountains. I scouted a lot of areas where this could be done, but when I mentioned it to our mayor he said: ‘Why are you looking for this place somewhere else? Smržovka is a luge city. We have to make it here!’
“So that was the moment we decided we would make the luge track here. I think it was not a bad choice, because the large number of people visiting it makes us very happy.”
With no turnstiles installed yet, Mr. Morávek says he cannot provide the exact number, but his rough guess is more than 7,000 visitors just last year, a solid amount given the fact that it was recently established. What is more, it is not just locals who are enticed by the four kilometre natural-track.
“In the first three years, almost all of the people here were Czech tourists. But this year we promoted it in Germany and a little bit in Poland. It seems to have paid off, because when I walk through here now I can hear German quite a lot. We can see that people from the nearby city of Zittau and other German areas have found their way here. So we are getting tourists from abroad too.”
The luge enthusiast’s words were confirmed already before we went up the slope, as a German mother and her young daughter were getting into a taxi.
“We know about it for some time already, but my daughter was too small before. Now we are waiting for the taxi that will take us there and then we will try it out.”
There is also a special shuttle that connects the skiing slopes with the luge track, says one of the visitors atop of Smržovka, who regularly comes with his wife from Prague. Not always for the luge he says, but also for the iconic view.
“Just this area around the luge centre where we are now standing also has a beautiful lookout tower and is also a starting point for cross-country skiers. You have to start somewhere and the place where they meet up is here.
“Now they have got this luge centre here. A lot of people did not think it would be a success when it started, but then more and more started coming. As the rumour spreads it grows in popularity.”
Luge enthusiasts make up a tightly-knit community in the Czech Republic and Smržovka is also the location where they gather for an annual cross-country luge race - the Svijany Cup.
“Of course we organise races at the end of each season. This year it will be the third time we host the Svijany Cup. It is an opportunity for newcomers and veterans to measure up their skills. This year it will take place on February 23 and I would like to invite all luge enthusiasts, as well as those who like adrenalin sports, to come and have a look or even take part.”
In previous years, even Czech Olympic contestants have taken part in the competition and it is precisely in the area of professional competitiveness that the former Czechoslovak luge team member hopes his natural-track and others like it could have an impact on bringing in young talent.
“It is necessary to keep widening the membership, because not everyone who wants to compete is talented enough to be successful. It has to be a pyramid, where there is a base from which you can select and eventually get a top luge rider. So far, we are just working with people interested in the sport, who are not afraid. But we do not know if they are the best, because no one has come out of the base group yet.”
Plans to further improve Smržovka are already in motion, with the organisers considering the introduction of luge schooling programs on weekends and Mr. Morávek says that the local area offers prospective routes for summer luge tracks as well.