Engineers notch first toboggan triumph

The year is definitely off to a good start for the Western Engineering Toboggan Team.

The team celebrated its first-ever win at the Great Northern Concrete Toboggan Race, while also taking home the competition’s Holcim Canada Sustainable Concrete Toboggan award, which was a $2,000 cash prize.

“It’s safe to say, this is our best finish ever,” said Rob Volcko, team captain, a member for three years. “For me, one of the most enjoyable parts was representing Western at the competition – which is the largest one in Canada for engineering students – and getting to lift that trophy for the first time. That was pretty cool.”


A Canadian tradition in its 39th year, this year’s competition was held in Vancouver, hosted by the University of British Columbia. There, Western’s team of seven joined 450 students from across Canada, competing against more than 20 teams. Teams had to design and construct a five-person toboggan, weighing less than 136 kg (or 300 lbs.), with an exclusively concrete running surface, functioning steering and brake systems as well as a roll bar or roll cage for rider safety.

Volcko said improving upon previous designs and learning from experience helped propel the team to first place this time around.

“One of the things you have to look for (when designing this year’s toboggan) is how the toboggan performed in previous years,” he said. “Most toboggans we’ve done in the past have a 5-1 rider layout. But if your weight distribution is off, it tends to fishtail much like a car would in ice and snow. To prevent that, you move weight to the back, so the toboggan this year was a 1-2-2 design, which kept it stable, lowered the centre of gravity and allowed it to maneuver a lot better in the snow.”

As far as the toboggan’s sustainability, he noted some adjustments to construction processes as well as materials earned the team the Holcim award.

“The biggest component of sustainability criteria we got for our formwork, which is the material we mould the concrete into, made from high-density polyurethane foam instead of a traditional wood material,” he noted.

Because the foam is very durable and doesn’t absorb moisture, it is suitable for repeated use, while being resilient to the load of the concrete.

“The foam was very strong and sturdy, and had comparable flex strength to wood. We expect it to last five years as a means of formwork, which is quite good, as opposed to wood, which is what you would usually use. It would take two, three uses before the whole thing would deteriorate,” Volcko said.

“Aside from that, our concrete mix was very sustainable; we used recycled greywater instead of tap water as a water substitute. We used waste latex paint as another water substitute and increased our tensile strength of concrete. We used supplementary cementing materials for adding strength and durability – fly ash, slag and silica fume. The right proportion of that gave us the strength we needed, the durability we needed, and ultimately won us the sustainability award.”

And if you’re wondering how the team gets its massive concrete toboggan to the competition each year, hosted by a different university each time, Volcko said the competition sends a series of 18-wheelers across the country to do pick-ups.

“We build a (crate) and we ship the toboggan and all of our materials there,” he said.

For next year’s competition, however, Western’s team won’t have to ship the toboggan across the country. In 2014, London’s Boler Mountain will host the event, with a group of current and former Western Engineering students. Western will be the first defending hosting champion of the competition, and the team hopes to carry this year’s success into the next.