The bobsled run here, the only one in the Western Hemisphere, is the fastest and one of the best in the world. Even the Swiss and Germans love it.

Howard Siler and Joe Tyler also claim it is the safest anywhere, despite those 90 mile-per-hour trips through curves called Shady, Cliffside and Zig-Zag.

But then, maybe they think that way because it helps them sleep at night.

Maybe it helps Siler, the driver of the USA No. 2 two-man sled, forget the time that he and the 500-pound sled went end-over-end in Shady.

"I totaled that bob. It flipped over me and landed on my partner," says the 34-year-old Siler. "Broke his skull in seven places. I got wrecked, too, but only my face. Nothing that wouldn't heal."

Maybe it helps Tyler, the 31-year-old policeman who is the pusher for the U.s.a. nO. 1 two-man bob, forget the time he was thrown out of the sled -- but not clear of it -- in the labyrinth of Zig-Zag.

"My foot caught and the sled dragged me down the course," says Tyler, who, like Siler, is 6-foot, 200 pounds and looks like a college fullback."I was proud of my body. It held together pretty well. I only had a concussion.

To be an American bobsledder means great pain and little praise. After being the kingpin of the sport for 30 years, America has been in a bobsled decline for the last 20.

So, it was doubly sweet today when Siler's and Tyler's bobs turned in America's best day of Olympic sledding since 1956. The U.S. pairs finished fifth and sixth -- not what they hoped for, but better than anyone expected.

"This feels great, the best race of my life," said Siler, whose fifth-place drive left him just .65 of a second out of third place.

"You know, they say a bobsled driver can't ask for much in life. When you jump in that seat, you only know two things for certain. The traffic's all one way. And if you crash, at least you won't burn.

Bobsledding, the champagne of winter thrills, once was described by Olympic medal winner Jim Lamy as being "as exciting as being in an airplane crash . . . . and living."

Today, for the teams of Siler and pusher Dick Nalley, and Tyler and his driver Brent Rushlaw, it was, for once in their lives, satisfying as well as exciting.

"This is the start of a new era in American bobbing," said Coach Gary Sheffield, glowing.

"This lets us know we've finally arrived," said Siler. "We're not intimidated by the Europeans anymore. We've proved that with a little financial backing (an angel named Dale Smith) and proper practice facilities, we are competitive.

"What we did today didn't surprise me. But it surprised the hell out of four teams from Austria and West Germany 'cause I know they were all counting on beating us for sure, and non of them did."

In fact, only the Swiss, led by world champion driver Eric Schaerer who got gold today, and East Germany, could finish ahead of the U.S., the Swiss taking first and fourth, while the East Germans were second and third. s

"Going into the last run (of four), I thought we really had a chance for bronze," said Siler. "But then I choked. I tried too hard and skidded into a wall coming out of the second corner.

"You just can't skid in the upper half of the (mile-long) course. It costs too much time," said Siler. "I knew that the medal was gone as soon as I yanked the rein too hard and hit the wall."

After 20 years of Olympic bad luck, the U.S. got some breaks this week. The Rushlaw-Tyler team had a bad last run, yet hung on for sixth place -- good for three "Olympic points," even if it was not worth a medal.

"I thought we'd drop to eighth or lower," said Tyler, flashing a smile with a silver tooth in front.

"Everyone thinks that the goal of guys in the Olympics is to get a medal, or nothing. But, really, the top six are the ones who go into the record books. That's the distinction that a lot of the athletes themselves look at."

For Siler, his big break came a week ago when he escaped a harrowing accident with only minor cuts and bruises on the bridge of his nose and his forehead.

No, he didn't flip in the Big S. He ran into his garage door at home.

"My wife left it half-way down," said Siler. "I was running into the garage with my head down and looked up just in time to see the door about an inch from my eye. I was lucky. I could have gotten hurt worse than I ever did on a bobsled."

Nothing that careless could ever have happened to Siler on a bob run. For 13 years, he has avoided disaster by paying infinite attention to detail.

"I'm a perfectionist," says Siler, who also works for an insurance company.

"It's not that you don't trust anybody else, but if you do everything yourself, you know it's done. I don't like to lie in bed at night and think, "I wonder if they polished my runners?"

Even after all the polishing and designing is done, after all the raw strength training is finished so the big bob can be shoved down the first 50 meters as fast as possible, bobbers still feel the need for some final extra twist.

Siler wears a different color scarf for each race, one picked by his wife.

Tyler, the cop who's a pusher, is a little more outre. He wears a special mouthpiece which a doctor-inventor has informed him will "change the position of my jaw so that the motor neurons between the brain and the spinal cord can fire quicker. A couple of the Philadelphia Eagles are trying them out, too. It helps you think fast."

No one laughs at Tyler and his think-fast mouthpiece. In fact, no one laughs at either Tyler or his driver Rushlaw. They are a strong, silent pair that can go hours without speaking, and who leave a broad wake wherever they go.

"Rushlaw and I seldom communicate with words," says Tyler. "We can sit in the truck driving to the mountain and if one of us say, 'Nice morning,' that may be our longest conversation all day.

"I guess I like people of few words," said Tyler, in a playful mood. "The Hulk is the only idol I've got left."

Would Tyler like to meet Lou Ferregno, the body builder who plays The Hulk on Tv?

"No, no," says Tyler, disgusted by the idea. "Ferregno only represents the Hulk. I want to meet the real Hulk."

In other words, The Hulk is only an idea, a sort of Platonic idealization of wordless strength, stoic endurance and native gentleness.

"You can understand people like Siler, who talk a lot," says Tyler. "But you can feel people like Rushlaw who never talk. When we're on the sled, I can feel Rushlaw's energy."

Before their last Olympic run today, with an outside chance for a bronze still before them, Tyler admits that, for the first time, he wanted to make a short speech to Rushlaw.

"I wanted to say something, tell him how much confidence I had him, how I wanted him to take a chance with our bodies if he thought it was worth it. I wanted to tell him, 'Rush, you're the best man on this mountain,'" said Tyler.

"But I didn't. Why waste your words? I just said, 'Let's put it together this time.' Rushlaw has enough on his mind with his (pregnant) wife three days overdue."

Tonight, after the world, with its short attention span, has already partially forgotten the bobbers' nice performance here, most of the U.S. team will gather in the Saranac Lake at The Dew Drop Inn, where Rushlaw earns his living as a bartender.

"Rushlaw will probably just complain about something, as usual.

"Siler will talk a lot and make people laugh." Tyler said. "And maybe I'll play the guitar. There'll be plenty of beer and champagne, that's for sure."

Then, the Olympics will pass. Silver will retire. This was the day he's waited for since 1967. "It's time to start the rest of my life," he says. "Your life's this big," he says, holding his hands far apart. "The bob's this big," he says, his fingers an inch apart.

Tyler probably will call it quits, too, though he's not so sure.

"I do a lot of carpentry and allege friend of mine (John Fee) and I make some stained-glass windows," said Tyler. "But I'd sure miss the bobsled. The winters are long here in Placid and the cabin fever gets to you. Pretty soon, you feel like you just have to get out on that mountain."