HOW BOBSLEDDING WORKS
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How does bobsledding work?
Millions of people watch the bobsledding competition
that takes place at the Olympics every four years. Of course, bobsledding is a
sport that’s known and enjoyed throughout the world. But there’s no doubt that
it’s at the Olympics that this thrilling sport gets most of its attention.
Spectators, live and those at home, watch as teams pack themselves into a sled
that has an open back and an open top and shoot themselves down a hill of snow
and ice at incredible speeds. But just how do the athletes maintain control at
such high speeds, and in such risky and slippery conditions? Just how does
Bobsledding may seem like a complicated sport but
actually, the sport only requires three things – a bobsled, a track, and a team.
The bobsleds, as you see them on television or in the stands, are made extremely
aerodynamic, meaning that they are sleek and quite low to the ground. The tracks
are usually about a mile long and are made up of a solid surface of ice.
Bobsleds can reach speeds of up to 80 miles an hour while they’re shooting down
the track – and that’s including when they make those steep twists and turns.
Teams can be made up of either two or four people. These athletes not only
contribute to the weight of the sled, but they also each have a specific job.
But just what do those athletes do inside that
sled? To us it may just look like they sit inside of it and hope that they don’t
crash. Well, that much is probably true. But of course, they do much more than
that. In two-man teams, the push and the driver will have to get the bobsled,
which weighs hundreds of pounds, moving from a completely stopped position. In
four-man teams, the athletes who do this are called the crewmen or the push
athletes. Getting the sled moving requires a member, or members, of the team to
stand behind it and run while they push it. They must run as fast as they can in
order to give the sled as much speed and force as possible from the very
beginning of the race. Then, they must be able to jump inside the sled before
the first bend in the track. Once inside the sled, all of the athletes have to
fight gravitational forces the entire length of the race. So how does one train
for the strenuous, and very physically demanding, race?
Most bobsledders have proven themselves in other
sports such as football or track and field before they start bobsledding.
Different bobsledding associations, such as the USA Bobsled and Skeleton
Federation, will then hold tryouts where athletes can compete to try and land a
spot on the bobsledding team. During these tryouts, athletes will need to prove
their stuff by jumping, sprinting, pulling, and lifting. Once the team has been
chosen, the athletes will then begin their training. Training does involve some
runs down the bobsled track. But first, athletes must also perform training such
as lifting weights and running. This type of training will carry through for the
rest of their training.
Because there’s absolutely no traction on the ice,
every team member must wear spiked shoes. But there are very tight restrictions
on these types of shoes. The spikes on the shoes look very much like a brush and
the spikes must be under one millimeter long, no wider than four millimeters,
and they must be spaced no more than three millimeters apart. Apart from the
shoes, bobsledders also wear extremely tight outfits that give them better
aerodynamics when on the track. Because the sport is extremely dangerous and
crashes do happen often, all team members must also wear a helmet and protective
eye gear. The eye gear can be goggles or a visor attached to the helmet. Some
bobsledders also wear gloves while some like to forego the gloves so that they
can have better control over the steering rings.
Parts of a Bobsled
be done in either two or four-man teams but the actual bobsleds are designed
with basically the same components. The frame of the bobsled is made from steel
and this encases the fiberglass that comprises the hull, or the cowling, that’s
open in the back and closed in the front. There are runners on both the front
and the back of the sled and these are the only parts of the sled that should
touch the ice. The runners on the front can be adjusted and moved but the
runners at the back are fixed. The crewmen and the driver both have push bars
that can be collapsed and the brakeman has a push bar that is fixed. The driver
also has a steering system hidden underneath the covered front of the bobsled
and a metal brake that looks somewhat like a saw. This brake is only used once
the bobsled has crossed the finish line and the race is over.
The actual dimensions and different components of the bobsled are all regulated
by the Federation Internationale de Bobsledding et de Tobogganing (FIBT). It’s
this federation that also makes the rulings on how heavy the bobsleds can be.
For each type of bobsled, there are restrictions on both how much the sled
should weight when it’s empty, as well as how much it weighs when it’s filled
with bobsledders. A two-man bobsled must weigh at least 384 pounds when it’s
empty, and cannot weigh more than 860 pounds when there are bobsledders inside.
A two-woman bobsled must weigh at least 284 pounds when it’s empty and cannot
weigh more than 750 pounds when bobsledders are inside. A four-man bobsled must
weigh at least 463 pounds when empty, and cannot weigh more than 1, 389 pounds
when the team is inside.
The reason for the weight restrictions is so that
every team is playing on an even playing field when they’re trying to get their
bobsled moving down the hill. Obviously, the lighter the sled, the easier it
will be to get down the track. But actually, bobsledders want their bobsled to
be as heavy as possible. This is because the heavier the bobsled is, the faster
it will race down the hill. If bobsleds do not reach the maximum weight, they
are allowed to add heavy materials to their sled so that it can come up to reach
Just like race cars, bobsleds are permitted to have
different logos and decorations on them. The hulls of the sleds are made in two
pieces, but they must be durable and strong enough to remain intact should they
meet with any part of the track. The runners are very blunt but they are
polished and smoothed so that they do not create any unnecessary friction on the
track. There are certain measurements for runners that the FIBT also enforces as
well as other runner rules. Runners must never be covered with coating,
lubricant, or plating of any kind. Doing so will get the bobsled team
disqualified from the race. The runners must also never be heated and the race
will have officials at the end of the track to measure the temperature of the
runners. The temperature of those runners will be compared to a reference runner
that’s been outside for at least an hour. Should the team’s runners differ from
the reference runner’s temperature by four degrees, the bobsled team will be
It’s a common thought that bobsledders steer the
sled with their bodies, moving from right to left as the track twists and turns.
But actually, that’s not true. Every bobsled has a steering system in it. Until
the 1960s, this steering system was an actual steering wheel, like the ones that
are in cars. Today however, steering rings are used to move the sled. These
rings are attached to the runners and it’s up to the driver to pull on them when
they want to move right or left.
The actual track is known as the “run” in
bobsledding. There are only 16 bobsled tracks in the world and only 14 of those
are regulated by the FIBT. The FIBT states how long the runs must be; how wide
the curves must be, as well as general rules for where they should appear on the
run; the vertical drop of the run; and the centrifugal force the bobsledders
will feel when they’re in the sled. Whenever a bobsled run is built, the
construction is usually made to follow the natural path of the earth so that it
doesn’t interfere too much with the environment.
There’s only one run in the entire world that’s
made entirely of natural snow and ice. That run is located in St. Mortiz,
Switzerland. Although, even this run has stones reinforcing one of its curves.
But all other runs around the world are built with metal and concrete. To
prepare this surface for bobsledding, the concrete must first be completely
covered with snow. This snow is then covered and saturated with water. Once this
combination of snow and water freeze, it will form huge layers of ice that will
form the bobsled run. The ice is then smoothed and detailed to make it perfect
for bobsledding. All bobsledding runs, under FIBT regulations, must also be
suitable for skeleton runs as well as luge runs.
The first part of the track is known as the push-off stretch. This stretch is
designed to give bobsledders the ability to run on the track for a short time
while they’re trying to get their bobsled started. This part of the track is
also wider because it not only needs to hold the bobsled, but the crewmen too.
It’s important that the crewmen run and push as hard as they can. This is
because it’s at this point that the bobsled will gain all of its momentum. While
it will become faster around the various curves and down slopes in the track,
the more speed at the beginning, the greater speed the bobsled will have
throughout the race. Even the smallest increased speed at the beginning of a
race will help the bobsled. A bobsled that’s only 1/10 of a second ahead at the
beginning of the race might be ahead by an entire second by the end of the race!
Once the pushing is done, the driver will get in first, then the crew, then the
brakeman. Everyone will get into a hunched position to make themselves more
aerodynamic and gain more speed for the bobsled. Once inside, everyone except
for the brakemen will collapse their handlebars. In its entirety, the push off
usually takes about six seconds.
Down the track, it is mostly the driver that
controls the bobsled with the steering rings. However, the crewmen and the
brakemen can help. Throughout the race as the sled approaches twists and turns,
the rest of the athletes in the bobsled will shift from right to left to help
the bobsled move accordingly. But the path the bobsled takes is very important.
While the run is clearly defined, there are more ways than one that the bobsled
can go. But, it’s important the driver keeps the bobsled on a certain path. This
path is called the perfect line.
The perfect line is the ideal place for a bobsled
to be in any part of the race. This is not too far up the sides of the track,
nor is it too far down. Being too high up the sides will result in the bobsled
essentially having a longer track to cover, meaning that it will take longer to
get through the run. But being high on the track also gives greater speed. Being
too low down the sides on the other hand, this will result in greater friction
and drag, meaning that the bobsled will have slower speed but will also have a
lesser distance to cover. It’s important that the driver finds the perfect line
to maintain the perfect balance of speed with very little friction.
Bobsledding involves much more than just hopping
into a hull and hoping for the best. Athletes that compete in the sport train
for years just to participate in one or two heats that only last a minute or two
each. There are many physics involved in the sport, and of course, all athletes
have to overcome their own nerves, being on dangerous tracks. There are dozens
of people from bobsled manufacturers, designers, and coaches to the actual
athletes that go into making one single bobsled run so successful that it’s fit
to break records!