How Bobsledding Works

By: Tracy V. Wilson

The Team

Bobsled teams include either two or four athletes who steer, brake and add to the overall weight of the bobsled. Jennifer Wenzel/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Getty Images

Racing a bobsled requires three things — a team, a bobsled (or bob) and a track. The team includes either two or four athletes who steer, brake and add to the overall weight of the bobsled. The bob has an aerodynamic design and smooth runners so it can go as fast as possible. The track, generally made of concrete, has a solid ice surface. On the way down, bobsleds reach speeds of 80 miles an hour (130 kph), even around curves. Crashes are common.

It's easy to see that being a bobsledder requires bravery and a good sense of balance. But making it down the run requires more than just coordination and nerve. Bobsleds weigh hundreds of pounds. The driver and brakeman (and the crewmen or push athletes in four-man teams) have to get the bob moving from a complete stop. They have to run as fast as they can, then jump inside the bob before the first curve. They also have to withstand extreme gravitational forces during the race.


For these reasons, most bobsledders have backgrounds in other strenuous sports, like American football or track and field. During tryouts, prospective members have to prove their abilities in sprinting, jumping, pulling and lifting. Training isn't limited to taking a bobsled down a frozen run — there's lots of running, jumping and lifting weights. Crewmen and brakemen in particular do a lot of weightlifting, since they shoulder most of the burden for getting the bob going.

Without any traction on the ice, it would be impossible for the team to move the bob. So, everyone on the team wears spiked start shoes for better traction. The spikes are arranged like a brush, and they can be no longer than 1 millimeter (.03 inches), no wider than 4 millimeters (.15 inches) and no farther apart than 3 millimeters (.11 inches). Bobsledders also wear skintight, aerodynamic suits to help reduce drag on the way down the run. Everyone on the team must wear a protective helmet, usually with a full-face visor or a pair of goggles. Most drivers wear gloves, but some go barehanded for better contact with the steering rings.

We'll look at these rings and the other components of the bobsled next.