How Do Bobsleds Work?

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Although there is some room for customization in the world of competitive bobsledding, all bobsleds, whether they are designed for two or four athletes, have the same basic components and work in much the same way. Their parts include:

• A solid steel frame that holds everything together, usually containing handles for the crewman to hold onto during the race.
• A hull that is closed in the front and open in the back. The hull didn’t exist in the old days of bobsledding, but it’s now become standard in the sport.
• Front and rear runners.
• Push bars that can be retracted when the racers jump into the sled.
• Non-retractable push bars at the rear of the sled.
• A metal brake operated by the person in the rear position of the sled.
• A steering system operated by the driver, who sits in the front and usually functions as team leader.

The Federation Internationale de Bobsledding et de Tobogganing (FIBT) creates the rules for the dimensions and compositions of bobsleds. These rules have evolved over time, but as they currently stand, the weight limits for sleds are:

• Two-man sleds must be a minimum of 384 pounds when empty and a maximum of 860 pounds with all crew and equipment inside.
• Two-woman sleds must be a minimum of 284 pounds when empty and a maximum of 750 pounds with everything inside.
• Four-man sleds must be a minimum of 463 pounds when empty and a maximum of 1,389 pounds with everything inside.

Given the fact that heavier sleds do tend to have a distinct competitive advantage, these weights are watched closely. The sleds are typically weighed at the end of each run to make sure that they are in line with competitive standards.

Until about 50 years ago, bobsleds were steered with a steering wheel. Today, the sleds are controlled by a pair of steering rings that the driver pulls to change directions. Contrary to popular belief, leaning does not have much of an effect on the bobsled’s direction, as the vehicle is simply too heavy to respond to a lean in either direction. The driver’s role is crucial, as he must negotiate the twists and turns of the track with a front-guided steering system.

The brake takes the form of a lever that sits between the brakeman’s legs. In general, the brake is not operated at all until the end of the race, at which time the brakeman pulls the lever to bring the craft to a stop.

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