A Kind Of Chaos: The Science And Sport Of Bobsledding

Dec 14, 2017
Originally published on January 17, 2018 1:13 pm

Imagine a minute of pure adrenaline: a race down a track of ice at speeds up to 90 miles an hour, enduring crushing gravitational forces around the curves.

Bobsled is one of the thrilling — and punishing — sports in the Winter Olympics. The U.S. hopes to repeat its recent medal-winning performances at the 2018 Olympics next February in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Meantime, they're competing on the World Cup circuit, including a stop in Lake Placid, N.Y., site of the 1932 and 1980 winter Olympics. High up on Mt. Van Hoevenberg, bobsledders from around the world launch into practice runs. The glistening track is about a mile long, with 20 sharply-banked curves. It's beautiful, but terrifying.

"A good run, especially in Lake Placid, can feel like you've been shoved in a metal garbage can and kicked down a rocky hill," bobsled pilot Elana Meyers Taylor says.

She's a two-time Olympic medalist (silver in Sochi in 2014; bronze in Vancouver in 2010).

"Yeah, it can hurt," fellow driver Jamie Greubel Poser, who won bronze in Sochi, says. "We consider bobsled an impact sport. You're hitting walls at 80 miles an hour. It can literally feel like a boxing match. I've 'seen stars' driving."

"[When] we're going down, the whole thing is just vibrating," pilot Nick Cunningham says. "It's loud, it's cold, there's no padding inside the sled. It's very, very uncomfortable. But when you win a medal, it makes everything completely worth it."

A bobsled ('bobsleigh' via the Olympics website) run starts with the all-important push: the initial burst of acceleration, as athletes run alongside the sled, propelling it down the first 50 meters of the course. The sleds themselves weigh hundreds of pounds, so explosive strength and speed in the push are critical. (It's no accident that many bobsled athletes, Greubel Poser and Cunningham among them, come to the sport from the world of track and field).

After the push comes the load. In a two-person bobsled, the pilot jumps over the side into the front, while the brakeman vaults in from behind like a long jumper. They have to do it both quickly and delicately, so the sled doesn't skid out. (Watch a video explainer here).

In the four-man event, the choreography is even more intricate. The team must cram four massively muscular bodies into a narrow bobsled while sprinting at full speed. They need to perfectly coordinate who jumps in first, in what order they sit down, and where their legs go as they fold themselves in.

"It's kinda chaos sometimes," says Evan Weinstock, who sits in the second position, just behind the driver. Only the driver has an actual seat; the others sit on their heels, "tucked up in a little cannonball position," Weinstock explains.

"It's tough," he says. "You definitely get a lot more flexible. If you weren't before you got in the sport, you are now."

Another peril is that bobsledders wear shoes studded with sharp spikes for traction on the ice. Bad things can happen when they jump in the sled and have to jam their feet under the teammate in front of them.

"We're only wearing little layers of spandex," Weinstock says."So sometimes you get a spike in your thigh or your calf. It's just part of it."

Once they load, the athletes hunker down low to be as aerodynamic as possible. Bobsled races are won or lost by hundredths of a second, so every tiny amount of drag or friction can spell trouble.

"Any single steer you do slows the sled down because it creates friction," Elana Meyers Taylor says. "Who can slow the sled down the least wins the race."

During the descent, it's all in the hands of the pilot, who steers with two "D rings" attached to cables that turn the front axle.

"You're pulling right to go right, and you're pulling left to go left," Cunningham says. "I look like I'm playing a little video game."

The others in the bobsled keep their heads down, so they don't actually see anything as they hurtle down the course. Pilot Nick Cunningham says that's probably just as well.

"I don't want them to realize some of the things I've seen in the front of that sled," he laughs. "There's been some hairy times goin' down where I'm, like, 'that was dangerous!'"

But even so, he won't admit it to his teammates: "I'm just, 'All right, guys, that was a good trip! Let's go back to the top.' And I'm sitting, going, 'Oh man, that wasn't good at all!'"

As the sleds speed around a curve, essentially vertical on a wall of ice, spectators can see the athletes' bodies shaking from the intense pressures exerted on them. Bobsledders endure forces up to 5 Gs, which means they'll feel force equal to five times their weight.

"It's like the G forces are trying to suck you through the bottom of the bobsled," Evan Weinstock says. "It forces our stomachs through our legs. It feels like you're getting folded in half like a pancake."

One tiny wrong move in a bobsled can mean disaster.

"Crashing is one of those things that it's not a matter of if, it's just a matter of when," Elana Meyers Taylor says.

She's crashed more times than she can count.

"There's sharp things in the sled that'll cut you up," she says. "And the biggest thing is, it is very, very loud. It is scraping, and it is piercing."

In the sport of bobsled, Meyers Taylor says, "we're all playing with Newton's laws. And whoever can navigate those laws the best, wins the race."

"A lot of physics actually goes into it," Cunningham adds with a grin. "Go figure, because in high school, I was always, 'Ah, I don't need this stuff, I'll never use this stuff again.' And now, that's how I make a living."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It is under a minute of pure adrenaline, a race down a track of ice at speeds up to 90 miles an hour, enduring crushing gravitational forces around the curves. We're talking about bobsled, one of the thrilling and punishing sports in the Winter Olympics. The 2018 games are coming up in February in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where the U.S. is hoping to repeat its medal-winning performances from the past few Olympics. NPR's Melissa Block spent time in Lake Placid, N.Y., with some U.S. bobsledders to find out what the sport feels like.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Sled in track, sled in track from start one. This is (unintelligible).

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Stand at the top, and gaze down the glistening track. It's about a mile long with 20 sharply banked curves. It's beautiful and terrifying.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: Teams from all over the world are launching into practice runs before a World Cup race in Lake Placid, N.Y.

ELANA MEYERS TAYLOR: A good run, especially in Lake Placid, could feel like you've been shoved in a metal garbage can and kicked down a rocky hill.

JAMIE GREUBEL POSER: Yeah, it can hurt (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF BOBSLED RATTLING)

NICK CUNNINGHAM: We're going down. The whole thing is just vibrating. It's loud. It's cold. There's no padding inside the sled.

GREUBEL POSER: You're hitting walls at 80 miles an hour. It can literally feel like a boxing match.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOBSLED RATTLING)

CUNNINGHAM: It's very, very uncomfortable. But when you win a medal, it makes everything completely worth it.

BLOCK: We heard there from Olympic bobsled pilots Nick Cunningham, Jamie Greubel Poser and Elana Meyers Taylor. So let's break a run down. It starts with the all-important push, the initial burst of acceleration.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Here we go. Let's do this.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Let's go, ladies.

BLOCK: They're pushing a sled weighing hundreds of pounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF START TONE)

BLOCK: A handclap - they're crouched down next to the sled. There they go. They're pushing it as hard as they can down the ice. Pilot jumps in the front. Brakeman jumps in the back. They get down low. They want to be as aerodynamic as possible. These races are won by hundredths of a second.

But let's back up because just fitting those muscular bodies into that narrow bobsled - that's no small task, especially in the four-man event. The athletes are typically tall and solid.

EVAN WEINSTOCK: I'm about 6 feet, 4 inches, and I weigh about 220 pounds.

BLOCK: Evan Weinstock sits in the second position just behind the driver.

WEINSTOCK: And we sit on our heels, and so we're kind of tucked up in, like, a little cannon ball position.

BLOCK: Loading the sled requires quick, intricate choreography - who jumps in first, in what order they sit down and where their legs go.

WEINSTOCK: And we're wearing spikes on our feet, and we're only wearing little layers of spandex. So sometimes you get, you know, a spike in your thigh or your calf.

BLOCK: And then it's all in the hands of the pilot. The others in the bobsled - their heads are down, so they don't see anything. And pilot Nick Cunningham says maybe that's better.

CUNNINGHAM: So their (laughter) life is in my hands as we're going down at 90 miles an hour.

BLOCK: You make it sound like it's no big thing (laughter).

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, it is. It's - I try to - I don't want them to realize some of the things I've seen in the front of that sled. And you know, there's been some hairy times where I'm kind of going down - be like, (laughter) that was dangerous. And you know, I'm just like, hey, guys, that was a good trip. Let's go back to the top. And I'm sitting, and I'm going, oh, man, that wasn't good at all (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Through whiteface, down through the devil's highway...

BLOCK: And here they come through curve 10.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Down through (unintelligible).

(SOUNDBITE OF BOBSLED RATTLING)

BLOCK: You can see the forces at work in that sled as they go around. They are hunkered way down low, but their bodies are shaking side to side as they go up this wall of ice.

CUNNINGHAM: Five Gs of force - it makes muscles cramp up. It's definitely smashing you down.

BLOCK: If you're a driver like Nick Cunningham and Jamie Greubel Poser, you're sitting pretty much upright.

GREUBEL POSER: So we experience all the G-forces on our neck and head and face. I've seen stars (laughter) driving.

BLOCK: If you're sitting hunched over behind the driver, it feels like the G-forces are trying to suck you through the bottom of the bobsled.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOBSLED RATTLING)

BLOCK: And one tiny wrong move can spell disaster.

MEYERS TAYLOR: Crashing is one of those kind of things that it's not a matter of if. It's just a matter of when.

BLOCK: Elana Meyers Taylor has seen her share of horrendous crashes.

MEYERS TAYLOR: There's sharp things in the sled that will cut you up. And the biggest thing is it's very, very loud. It is scraping, and it is piercing.

BLOCK: In bobsled, Meyers Taylor says, we're all playing with Newton's laws, and whoever can navigate those laws the best wins the race. Melissa Block, NPR News, Lake Placid. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.