What goes into the start of a bobsled run? | ParkRecord.com

What goes into the start of a bobsled run?

Team USA bobsledders explain the chaotic beginning of a race

The American team of Frank Del Duca, Adrian Adams, Manteo Mitchell and Hakeem Abdul-Saboor race down the start of the track at the Utah Olympic Park during Saturday's four-man bobsled competition. They finished seventh.
David Jackson/Park Record

American bobsled pilot Frank Del Duca claps his hands, crouches into his starting position on the left side of the sled and grips his push bar. Behind Del Duca, teammates Adrian Adams  and Manteo Mitchell hold their respective push bars in their starting stances on opposite sides of the sled, and Hakeem Abdul-Saboor presides over the back of the sled. Del Duca bangs on the top of the sled twice, and in one fluid burst, the four men explode off the start and push the sled as fast they can.

In just 4.88 seconds, the fourth-fastest start of the first heat, the quartet will sprint while pushing a heavy bobsled and simultaneously finding a way to fit all four burly men inside. It’s like trying to cram four NFL linebackers into a Mini Cooper while it’s moving, except Mini Coopers don’t travel in excess of 80 miles per hour down a sheet of ice while seemingly defying the laws of gravity. But that sub-five-second stretch at the start of a run plays a significant role.

“That’s the equivalent of the horsepower for the run,” Del Duca said.

First, there’s what they call “the hit,” the initial push of the sled from a standstill. Del Duca and his teammates want to attack the sled at the same time.

“When we all hit the sled, it’s several hundred pounds, so if you can hit at the same time, each subsequent step feels that much lighter,” Del Duca said. “We’re trying to have good timing on the hit and then just very smooth, effective, powerful steps getting the sled going. And then you just need to get up to speed and get that sled moving as fast as you can.”

“When you break the inertia from the sled standing still to when we start to go, we want to all hit the sled at the same time,” Abdul-Saboor added. 

Once the sled reaches a certain point down the track, Del Duca is the first one to hop in. He sets the timing for the rest of the team to get into the sled, which he said is generally done by feel. Del Duca previously competed as a brakeman, so he said he feels comfortable taking it as far as he needs to. 

“Usually in training, you could potentially experiment with different depths to see how that affects the time or the velocity or the load, but generally it’s by feel,” he said. “You want to get in right before you’re at top speed. And for me as a pilot, I have to think about the brakemen and where they will be by the time they load. So, if I just take it to the end of the grooves, they’re going to be running through curve one, and we’re going to have a terrible velocity.”

Behind him, it’s Adams’ turn to load next. While Adams can see Del Duca get in, he also goes by feel.

“It’s a ‘go off feel’ thing, but out of my peripheral, I can see him and his feet and just react off his movement,” Adams said.

Adams’ father was also a bobsledder, and Adams previously played football. While Adams said he doesn’t get many tips from his dad, he did say his dad advised him to be patient, humble and willing to learn from others. That’s starting to come full circle now that he’s had years of experience in the sport.

“I’m in my 10th season with the team, and now I’m that guy that’s giving advice, trying to help some of the youngsters,” Adams said.

Mitchell’s turn is next, and he’s the new guy in the group. Mitchell previously competed in track and field and was a part of the 4×400 meters team that won silver at the Olympics in 2012. Saturday’s four-man competition was just his third World Cup event.

As two guys from North Carolina, Adams and Mitchell have bonded with each other, and Adams can feel Mitchell’s blazing speed next to him.

“We train together, and for me, it helps me a lot to have someone that’s very speedy as he is,” Adams said. “He helps push me, and I can speak on that. I’m definitely trying to keep up with him.”

The big difference for Mitchell is in the distance. The opening sprint in bobsled is much shorter than running 400 meters. Mitchell also gained 40 pounds.

“Very, very short, anywhere from 10- to 30-meter sprints,” he said. “Coming from a guy that used to run the 400 meters, it’s a lot different. Just a lot of short, explosive, powerful movements, as opposed to aerobic-type movements. A lot of dynamic drills, stuff like that, but it’s working out.”

Mitchell compared the process of going from sprinting to getting into the sled to dancing.

“It’s choreographed, so it’s one step off, one step off and then everybody’s trying to load as efficient as possible to create that flow to go down the track and create that speed,” he said. “Anywhere from the pilot to two to three to four, we’re just trying to make sure that we load as efficiently as possible to get that top speed going down the track.”

Like any choreographed dance, it takes a lot of practice to get everyone in sync with each other. In addition to needing four explosive athletes, everyone must be on the same page.

“We do a lot of dry loads, meaning that we have the sled on a stationary position,” Abdul-Saboor said. “We practice our hit, and then we load, and we get in position as if we were going down the track. So, lots of that practice allows us to figure out how to fit these big guys in the sled as we’re moving as fast as we can when we load.”

“In the beginning, it’s just a lot of off-land, dry-land loads together and just building that team feeling, camaraderie and getting that feel,” Adams added. “So when we’re on the ice, it’s kind of second nature.”

American pilot Frank Del Duca and his team prepare for the start of a heat on Saturday.
David Jackson/Park Record

Mitchell said “one of the mysterious things” he didn’t know about bobsled before competing in it was how all the athletes fit themselves into a narrow sled in just a few seconds. 

“It’s crazy how we all fit in,” he said. “But it’s all about aerodynamics and just making sure, you know, hand positioning, seating positioning, helmet positioning. It’s all choreographed and rehearsed, so we do that all the time in training. So, that’s how we make it work on the ice going fast.

“It’s a little comfortable sometimes, but it’s not business class.”

Finally, it’s Abdul-Saboor’s turn. He was previously a running back who later turned to bodybuilding before finding his way into bobsled. Abdul-Saboor’s a two-time Olympian as well, and he says he calls the cadence.

“I get the sled set so the side guys have a good place to start off,” he said. “When I say, ‘Back set ready,’ then we all hit it at the same time. And then as we’re running down the crest, the driver loads, and then we have a sequence of the two and then the three and then myself loads. When I load, I have to bring the push bars and then get in position.”

While it sounds like a lot to handle, years of practice and competition have made it a natural progression for abdul-Saboor. He pointed out that starts are even more important on a shorter track like the one at the Utah Olympic Park. 

“Definitely at this track, your start will put you in the running for the medals,” he said. “It’s hard to catch up back at this track if you don’t have a fast start. It’s very beneficial at this track. Some tracks you’ve got a little longer to catch up, so it’s not as important. But this track is mainly – the start matters.”

Del Duca ended the weekend piloting both his two-man team and four-man team to a pair of seventh-place finishes in Park City. Top six is the goal, and he and Abdul-Saboor had two top-five start times in the two-man event. The start of the four-man team’s second run wasn’t as fast as in the first heat, but he feels the team is getting close to breaking into the top six.

“(Two-man) was OK, it was good, and today was a built off what we did yesterday,” he said. “That’s all we can really ask of ourselves is to recognize what goes well, try to replicate it and then look at what didn’t go well and see what we can do to improve on it. And I think we did that this weekend. We’re close to the top six, that’s our goal, was to get top six.”

But the team is on just its second World Cup stop of the season. They’re hoping to build over the course of the season and contend at world championships in 2023. 

“It’s early in the season, still building, got some veterans, got a new guy, it’s early,” Adams said. “It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Just got to keep on working towards the end goal. World championships is the end goal this season.”


See more

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Park City and Summit County make the Park Record's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.