How to Ride Tight Switchbacks
Being able to corner confidently is the key to having more fun and going faster on your mountain bike. And, when it comes to cornering, switchbacks are some of the most challenging to perfect.
What is a switchback? Generally, it is a flat (no berm) 180-degree turn in a trail. You can go up and down switchbacks, but for our purposes in this video/article, we will be discussing downhill switchbacks. Here are some tips for getting through switchbacks with more confidence and skill:
1. Approach in neutral position with level pedals. As you approach the switchback, stand up with pedals level to the ground. Make sure your weight is equally distributed between both feet, your knees are slightly bent, your elbows are slightly bent to the side, and your hands are light.
2. Choose your line. All corners are different! But, for most switchbacks, starting as wide as possible will help you create a smoother arch through the turn. So, for a left switchback, guide your bike to the right side of the trail before you enter the corner and for a right switchback, guide your bike to the left. Suddenly, that tight switchback is less tight!
3. Stay centered. Resist the urge to move your weight back through the turn. Keeping your body weight over the seat/bottom bracket and chin over stem will allow you to move the bike under you with ease while maintaining control of the front wheel all the way through the turn. For rough switchbacks and faster downhill switchbacks, brace against the forces that want to send your body weight forward by dropping your heels.
4. Look through the turn to the exit. As you are approaching a switchback, scan your eyes ahead to the apex (or center of the corner). When you enter the switchback, keep scanning your eyes to the next and look through the exit. If you get stuck looking down through the corner, you might find your bike traveling a direction you didn’t want it to go!
5. Lean the bike, not your body. Using the side-to-side bike/body separation technique, lean the bike into the turn with your arms while keeping your body perpendicular with the ground. The tighter the switchback, the more you will lean the bike!
6. Rotate your body through the turn. Point your knees (both of them, not just the inside one!), hips and chest in the direction you want to go. This rotation will open up your body and guide the bike through tighter corners more quickly!
Do I drop a foot? Good question! “Dropping the outside foot” is a technique that is sometimes used to get through tight corners while maintaining traction, but it is not always necessary. By dropping the outside foot through turn, you are placing more weight on the outside of the bike which will allow you to lean the bike to a greater degree. If you’ve ever seen someone take their foot off the inside pedal to get through a tight corner, that is the extreme version of this technique! You can get through many switchbacks with level pedals or the outside pedal dropped slightly. It is good to practice both techniques, think of it as having more tools in your toolbox!
What about braking? When approaching a switchback, you want to do the majority of your braking before you enter the turn. The faster you are traveling, the more you will need to brake with both front and rear brakes before you begin leaning your bike. As you enter the turn, and the bike starts leaning YOU CAN still gently squeeze the rear brake to maintain speed. Once you hit the apex (or center of the switchback), your goal should be to let off the brakes. Continuing to brake through the apex could cause your wheel to slide.
Looking to take your mountain biking skills to the next level? Here’s the deal:
The best and quickest way to improve your mountain biking skills is to take a skills clinic with a professional mountain bike instructor. If you’re unsure of your skill level, reaching out to a mountain bike coach in your area is a great place to start. Mountain biking is a dynamic sport – there are many different ways to approach a feature and we may not have covered all of those different ways in this tutorial. Always ride within your limits and do not attempt risky maneuvers when riding alone. Mountain biking is awesome, but does come with inherent risks – be safe, be smart and have fun!