6 Steps to Ride MTB Switchbacks Like a Pro
In a recent post, I wrote that one of my favorite things on a mountain bike is going into a corner at speed and flying out the other side even faster. It’s a fantastic adrenaline rush that sets me up perfectly for what’s coming next. You can read that post here.
This post is an expansion on cornering with another favorite, “Switchbacks”, although they are a tricky concern for some riders, they shouldn’t stop you. The thrill of nailing your first switchback is awesome.
What is a switchback?
A 180-degree turn in a trail without a berm.
If you need a reminder, a berm is a corner with a banked outer edge running the entire length of the corner.
Here’s a quick tip on approaching a berm
Ride into the berm rather than cutting across it. Start on the flat section of trail, as the berm starts, steer your front wheel gently up the bank onto the berm. You will come across plenty of these on maintained trails, but they are something of a rarity on back-country trails.
Back To Switchbacks
You can go up or down switchbacks, let’s start with downhill. Here are some tips for getting through switchbacks with greater confidence and skill:
Approach in the neutral position with level pedals
As you approach the switchback, stand up with your pedals level to the ground. Your weight should be equally distributed between both feet, knees slightly bent, elbows slightly bent to the outside. Your hands should always be light.
Choose your line
Although similar in nature, no two switchbacks are alike! But, for most switchbacks, starting as wide as possible will help you create a smoother arc 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!
Be careful though. I can think of more than one switchback where getting over to one side or the other is simply not possible. Make sure you read the trail as you approach.
Resist the urge to move your weight back during the turn. Keeping your body weight over the seat / bottom bracket and chin over the stem will enable you to move the bike under you while keeping control of the front wheel. For rough and faster downhill switchbacks, brace against the forces that want to send your body weight forward by dropping your heels.
Look for the exit
As you approach a switchback, look ahead to the apex (center of the corner). When you enter the switchback, keep scanning your eyes ahead and look through the exit when you see it. If you get stuck looking down through the corner or watching your front wheel, you might find your bike traveling in a direction you don’t want it to go.
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. Remember, once you are in the turn, your outer pedal should be closest to the ground.
Rotate your body through the turn
Point your knees (not just the inside one), hips and chest in the direction you want to go. This opens your body and guides you and the bike through tighter corners quickly.
Where Are You Riding?
I can think of one trail that has just one switchback. That said, it’s a challenger because it’s a dark section of forest and there’s trees, bushes and brambles on both sides.
When I go up into the mountains, it’s a different story and like those in the image from Mirabel, switchbacks seem to take up more trail than straight sections. This is a lot of fun and often mentally challenging as brain and body switch constantly from left to right.
Climbing steep hills is one thing but climbing and managing an uphill switchback at the same time is another altogether. Some riders argue that this is probably one of the most technical aspects of riding we will come across.
Like downhill switchbacks, as you approach the corner, scan the trail ahead. Note how steep the turn is and try to judge the gear required. Select it now. Uphill switchbacks often get steeper midway through the turn, so shift gears before the gradient catches you out. If you don’t, you may stall while trying to make a panicked shift under high pedal load. The gear needs to be low enough to keep you moving through the steepest point whilst seated but not too low because you may find it harder to keep your balance through the turn with a too low gear.
Look through the corner to pick the best line as you approach. Try to avoid any momentum stopping rocks or slippery tree roots that might force you to stall during the climb. If the trail allows, swing wide on the entrance and aim to straighten out the bend as much as possible. As you are climbing, your weight should be pulled forwards on the bike to keep the front tyre planted on the ground, but not so far that you generate rear-wheel spin. Too much front wheel lift might see you going off the bend completely and that might end badly.
Uphill, low speed turns are made primarily by turning your bars. The bike remains upright throughout the turn and you shouldn’t lean your body. By setting up a wide entrance to the corner your front wheel will track around the outer radius of the switchback. Your rear wheel may still cut in towards the steep inner part of the turn but at least your front wheel is less likely to lose momentum.
You will need effort to pull yourself up the steep part of the turn; this is where a well-chosen gear and smoothly applied pedal strokes can help you to push up the steepest pitch. Traction and balance are crucial elements. If the switchback is exceptionally steep, pull your body over the front of the bike and sit on the nose of the saddle. Sitting too far forward will cause your rear wheel to spin, too far back and your front tyre will lift or lose cornering grip. Remaining light and fluent on the bike will allow you to adjust your weight as you go.
You may be past the steepest part of the switchback but there’s more! Your momentum has probably dropped, and your balance is more unstable. Your front wheel could be running wide on the exit and this may impede progress. Improving your low speed balance will help enormously with this part of the turn. Practice going as slow as you can on a flat surface, see how close to stopping without putting a foot on the floor and then start pedaling again in control. If you have low speed control, uphill switchbacks will be easier and line selection will also become less challenging. With more advanced line selection, you can make use of the differing lines that your front and rear wheels take to avoid momentum reducing rocks and roots.
As you exit the turn, straighten your handlebars smoothly. Relax your upper body as much as possible and focus on the trail ahead. Climbing involves arm-work and exerting a lot of energy as you pull your weight forward so, work on those arm and abdominal muscles too. Moving your weight forward needs to be done evenly with both arms so you don’t wobble or drift off-line. Getting low-speed steering control and weight balance right will have you conquering the toughest of switchback climbs like a pro!
Comments & Questions
Please don’t hesitate to leave yours below, you will always receive a prompt response and your questions may well help other riders too.