Switchbacks tend to be corners with a lot of personality. Often an unpleasant personality and trust me, they don’t care what you think of them! They are best approached with a healthy dose of caution, but if treated with respect you’ll often find the switchback is willing to make friends.
First let’s look at climbing a switchback.
Spin Your Approach
Switchbacks can take some energy to negotiate so try to conserve some energy as you approach spinning an easy gear.
Line selection on approach is crucial, in most cases the far outside line is the best choice for climbing switchbacks so make sure you are approaching from the outside edge of the trail. Unless there are significant obstacles that force you to change line keep it wide all the way through.
Don’t focus your attention entirely on any one part of the switchback, scan through the corner, fine tune your line choice and then go! Looking up and through the corner will help you maintain balance and stay on your line. Do not focus on the obstacles you want to avoid, it will not help!
A couple of hard pedal strokes as you enter the corner will give you some much needed momentum through the steepest part of the switchback.
Smooth It Out
Firm up your core muscles and keep both pedals weighted to provide smooth consistent power. Even if out of the saddle focus on keeping your upper body firm and stable while driving into your pedals. Lower your chest towards the bars and if in a crouched climb push your hips back slightly to spread your weight. Keep weight on both pedals as you climb rather than pushing down on one and pulling up on the other, this will help to stabilize your weight on the bike and keep power consistent through your pedal stroke giving mega traction. Drop your chest towards your handlebars as the front wheel climbs over rocks and rises on the trail.
If you feel yourself falling into inside of the corner as you come around, rapidly drop your chest towards the bars to lower your center of gravity and regain balance, keep looking ahead and not down.
Ride It Out
Congratulations, you made it! What goes up also gets to come down so now lets look at switchback descents
Brake For Speed
Faster is not always faster. Entering a switchback with controlled speed greatly increases your chances of making it cleanly through the corner allowing for better exit speed.
Give yourself as much room as possible by approaching the corner from as far outside as you can. You don’t have to follow the main line that most people are riding, often there is a better line further to the outside that only the smartest riders are taking, try it.
The inside or apex of the switchback is often the roughest part so make your turn early, its best to get as much of your turn as possible done at the entrance of the corner allowing you to take a straighter line through the rough stuff.
If you have a dropper post, drop it! Get your center of gravity low by bending your knees and elbows and lowering your body towards the bike. For tight and steep switchbacks push your hips back behind the saddle and swing them out slightly towards the outside of the corner.
Make sure you are looking into and through the turn, use your rear brake to control speed through the corner. Be very careful about using your front brake here, too much front brake with your handlebars turned is a sure way to disaster. As soon as you come around the apex look ahead down the trail and get off the brakes, if you are struggling for balance here releasing the brakes will allow the bike to gain momentum and balance. Do not focus on the edge of the trail as you come out of the corner, look ahead to where you want to be.
Remember, these are general recommendations on how to ride switchbacks as they are all different. Some require different tools and techniques to conquer. If at first you don’t succeed go back and spend some time walking the corner, see if you can find a better line, a better place to get off the brakes or lift your front wheel. The most difficult switchbacks can be a bit of a puzzle, but a puzzle always has a solution. Once you find it you and your switchback have just made friends.
Special thanks to Patty Elliott for demonstrating proper switch-back techniques for this article. Patty started mountain biking at age 55. Her goal was to improve her fitness while having fun. In two years she has gone from a self proclaimed “scaredy-cat” to a confident rider. She enjoys the social aspect of group riding and her passion for the sport is infectious. She joined Team Ninja and is dedicated to participating in community events like “Take a Kid Mountain Biking Day.”
Richard La China is a Professional Mountain Bike racer, USAC Certified Cycling Coach and a IMBA Certified Mountain Bike Skills Instructor who coaches beginner to pro cyclist. Currently working with mountain bike XC, Endurance and Enduro racers and other competitive and non-competitive mountain bike riders seeking to become their best.
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Mountain biking is a relatively new sport compared to road biking. So the opportunities to find a good mountain biking...
Mountain biking is a relatively new sport compared to road biking. So the opportunities to find a good mountain biking skill clinic are quite scarce. Richard La China and his team offer such clinic! Richard has the training as a Coach from USA Cycling and the experience as an expert racer to develop in you the skills and therefore the confidence to negotiate the treacherous obstacles on your path as a mountain biker. His clinic has several levels from beginner to expert and is organized incrementally to facilitate the learning of more and more difficult skills. In addition to his and his expert team's demonstrations, I also like his verbal explanations about the why of a specific position or skill to have. Richard and his team have the dedication and patience to teach you anything you need to learn to fully enjoy mountain biking. ~ Anne-Catherine
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I took the Ninja intermediate / advanced course here in Denver the weekend before last, and it was probably the...
I took the Ninja intermediate / advanced course here in Denver the weekend before last, and it was probably the best money I've spent on mountain biking in quite a while. Aaron tuned the clinic to our skills and needs, putting in extra time and attention where we needed more work and covering a wide range of skills. After mountain biking for almost 20 years, there were still missing pieces (and some bad habits) to my riding that he picked up on, explained, and then showed me how to improve, correct, and practice. Aaron was knowledgeable, patient, and progressed through skills in steps so there wasn't too much to digest at any one time. As the day progressed, he rolled them all together as we moved through different trail features, so I really got a good sense of how to put things into practice. He was also very familiar with the venue, Village Greens Park, so he knew exactly which sections to hit to practice particular skills - it was a great combination of drills and very watchful instruction, then honing those skills on real trail features. And, as we talked about with him during lunch, even experienced riders should consider the "fundamentals" course - I really had no idea that I needed work on some of the basics, like braking. I'm heavy on the rear brake just as a long-established habit - who knew? (Well, apparently Aaron did...) ~Jon Gotow
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I attend the 3-day mountain bike skills camp in Mulberry Gap Georgia and it was a great experience. We spent...
I attend the 3-day mountain bike skills camp in Mulberry Gap Georgia and it was a great experience. We spent the first day going over fundamentals and doing drills and the second and third day riding trails. The combination of instruction and practice was very useful. Our instructors, Randy and Erin, are expert riders and wonderful instructors. The explained and demonstrated skills wells and provided helpful feedback. The Mulberry Gap resort was also a wonderful location to hold this event. I would highly recommend it to individuals at a wide range of skill levels. ~Armand A.
Great class! I wish I took this class seven yrs ago when I started mountain biking. Richard & his team...
Great class! I wish I took this class seven yrs ago when I started mountain biking. Richard & his team was awesome. I learned how to approach uphill switchbacks, how to “pre-turn”, & most important, how to descend with confidence. Bottom line: I am more efficient & safer rider. As another review said, “best money spent on mountain biking.” You can have an expensive bike, but if you don’t know how to ride, what’s the point? Highly recommend this class for all ages/skills. I will definitely be taking more classes! ~Rean
Best investment ever. The Ninja mountain bike skill clinics will definitely bring up your riding level a notch or two....
Best investment ever. The Ninja mountain bike skill clinics will definitely bring up your riding level a notch or two. Being able to get instant feedback from the instructor (s) in this case Richard La China and his assistant is invaluable. From getting the correct riding position to improving the skills necessary to have a fast flow through the trails builds confidence and is the key to having more fun when mountain bike riding. Also I've taken one-on-one lessons (with Richard La China) and it really speeds up the learning (in my case it was basic jumping) in any area where you deem to be weak in or just need improvement. ~ Thad G.
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