Switchbacks tend to be corners with a lot of personality. Often an unpleasant personality and trust me, they do not 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.
Woohoo! As good as it gets is appropriate! Richard is not only a great rider, he is a great teacher!...
Woohoo! As good as it gets is appropriate! Richard is not only a great rider, he is a great teacher! I would encourage everyone to stay away from the mind trap that buying a more expensive mountain bike is what you need to ride better. Spend the money on lessons instead, and I know you will be happier (and safer) in the long run. I can't say enough positive things about the Bike Skills clinics. ~ Chris G.
Within one hour we we clearing a 5 foot jump easily and with confidence!
Wow, a friend and I just did a one day private lesson with Richard and I can’t believe how much...
Wow, a friend and I just did a one day private lesson with Richard and I can’t believe how much we learned. I’ve been riding for over 10 years but with all self taught skills. We wanted to learn fundamentals the right way and Richard took us through all of that (along with critical bike setup) and the intermediate stuff that they teach in one day plus he spent an extra hour at the end to teach us jumping which I had always been nervous about. Within one hour we we clearing a 5 foot jump easily and with confidence, we even learned to move the bike in the air on a crossed take off and landing. I think my favorite part though was riding fast on the very gnarly technical descent. We will be booking up more private lessons during the summer at Big Bear. Thanks Richard you are a very good teacher! ~John U.
I took a Fundamental Skill clinic last weekend and learned so much! I've been riding for a few years and...
I took a Fundamental Skill clinic last weekend and learned so much! I've been riding for a few years and felt stuck and was not improving at all. Aaron was a great instructor! Very patient and broke down everything step by step and we repeated the skills until we felt comfortable. I look forward to mastering the skills I learned and taking another clinic in the spring. ~Jody Hachenberger-Amend
Special thanks to Santa Fe Fat Tire Society for bringing you in!
My wife and I had the privilege of attending the skills 2 day camp in Santa Fe New Mexico August...
My wife and I had the privilege of attending the skills 2 day camp in Santa Fe New Mexico August 20th and 21st. Richard and Aaron and Catherine where fantastic trainers and teachers they brought new light into basic skills of riding each person in the group was able to excel in what we were doing before we moved on to some other awesome skill or task individual attention was felt by all in the group and visible Improvement was seen in all Riders when we have you back next year you should plan on doubling or tripling the number of riders thanks for a super fun weekend and special thanks to Santa Fe Fat Tire Society for bringing you in and of course thanks to Richard and Aaron and Kathryn. ~Bruce Hamby
This past fall I finally broke down and upgrade my mountain bike. I was riding a hard tail bike mostly...
This past fall I finally broke down and upgrade my mountain bike. I was riding a hard tail bike mostly for the workout. After racing in an Xterra, I realized that a new bike was in my future. ( I could tell a huge story about the process of purchasing a new MB and the massive amount of miss information you can obtain from bike shops. Especially when you know nothing about bikes. ) Not long after I purchased the new MB, I had my first over the handle bars wreck. I still cannot remember the actual crash. I can see the rut that I am about to hit on the downhill, and then I remember waking up on the trail barely able to breath. The crash gave me some time to catch up on email. One of those emails was a beginners MB clinic hosted by Richard and the Ride Like a Ninja crew. I swallowed my pride and signed up. To date I have done everything I was taught. I made every adjustment to my bike that was recommended. I then had the bike fitted. The skills taught that day are priceless to me. For the first time I understand what position my body needs to be in for each type of terrain. I am not perfect by any means, but in my mind I am shouting the word NINJA to remind myself. I practice the techniques ever time I ride. ~ Hal N.