Switchback issues

On a mountain bike, there is always room for growth. Every now and then I discover things that make my riding just a little bit smoother or faster. For example, I used to have this thing with tight switchbacks. Without hopping the rear wheel around, I had a really hard time getting through hairpins in style. I’ll let others judge the style, but at least I learned something about riding switchbacks a little while ago.

It is a general understanding that you should tilt the bike in a corner. For a long time I have thought switchbacks were the exception to this rule. The small radius of the turn, combined with low speed and sharp steering made tilting the bike seem countereffective to me. Until some years ago, I believed that a weight shift to the center of the turn while keeping the bike upright was the best take on switchbacks.

Descending in the Sierra Nevada mountain range means riding switchbacks, back to back

Luckily, my trailadventures of the last few years taught me a thing or two. Rock-strewn and hairpin-infested trails like “48 Switchbacks” and “6 Inches Only” in the Iberian Sierra Nevada are excellent training ground for a lot of riding techniques. What I learned in places like this, is that my approach on switchbacks was no good at all. By shifting your body weight away from the bike’s vertical axis it becomes much harder to control the bike and moreover, to absorb shocks.

Tilting the bike is the solution, no matter how tight the corner is. Your speed and the radius of the corner determine how far you need to shift your weight toward the center of the corner. The tilting is the critical part: by leaning the bike further into the corner than your body, your center of gravity remains over the bike, without being blown out of the corner by the centrifugal forces.

2011 (l) vs. 2015 (r): same turn, different technique. In 2015 even on a 29er!

On rough and rocky trails your weight distribution plays an important role. Staying centered on the bike will put a lot of weight on the front wheel, which will cause it to stall easily. Putting much weight on the rear wheel will unweight the front, making it hard to control the front wheel. So a slight weight-shift to the back will work fine, keeping in mind that your arms and legs should never be stretched and therefore inclined to absorb shocks. And last but not least – stay off the front brake! The rear brake can sometimes help loosing grip at the rear wheel to start drifting into the corner. Just make sure you carry some speed through the switchback, or even the smallest obstacles will slow you down massively.

Share this article