Flowing Through Corners
By Sylvie Allen, PT and MTB Coach
Mastering “switchbacks” is one of the most satisfying moves one can do on a cross- country trail. It means not falling off the bike in the corner or getting off and walking. In this article we will cover techniques to help improve both the uphill and downhill versions of this important skill.
A switchback is when the trail turns sharply back upon itself, sometimes as much as 180 degrees. Some of them may be wide and flat or they may be sharp and steep. When riding in the mountains you are guaranteed to encounter some of them.
Let’s first look at the general technique for riding a switchback on flat terrain:
Line choice is crucial to successfully getting through the corner.
Turn the front wheel towards the most outside line possible to create an easier and wider turn. Cutting in too soon will make for a sharper angle and therefore a harder corner, which will require more skill and balance.
Look where you want to go.
While approaching the corner you should already be looking ahead to find the outside line. As you’re entering the corner, turn your head, shoulders and inside knee towards the exit of the corner and the rest of the trail. Keep scanning ahead and look exactly where your wheels need to track; do not look straight down in front of your wheel, but instead scan 3 to 20 feet ahead.
Brake before entering the corner.
Release the front brake as your wheel is turning the sharpest part of the turn.
You may need to drag the rear brake as you’re pedaling slowly around the bend to maintain control. (Dragging means a gentle even pressure while letting the wheel roll). Make sure you are not pedaling over larger rocks or roots to avoid clipping them with a pedal — you’ll need to ratchet over those obstacles. If you don’t need to pedal to keep your momentum, then keep the pedals level throughout the turn and try not to dab. Commit your feet to the pedals for the entire corner! Taking a foot off will bring the hips down and forward and no longer in a position to counterbalance the bike.
Lean the bike into the turn slightly and counterbalance.
Shifting your butt to the outside of the seat and keeping the shoulders to the outside will help you counterbalance. It’s easier to do when standing since you have a lot more separation from the bike. Every corner is different — some might be better done standing while others can be ridden while seated. By pointing the inside knee into the corner (as if it had an eyeball on it) it will make it easier to point the hips in the direction you want to go. Basically your body language is directing your bike: eyes, head, shoulders, belly button, hips, knees all point in the same direction i.e. the desired line. Unless you want to end up off the side of the trail hugging a tree don’t look at it.
You’re having a great ‘ol time on a fast descent and suddenly notice the trail seems to end — it doesn’t, instead it’s taking a 180 degree steep sharp turn in the other direction! Along with all the tips mentioned above, you will need to add the following techniques to perfect your downhill switchback riding experience:
• Do most of your braking as you’re still going straight and maintain rear brake pressure through the corner, creeping the front tire around slowly on the outside line. The sharper the corner, the more you need to slow down, sometimes almost coming to a stop.
• Be in a strong descending position: elbows out, back flat, heels down, pedals level, hips back.
• This is where you do not want to dab, otherwise you’ll bring your weight too far forward and too much to the inside. If you need to abort, get off the back of the bike!
• Gently reapply your front brake after the sharpest part of the turn if the trail is still really steep, or you may need to regain momentum before you tip over by easing off the rear brake and continue on with the rest of the trail.
• Make sure you look ahead and commit to the rest of the trail.
Getting to the top of the mountain will probably involve some switchback climbing as you wind your way up. Here are some additional tips to help you clean those corners:
• Be in a strong and aggressive climbing position: hips sitting forward on the nose of the saddle, back flat, elbows in, hands pulling down on the bars. The goal is to keep the front wheel tracking on the ground and going exactly where you want it to go. Keep a finger resting on the brake lever just in case you screw up so you can apply the brakes really quickly and avoid running backwards down the hill.
• As the front wheel is making the turn, keep your eyes focused up the hill exactly where you want to go.
• Bring your outside shoulder close to the outside handlebar, this will keep weight to the outside as the bike is leaning into the corner. Think of pushing out and up on the outer hand.
• Shift your hips to the outside so you’re only sitting on one butt cheek or hipbone as you’re in the corner; this will also help counterbalance the bike.
• If you come across some technical feature that needs to be ridden over such as a pile of rocks or roots in the corner, make sure to lift your hips so they’re hovering just over the seat.
The best way to improve switchback skills is to be stubborn and practice them over and over again. The fitter you are, the easier they will become. A couple of other fun drills to help with balance is to do really tight figure 8’s on flat terrain and having track stand competitions with your friends.
Enjoy the trails!
Sylvie Allen owns her own personal training and mountain bike coaching business, Sweet Skills Mountain Bike Coaching and Personal Training. She’s been a trainer for 10 years and has been coaching mountain bike clinics for more than 15 years. Racing has been a big part of Sylvie’s life and being a former Canadian Downhill Champion is one of her many credits. You can reach Sylvie for advice or lessons by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org.