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Conquer switchbacks

By Brian Lopes and Lee McCormack

Switchbacks’ sharpness, steepness, and exposure turn flowy riders into wigged-out stickmen. But remember: Switchbacks are nothing more than tight, steep corners.


Slow WAY down for downhill switchbacks. As you drop through the turn, you want to reach a happy speed, not scare yourself into an unfortunate braking incident.


You almost always want a late apex. For a downhill left switchback, slow down, enter to the far right, square the turn against the bank (see, it’s like a little berm), and drop through to the exit. Early apexes can be deadly—that outside exit line tends to be a cliff.


Do everything right. Low, look, lean, turn—it’s all more important than ever.


Use the ruts. When a rain channel cruises around the outside of a wide switchback, rail it just like a berm. When the rut carves a tight line across the inside, drop your rear tire into the rut and track your brakeless front tire around the outside of it. When the rut runs around the outside of a tight switchback, let your rear tire follow it and steer to the inside. A little rear brake keeps your rear meat in the track (only on closed courses, of course).


Pull out a foot. Sometimes it pays to drop your inside foot and whip your bike around a super-tight corner. Steep exits bring you right back up to speed. In flat exits, you’ll lose some time finding your pedal. The San Juan Trail in southern California has dozens of steep switchbacks. When we follow people down and they pull their feet into the turns, they might gap us a little, but we’re back on their tails within two strokes. 


Nose wheelie! On a slow, tight switchback with decent traction, you can do a nose wheelie and kick the back end around. You don’t have to swing it the full 180 degrees; you need just enough to help aim you into the turn.


Climbing switchbacks. Switchbacks occur only on steep hills. Follow the widest line possible to reduce the grade and give your rear tire room to track inward. Build momentum with a couple of hard cranks, and keep the power going as you round the bend. Shift your butt to the edge of the seat, and lean the bike below you. If you can’t pedal because of ruts or roots, make sure you gain tons of speed on the entrance. Don’t touch your brakes!




Skid Into Loose Corners

Don’t skid on public trails. Use these techniques only on race courses—and then only sparingly. If you can rail a corner without skidding, that’s usually fastest. Basically, if a turn has a berm, rail it. If there’s enough traction or space for you to carry momentum through a turn, then carve it. Skidding only makes sense in slow, slippery corners that you want to square off. Use the skid to aim your bike in a new direction, and then resume your rolling.


As you zoom down the right lane of a gravelly doubletrack, a flat left turn approaches. If you arc through the inside of the turn, your front tire will surely wash out. The solution: a skid setup. Remember: This is about steering, not slowing down. Bring your bike to a reasonable speed before you reach the corner.


1. Nail the rear brake to break the tire loose. Note how far outside the main line Peaty chose to begin his turn.

2. Get the bike skidding sideways (note the lean).

3. Lean forward to make your front tire track though the turn. Do not touch the front brake!

4. When the rear end swings around to where you want it, release the brake. Your rear tire will catch, and you’ll shoot into the corner. Sa-weet!


Be ready for your tires to slip. If the traction were good, you wouldn’t be doing a skid setup, would you? When the skid happens, stay off the brakes and steer where you want to go.


Other fun stuff:

  • Try a little kickout to help set up the skid.
  • You can skid into the beginning of a corner and then release the brakes and rail the rest of it.
  • You can kind of half-skid, half-carve when you’re going fast.
  • Controlled skidding is tricky. Practice in a safe place. Use flat pedals.

This is an excerpt from Mastering Mountain Bike Skills, Second Edition.

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