How to Become a Better Mountain Biker: Switchbacks
July 10, 2023
Gain the knowledge and skills to handle switchbacks like a pro
To become a better mountain biker, the key is to focus on developing your skills and technique. Start by setting clear goals and objectives for yourself, such as improving your cornering, jumps, or technical descents. Then, work on honing your fundamental skills, including body position, balance, and braking. Practice regularly and seek out challenges that push you beyond your comfort zone. Consider taking a lesson or hiring a coach to learn new skills and receive personalized feedback. Finally, make sure you have the right gear, including a well-maintained bike, appropriate safety equipment, and clothing that allows for unrestricted movement. With dedication, practice, and a willingness to learn, you can become a better mountain biker.
If you have been riding in steep technical terrain you have most probably come across a "switchback". These are tight, steep corners filled with roots and rocks, and in worst case in an exposed area where falling is not a good option. These corners can seem impossible to get the bike around but we will do our best to help you master these devious turns.
First, let's clear up the term. Switchbacks are tight, hairpin turns that require a combination of technique, skill, and confidence to navigate successfully on a mountain bike. Developing your switchback skills can be challenging, but with consistent practice and focus, you can become more comfortable, efficient and rhythmic while blasting through the trails.
Here are some tips to help you improve your switchback skills:
Look ahead and find your line: When approaching a switchback, look ahead and try to find the best possible line so you come into the turn with a plan in mind. More on line choices further down.
Keep the right speed: It is important to keep the right speed before the turn. The more time you have to find your line the better but you still need to keep your balance on the bike while doing so. Especially in technical terrain where it's difficult to start riding from standing still. Practice track stands where you stand completely still on the bike while on the pedals, this way you can remain on the bike while scouting your line. In technical terrain it can be crucial to not lose speed or momentum before the turn which leaves you less time to find your line so this is where quick thinking and confidence comes into play. If you don't succeed on your first try just do it again! Practice and concistency are key.
Let the front wheel guide you: As long as your front wheel can make it through the line, in most cases the rest of the bike will follow. Here it's important to keep momentum and the right amount of speed to get over roots or rocks.
Confidence building: Confidence is often what will make it or break it for you. It is one of the more difficult elements to master so increase the difficulty level progressively so you can gradually increase your confidence, step by step. A lot of tight and steep switchbacks are scary but we at LeRipp have numerous times been pleasantly surprised of what's possible on a mountain bike.
Endo turns: Switch back too tight? No problem. Sometimes the turn is too tight for the whole bike to fit while keeping both tyres on the ground. This is where the Endo turn comes handy. An endo turn is when you use your balance and front brake to lift your rear end of the bike so you can change the direction of the bike more drastically. Make sure to practice your Endo turns on a flat and safe space, e.g. parking lot, before you dive into steep switchbacks. To master the Endo turn it's more about balance shifting than punching your front brake. When coming in for an Endo turn, start with your weight far back on the bike and while carefully pressing your front brake, gradually shift your body weight forward to lift the back wheel. Once you're up there, use your hips, legs and feet to move the rear end towards the direction you want.
Line choices: Usually there are several possible lines through a switch back, you just need to find the best one for you. In general, the easiest way to get around the corner is to take a wide and high line so you get a straight line through the corner. For example, if the turn is a left hand turn, keep as much right as you can in the beginning of the line so you get as much space as possible to cut through the corner. Now, the reason why mountain biking is such a fun and exciting sport is because the terrain always varies and no corner is the same as the other so there is never a "correct" line to take (unless your racing and chasing hundreds of a second). It's all subjective and up for interpretation. When you're out riding and stumble across a tricky switch back, stop and analyze it for a moment, try to find different types of lines and then session it by riding it a couple of times. Experience is extremely valuable in mountain biking so the more you practice it the better you get. And the more fun you'll have!
To really master the tight technical corners we call switchback it all comes down to balance and confidence. You need to be able to keep your bike mobile in no or very little speed. This is where a track stand and Endo turns are key skills to practice. Have a look at the videos below to get a deeper knowledge so you can get out there and practice. And then practice some more and more and more.