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Skills Clinic: Mastering The Gnarliest Switchbacks

Switchbacks were not designed for mountain bikes. They were cut out of the mountain way before mountain bikes were invented and originally developed for hikers (with an average shoe size of 10.5-inches, not a 44-inch wheelbase). And that’s where our problems start. How do you get around these 180-degree corners without resorting to hiking mode?

There will always be switchbacks that prove too precarious to pedal, but by understanding a few skills, you should be able to clear more switchbacks than you ever thought possible.

DOWNHILL SWITCHBACKS NO-NO

First, what not to do. Do not use the often-abused “flat tracker” technique for downhill switchbacks. A rider using the flat tracker technique locks the rear wheel, countersteers the front wheel sharply, skids the rear end around and then releases the rear brake. This can be destructive to the trail, and since you are skidding, and therefore out of control, you create a hazard for other trail users. Try the following techniques that won’t scrape the trail surface or scare other trail users.

DOWNHILL SWITCHBACKS

Most switchbacks, even the tight ones with steps, can be ridden around without resorting to dramatic tricks or destructive skidding. If your bike is equipped with a dropper seatpost (a seatpost that lowers the saddle a few inches at the push of a lever), lowering will help you complete this maneuver.

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Use both front and rear brakes to reduce your speed to a walking pace, but keep the wheels rolling.

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Start your turn wide.

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Steer in with a decisive twist of the handlebar as close to the apex of the switchback as possible.

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As your front wheel passes the turn’s apex, ease off the brakes.

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Forget about the rear wheel, because it will find its way around. Keep your front wheel on line and all will end well.

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Look around the bend and down the trail while you completely release the brakes and resume pedaling. You do not want to look over the edge of the switchback.

UPHILL SWITCHBACKS

Riding an uphill switchback requires patience, power and proper weight transfer. Your dropper seatpost (if you use one) worked great in the slammed position for the downhill switchback but needs to be fully extended for the uphill switchback.

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Move your weight to the nose of the saddle and lower your torso over the handlebar.

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Choose a gear that is low enough to get up and over the turn, but not so low that you will risk spinning the rear tire. Your second-lowest gear is usually better than the lowest gear (the biggest cog on your cassette).

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Start the turn as far to the outside as practical and steer into the corner with a decisive twist of the handlebar. You won’t need to lean the bike much if at all.

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Think only about turning the handlebar into the corner and keeping sufficient weight on the rear tire for traction. Rushing an uphill switchback throws your weight off and may cause your tires to loose traction. Slow and reposition your weight as necessary.

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Wiggle the handlebar to maintain your balance. Don’t be too concerned if the front tire wanders, because only climbing traction and the position of the rear tire matter on an uphill corner.

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Most riders lose traction (or fall) in the final third of an uphill switchback because they fail to turn the handlebar enough to make a significant correction.

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