How to tackle tricky switchbacks!

My full riding tutorial on how to best ride tight, technical switchbacks like these on a mountain bike is posted here: https://www.patreon.com/posts/3-ways-to-33345804

First, a bit of a confession- my style through these kinds of corners is unique.  I’ve had coaches tell me that I’m doing it all wrong, but in my heart of hearts, I feel there is more than one way to ride! I’m all about pumping and getting rearwards- NOT getting forwards on the bike, as many others will teach.  I won’t say getting forwards is wrong, it just doesn’t work for me.  Even if you don’t end up preferring this style of cornering, I’d say there’s value in attempting to learn it, just as I’ve spent some time trying to learn the traditional cornering techniques.  

Mentally, I try to think of switchbacks as flat berms.  While that might seem like a contradiction, I use a similar body positioning and technique that I employ on berms, but adjust it slightly for the lower speed and reduced traction of the switchback.  

On berms, I keep the bike perpendicular to the riding surface, engaging the center knobs of the tire with the dirt.  Now on flat turns or switchbacks,  which we’re discussing here, I lean the bike down quite a bit into the turn in order to engage the side knobs.  I lean the bike less when I’m going slower, and I drop my outside pedal more on the slower, flatter turns.  

This bermed turn is a good example of how I take berms.  Notice my pedals are level and my wheels are perpendicular (90°) to the berm itself.  I row back very hard on my bars in just about every corner, usually from the halfway point to the 2/3 mark, sometimes longer.  I’ll also make a big compression downwards with my legs to accentuate that row. This means my front wheel is quite light on the exit. I like this as I can then carry it for a pedal stroke or so and keep it from sliding out. I hate trusting my front wheel to stick when traction is low. I find it very hard to recover from an unplanned front tire drift, as the margin of error for a front tire drift is minimal.  With this rocking back technique, I can generate a pump, and with more of my weight on the rear wheel, if I do get a slide, it’s usually more predictable.

Delving a little deeper into that mentality of treating switchbacks like berms, I generally use three techniques:

  1. Pumping the turn like a regular, wider flat corner or berm (my personal favorite)
  2. Nose wheelie through the turn
  3. Power sliding the bike through (known as a cutty)
I’m riding my Ibis Ripmo AF in this video. I really like the AF! I’ve done a couple videos going over the bike, including a first look video here, and a ride report video here. I think it’s important to mention that these techniques are designed for a bike like the AF. The long wheelbase and slack angles are a BLAST through tight switchbacks- as long as trail speed is quick enough! If your trails are a lot flatter, and slower, then a more traditional bike has a great place. But for stuff like this, I LOVE the way these modern long and slack bikes handle.

A lot of folks do a Scandinavian flick, but I rarely see that as faster.  It takes more energy and will be even less consistent than a regular pump.  

Let’s work through the visuals of a turn:

First example is my favorite, which is pumping through the turn (or switchback).

Entering the corner wide or high means you’ll have the most real estate to work with through the turn. This is a pretty exaggerated high line, but it worked ok!
Entering the corner wide will give you the most space to perform a good pump through the turn. A stoppie here is pretty slow, but that’s OK since I do need to scrub some speed. It’s key to scrub all your speed before the turn, then you can focus on changing direction and pumping your way through the turn.  I’d say avoid a stoppy as you’re working on your skills, and just focus on completing your braking before you’re turning.
See how far back I am on the bike? This my preferred position when cornering. You might not need to get as far back, but definitely more important than the fore/aft positioning is my height above the bike. Look at how low I get to the bike!  I’m slightly above my saddle, which is fully dropped with a 170mm post.
Normally I say to enter all corners as high, or outside, as possible. In this case, the roots are guiding me into the middle of the trail, and this is why I get pulled pretty high before the exit of the berm. Since this turn is acting as a catch berm, it’s all good. This is a slow way of handling the turn, and it slows me down nicely for the next tight switchback.  The take away is that if you need to slow through a turn, and have a slower exit than entrance speed (kinda rare), then consider a low-high line.  But 90% of the time, you’ll probably be better off exiting quick, which means a high-low.
This is a great shot of how I pick my cornering lines.  By entering the corner high, on the rider’s outside, means the high-low line will create a great slope for the pump. You can see where the main line is- about 1′ (25 cm) to my right.
Here I am exiting towards the inside of the turn.  I am now to the right of the main line.  An extra bonus here, there’s a small slope that I can use to get a better pump.  This is why I’m now leaning forwards.
Notice the mellow lean angle? Since this turn is quite slow, I’m not leaned over very far.

After considering those three steps, decide on the technique that will be best.  FYI, I reviewed my general cornering theories back in June here: https://www.patreon.com/posts/27981205.  

If you can’t tell already, my favorite of these three methods is to rail and pump through the turns like a berm, with adjustments made to the lean angle depending on the trail speed. This is a very consistent way to corner and the big pump that it generates will help you build a great exit speed.  Not to mention it keeps the air in your tires and the trail intact!  

Notice the outside foot has dropped. Also notice how I’m starting to transition back towards the rear wheel.  Folks often tell me that this is wrong, that I should have all my weight on the front wheel.  Well, I have to say, having your weight low on the bike is more significant than fore or aft.  I end up much further over the rear wheel from this point to the exit of the turn, though my head doesn’t get crazy far back behind the bars.  My knees are quite bent, allowing for the “low over the bike” positioning.
Not a very deep lean of the bike, but enough to engage the side knobs of the tire. I lean the bike more when the corners are more gradual- as in not switchbacks!
This turn is a small bit faster than the one above it, which allows me to lean my bike more. This forces the side knobs on the tire to really dig in, and that increase in traction means I can go faster with more control through the turn.
Notice how my outside foot is dropped. While this switchback is faster than the one above it, it’s still a fairly slow spot on the trail. I don’t want to put an exact MPH on it, but I’d guesstimate that I drop my outside foot twice as much on 5-10mph corners than on 15-20mph corners.

Picking the right technique for the turn

The universal steps, regardless of the technique, are:

  1. Do your braking before you get to the turn. It’s much faster to slow too early and nail exit speed than to tip over and crash.  All three techniques will require braking before reaching the turn.  
  2. Analyze the turn. Is it wide enough you can do the best technique of leaning and pumping the bike? Is there an available entrance wall to help begin the turn early?  Or is it so tight that a stoppie is best?  Is the turn so tight, and is traction so low, that a cutty will be most effective?  Frustratingly enough, being able to correctly analyze a turn at speed will only come with more experience.  But enjoy it!  Learning how to anticipate what will happen in each corner is one of the greatest pleasures in mountain biking.
  3. Plan for the exit. Once you have your strategy sorted, how can you maximize your exit speed and control?
The nose wheelie worked pretty well on this corner since there is so much elevation loss. See how steep the hill is? On flatter trails, I really try to avoid the nose wheelie.

The nose wheelie is my go to on very tight corners or when I need to scrub a bunch of speed.  The nose wheelie tutorial from April is helpful in case you haven’t seen it (https://www.patreon.com/posts/26296762).  The nose wheelie means you’ll never come out of the switchback going any faster than you came in, and it can often bring you to a full halt.  Not fast.  But it looks cool, and it’s an easy way of slowing yourself while finding your line in a very small amount of space.  

As I’m initiating the nose wheelie, I’m pushing the bars forwards and down.

Noice how close my bum is to the rear tire? Getting low to the bike is the key that most folks miss. And by key, I mean the number one riding “secret” that’ll make your riding improve. That’s it! Just get low on the bike.

And the cutty- not my go-to move, but still, quite practical when in a switchback situation, especially one without much traction. Compress the bike so that it’s rebounding while you are turning. Slow before initiating the cutty, use your arms to counter steer as necessary. Keep your eyes looking towards the exit. Weight is centered. Use pressure on your inside foot to push the bike, and be ready to apply pressure on the outside foot to control and stop the resulting slide.  Since we filmed this video in Mexico, I actually did a full tutorial on cutties here: https://www.patreon.com/posts/36579859

Try as I might, I can’t nail every corner every time!  This was a botched cutty.
The dry leaves and loose dirt here means that traction is quite unpredictable. I was surprised that my side knobs hooked up as much as they did. This was actually a spot where I thought I’d prefer to do a cutty, but the pump ended up working well.  I cutty a ton more in the dry and dusty summer conditions than in the softer, winter time conditions.
No, I’m not doing a cutty, but notice how my handlebars and front wheel are pointed directly towards the next corner? This is a good example of countersteering. My bike’s frame is actually pointed uphill and away from the next turn!
A second angle of the counter steering.  Front wheel is pointing the right way, but the frame is not.  This is OK!
Noice how close my bum is to the rear tire? Getting low to the bike is the key that most folks miss. And by key, I mean the number one riding “secret” that’ll make your riding improve. That’s it! Just get low on the bike.
Mexico City from above our casita for the week.  We were in MX back in January, and we had an AWESOME time!  I’m working on a Local Loam episode about the incredible riding scene in Mexico.  I can’t wait to get back!  This was my first visit to Mexico City, and it certainly won’t be my last.  I’d actually love to spend a few months in Mexico during the winters, though Sedona is competing pretty hard as well!
Thank you to Logan for filming and helping! And thanks to all of you for watching and reading this!

Stay tuned- lots of great content to come thanks to Jenson USA, and you can check them out here via my affiliate link: https://www.jensonusa.com/blog/rider-profile-JKW

Ever notice that PNW logo on my handlebars?  No, I’m not repping my locale that hard- or wait, maybe I am- but that’s actually a company that my friend Aaron runs!  PNW Components makes some high end controls, including bars, stems, grips, dropper posts, levers, and a few other awesome items.  Have a peek at their beautiful site through my affiliate link here: https://bit.ly/PNWcomponentsJKW

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