Riding Switchbacks

Singletrack switchbacks are one of the more challenging obstacles you encounter when out on the trail.   While many obstacles you encounter allow for different shades of success, switchbacks are more black and white.  It seems you either make it or you don’t.  Here are some tips to help your ride them successfully.


Riding down a tight switchback requires little to no pedaling, and is a good way to practice your technique.  With gravity on your side, you just need to concentrate on your line and your balance.   In the following photo sequence, Scott Russel shows us the proper way to execute a descending left turn switchback.


Entering the Switchback:  Switchbacks are very tight turns, so you need to utilize as much of the trail as possible for your turn.  If you take the inside line, you’ve just shaved off 2 or 3 feet of  available trail.  As you approach the switchback, head towards the outside of the trail.  You’ll probably notice a wide spot on the outside line right before the turn.  Riders are using this little section to swing even wider, and maximize the turning radius.  In the photo above, Scott is preparing to make a left hand turn.  He actually swings his front tire to the right near the bush to get the front tire as far to the outside as possible before starting the left turn.  His eyes are scanning the turn for the best line.


The Turn:  As you enter the turn, you want to start cutting the turn as tightly as possible.   Try to visualize getting your rear wheel as close to the inside of the turn as you can.  Your front wheel swings a big arc while the back wheel pivots around the inside.

The other important thing in the turn is balance.  Some switchbacks are so tight that your bike is barely moving.  You are getting very little gyroscopic effect from the wheels, so your balance is coming almost entirely from proper body position.  In the photo above, notice that Scott’s body is upright and his body weight is centered over the bike.  He’s leaning the bike slightly into the turn, and he’s got a finger on the front and rear brake to precisely control his speed.  Also notice he’s looking down the trail where he hopes to be in a few moments.  Keeping your head up and your eyes down the trail will help your balance and pull you to where you want to go.


Finishing the Turn:  As Scott finishes the turn, his rear wheel is still on the inside of the turn, and his front wheel is still taking advantage of the whole outer side of the trail.  His body position is the same as it was in the middle of the turn, but he’s getting ready to straighten the bike up, get off the brakes, and flow out of the turn.


You use the same technique to ascend switchbacks, but without gravity on your side, you must pedal to keep your momentum while trying to maintain balance throughout the turn. This can be particularly difficult when you’re winded, and sometimes you have to time your pedal strokes to keep from hitting trail obstacles. This takes a lot of practice, but is made easier if you’re taking the right line and using the techniques above.


The photos above were taken on the Evidence Trail in Ash Canyon.  There are several switchbacks on this trail, and each one seems to have its own unique challenge.   This is a great place to practice your descending and ascending switchbacks, as the trail is not too steep.  There are a couple turns that give me fits when ascending.  If I have extra time, I’ll stop and practice them until I get it right.  There was one particular turn that I just couldn’t seem to master climbing, and I knew I was taking a bad line.  So one time, I rode down it and marked where I was putting my wheels.  I climbed it using my descending line, and I made it!

What tips would you add for negotiating switchbacks?  Have you mastered all the switchbacks on the Evidence Trail?

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