Switchbacks are one of those trails features that are really fun when ridden correctly, and really frustrating when done incorrectly. Riding up a switchback takes power, proper technique and a bit of practice. Simply trying to hammer up a switchback without considering your line selection, your gearing or your body position will leave you either gasping for air or having to put a foot down.
Want to go DOWN switchbacks? Check out part 2 of the series here!
Before we get to the step-by-step, let’s quickly define a few important pieces of vocabulary:
A SWITCHBACK is a really tight turn on a trail, typically 180 degrees. Switchbacks are often found on steep sections of trail and it’s common to see multiple switchbacks in a row.
The APEX is the sharpest point of the turn (or the corner).
1. Spin Your Approach
Switchbacks take power but it’s important to utilize that power at the right time, so be sure to conserve some energy as you approach. Coming into a switchback at full throttle is not going to leave you with enough power to make it around the apex of the corner, which is typically the steepest part of the switchback. Make sure you are in a gear that will allow you to easily spin and maintain a relatively high RPM (80-90 RPM). If it’s hard to turn over the pedal before you’ve even reached the corner, then you are really going to be struggling when it’s time to power up at the apex! So as you approach that switchback, make sure you are spinning (and breathing) easy.
2. Get Outside
Line selection when approaching a switchback is crucial and in most cases, the far outside line is the best choice for climbing switchbacks. Unless there are significant obstacles forcing you to take a different line, approach the switchback from the outside edge of the trail and keep it wide all the way through.
3. Have Vision
Looking up and looking ahead can make all the difference in clearing a switchback. Don’t focus your attention entirely on any one part of the switchback. Instead, scan all the way through the corner and up the trail. Fine tune your line choice and then go! Looking up and through the corner helps you maintain balance and stay on your line.
While this step may seem simple enough, it’s really easy in the heat of the switchback to catch yourself staring straight down. If you are struggling to clean a switchback, go back and try again and this time, pay extra special attention to where your eyes are looking. More often than you’d think, the solution is as simple as looking up and ahead!
4. Stay Smooth
Keep weight on both pedals as you climb rather than pushing down on one and pulling up on the other; this will help to stabilize your weight on the bike and keep power consistent through your pedal stroke.
Depending on the pitch and technical difficulty of the switchback, you may need to get out of the saddle and stand up on your pedals for a little extra power. Even if you are out of the saddle, focus on keeping your upper body firm and stable while driving into your pedals.
5. Power Up
A couple of hard pedal strokes as you enter the apex of the corner will give you the much needed momentum through the steepest part of the switchback. Remember back in Step 1 when we backed off the power as we approached the switchback to save some energy? This is the time to put those savings to work!
If there is an obstacle in the apex (i.e. a rock), you may need to utilize other skills in your toolbox to navigate the terrain such as a pedal assisted wheel lift or a ratchet to avoid a pedal strike.
And of course, don’t forget to keep pedaling! It’s important to keep those pedals turning and the wheels rolling to maintain balance and momentum up and around the apex.
6. Get Low
One of the most common problems on switchbacks is the front wheel becomes unweighted and starts to wonder off course. This happens when there is not enough weight on the front of your bike and your tire isn’t gripping. To prevent this from happening, or to make a quick correction if you feel the front of your bike start to lift, get into a crouched climbing position by lowering your chest towards the bars. Lowering your chest will bring your center of center of gravity forward and help you to regain both balance and traction.
7. Ride It Out
Congratulations, you made it! Careful not to spend too much time celebrating. You’ve got to keep pedaling and keep your head looking up the trail. No one likes to clean a tough switchback just to be knocked off their bike but an unexpected rock in the trail! It’s important to quickly recover and get ready to tackle the next trail obstacle.
What goes up also gets to come down… stay tuned for part 2 next week: GOING DOWN switchbacks!