They may not be too common on your local trail, but you can bet you’ll be faced with switchback turns on a descent in a race at some time. Here’s how to ride them smoothly.
First of all, understand that trust is important – trust in your bike and trust in the physics at play here. Trust helps develop confidence and commitment. Any doubt leads to hesitation and that’s not going to help you get through a switchback turn.
Here’s what you need to do::
- Approaching the turn, you need to stand on the pedals, cranks level (to keep your centre of gravity low) in the attack position (elbows and knees slightly bent). You need to look a few metres ahead at the entry to the turn. Do your braking here so that you go into the turn at the appropriate speed (usually fairly slow). Use both brakes for optimal speed management.
- Since it’s a descent, you should shift your weight off the back of the saddle somewhat – the steeper the descent, the further back you shift. Continue to look a few metres ahead to anticipate the speed required through the turn. Smooth doesn’t have to be fast. Often you will be going walking pace through a tight or steep switchback turn. But ensure you maintain consistent momentum because that’s what keeps you upright. And keep looking ahead!
- As it reaches its steepest/sharpest point you need to ensure your body is far enough off the back of the saddle so that you feel balanced over the bike. Too far forward and you feel like you may go over the handlebars. If you have to brake more, use only the rear brake. It will probably result in a rear-wheel skid, but that should be momentary and shouldn’t affect your progress. If you entered at the right speed, you can control your speed through the turn using both brakes.
- As you begin to reach the sharpest part of the turn, physically turn your head to look at the exit and where the trail goes. This will turn your shoulders, hips and bike in quick succession and you’ll be pointing along the trail where it exits the turn.
- Once you’re through the tightest/steepest part of the turn, allow your speed to increase, shift your body weight forward over the saddle, stay standing on the pedals (with cranks level) and look a few metres ahead to what’s coming up next. Repeat all the way down the slope.
The biggest problem people have on switchback turns is not looking where they want the bike to turn, but looking down at where they are. Looking ahead to where you want to go is usually the difference between riding the turn smoothly and riding it with hesitation, which usually ends badly.
Find a series of switchback turns – even if it’s just two (one each direction) and practice, practice, practice! It’s the only way you’ll improve.