How to Ride Sharp Switchbacks on Your Mountain Bike

Ride those tricky switchbacks with ease, following these tips from Dylan Renn at A Singletrack Mind.
Switchbacks can be challenging unless you learn the proper technique. Photo: Matt Miller

While I’m by no means an expert on cornering, I can rail fast corners well, letting speed and grip take the lead role while maintaining the proper bike-body balance. However, when the corners get tighter and the speed gets slower, I tend to struggle, barely wobbling my way through.

Searching for some help with navigating sharp switchbacks, I reached out to Dylan Renn with A Singletrack Mind for help. Renn has multiple coaching certifications including a mental skills coaching certificate from NASM, BICP Level 1, 2, and 3 certifications, and a NICA head coach and coaches’ trainer. With over 25 years of mountain bike racing experience both at the expert and professional level and over 14 years of professional coaching experience, Renn knows a lot about riding. He is also passionate about helping riders get better and was eager to share his tips with Singletracks readers.

Every switchback has its own challenges

For Renn, a switchback is any turn at any angle that is ridden at a jogging pace or slower. They can be uphill, downhill, or completely level. Each type of switchback comes with its own unique challenges.

Uphill switchbacks are easier because riders don’t have to worry about brake control or exposure when riding through them. However, riders do have to remember to pedal to maintain momentum.

Downhill switchbacks are harder because riders must concentrate on brake control, especially for turns that are on the side of a mountain, because the consequences of blowing out of a turn can be serious. For that reason, downhill switchbacks tend to make riders more nervous. 

Level switchbacks might be the easiest of all, at least in appearance, but riders still need to focus on their bike-body separation and balance, along with maintaining momentum. Otherwise, they can stall out and tip over.

Rock dodge is another good drill for practicing low-speed cornering. Rider: Matthew Godwin.

For best results, practice slow-speed balance and side-to-side, and bike-body separation

Renn said riders need to stay balanced above the bike where it contacts the ground to successfully ride through switchbacks. “If you get away from that you lose balance. Your mass must be fixed on the center point.”

Renn listed some drills that riders can do to work on the balance and bike-body separation needed to successfully navigate sharp switchbacks. First, start with trackstands.

“Trackstands are super, super helpful for developing skills,” he said. He also mentioned adding ratcheting and brake control to the drill for extra measure.

Next, Renn suggested riders practice tighter and tighter turns in an open area without leaning the bike. “If you lean, it stops the bike and opens the steering.” Another variation on this is to start in a big, wide turn going fast and then turn tighter and tighter. Renn said that doing this “helps you feel where body control becomes important and feel what slow-speed steering is like.”

Another good drill for riders to practice steering is to use a parking space. Go down one line and make 90° turns inside the space then go up the other line and repeat. Renn said riders can also use the lane lines on a basketball court for the drill.

Once riders are comfortable doing these drills, they can go to a grassy slope and lay out a switchback with cones.

“The ideal set-up is a flat base with a 2–3-foot incline to a flat top.”

When riding through the practice course, Renn said riders should be putting pressure on their outside hand. Doing so “mitigates the castor effect (the bike dipping or diving).”

Lastly, riders can simulate the feel of rougher switchbacks by doing slow, sharp turns off, or onto, a curb or step because it mimics the same steering forces riders feel on such trails.

Keeping your chest over your handlebars and continuously pedaling will help you when doing uphill switchbacks. Rider: Dylan Renn.

Body position and vision are of the utmost importance

Renn stressed the importance of body position and vision when navigating switchbacks. “Your body position should match the slope of the switchback.” He said riders should get into a hinge position when approaching a switchback and make sure they do not lock their elbows.

In terms of vision, Renn advises riders to scan the switchback to see the steepness of the slope and what the trail looks like (rough vs. smooth). 

“You should look at the entrance, the middle, and then the end so nothing surprises you. I think of it like a radar sweeping through the area.”

For uphill switchbacks, Renn tells riders to make sure their chest is low, and to keep pedaling so they don’t run out of momentum or lift the front wheel. For downhill switchbacks, riders need to make sure their brake control is consistent.

“Riding your brakes through switchbacks is important. You want to create drag, but not accelerate or decelerate.” Renn also stressed the importance of looking at the middle of the trail when riding through a downhill switchback to avoid getting too close to the edge.

For level switchbacks, Renn said the only difference is body position. “You can lean a little more going through them.”

The unevenness of the rocks and roots on this switchback can easily cause a rider to stall out when climbing it.

A few final tips

Renn said some bikes require more steering input based on their head angle and the length of their stem. 

“A longer stem with a steeper head angle will require more input.” Additionally, different types of terrain create different feedback when it comes to steering. “If you are going up a slope to a flat base, it pushes the front tire away and causes more steering.”

Renn also said that a lot of riders make the mistake of quitting at the end when they’ve nearly made the turn. “They feel like there is so much going on. Fear freezes them and they can’t let go.” To counter this, Renn suggested riders use their vision to look where they want to go after the switchback once they are near the end.

Consistently practicing low-speed cornering drills is helping me improve. Photo: Billy Lieblick.

Consistency is key for successfully navigating switchbacks

I got two important takeaways from Renn’s tips. First, putting pressure on the outside of your handlebars when turning through a sharp switchback really does help. When I made an effort to do that on every switchback I rode through I noticed a significant improvement in my bike-body balance.

Second, practicing the drills Renn suggested, especially trackstands, also leads to gains when it comes to navigating switchbacks. I have a tendency to not keep practicing the skills that I struggle with, but after forcing myself to devote at least a little time each week to practicing trackstands, I can tell a notable difference in the way I handle low-speed corners.

While I am far from being an expert at riding sharp switchbacks, I have improved in that area, and can truthfully state that Renn’s suggestions will work if riders consistently practice the drills he suggested.

Switchback mountain biking tips summarized

  • Apply more pressure on the outside of your handlebars turning through the switchback
  • Practice your drills: Trackstands, rock dodges, parking space turns
  • Practice body positioning and techniques: Bike-body separation, hip hinge, sweeping vision
  • Ride your brakes through the corner if necessary for consistent speed
  • Don’t quit and be consistent in practice