When you’re first starting out mountain biking, there are the basics to learn—to look ahead, body position, braking—and then there’s the biggest, but most rewarding, headache of them all: Switchbacks. Here are some basics, plus a switchback primer, to get you rolling that singletrack with confidence.

NEW KID KNOW HOW

The Secret To Switchbacks

Switchbacks—also called hairpin bends—are any turns on the trail sharper than 90 degrees. When you first come across one, the mere sight of it can flip your brain around and twist your confidence like a wet rag filled with nervous sweat. Up or down, they can be one of the most daunting things when you’re new to mountain biking. You may feel some trepidation potentially screwing it up, but as we say in the Worth It Manifesto: “Acknowledge but don’t indulge fears.” So yes, fear, we see you, but we accept the challenge of the switchback, so let’s put our brains and bodies in gear and do this!

When in doubt, give it whirl.

Kate Courtney

Pre-ride checklist:

  1. Are you trail ready?
    Do you have everything you need for an awesome time on the bike? Flat kit? Snacks and hydration? A friend? While the impulse is high to go out and ride solo just so no-one sees you make mistakes, a ride buddy can be the ultimate encouragement for a beginner. Not only can they help you out if you get stuck—you can learn from each other.

  2. Got that "look ahead" mantra?
    If there’s one key thing to train your eyes to do, it’s look ahead, not down at your front wheel, as you ride. This can be a hard habit to break when you’re new, but remember that your brain is a super smart hunk of matter, and it can fill in the gaps between where you’re looking and what’s passing beneath you. You can also see, and prepare for, obstacles well in advance when you look ahead.

  3. Is "Fun" your middle name?
    This goes without saying, but just in case you’ve forgotten, this should be fun. You can’t have a blast without igniting your good vibes boosters, so make having fun the order of the day.

Learning commences in 3, 2, 1….

FUNDAMENTAL SKILL #1:

Riding a Downhill Switchback

In the video at the top of this story, pro mountain biker Kate Courtney focuses primarily on the downhill switchback, but uphill uses the same principles with a couple of small additions. But first—the downhill. First, adopt the “Attack Position” (explained below) as you approach the downhill switchback and remember: some of steps in this list below will be happening concurrently.

Brake Early
As you approach, take a good look at the turn and scrub your speed before the corner. Speed is key—you don’t want to come in too fast. Once you've passed the tightest point of the corner, let go of the brakes and carry your speed out.
Take a Wide Line
Come in slow, swoop outside and wide, and then look for the exit and coast out. Aim for the high side of the trail as you’re coming in.
Lead with Your Shoulders
Lean the bike into the corner and point your shoulders towards where you want to go—let them lead the way.
Keep Your Weight in Your Feet
This is crucial for balance and control. As you turn into the corner, adjust your weighting on your pedals to keep yourself above the bike and not falling into the corner. Your bike will be leaned, but you, not so much.
Look Where You Want to Go
Look where you want your wheels to go, not where you’re afraid they’re going to end up. As you enter the turn, look "through" it and to the exit of the switchback. Where the eyes lead, the bike and body follows. Remember: You control your bike—it doesn’t control you—and in this case, your eyes lead the way.
Stay Loose
You want to be loose in the upper body and keep your hands "light" to give you more freedom to move around on your bike and maintain your position above it as you tackle the corner. See Attack Position below.

TRAIL TERM: SESSION
The act of riding the same trail feature over and over again in order to clear it with confidence and sharpen your skills.

What About an Uphill Switchback?
A lot of the above tips are still relevant, such as Stay Loose, Lead with your Shoulders, Take a Wide Line, and Look Where You Want to Go. But let’s add “Maintain Your Momentum” and two other tips.

  1. Shift Early
    Observe the corner as you’re coming towards it. Hmm, what sort of gear will get you up that? You want to go all Goldilocks on this one: Not too hard that you’ll stall and have to put your foot down, and not too easy or you’ll spin like a maniac. You want jusssst right.

  2. Lean Forward
    You’ll want to lean forward and hold your chest closer to the bar—how close will depend on the steepness. It shifts your weight forward to increase traction.

Last words: As with all things mountain biking, practice makes perfect, so if you find a good switchback that doesn’t have a high penalty for messing it up, “Session” it until you’ve nailed it.

FUNDAMENTAL SKILL #2:

Assume the Attack Position

You’ll hear mountain bikers talk a lot about the attack position, and it’s not what you think. The Attack Position is a fundamental, out-of-the-saddle body position in mountain biking. Let’s compare. When you’re sitting down and riding, you have a ton of stability, but when you’re standing, what you sacrifice in stability you more than make up for in maneuverability. Most out-of-the-saddle body positions have their cornerstone set in the Attack Positon, so it’s a key skill to learn. Here’s Kate Courtney with a quick demo, and we’ve added some quick pointers below to help you assume the Attack Position.

Attack Positon sounds aggressive, but as you can see in this video, it actually makes a whole lotta sense. When cats are ready to pounce, they’re light on their feet, nimble, and ready for anything—and that pretty much sums up this body position. It doesn’t matter if you’re Kate Courtney charging down the trail in an XC race or a weekend warrior out to have a blast, everyone uses this body positon. Do as Kate does in this video and practice it on some sloping trail with gentle corners to experiment with balancing and moving your body around your bike.

Quick Tips:

  1. Cowgirl Up
    Keep your knees bent, relaxed, and wide, which will give you room to move the bike between them as you make turns. Of course, this is also called the "cowboy position," but it doesn’t matter—either way we’re riding this thing.

  2. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Ninja
    Get out of the saddle with your weight in your feet. This goes hand-in-hand with the Cowgirl stance, and it makes carving a corner as simple as leaning the bike and shifting weight from one foot to the other (dropping the outside pedal and inside bar—see 3).

  3. ‘Bows Out, Hands Light
    Don’t strangle your grips—keep your hands light and easy—and your elbows bent and relaxed. Your arms and hands are the captains of your handlebars, leaning your bike this way and that with mind-blowing dexterity. Can you feel it?

  4. Focus
    When you’re in this positon, you’re in high alert. You’re absolutely ready for whatever’s coming up ahead on that trail, whether it be a swooping corner and sharp switchback, you’re on it.