What Is A Switchback In Cycling – And How Should You Ride Them?

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Go cycling in the great outdoors and chances are you’re going to come across some sharp, nasty bends. And there’s more to them than meets the eye.

But there’s no need to make a mountain out of a molehill!

If you’ve found yourself wondering, “What is a switchback?”, then fear not – we’ll get you up to speed and give you the top tips on riding them like a pro.

Put simply, a switchback is a sharp bend in a road or trail on a hill, typically turning the route back 180 degrees. They help to make steep terrain accessible for bikers, hikers, or (for paved switchbacks) motor vehicles.

In this article, we’ll be covering:

  • What Is A Switchback?
  • Switchbacks In Mountain Biking
  • Switchbacks In Road Cycling
  • How To Ride A Downhill Switchback Turn
  • How To Ride A Switchback When Climbing

Let’s dive in!

What Is A Switchback: Title Image

What Is A Switchback?

A switchback is a sharp corner on a mountain road or trail, typically around 180 degrees.

It’s worth noting that this is the North American usage of the term. In British English, a “switchback” is used to refer to any sharply undulating path or road. That said, within cycling communities, the North American meaning is a little more universal.

Switchbacks generally come in series, running sequentially up and down a slope.

The basic idea of switchbacks is that switching back and forth a slope’s gradient it makes it possible to climb or descend more at a more gradual rate. It would be impossible to build a road like Alpe d’Huez in a straight line up the mountain!

Switchbacks are most commonly associated with mountain biking, where they’re a feature of off-road trails.

But you also see them in road biking, commonly in mountainous areas of Europe such as the Alps or Pyrénées, as well as hiking, driving, and more.

We’ll discuss mountain and road switchbacks separately. While it’s the same basic premise, mountain switchbacks and road switchbacks are a little different; more close cousins than siblings.

A series of switchbacks down a rocky cliff face.

Switchbacks in Mountain Biking

Switchbacks are seen everywhere in mountain biking to make the steepest slopes accessible.

Mountain bike trails are built to minimize ecological damage to their natural environments, and switchbacks help prevent soil erosion.

Switchback turns typically have no berm (meaning they aren’t banked), so you can’t mountain bike down them at high descent speed like a bermed downhill trail corner.

Switchbacks corners are tight, and they’re one of the hardest bits of mountain biking for beginners.

We’ll be discussing how to go up and down switchbacks later in this guide, as they’re manageable with a few basic tips.

A series of hairpin bends snaking through the jungle.

Switchbacks in Road Cycling

On the road, switchbacks are built to handle traffic so are a little different in nature.

They’re bigger: roads are wider than offroad trails, and road switchbacks have bigger bends and longer stretches in between to allow traffic to pass.

Road switchbacks are commonly called hairpin bends, or “lacets” (“lace”) in French.

The roads of mountainous Europe are often built over the passes and trails connecting historic villages. The switchbacks of France, Italy, or Switzerland use these routes to meander up and down mountains.

These climbs are tough going, favored by climbing fanatics.

Headlights streak up the Passo dello Stelvio at dusk.

Famous examples include the Lacets de Montvernier in France and the formidable Passo dello Stelvio in the Italian Alps, an 1800-meter climb through 48 switchbacks that regularly features in the Giro d’Italia.

Unlike in Europe, mountainous roads in North America are often mapped out to avoid sheer climbs, so road switchbacks of this sort are less common.

As road switchbacks are wider and more forgiving than their tricky mountain biking cousins, there aren’t as many specific techniques you need to know to navigate them.

Nonetheless, getting to grips with switchback technique still provides valuable transferrable skills for road cyclists too.

An Alpine mountain with a switchback trail snaking down the face.

How To Ride A Downhill Switchback Turn

Downhill mountain biking switchbacks can be tricky: they’re steep and the corners are tight. It’s intimidating turning a tight 180, downhill, at speed.

So here are the four parts that make up a safe downhill switchback turn.

#1. Braking

Controlling your speed is paramount to a safe switchback turn.

You want to do the majority of your braking before actually entering the turn, so don’t go in too hot!

As you brake coming into the turn, make sure you apply pressure evenly to both brakes. This will help you avoid locking either of the wheels.

Ideally, you should come off the brake entirely during the turn, so try to drop to your ideal speed before entering the turn.

There are two reasons for this:

  • So your tires are rolling throughout the turn to give them maximum grip.
  • So you get a nice even flow of momentum around the corner making it easier to keep stable.

Good switchback turns come with time and experience, so start slow and get quicker as you build up your confidence.

A rocky switchback trail in Canada.

#2. Line

Before you enter the turn, and as you execute it, you need to make a good line to follow.

Choose a nice, generous line to make the turn easier for yourself.

This means lining up on the outside of the corner as you approach it, and following a nice wide arc around the corner to give yourself more space.

A generous line takes you close to the trail’s edge – so it’s vital to brake early so you stay on the trail!

A mountain biker prepares to take on a switchack.

#3. Eye-line

As you execute your turn you need to think about vision.

Wherever your eyes are looking your bike with naturally follow. Make your turn easier by using this effect to guide your bike through the corner.

Follow the arc of your turn with your eyes and the bike will naturally track through it.

As you come around the corner look through the exit to the next section of the trail.

Using your eye line in this way will help your bike stay on the line you’ve chosen and the turn will go smoothly.

So stay focused on where you want to steer your bike.

Mountain biker takes on a descent down a misty valley.

#4. Bike Body Separation

Going into the turn, body positioning is everything.

You need to create bike-body separation, which allows you to lean the bike without leaning your body.

To do this you need to stand in the saddle, with neutral pedals and a wide, open stance using bent knees and elbows.

Stay centered above the bike. Resist the urge to shift backward over your back wheel, and use your arms to brace against the forces which will push your weight towards the handlebars at speed.

The middle of the bike, above the bottom bracket, is the best place to execute the turn from, so keep your weight here.

As you take the turn, angle the bike low into the corner, whilst keeping your body upright and balanced.

A road cyclist climbs through a series of switchbacks.

How To Ride A Switchback When Climbing

What goes up must come down – and vice versa!

Thankfully, switchbacks are much easier to corner safely when climbing. But of course, it means putting in the work to get uphill.

These are the four components of climbing a switchback:

#1. Gear

This is fairly straightforward.

Pick a nice low gear so you’ll be able to keep your momentum up throughout the climb without stalling.

Err on the side of caution. It’s better to climb slowly than to have to keep switching gears through the middle of the corner.

Properly cornering whilst going up a switchback will involve an extra push of power to keep your peddling cadence up during the turn.

A rocky switchback path up a cliff in Utah.

#2. Line

The uphill logic here is pretty similar to the downhill.

Take a nice wide line and give yourself as much space as possible.

As well as giving you more room, this will cut into the gradient of the slope and make the climb easier – a point that’s relevant to climbing switchbacks in road cycling too.

#3. Eye-line

Again, the thinking here is similar to descending switchbacks.

Use your eye-line to naturally guide your bike through the easiest available line.

As you make the turn and look through it to your exit point you’ll also get a look at what’s ahead, and if you need to switch gears you’ll give yourself plenty of time to do it.

Snow-covered switchbacks in Canyonlands.

#4. Low Body Position

Body positioning for getting up switchback turns is different from going down.

Climbing in mountain biking is all about getting forwards and low. So, get your hips over the frame or forwards in the saddle, and your chest above the handlebars.

Control is less of a problem here – you’re at little risk of going flying off the trail whilst going up it after all – so just make sure you keep the power up to carry you all the way through the uphill turn.

A road with switchbacks in the Alps.

What Is A Switchback: Handled!

So you’re all caught up to speed on switchbacks and ready to take them on!

Mountain bikers rejoice, because you’re likely to see switchbacks all over the place, and your local trails are bound to have lots, from beginner level right up to serious challenges.

For the road biking readers, unless you’re lucky enough to live close by, you’ll have to travel a little further afield to take on switchbacks like the breathtaking alpine climbs we mentioned in this article.

So get out there, keep your turns wide, and the pace up!

Found this “What Is A Switchback” guide helpful? Check out more from the BikeTips experts below!

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One of BikeTips' experienced cycling writers, Riley spends most of his time in the saddle of a sturdy old Genesis Croix De Fer 20, battling the hills of the Chilterns or winds of North Cornwall. Off the bike you're likely to find him with his nose in a book.

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