Mountain bikers corner at far lower speeds than do road riders, partly because overall speeds are lower, but much of it is because of the setting. A mountain biker, even on a screaming descent, has to take sharper turns, with mortal obstacles a metre to either side, and on a path made of something ather than blacktop. Thus the techniques for switchbacks, the focus of this article, are different than high speed road cornering
Be Alert to Terrain
On a perfect hardpack trail, the line you'll select in advance will start and end at the outside of the path, with the apex of your path touching the inside center of the corner. This is to keep the radius of your turning circle as large as possible, and thus the keep the centrifugal force and traction requirements at a minimum.
Seldom does one encounter such a turn. Watch for wet leaves or sand that will eat up your traction and send you off the trail. Adjust your path to give rocks or protruding roots a wide berth, should the turn be sharper than you expected. (Bunny-hopping over debris on a sharp turn will cause you to follow your momentum, as opposed to your steering, which means right off the trail.)
Frequently, one side of a trail will be sandy or muddy, while the other will be more servicable. In that case, forget about flattening your arc and aim to maximise traction. Just don't try to enter at the same speed.
Lean the Bike, Not Your Body
While the road technique of leaning with the bike while seated is best for tame, high-speed corners, the majority of the turns you'll encounter on the trail can be best dealt with by keeping the body relatively upright and pushing the bike down to the ground. Put your weight on the outside pedal and the inside of the handlebars, and tilt the bike right down, up to 60 degrees or so, depending on the turn. Keep your body low, with weight on the front wheel, and the inside pedal up and to the front. This style of leaning is can most easily deal with an sudden skid, and if things get hairy, you've got the bike between you and the ground.
Straighten out of the turn as early as you can and give a few solid pedal strokes to get back up to speed. Shift before you need to, and keep the bike in a fairly high gear the whole time, both so that you can apply the most power with some standing strokes before you resume your seat, and so you can pedal on the approach as you push the bike down. On slower turns, where you can avoid jambing down the bike, you should be pedalling all the way through.
Touching the ground with a foot on a turn slows you down enormously. If you ride the corner properly, you rarely never have to take your feet off the pedals, which is the goal.
The most common type of turn to dab on is a sharp turn followed by an steep uphill; here the trick is to not slow down, and to approach in a low enough gear. The other main instance is when a switchback is very sharp; read on for how to deal with these without clipping out.
If you're coasting in at the turn's maximum speed, there is the option to unclip your inside shoe until the turn straightens out. This also unweights the inside pedal, which you should do anyway. "In loose stuff, either of your wheels might wash," says Giove. "You can save yourself with a dab of your foot." If you do have to dab, use the heel, with the front of the foot pointed upwards and forward, and with the knee bent to absorb the shock.
A technique called "apexing" is useful for every turn, but one must consider more factors on switchbacks. In this technique you are trying to reduce the angle of the turn while keeping the total distance travelled at a minimum. As you approach a switchback, move to the outside of the trail. Plan your line to drift from the outside of the trail (A)
, to touch the inside edge at the sharpest point of the curve (B)
. For the rest of the curve just hang on and try to keep speed while staying close to the inside of the curve, drifting to the outside if you need to (C)
. Your ultimate goal should be to come out of the curve in the middle or inside of the trail, ready for whatever is next!
\ \ / A/
\ D \ / /
\ \_/B /
\ C /
A great, fun way to understand this technique is to play video racing games. Try one lap of the game taking wide corners, one taking sharp skidding corners, and one using the technique illustrated here.
For tight singletrack corners, see our article with techniques for ultra-tight turning