Conquering switchbacks: Learn to hop your bike

Credit: Anton Want/Allsport
Mountain Bike: Getting Around Tight Corners Edmund R. Burke, Ph.D.

It's one of the hardest moves in mountain biking, no way around it. The terrain is steep. You're climbing, pumping hard.

Suddenly you're confronted by a switchback too tight to steer through. You have to stop, get off, lift and turn your bike, then remount and resume course. Doing so blows your momentum.

Learning to stand

To manage switchbacks, you need to be able to do a track stand and hop both wheels. Find a smooth, relatively flat surface such as a school playground, pedal slowly to a stop and stand, keeping the crank arms parallel to the ground. Lock both brakes and try to balance the bike. It is ok to mover the handlebar back and forth but try to minimize the motion.

Chances are you'll feel more stable with the front wheel cocked to one side, but work on keeping it straight. If the surface tilts, it will help to turn the front wheel into the slope.

Hop to it

Once you've learned a track stand, you're ready to learn to hop. From a track stand, press down hard on the front wheel and abruptly pull up on the handlebar to yank the wheel into the air.

If you reel clumsy doing this, it's because you probably are. It'll pass. I like to think of this move as bouncing the front wheel like a basketball. Squash the tire as flat as you can and it'll instantly bounce back. Lift on the bar and the wheel will easily come up into the air. You've hopped.

Work on jumping the front wheel once then returning to a balanced track stand. Once you've mastered this, try hopping the wheel twice before returning to a stop, then 3 times, etc.

Remember, the key to hopping isn't the lift but the landing. To clean tight turns, you've got to be able to land in a steady track stand.

Next, try hopping the wheel one way, then the other. Keep hopping until you can move around in a circle with the back wheel as the pivot point. Do it in both directions. Come to a balanced stop after each hop.

Advanced hopping

Now for the hard part: hopping the back wheel. Compress the rear tire by abruptly shifting your weight onto the pedals (again keeping the cranks horizontal). Then quickly shift back to the front, pulling your feet up, and twisting forward on the grips as if you're pivoting the bike around them.

If nothing develops other than feeling like a fool, don't worry. It'll pass. It's just part of learning. Toe clips or clipless pedals are essential for this move. Without them, pulling your feet up will do nothing more than put you out of control.

Keep practicing back-wheel hops a few times each day until you can do them at will. Then try 2 consecutive hops and so on, just as you did with front-wheel jumps, Practice hopping the rear end around in a circle using the front wheel as the pivot point.

The big test

Finally you're ready to hop the entire bike. Center your weight, compress both tires, then raise the front and rear wheels simultaneously. Instead of trying to hop just once, jump continuously, using the momentum from one hop to help power the next.

Try pivoting the bike in a circle with its center under your bottom bracket, or at least somewhere between the front and rear tires. Practice hopping circles in both directions.

Now you're ready for the real thing. This is the easy part because you have the skills you need. Slowly ride deep into the turn. Lock the brakes and hop the front wheel into the corner. Continue the circle by hopping the back wheel. If you've jumped each wheel far enough, you'll be aligned and ready to resume pedaling. If not, hop whichever wheel seems to need moving.

Some switchbacks are better managed by hopping the back wheel first. Ride into the turn, lock the brakes, and hop the rear wheel around. Here's the tricky part: Let your bike roll back, lock the rear brake, then hop the front wheel into the turn. You should be pointed at the exit. If not, hop whichever wheel seems appropriate again.

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