Riding coach Misti Hurst explains the correct techniques to employ when navigating switchbacks on twisty mountain roads
Switchbacks, hairpin turns, twisties: there’s a reason mountain roads like the Stelvio Pass and Pikes Peak are so popular with motorcyclists. Put simply, corners are fun. I mean, none of us ride for the thrill we get on the straights, right?
But with those tight and technical bends comes a certain type of challenge. Proper riding technique is needed to navigate them correctly because switchbacks are challenging and mistakes can be very costly. So how do we master these types of corners?
First of all, having patience and setting your entry speed correctly is paramount. When we don’t have patience, we tend to rush corners and approach them with high entry speeds. Whenever we perceive that our entry speed is too high, it generates survival reactions, things our bodies do unintentionally to protect ourselves, but that actually make the situation worse.
Set your entry speed
Coming into a corner too hot, especially a tight switchback that curves back around itself, can cause us to tighten up on the bars, target fixate, jab on the brakes too hard, or panic and make any combination of the above mistakes.
Approaching the corner with a more conservative entry speed will not only prevent these dangerous survival reactions from cropping up, but it will then allow more time to execute proper technique to get through safely.
Hairpins are different from more straightforward corners because they are visually more challenging. You have to push your eyes to look into the corner further and this often requires a full turn of the head.
A conscious effort has to be made to turn your head and look into the corner before you begin to turn the bike so that you have a goal, a place to aim for. You go where you look, so look where you want to go.
Take the right line
Line determines the outcome. Where you enter the turn determines how and where you will exit. It’s easy to get caught up with turning the bike too early and too far to the inside of the corner. This will push the bike wide on the exit and require you to either brake and/or add more lean angle mid-corner.
Pairing patience and a more conservative entry speed with a deeper and later turn-in point will give you a safer, more predictable line through the corner.
Remember though, even if your intention is to take a later turn-in point, if your entry speed is too high, your survival instincts may kick in and you could still end up turning in too soon.
Downhill versus uphill
Most switchbacks are either uphill or downhill and each present slightly different challenges.
Many riders find downhill switchbacks more difficult because the momentum of the bike keeps the overall speed up, and the gradient of the road puts more weight on the smaller front tyre. So, how do you maximise front-end traction while still slowing the bike down and setting correct entry speeds?
Trail braking with the front brake smoothly will help you set your entry speed and carry the bike deeper into the corner, but the brakes must taper off simultaneously as the bike is turned into the corner.
Jabbing on the front brake, or holding too much too long, can push the front to lose traction, so trail them off as you begin to turn in. Also, allow your body to go with the bike into the corner (lean right into a right-hand turn) to reduce the amount of overall bike lean angle needed.
Crack on the throttle
This is something that is often forgotten on downhill hairpins. Once the bike is pointed in the direction you want to go, crack on the throttle and roll it on throughout the rest of the turn. This gets extra weight off the front tyre and puts the suspension back in the correct range, which helps the bike hold a predictable line.
Another tip is to grip the tank with your knees so that you don’t slide forward and to help you maintain a relaxed grip on the handlebars. And remember to keep up those visual skills.
Don’t let the downhill momentum push your head forward and your eyes down. Make sure you keep your head up and your eyes looking ahead to where you want to go.
For uphill hairpins, a strong focus on visual skills combined with good throttle control will help you power through the turns. Look into the turn, spot your apex, turn the bike, roll on the throttle, and move your eyes ahead to the exit point.
Mountain passes sprinkled with repeating hairpins are a motorcyclist’s dream and offer a supremely satisfying riding challenge. They are one of the reasons why so many of us make a pilgrimage to the mountains each year. With proper riding technique, they can become even safer and more fun for all.