How to Negotiate Switchbacks on a Tandem Mountain Bike

How to Negotiate Switchbacks on a Tandem Mountain Bike

Riding a Tandem Mountain Bike inevitably brings up the question of “how does that thing handle the turns”? For novice tandem teams the answer usually depends on how steep the angle of the turn is but with a few pointers and a little practice most tandem teams can ride through most every switchback with ease. The following pointers are designed to help your tandem team dive through the switchbacks.

Switchback turns are generally found along steep slopes to allow trail designers a way to lower the gradient of a climb while ascending/ descending a ridge. The switch back, if appropriately built, is comprised of an approach, apex, and exit. Depending on terrain and geography the major variance between switchbacks occurs at the apex. The apex can either be shallow and wide or sharp and narrow. The sharp and narrow switchbacks are found on steep or rocky slopes and will be the most difficult to navigate on a tandem. The shallow and wide variety are the most abundant and can easily be handled by a tandem team.

To negotiate a switchback the captain must setup the bike when entering the approach on the outside of the trail or opposite the direction of the turn. For example if the switchback turns to the left the captain should place the tandem on the far right of the trail. As the front wheel enters the apex the captain must then avoid the urge to begin turning. Instead the tandem captain should steer straight across the top arc of the apex as deep as the trail will allow.

Here is where teamwork and communication comes into play. When the captain is just about to run out of room with the front tire they must instruct the stoker to lean into the turn. As the stoker leans the captain should also turn the front tire in the direction of the turn allowing the tandem to dive into the corner. Unlike a single mountain bike the sensation of a switchback turn can be more frightening on a tandem bike. As the captain turns and the stoker leans the tandem will essentially fall into and around the corner pivoting on the rear wheel.

For the captain the ride can be more disconcerting than for the stoker since the distance traveled is much greater and the angle of deflection feels significantly greater. With practice the movement will feel more natural.

With the tandem now diving into and through the switchback the front tire will begin the exit of the turn. The captain should attempt to keep the front tire on the outside of the exit line, again for example a left hand turn means keeping the tire on the right side of the trail, allowing the rear tire a bit more clearance around the inside apex and exit of the switchback.

The above tips apply to both uphill and downhill travel. The only difference between the two will be the source of momentum and the timing and placement of the pedal strokes. The primary driver of the success of a switchback turn falls into the stokers weight shift. Too much of a shift and the tandem will knife too sharply into the corner while too little weight shift and the tandem team will overshoot the apex. Communication from the captain regarding more or less “lean” is key to a synchronized movement.

With a little practice, patience, and communication a tandem team’s response to the question “how does that thing handle the turns?” will be a simple “with no problem! So try and keep up”.

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