Intermediate Packrafting: What I learned Photos, videos & story by…
Shredpacking Basics Part 2: Handling
Videos & story by Liz Sampey. Photos by Steve Fassbinder.
Liz has worked as a PMBIA-certified mountain bike skills instructor for eight years. The PMBIA methodology works to teach any discipline of mountain biker at any level. She’s taken her knowledge and experience of bikepacking and applied their proven system to this specific environment in her own riding and coaching practice.
In Part I of our Shredpacking Series, we reviewed how to set up our bikes to have the most fun bikepacking on singletrack, otherwise known as shredpacking. Now let’s talk about the bike handling skills you’ll need to accomplish that goal.
Keep in mind that this article is only an overview, meant to give you a place to start or a tune-up on the basics. For more detailed skills training, hire a coach or take a skills clinic.
HOW IS “SHREDPACKING” DIFFERENT?
The handling skills you need for bikepacking are no different than they are for any other discipline of mountain biking. If you were to take a lesson from a certified mountain bike skills instructor, everything you would learn on your unloaded bike would also apply to bikepacking.
However, given the increased weight of a bikepacking setup and the fact that there are a number of “appendages” strapped to the bike in various places where they aren’t normally present on a typical mountain bike ride, there are several skills that are especially important to pay attention to and dial in if you want to have a successful shredpacking experience.
I’ve selected six skills I feel are worth taking note of for my fellow shredpackers. For each of the six skills I’ll discuss these points:
- What the skill or maneuver is.
- Why it’s important in bikepacking.
- How to perform the skill.
And then I’ll demonstrate it in a short video clip.
Whether you’re a complete beginner or a seasoned rider, making sure you’ve mastered these basics on a fully loaded bike will enhance your level of fun, efficiency and safety on your shredpacking trip.
If you’re just starting out with skills work or you’re a little rusty, I recommend working on these one at a time instead of all together. You can practice them anywhere. You don’t need the perfect terrain or location. I also recommend dialing these skills in on an unloaded bike before adding weight and appendages. But that’s also not necessary. The best piece of advice is to just start!
Six Shredpacking Skill Basics to Master
SKILL ONE: POSITIONING FOR STABILITY – “NEUTRAL,” “READY” & “CLIMBING”
These are the basic positions you will be in on a bike. The better your basic positions are, the more ready you’ll be to move your bike over any terrain.
The “neutral” position is your default when standing. You will move from this position to adapt to terrain changes.
The “ready” position is the lower, more stable version of the neutral position. It gives you more stability to manage faster speeds and rough terrain and more room to dynamically move the bike underneath you.
The “climbing” position can be seated or standing. It will allow you to adjust your weight between the two wheels to give you optimal traction and make moves to lift your wheels when needed.
Positioning is especially important when riding a loaded bike, as your bike will not feel as nimble as it does unloaded (at least when you’re first starting out). Having solid ready and climbing positions will allow you to more effectively move that weight underneath you. And making sure you return to neutral when the trail levels out or gets smooth will keep your muscles from fatiguing during long loaded-down days in the saddle (you’re already working hard enough!).
Neutral: Pedals level, chin over stem, arms and legs relaxed.
Ready: From neutral, hinge at the hips and bring your chest low towards the stem. Slightly flex your knees and adjust your hips to stay centered over the pedals. If you loosen your grip on the bars, do you fall forward or backward? If so, adjust your hips.
Demonstration: Neutral & Ready
Climbing: Weight shifted forward on the saddle, chest low to keep your center of mass low and front wheel on the ground. When standing, slightly raise your hips and “hover” them off the saddle, but keep your chest low. The steeper the climb, the lower and more forward you need to be. The key is hovering your hips, not standing “up.”
SKILL TWO: BALANCE & RANGE OF MOVEMENT
You’ll often hear mountain bike coaches refer to “bike-body separation,” which is the ability to move your bike separately from your body and vice versa. It’s best to generally make smaller movements with your body and larger movements with your bike. A greater range of movement provides better ability to balance and adjust to the terrain. This can only happen if we begin from a stable position, as described above, and are also staying relaxed and mobile in those positions. If a rider is stiff they will not be able to react, move accordingly and stay balanced on the bike.
Because riding a bike involves a constant change in the forces acting on the rider, the rider needs to make adjustments to either maintain a stable position or regain it. These balancing movements happen in four planes: up and down, side-to-side, fore-aft and rotational. Having enough range of movement for bike-body separation is important over technical features, in corners, on off-camber trail sections, etc.
Here is a demonstration overview of the four planes of movement. Then I will describe them in greater detail with their on-trail demos below.
Up and Down: You can move your body up and down over your bike by changing from the neutral to ready position and vice versa. You can also move your bike up and down underneath you, over dips in the terrain by pushing down into your suspension with both your hands and feet and then absorbing the bike back up towards your body gently. Or you can let the suspension “explode” so the wheels leave the ground.
Side-to-Side: In this plane you will primarily be moving your bike side-to-side underneath you by tipping the handlebars one at a time up and down, while your legs remain relaxed so the bike can move between them.
Fore-Aft: You move your body over the bike in the fore-aft plane when moving into the climbing position, shifting your weight forward and back to maintain traction between your two wheels on the climb. Or you can move your bike fore-aft under your body to “push” it over a rough piece of terrain for some extra momentum so it doesn’t get stopped up in places where you’re not able to pedal.
Rotation: You rotate your body over your bike primarily for high-speed cornering. To do this you should twist your hips towards the outside of the corner and your shoulders/chest towards the inside of the corner. And, of course, turn your head as you look where you want to go.
For tight, slow-speed switchbacks, you will rotate both your body as described and rotate your bike as you turn your handlebars around the corner. *Note: cornering specifically is a complex maneuver which encompasses many skills put together. Rotational range of movement is only one of the many!
SKILL THREE: BRAKING (EMERGENCY STOP)
Braking is easy, right? All riders do it. And it’s one of the most basic skills that you likely learned long ago, unless you’re new to mountain biking as well as bikepacking.
When riding a loaded bike, it’s important to remember that it won’t stop as quickly as you’re used to because it’s heavier. So it’s good to review the mechanics of braking and especially the emergency stop. The emergency stop is exactly how it sounds: coming to a stop very quickly in an “emergency” situation where you’re moving fast and don’t have time to modulate the brakes and slow the bike down gradually.
It’s obvious why we brake in general. But here are a few scenarios where I’ve personally used the emergency stop in bikepacking:
- My buddy in front of me crashes suddenly and I’m close behind.
- I’m riding into a technical section and I realize last-minute I’d rather walk it.
- And the most common is the inevitable creature on the trail around a corner or on the ground, especially when that creature happens to be a person, their dog/horse or even a bear, moose or rattlesnake.
If you don’t have the emergency stop in your toolkit, you’ll end up flying over the bars and landing on top of the thing you want to avoid.
Generally when we’re braking we apply brakes gradually, like the dimmer switch on a light. And we modulate the braking power depending on the terrain and if we want to actually slow down versus generally maintain speed but not speed up. The front brake has more stopping/slowing down power. The rear brake is used for not speeding up. And we can apply them in different ratios for specific terrain needs.
For the emergency stop, the key to not landing on the ground when you need to brake quickly is body position: hips back, get low, brace. Bracing includes pushing your heels down to brace against the pedals, and also bracing your weight against the handlebars (which will happen when you get your center of mass low).
Bonus #1: Off-Trail Practice
This is an important one to practice off the trail at first. Go into a soft grassy area so it won’t hurt if you end up on the ground and you won’t fly into a tree. Try it gradually, first moving slowly and then speeding up, so you can experience the strong forces as you quickly grab your brakes at different speeds. You’ll learn quickly where your body position needs to be. Practice accelerating, then stopping fast by engaging both your front and rear brakes WHILE you drop your hips back, get low, and brace.
Bonus #2: Brake Setup
For bikepacking, many people find it favorable to get rid of their XC brakes/rotors if they have them and instead use brakes designed for enduro or even downhill riding, because of our heavier loads and the strain on the brakes over a multi-day trip with long downhills in potentially challenging conditions (wet, dusty, etc).
I prefer 4-piston brakes and rotors that are at least 180mm both front and rear. When I raced the Highland Trail 550 in Scotland I used a 200mm rotor up front and a 180 in the rear. And I was glad I did. It’s also a good idea to pack an extra pair of brake pads (or even two) on a bikepacking trip and learn how to quickly change them, as the need for trail-side changes on longer trips is not uncommon.
SKILL FOUR: TRAIL SCANNING
Many mountain bikers are taught: “Look ahead. Don’t look down!” This can help in some situations. But it misses the whole point of terrain awareness, which is to collect information about the trail so you can choose the line you want to ride. To do that, we must not stare ahead nor down, but be constantly scanning between these two points. Only then can we be aware of an entire section of trail instead of just a point in the trail.
With a loaded bike, it’s important to have good awareness of the terrain as it can take a bit longer to make moves. And the moves you may want to make or the line you want to choose could be different than they would be on an unloaded bike. The more awareness you have of the trail in front of you, the more flow you’ll have while you’re making those choices on the move.
We want to scan our vision back and forth between two points: the “now” and the “next,” sweeping the trail with our eyes in between the points to gather information.
The “now” isn’t staring straight down at your wheel. Rather, it’s looking at the terrain that you are about to ride now, 1-2 seconds ahead. The “next” is 3-5 seconds ahead, the section of trail you will be riding next. As your speed changes, the distances of “now” and “next” will also change. The section of trail between the now and the next is your field of vision. And you’ll use your knowledge of that field of vision to choose which line you want to ride as you’re moving.
SKILL FIVE: PEDAL PUNCH WHEELIE
The Pedal Punch Wheelie, also called simply the pedal wheelie, is a slow-speed maneuver that we use while climbing to elevate our front wheel over a ledge, rock or root that is too abrupt to just roll over while pedaling. If we don’t have the skill to lift the front wheel while riding in these situations, it will force us to get off and walk. This isn’t a big deal if it happens once in a while. But it gets annoying and can really slow you down over time.
With a heavier front end due to bags/bottles mounted on the handlebars, fork and top tube just behind the stem, it can be harder for the front wheel to naturally roll over more abrupt obstacles. And it can also be harder to get the front wheel off the ground if our skills for doing so are sub-par. Here’s how to nail the maneuver every time (with practice!).
This is another good one to practice in a grassy field. You need to be in a gear that will give you enough power to lift the wheel and not just spin out, but it can’t be so hard that the power doesn’t get transferred. It can take some time to find the right setting. I tend to start two or three cogs from the top of my cassette.
To set up for the maneuver, have the pedal with your strong leg (or either one if you’re ambidextrous) at the very top of your pedal stroke: 12 o’clock if you imagine you’re looking at yourself from the side and your pedal stroke circle is a clock.
Then, just before you get to the obstacle you want to clear, “punch” the pedal down from 12 o’clock. And then let the bike’s front end raise up towards your chest as it elevates over the obstacle.
There is no need to yank it up with your arms, as the force from the pedal punch will lift your wheel on its own.
As your front wheel comes back down, raise your butt off the saddle slightly to offweight the back wheel as you pedal through and over the obstacle.
SKILL SIX: BASIC FRONT WHEEL LIFT
Not to be confused with the pedal wheelie, a slow-speed seated climbing maneuver, the basic front wheel lift is a higher speed standing maneuver you can use while coasting downhill or on flat terrain.
This maneuver lets you elevate your front wheel to clear an obstacle in the trail, or to lift it over the lip of a ledge that is too high or abrupt to simply roll down (aka, a “drop” versus a “rollover”).
Even if the ledge is small enough that you probably won’t go over the bars if you try and roll it, the heavier front end on a loaded bike makes even smallish ledges feel especially clunky and awkward if you thump your way down them. Lifting your front wheel over any size drop provides a smoother ride on a loaded bike. Plus it’s much more fun to float!
As you approach the obstacle, load the front suspension, then unload it and let it “explode” upwards. This will lift your wheel as you coast over the obstacle at speed. Load and explode.
The timing of this maneuver will depend on how fast you are going. If you are going more slowly, you will need to load and explode closer to the obstacle. If you are going fast, you’ll need to do it from farther away to let your front wheel sail over the ledge.
Practice on small obstacles such as a curb to dial in your timing for this maneuver and make sure it’s accurate before you take it to bigger drops where missing your timing could end with painful consequences.
Shredpacking Basics WRAP-UP
Personally, my unloaded bikes weigh around 27lbs. And my loaded bikepacking rigs can range anywhere from 45 to 90lbs and upwards, depending on if I’m racing versus on a multi-month bikepacking/packrafting mission (or anywhere in between).
Even a 45lb bike feels different than a 30lb bike. And this is why it’s extra important to make sure our basic positions and skills are dialed in on our shredpacking rigs to have the most efficient, safe and fun trip possible.
I’ve been bikepacking for eight years. And by putting in the time to hone both my skills and my packing/loading strategy, I can barely tell the difference now when I’m riding loaded versus unloaded. It took lots of practice. And it was worth it.
It feels great to be in a place where I can ride trails on my loaded bike just like I do on my unloaded bike. This makes all my favorite singletrack adventures, like the rough and rugged Colorado Trail and Arizona Trail, possible as multi-day bikepacking trips. With your own time and practice, you’ll be able to do the same.
And that, my friends, is what shredpacking is all about. Have fun out there!
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