Law enforcement officials and parents may prefer you keep both wheels on the ground, but everyone wants to learn how to wheelie.
Tips for safely learning to get your front wheel up and general info and techniques
For as long as motorcycles have existed, many people riding them have been doing wheelies. While there's no real benefit of getting your front wheel off of the ground, in fact you’ll go faster around a track when keeping your front wheel down, it does look pretty cool. In a similar way that the experience of getting your knee down is a sign of skill on the race track, many riders see the wheelie as a benchmark in their two wheel career. So, let's dive into the wheelie, and how one is performed and why it will never go out of style.
Wheelies are a fun way to show off, but an unsuccessful wheelie will pretty much have the opposite effect. Doing it right can be impressive, but wrecking because you tried to do one…not so much. We are going to take a look at an extensive list of tips and tricks that I've accumulated over the years, that could help make sure you don’t embarrass yourself the way I did in my early days as a wannabe Starboy. For this piece we will not touch on the advanced subjects like finding a balance point, standing up, the 12 o’clock position and going through the gears while on the rear wheel. Instead were going to be primarily talking about the basic skills necessary to pull off a wheelie.
WARNING: Wheelies are dangerous, they add an unnecessary risk to your riding experience and almost nothing good will come from doing them, however wrecked bikes and hefty police fines are almost guaranteed. Though it can be fun to pull the front wheel up when passing a car full of girls, I have yet to have any of them ever demand I pull over and swap phone numbers because they were so twitter pated with my riding skills. Motorcycles are tools, not toys, and like many tools they can seriously hurt you if not used responsibly. So, perform wheelies at your own risk and preferably in a safe and controlled environment. Parking lots are a good place to practice without fear of police intervention but the owners may not agree. Having said that, RideApart does not condone violating traffic or safety laws. Practice wheelies at your own risk.
The Wheelie - In a Nutshell
There are several ways of doing a wheelie on a motorcycle but certain principles remain the same. The throttle brings the front wheel up, and the rear brake pedal brings the front wheel back down. Power wheelies are usually the first way you will experience the excitement of doing a wheelie. If you happen to ride a bike with enough power to pull off a power wheelie, it happens when you twist on the throttle, without using the clutch. As you open the throttle the weight begins to shift to the rear wheel. Though this can be felt at any speed, taking advantage of this effect is essentially what a wheelie is. It's an easy way to lift the front wheel and here's how you do it. First, you get the bike into the torquey part of the rev range, usually around 8000rpm on most modern 600 and a couple grand less on a modern 1000.
After you're going about 20-30mph, briefly close the throttle and then immediately crack it open before the rpms drop from the ideal part of the rev range. As you gain experience, this would be the time when you can dab the clutch to initially get the bike’s revs up, however the clutch is not used in the act of an actual power wheelie. Many sport bike enthusiasts have learned how to do power wheelies as they become more comfortable opening the throttle faster and faster over time. When riding aggressively it's not uncommon for the front wheel to lift under acceleration as you stand a bike back up on corner exits. You may have seen this while watching MotoGP and it is awesome.
Using the clutch to initiate a wheelie is the most precise way of pulling off the stunt but it is also the risky way to go about it. Popping a wheelie starts by disengaging the clutch, opening the throttle abruptly and then quickly popping the clutch. This delivers a sudden boost of power to the rear wheel. Clutch wheelies can also be performed by smoothly but somewhat quickly opening the clutch instead of popping it. As the clutch lever is let out, power is directed to the rear wheel via the throttle to further facilitate the front wheel’s lift.
After dabbling with these basic tenets you can start experimenting with combinations of using the clutch and simple roll-on power to find what feels right for you. Some riders like to dump the clutch to get the front wheel off the ground and then continue to modulate the height of the front wheel through the use of the throttle. This is referred to as “chasing a wheelie” in the stunt community. So, there's a primer on what a wheelie is. If you are still interested, then keep on reading as we dig a little deeper into the art of the horn-mono.
Please, keep in mind that this list is not the final word on wheelies, this is a product of my personal experience. The most important thing is finding what works for you and not riding over your head.
Find a Safe Practice Spot
Practicing wheelies in the right location can be the difference between having a good day and committing a crime. Spend the extra time to find a place where you won’t crash into anyone or bother anyone. Parking lots are fantastic wheelie training grounds if you can find a big one away from the public eye. Industrial lots are particularly good places to start. Bike noise will be a factor so doing this in a remote location that won’t bother anyone or invite unwanted attention is a good idea. A nice smooth road surface on the far end of civilization might work too, but it will be illegal so be prepared to pay the price. Be sure to scout your training area for potholes, gravel or debris that may be hazardous while you're doing your thing.
Wear Proper Gear!
Wearing full gear is a must when learning to wheelie. This means a helmet, armored jacket, gloves, preferably padded riding pants with armor and some appropriate riding shoes or boots. Depending on what type of helmet you have you may find slightly tilting it down to give you a better field of vision is helpful. My AGV Corsa has been designed to be in a race tuck so has little field of view under my nose. By adjusting my helmet I can see better while on the rear wheel.
Start With Small Wheelies
Start by trying to get the front wheel to come off the ground just a few inches at first. Once you get used to that feeling then you can try to get the front wheel up about a foot. Getting familiar with how it feels when the front wheel lifts up will help you learn control while conveniently boosting your confidence at the same time. In addition to starting small it's important to advance in small increments. Developing your wheelie skills in baby-steps is the safest well to learn.
Importance of Posture
Just like the act of cornering, your body position and posture plays an important role in doing wheelies. You should be leaning forward without being in the race tuck position. A normal upright riding position means you’re leaning too far back. Your arms should be loose but ready to make necessary inputs. Your knees should be firmly clamped on the tank, as this will help keep the bike stable and free your arms up, allowing you to maintain a loose grip on the bars. When doing wheelies, stability and control are your ally. Don’t lean forward too much, instead use the bikes power to get the wheel up, not your weight leaned back like you would when doing a wheelie on a bicycle.
Smooth on the Power
It should be pretty clear that wheelies require you get power to the rear wheel in a controlled but abrupt fashion. This power must be delivered fast enough to get the front wheel off of the ground without doing a burnout. That being said that power still needs to be delivered smoothly. If too much power is sent to the rear wheel too quickly, the rear tire is more likely to spin than it is to lift the front wheel off the tarmac. Finding a balance is key.
Get Familiar with the 1st Gear Scream
When learning how to wheelie, starting in first gear is a safe place to begin. Many new riders are apprehensive about even approaching their bike’s redline when in reality it doesn’t hurt the engine. Though it will feel weird at first, practicing riding in a straight line in first gear and getting the bike up to or near the redline will help you become more comfortable hearing the engine wail, once you start doing longer wheelies. The throttle can also be twitchy at higher rpm, so this straight line practice will help familiarize you with how the throttle responds t input at high rpm. An engine roaring at its redline can be intimidating at first.
Bouncing Off the Limiter
A modern 600 or 1000 will typically have the power to wheelie at around 8000rpm. However, most people will use more torque than required when they're first learning, which can run you into a serious problem. When you reach the engine’s redline the rev limiter will kick in and essentially cut off power to the back wheel that's keeping the front wheel up. This will result in the front end dropping to the ground abruptly. Keeping an eye on your tach and avoiding this situation is a priority.
Having good throttle control will help in all aspects of riding, but practicing proper throttle control is crucial to learning to safely perform a wheelie. What seems like a minor input may have unexpected results when opening the throttle on one wheel, because a little twist goes a long way. Like the other elements of learning to wheelie, practicing throttle control will eventually lead to muscle memory, this is the goal and will have major positive benefits to performing a wheelie as well as the rest of your riding career.
The lesser discussed “clutch control” is a valuable riding skill to hone as well. This applies to any type of riding and will help you with your wheelies too. I personally use two fingers to control the clutch lever, this is a good habit to get into, or so I’ve been told. Practicing letting the clutch out slowly as well as popping it will help develop fine clutch control.
Up, Up, Up!
Even when performing clutch-popping wheelies, getting the front wheel up should be thought of as a sequence of events, not a single action. Bringing the front wheel up in a controlled and smooth manner should always be your goal. I've broken this part down into three steps: 1. Getting the front tire off the ground, 2. Giving more throttle to keep the front wheel lifting up, 3. Finding the point where you want to stop lifting the front. For more advanced wheelie practitioners this is where the balance point would be found but we’ll save that for the more advanced “How to Wheelie” piece.
Just a Little Tap
Tapping the rear break as you get your revs up right before doing a wheelie will cause the front suspension to compress. If you time it correctly and give the bike power as the front suspension decompresses it will make the front wheel lift off of the ground with less power. Getting the wheel off the ground is more or less the hard part, the higher the wheel gets off the ground the less power it takes to keep bringing the front wheel up. Basic leverage principles should explain this so I won’t.
Going in a Straight Line
Keeping the bike in a straight line is vital to a successful wheelie, especially when first learning. Hugging the tank with your knees should help keep the bike traveling in the desired direction. Sometimes when you're doing wheelies you might start veering-off to one side. The way to correct this is through the use of your upper body. Lean in the opposite direction that the bikes going in, using your arms to pull the bike back gently, following your weight’s movement. Keep your knees planted against the tank where they started and don’t adjust your lower body. When your wheelie starts to get bent out of shape that’s usually a good indication that it’s time to bring the front wheel back down.
Practice! Practice! Practice!
Practice is arguably the most important part of safely learning to wheelie. Practice as much as you can and try to master what you’ve learned before moving on to more difficult techniques. Developing muscle memory for every aspect of doing a wheelie should help to keep you as safe as possible while learning. Being able to instantly react to what's happening without having to consciously think about it may be the difference between crashing or making a save.
Like Everything, Timing is Key
A wheelie is nothing more than a controlled and fluid sequence of events. Everything you’re doing is done for a reason. For example, tapping the rear brake before bringing up the front will make your wheelie easier and will require less power. As important as muscle memory is when doing wheelies, doing those actions at the right time makes all the difference. Practicing to learn how to correctly time each input is debatably as important as the inputs themselves.
Covering the Rear Brake
Your rear brake is pretty much the only thing that can get you out of a situation when you're on the rear wheel. Always have your foot ready to hit that rear brake pedal by keeping your foot constantly positioned over it. This is called covering the rear brake and it is an often overlooked and a critical piece of the puzzle.
The Art of a Smooth Landing
Bringing the front down smoothly is vital to performing wheelies. Dropping the front wheel back down too hard is bad for obvious reasons. A smooth landing shouldn’t cause your suspension to bottom out. Easing off of the throttle is a good way to bring the front end down in a controlled manner. Through techniques discussed earlier in this article you should be able to find a way that works for you to gradually bring that front tire back down to the tarmac. Remember to be easy on the rear brake as well, as using it correctly requires some finesse. Don’t treat the rear brake like a damn toggle switch.
Different Likes and Different Bikes
There’s no one correct way to do a wheelie. Different techniques work for different people, so find what works for you. In addition to that, every motorcycles has a unique way that it makes power and will require that you adjust your technique a wee-bit to make it wheelie. Smaller bikes may require more “pre bounce” to get the front wheel up, some bikes can’t power wheelie. Do what feels right and try to take advantage of your bike's strengths.
If your bike has Traction Control or ABS, you might notice that system confused by sustained wheelies. The front wheel spin sensor gets thrown through a loop because of the difference in wheel speed which should result in ABS deactivating or the TC making it tough to do a wheelie. While this isn’t a big deal, it's good to be aware of.
I’ve met a lot of people who insist that wheelies are easier when their back tire is slightly under inflated. Though part of me feels irresponsible even suggesting this, I have heard it enough times to warrant mentioning it. I don’t personally subscribe to this view but it may have its merits.
Abusing Your Bike
Believe it or not, wheelies aren’t good for motorcycles. Forks have not been engineered to compensate for the amount of pressure and stress that wheelies cause when bringing down the front wheel. Though doing wheelies shouldn’t outright break any components on your bike, you should expect more strenuous wear and tear and to replace certain parts sooner than you’d have to otherwise. Let's review a few things that your bike doesn’t love about your newfound wheelie habit.
The Chain and Sprocket: Doing wheelies means a substantial amount of power suddenly being put down from the rear wheel. The rate of acceleration puts a lot of stress on your chain and sprocket, stretching your chain and weakening it over time. While regular lubing should lessen this, wheelies aren’t great for these parts.
The Front Fork: As I mentioned forks and their seals weren't designed to withstand the abuse involved with doing wheelies. I had to replace my front fork seals twice in less than two years due to wheelies (I’m guessing).
The Clutch: Slipping and popping the clutch when performing wheelies causes wear and tear at a faster rate. Slipping the clutch in second gear or higher amplifies the effect.
Front Rim: I will admit I’ve never seen or experienced this firsthand, but I have heard stories of rims being bent or damaged from dropping the front wheel too hard. Although I’ve never heard this from a particularly trustworthy source, but in theory it sounds possible.
(Side note: So even though wheelies aren’t good for your bike, the purpose of owning a bike is to ride it and have fun. Parts will break and wear out either way so my philosophy is to just have fun and replace parts as needed, not letting the upkeep hold you back from living.)
Don’t Get Complacent
Like professional snake charmers and chainsaw jugglers, it can be easy to forget how dangerous activities we routinely perform, actually are. I don’t put much thought into riding on the freeway every day, but nonetheless traveling at 80mph with no protection other than my gear and while surrounded by thousands of pounds of steel cages, is dangerous. Wheelies are no different. No matter how many you’ve done or how many wheelie videos you’ve posted to Youtube, getting complacent can result in wrecking. Stay frosty when performing wheelies.
Don’t Do it With a Passenger
This is just my personal rule. If I wreck when doing a wheelie it’s my fault and I suffer the consequences alone. When you wreck while doing something uneccesary you force your passenger to suffer consequences of your actions. Even if you’re confident on your rear wheel, the acceleration of a sport bike is more than enough to impress whoever is on your pillion. Wheelies greatly increase the chances that something will go wrong, don’t invite any unnecessary risk when riding two-up.
So here are a few main areas to focus on when learning to wheelie:
Deliberate and Controlled
Practice and repetition
Start small and Learn in Baby steps
Keep it smooth