Let's all be honest here: as a motorcycle rider, I'm pretty sure that most if not all, daydream about popping a few wheelies with our beloved steeds. Mostly to impress our friends, a girlfriend or other riders. True? For those that frequently go on trails, popping a wheelie also has practical uses, like raising the front wheel to more easily roll over a large obstacle like a boulder or log. Like all the other skills involved in riding a motorcycle, there is also a science behind executing a wheelie.
Veteran rider, Ray Relativo, emphasizing how important the rear brake is during wheelies.
I was fortunate enough to be friends with expert motorcycle riders, who, during their prime, were former road racers, motocross riders, and even champions in their respective leagues. Like most of you, I was very eager to learn the tricks of popping that front wheel, and along the way, I also realized that there were in fact practical uses of doing the wheelie, most especially, on off-road skirmishes.
On this video, enduro riding coach Tim Coleman demonstrates how a wheelie can get you accross logs in offroad riding (credits: Youtube/ www.tctrickz.com/)
The 'Banayad Riders' looking at the guinea pig bike, AJ Adiviso's KTM 450 SX-F.
My informal riding group, the 'Banayad Riders' was very excited to hear that we were to 'break-in' a brand new wheelie machine (or trainer) that was imported from abroad, courtesy of 'Tito' Ray Relativo. Being mostly adventure bike riders with their big BMWs and KTMs and now having transitioned to dirt bike riding, we were anxious to learn how to pop our own dirt bike's front end to make off-roading more fun. Being a former circuit racer and (still) an avid enduro rider, 'Tito Ray' knows that the key to consistently popping a wheelie is control.
Before doing a wheelie, one must first feel what it is like when he / she is at the 'balance point'. (Beta 430 RR)
The very basic, he says, is to “bear in mind the rear brake,” which I'll be learning a few minutes later, the hard way. Also, he teaches that one doesn't need to pop the front wheel chest-high right away. Baby steps he says are the key. First, start popping by just a couple of inches, then progress higher as your confidence level improves. Having a wheelie trainer attached to the bike that takes care of the balancing was a real confidence booster, especially for a newbie like me.
"Use the front brake," Glenn says, as it is easier to compress the front suspension. (Yamaha WR 250)
During my first attempt, although the execution was fine (using the front brake to compress the front suspension then clutch release to raise the front in time with suspension rebound), my throttle was too much and the bike began to 'uno' (completely vertical). My survival instincts kicked in and I ejected from the bike. Good thing the wheelie trainer held the bike upright and it didn't crash. As for me, nothing was broken but my pride. So again as Tito Ray said, “always keep in mind the rear brake”. It was great to have a wheelie trainer like this, it protects not only the trainee, but also the motorcycle. After a few more rounds, all of us present were getting really good at it.
Head coach Sam Tamayo of the MX Messiah Fairgrounds explained that while most of the skills acquired in learning the wheelie may be best suited to off-road riding: eg: jumping over a log or rut, and like most of the skills in off-roading, wheelie also has practical everyday uses, too: proper clutch and throttle control. “Here's the thing, they [students] have to be familiar with the clutch and the throttle. I would want to let them practice first the brake and then clutch release.”
The GOAT Glenn Aguilar shares the importance of feeling and listening to the engine's rev when doing wheelies.
While it might look like 'very basic', a lot of riders actually do not know how to use them in proper coordination. In fact, a lot of riders still have this bad habit of putting all four of their fingers on the clutch or the brake lever. This can result in squeezing the front brake too hard, that will lead to a wash out. Another point is, since it's just the thumb that is holding the grip, a sudden bump or uneven road surface could cause the rider to lose control of the bike. “Not to pop it (gesturing the wheelie through his right hand). They [will] be familiar with how to properly pull the clutch because others [beginner riders] tend to use all of their four fingers. They just need to be familiar with two finger-clutch [operation], using the index and middle finger — as basic as that. And then, have at least the index finger on the front brake,” Coach Sam added.
Coach Sam Tamayo of MX Messiah Fairgrounds demonstrates a wheelie using a trainer device connected to a Yamaha YZ 250FX.
Although I’m not yet a Mel Aquino-level wheelie expert, I can share what I’ve learned so far in 5-easy steps:
No matter what happens, remember the rear brake! It is typical for riders to ‘eject’ or let go of the motorcycle when it is going to crash as a form of survival instinct. There is nothing wrong with that. However, when doing wheelies, the rear brake is your best friend and it will save you from tipping over the rear when you go beyond the balance point. Do not eject. Press the rear brake.
I always remember what Graham Jarvis said: “Going fast is the easy bit, it’s going slow that will help you develop skills.” Like in popping wheelies, start slow, as in ride the bike slowly. Balance the bike in slow fashion. Learn to pump the front suspension and in coordination with the clutch, brake and throttle. Half clutch, throttle in, use the front brake OR rear brake to pump the front suspension. Start popping the front wheel little by little until you progress into higher wheelies.
Coach Gino Cruz giving me pointers after observing a few rounds on the wheelie machine (trainer).
Just like when riding, listening to the engine’s roar will give you an idea when the engine already reached its ideal powerband. When it comes to pulling up the front wheel, listen carefully to the engine and exhaust sound as it will be parallel to the height of the wheelie, if done properly until you reach the balance point. From there, just play with the throttle.
Gain your confidence
As you progress into higher and higher front wheel pops, your confidence level also builds up. When you are confident, your mind will be free of any unwanted thoughts and you can focus on your body coordination and control of the bike. The more confident you are the longer you can keep that balance during wheelies.
Do you think multiple-time champion and hall of famer Glenn Aguilar mastered his wheelie skills overnight because he is already a skilled motorcycle rider? The answer is NO. He says, it took him years to perfect his wheelie skills and it was not a walk in the park. So for us average riders, if we want to master our wheelie skills and to a greater extent, our motorcycle riding skills as a whole, practice, practice, practice! Although it is always best to enroll in a motorcycle riding school and to be trained under the keen eyes of an expert riding coach to get the best results faster, learning on your own or with the help of a friend is also ok. Just remember to practice in an open and safe place; wear proper riding gears and read materials related to this skill. You can even practice your braking, throttle and balancing skills during your everyday sprint to the office. Just remember to keep enough distance from the rider or car in front of you.
After a few rounds, I was finally getting the hang of the balance point.
Practicing with the clutch, brake, throttle and balance coordinating them all in sweet harmony all day is not an easy task. But as mentioned above, a rider can actually practice it every day in safe and unpopulated roads or areas. Coach Sam Tamayo agrees. “So, ride your motorcycle all day long in the metro. Then you have two fingers in the clutch and at least a finger on the brake. And then, when you are so used to it, like second nature, we turn our attention to controls — precise braking and half clutch.”
Speaking of braking, many cases of motorcycle crashes are caused by poor braking skills of the rider. Locked wheels equals loss of traction and lost traction means disaster. “Although you might look a little stupid from behind because your brake light is blinking like Christmas lights, you're not going to press the brakes really hard. What we want you to achieve is your body coordination. It's like playing the drums,” added Coach Sam on why praticing the brake is very important not only on doing wheelies but also during everyday riding.
In practical everyday riding, you don't need to wheelie, but you can use the bike control skills that you have leaned to execute smooth and safe riding. “I think it is going to 'better' your feel (Like mentioned above, second-nature reflex) and control of the bike. When you go fast, it will be within the boundaries of your control. Not just because you are brave enough, but it's because of control. There's the clutch, there's the throttle, there's the front brake and there's the rear brake. The road conditions could also be different, like asphalt has the best traction, concrete, and then the level of traction may differ in just a snap!”
Coach Caloy Gaston, balancing this Yamaha XTZ 125 on the rear wheel a few hundred meters inside the Mitas-KRB Off-road Park.
“It is very dangerous to ride on the streets because there are many factors like pedestrians, trucks, jeepneys, etc. that are beyond your control. It's just a matter of time before riders will encounter dust [and crash], encounter a slip, even encounter a crossing dog. It's just a matter of time. We cannot hinder it. It is imminent and it will come. So prepare for the worst. How? Increase your level of skills. Even though you are a safe and responsible rider, the danger is just there, it's imminent. The other possible factors could be rain, gravel or oil on the road, a vehicle that did not adhere to the right of way, etc. Prepare for the worst. Your riding skills will save you."
As for using the wheelie itself in every day road riding, I had encountered a few instances where I was able to use it. We all know that there are a lot of road repairs going on, sometimes it is ridiculously uneven for the average wheel size. What I do? Pop a small wheelie to get the front wheel on top of the higher part of the road. Another instance is when there is a sudden pothole on the road. Instead of squeezing the brakes as hard as most riders would do, learning the wheelie will allow you to instictively use the suspension to lift the front wheel and easily throttle up. Thus, you can land the rear wheel first and keep the bike steady instead of smashing the front wheel deep into the pothole, and possibly losing control of the bike as well. "There are more uses to it on the road, it is for you to find out," says coach Mel Aquino when we were discussing the subject while inside his training grounds.
Coach Mel Aquino says that he was inspired to train and perfect his wheelie skills because he saw Coach Caloy "Wheelie King" Gaston more than 20 years ago in Amoranto Stadium doing a wheelie throughout the whole track during the interlude of a motocross race.
There are currently two riding schools that offer advanced off-road and wheelie lessons. Coach Sam Tamayo and his team at MX Messiah Fairgrounds in Taytay offer individual and group lessons, pre-booking is required. PhP 3,000 includes 2-hour coaching session, with bike and gears rental. Track fee is PhP500 for non-MMF members and PhP200 for MMF members. Visit www.facebook.com/mxmessiahfairgrounds/ for more info.
Another school is located in Mitas-KRB Off-road Park in Antipolo City, run by Coach Mel Aquino and former 'Wheelie King', Caloy Gaston, who also offers wheelie lessons in groups or for individual students in 2-day coaching sessions. Included in the package are motorcycle rental, track fee and certificate. Contact their page for booking and pricing: www.facebook.com/MAOTCph/ .
Performing a wheelie may have its practical purposes both on and off-road. However, we strongly discourage our readers from performing it simply to show off. Practice performing the wheelie in isolated or unpopulated roads, in private areas, or at enclosed tracks like the MX Messiah Fairgrounds or Mitas KRB Off-road Park. Do not do so in public roads. This can be dangerous and reckless, particularly with other motorists around. Always wear the proper safety gear. Ensure your bike is properly maintained. Ride safe.