The Comprehensive Guide to Motorcycle Wheelies

on_any_sunday__kid_wheelie

Photo credit:  On Any Sunday (movie), 1971

Riding a motorcycle on its rear wheel (also known as a “wheelie” or “catwalk”) is one of the most exhilarating feelings a bike can provide. Being equal parts daunting, dangerous, thrilling and rewarding (like most things in life), motorcycle wheelies are a skill that is difficult to master, which is why we’re providing you, our loyal readers with the Comprehensive Guide to Motorcycle Wheelies.

*Disclaimer: In most parts of the world, wheelies are illegal on public roads and punishable by law, with fines ranging from traffic violations all the way to criminal offences such as “stunt driving”.  This guide is intended to educate riders on wheelie techniques for closed circuits, off-road and on  private roadways. Performing wheelies is inherently dangerous and is not recommended for novice riders.  As with all motorcycle riding activities, full protective gear is recommended and riders attempting wheelies do so at their own risk.

The “crossed-up” wheelie, as demonstrated by Troy Bayliss at WDW 2014 on a Ducati Hypermotard 821 SP.

First, let’s get something out of the way: Wheelies have a bad rap.  Western society in particular tends to be wheelie-phobic, and probably for good reason.  Every motorcycle season, a handful of sportbike riders exhibit their wheelie “prowess” on major highways, scaring motorists with one-wheeled-antics, usually at high speeds.  What’s more is that public wheelie displays often result in crashes with other vehicles, killing or severely injuring riders (usually young males), making headline news and voila! The general public now has an extremely negative image of motorcycles standing on their rear wheels.  Needless to say, “squid” behaviour and such exhibits of idiocy are frowned upon by Chance Moto as they are within the greater motorcycle community. If you are reading this guide with the intention of doing wheelies around other motorists, think twice.

The average motorists’ view of motorcycle wheelies.

The other side of the coin is that wheelies have fascinated riders since the dawn of motorcycling, with “how to wheelie” books appearing as early as 1971 with Jack B. Watson’s “Learn How To Wheelie”.  Indeed, there exists a contingent of motorcyclists who are genuinely dedicated to the craft of riding a motorcycle to its fullest potential; to understand it thoroughly and to explore all aspects of its capabilities.  Wheelies (especially power wheelies) are a natural part of how bikes behave and manufacturers actually design certain motorcycles to exhibit such behaviour.  What we have here is therefore a conflict of interest:  Wheelies aren’t evil.  Doing wheelies irresponsibly is evil, can get you killed and gives motorcycles a bad rap to the general public.  Use common sense, be aware of local laws and practice safe wheelie-ing.  Now, on to the fun stuff.

Types of Wheelies:

There are 2 techniques commonly used to initiate a motorcycle wheelie.  Arguments can be made for which is preferable but it ultimately comes down to rider preference and bike characteristics (more on that later).

  1. The Power Wheelie
    • Some bikes will naturally loft the front wheel using only throttle control and correct rider positioning (weight distribution)
    • The wheelie can be initiated either by rolling on the throttle quickly or by “chopping” the throttle (cutting it abruptly) and then applying throttle suddenly
    •  In addition to this, sitting further back on the seat and tugging on the handlebars in unison with the application of throttle can result in a wheelie
    • Cresting a hill (on a racetrack for example) can also introduce a power wheelie under acceleration
    • A light, powerful bike with a short wheelbase will typically require less effort to power wheelie, whereas a longer, heavier or less powerful bike may not power wheelie at all, regardless of the technique used
    • Power wheelies occur naturally in motorcycle racing (usually under hard acceleration when exiting a corner) to the point where manufacturers use aerodynamics or electronics aids (such as “wheelie control” where sensors detect lift or wheel spin to suppress a wheelie) in an effort to convert as much power as possible to forward drive
    • From a learning point-of-view, the advantage of the Power Wheelie over the Clutch Wheelie are:
      • Keeps the rider’s hands fully on the bars, allowing for better control of the motorcycle
      • Simplifies wheelieing to throttle control only
      • Brings the front wheel up in a smoother and more controlled manner

        In professional road racing, every effort is made to mitigate power wheelies with solutions that range from electronics through aerodynamic winglets.

  2. The Clutch Wheelie
    • The clutch wheelie is a technique in which the rider voluntarily initiates a wheelie by applying and releasing the clutch while accelerating (also known as “slipping the clutch”)
    • Although counter-intuitive to conventional motorcycle riding (get off throttle, pull in clutch, shift, apply throttle), the technique can be mastered to initiate the wheelie in a very deliberate and controlled manner
    • To clutch wheelie a motorcycle, it’s important to understand the bike’s power curve in order to apply the clutch at the right speed and at the right point in the RPM range so that the force generated will be sufficient to initiate the wheelie but not so much as to flip the bike backwards (the #1 risk when wheelieing)
    • When executed correctly, this technique will not damage the motorcycle or cause premature wear to the clutch or motor, so long as the subject motorcycle is able to wheelie in the first place
    • The advantages of the Clutch Wheelie over the Power Wheelie are as follows:
      • Provides “on-demand” wheelies where the rider knows exactly when the front end is going to come up
      • Brings the front end up more quickly, allowing the rider to “ride it out” longer (in theory)
      • Allows for wheelies to be performed on bikes with less power or in higher gears (on bikes that can power wheelie in lower gears)

What makes a Good Wheelie Bike:

When most people think of a wheelie bike, they imagine a bike with immense power that can effortlessly loft the front wheel.  While you do require a certain amount of power to wheelie any motorcycle, there are actually several other factors that make a bike more or less desirable for performing wheelies:

  • Lightness (Motorcycle Weight):
    • Experienced wheelie-ists will tell you: light bikes are easy and fun to wheelie
    • Because a large part of wheelies is dependant on weight transfer, the rider is able to exert a much greater level of authority over the bike if the bike is light
      • eg. a 200 lb, fully geared rider on a 400 lb bike makes up 1/3 of the combined bike/rider weight whereas the same rider of a 600 lb bike represents only 1/4
    • More advanced techniques such as steering the bike while doing a wheelie are significantly easier on a light bike
    • For this reason, dirt bikes are ideal machines to learn how to wheelie on (with the added benefit that wheelies are usually legal off-road)
  • Power (Torque)
    • Torque is an often overlooked spec that is usually overshadowed by horsepower figures
    • When it comes to what a rider experiences in the most common motorcycling scenarios, torque is actually much more significant and wheelies are one area where torque is especially important
    • Torque is essential to a bike’s ability to wheelie and the earlier in the RPM range a bike makes “good” torque, the better (more on that below)
    • Moreover, a flat torque curve is incredibly desirable as it will allow for a broader “sweet spot” within which a wheelie is possible at a given speed
    • It will also cause a bike to be more responsive and forgiving when it comes to maintaining the wheelie
    • Power-to-weight is also a good indicator of a bike’s willingness to wheelie but remember that a heavy bike with lots of power will still be more challenging to wheelie than a light bike with the same power-to-weight ratio (see “motorcycle weight” above)

      This dyno graph displays a linear Torque (and HP) curve, both desirable bike characteristics for wheelies. This particular bike makes near-peak torque at 4,500 RPM and maintains that torque all the way to redline.

  • Riding Position
    • Since weight transfer is an important part of wheelieing, how a rider sits on the bike and positioning of the bars will dramatically affect a bike’s ability to get the front end up
    • The preferred seating position for wheelies tends to be upright, allowing the rider to shift their weight back and to apply “body english” as required to tug on the bars and help initiate the wheelie
    • There are multiple reasons why sportbikes have “clip-on” bars -they allow riders to tuck behind a fairing and reduce aerodynamic drag but also offer the advantage of keeping the rider’s weight over the front end to prevent wheelies when accelerating
    • Bikes with a “bench” type seat are preferable over scalloped seats as they allow for easier fore/aft movement and optimal body positioning
    • At the extreme end of the spectrum, stunt riders will often stand on the seat or passenger pegs to further move the rider’s weight over the back wheel and lighten the front (stunt riding techniques are however beyond the scope of this guide).
  • Clutch (Feel, Engagement and Lever)
    • A light clutch makes it much easier to initiate a clutch wheelie
    • Proper clutch adjustment is important: set the engagement point close enough to the beginning of the pull -this will avoid the need to pull the lever all the way back to the bar and allow for a quick “blip”
    • Running a shorter clutch lever can be desirable as it allows the use of fewer fingers (usually 1 or 2) to initiate a clutch wheelie
    • The bi-product of a short clutch lever is to allow the rider to better grip the bike as it comes up into the wheelie

      A short clutch lever requiring a single finger pull allows a rider to keep nearly a full hand on the bars when initiating a wheelie.

  • Wheelbase
    • A bike’s wheelbase plays an important part in its “wheelie-friendliness”
    • The wheelbase refers to the length of the bike between the contact patches of the front and rear tires
    • All things being equal, bikes with short wheelbases are easier to wheelie
    • Bikes with short wheelbases are typically less stable at higher speeds so there is a tradeoff, as with all things in the motorcycling world
    • Scientifically speaking, the laws of physics dictate that a shorter lever requires less effort to pivot on a given axis, given an applied load (see “Wheelie Theory” section below)
  • Gearing
    • Generally, the lower a bike’s gearing, the easier it is to wheelie
    • Shorter gearing causes the motor to apply more torque to the rear wheel at a given RPM, improving acceleration at the expense of top speed
    • Stunt riders will often change a bike’s gearing to be significantly lower, thereby allowing a wider range of available gears to wheelie the bike

Wheelie Theory for Beginners:

Now that we have the basics covered, let’s turn to the forces at work when performing a wheelie.  Motorcycles, at their core are what’s known as “class 1 levers” where effort is applied on one side of the Fulcrum and the resistance (or Load) on the other side.  In laymen’s terms, the motor is creating torque at the rear wheel, causing Effort to be applied rearward and eventually overcoming gravity’s Load over the front wheel, thereby lifting it off the ground.

  • The Fulcrum (or axis or rotation) during a motorcycle wheelie is the contact patch of the rear tire
  • A bike with less weight (Load) over the front end requires less Effort to pivot
  • In this equation, the primary variable the rider has influence over is Effort
  • Therefore, the primary objective of initiating any wheelie should be to create as much Effort as possible over the rear wheel (Fulcrum) through application of torque and re-distribution of weight
  • Sounds simple when you look at it this way, right?

Learning to Wheelie

By now, you probably have a good understanding of the factors and principles at work here. There are, however a few tips worth mentioning for anyone beginning or attempting to further their one-wheeled prowess:

  • Gear Up
    • Your likelihood of crashing goes up exponentially when you’re only using 1/2 the number of wheels you’re supposed to on a motorcycle
    • Even a low speed drop/crash can leave nasty road rash (or worse), so wear full protection, just in case
    • Those ATGATT guys may be on to something…
      • ATGATT = All The Gear All The Time
  • Start Small
    • Becoming proficient at wheelies requires you to train your brain and what typically works best is to progress in small increments
    • Your first time out, don’t expect to catwalk your bike through the first 3 gears
    • Power wheelies (if your bike is capable) are a good place to start as they allow you to focus on a few basic things without worrying about clutch control while holding on to the bike
    • General guidelines:
      • 1) Find the sweet spot where the bike makes the most torque
      • 2) Practice applying throttle more and more aggressively around that point, until the front end gets light
      • 3) Eventually, get the front end to “hop”
      • 4) Progressively extend the height of the “hop”
      • 5) Do a small wheelie and chase it out
    • It may require several practice sessions before you can actually get airborne -this is normal as you’re destabilizing the bike in a way that may not be intuitive to your brain
    • Eventually, you can learn how to find the fabled “balance point” -the point at which the motorcycle balances on its rear wheel without the need for additional throttle to keep the bike upright
  •  Resist the Instinct to Lean Forward
    • Often, when riders begin learning how to wheelie, their instinct will be to lean forward as they are applying throttle, in anticipation (or fear) of the front end coming up
    • This is a normal instinct that will require suppression in order to further your craft
  • Cover the Rear Brake
    • This is the only and best lifeline you have if something goes wrong during a wheelie
    • Experienced wheelie’ers often use this as a way to keep the bike at its balance point or to maintain a wheelie that’s beyond the balance point (also known as a “12 o’clock wheelie“)
  • Check your Tire Pressures
    • Running correct tire pressure on any motorcycle is essential during normal operation, but when it comes to wheelies, less tends to be more
    • The logic is that a slightly softer rear tire will “hook up” more easily at lower speed and improve stability
    • Generally, running a few PSI lower than your typical tire pressure can improve wheelie performance
    • Needless to say, tire choice is also important and you should select a tire that will provide as much grip as possible for the road surface you are practicing wheelies on (stickier sport tires for hard surfaces, knobbies for dirt, etc)
  • Experiment wiht (or Disable) Electronic Aids
    • Many modern bikes have electronic aids such as traction control and wheelie control that are meant to keep you safe during normal riding conditions
    • By definition, a wheelie requires front and rear wheels to spin at different rates (something most Traction Control system will prevent), may require the rear wheel to momentarily break traction with the road surface (when you accelerate suddenly, also something TC prevents) and will definitely cause the bike to no longer be parallel to the road surface (something “wheelie control” tries to prevent).
    • Although each manufacturer and bike model has its own array of sensors and parameters for electronic intervention, the general rule of thumb is that for reliable wheelies (and for learning how to wheelie), it’s better to disable these aids
    • Once proficient at wheelies on a given bike, you can try re-enabling various aids and seeing how this affects your ability to wheelie
  • Listen to the Bike
    • Particularly when it comes to the clutch wheelie, sound is a good indicator of your progress
    • For example, if you are not slipping the clutch enough, you will be able to hear it as the RPMs drop
    • Using your ears instead of your eyes also allows you to keep your eyes on what’s ahead
    • Combine with “Record Yourself” tip below for best results
  • Record Yourself
    • The same way boxers re-watch watch their fight “tapes” over and over after a fight, you can learn a lot by watching your wheelie practice videos
    • Mount a camera in such as way that you can see what’s happening on the dash (engine RPM, gear and speed are the most important variables) as well as hear the sound of the motor
    • When watching your own footage, look for cues as to what worked and what didn’t work so you can apply that next time you go out
  • Register for a Wheelie Course at a Local Training School
    • Like most motorcycle techniques, wheelies can be taught and although uncommon, schools exist in the US, the UK and Canada (among other places).
    • Scroll down to the “Additional Resources/Training” section below for links to popular training schools

Certain motorcycle schools have dedicated wheelie trainers where students can practice wheelies without fear of crashing

Motorcycle wheelies are subject to the universal law of risk and reward. As mentioned above, they are an inherently dangerous activity, where smiles can turn to tears in the blink of an eye (watch this motorcycle wheelie fails compilation for examples). Forewarned is forearmed.

5 Things That Can Go Wrong and How to Avoid Them:

  1. Looping the Bike
    • This is the most obvious and problematic aspect of wheelies
    • Things start to go wrong when a rider goes beyond the fabled “balance point”
    • From there, only one thing can avoid the bike “12 o’clock’ing”: the rear brake
    • For this reason, it is always recommended to cover the rear brake, as it’s the best (read: only) way to bring back a runaway wheelie
    • Of course, the best solution is to avoid going beyond the balance point in the first place, which requires throttle control (and clutch control, if attempting a clutch wheelie)
    • Bikes with uneven power curves/that come on the power suddenly are particularly prone to looping
    • If your bike has selectable ride modes, experiment with the different options as the most aggressive throttle map isn’t necessarily the best for wheelies (particularly at low speed)
  2. Losing Your Balance
    • Thanks to physics, your bike will naturally want to track in a straight line when in motion; the faster you are moving, the stronger this force
    • Therefore, initiating the wheelie correctly is the best way to prevent any off-kilter situations
    • When initiating the wheelie, make sure the bike is tracking straight and that your weight is centered on the seat and the pegs so that you don’t start the wheelie with the bike unbalanced
    • Most importantly, be sure to apply equal force to both sides if pulling on the bars (aka “body english”) to initiate the wheelie, as pulling unevenly can introduce countersteer, resulting in an off-balance wheelie and potential problems
    • Once the front end is up, you can still steer the bike by transferring your weight on the seat and footpegs (advanced technique)
    • The front wheel acts as a gyroscope due to its mass and speed of rotation and can also be used as a balancing/steering aid (also an advanced technique)
  3. Running Off-Course/Into Obstacles
    • When the front end of a bike is in the air, it obstructs the rider’s natural view of the road, making it hard to see and easy to run into obstacles or off your desired course
    •  What’s more, steering and braking ability are limited  (which is the reasoning as to why wheelies are illegal on public roads in most parts of the world)
    • General rule of thumb is that wide open spaces are preferable for any type of wheelie activity
    • Choose a (road) surface that’s consistent and free of major irregularities (rocks, ruts, debris…) that may send the rear wheel off course while you worry about the front end
    • Remember to cover the rear brake and use it liberally before things start to go wrong
    • Although your view will always be obstructed by the front of your bike (geometry and seating position-dependant), you can look around or over the front end to get an idea of where you’re tracking
  4. Tank Slapper (or “Head Shake”) on Landing
    • Head shake is caused by a disagreement between the bike’s front and rear ends
    • Since the front wheel is in the air during a wheelie, the bike’s steering is loose and the rider may even use it to balance while airborne
    • Putting the front down in anything but a straight line (in the same direction that bike is tracking) can result in head shake -as seen here
    • To avoid this, put the front end down in a controlled manner and in-line with the direction of travel
    • A steering damper can lessen the effect of head shake and may provide some forgiveness in less than ideal situations but should not be relied on as a substitute for proper technique
  5. Slamming the Front End Down/Damaging The Bike
    • What goes up must come down
    • Aside from looking like a fool, putting the front end down abruptly can cause serious damage to your bike, from damaging your front wheel/rim to blowing your fork seals or wearing out your steering head bearings prematurely
    • It can also destabilize the bike altogether and cause a crash
    • The higher the wheelie and the heavier the bike, the more care must be taken when setting it down
    • As with all motorcycle techniques, being smooth is the key
    • When it’s time for a wheelie to end (sad), roll off the throttle smoothly as the front end comes down and/or blip the throttle immediately before the front end touches down to soften the impact
    • When executed correctly, one should be able to “land” a wheelie and continue riding without upsetting the suspension or altering the line of travel

We hope that this guide will serve as a resource to any riders wanting to learn or further improve the art of the wheelie, or as entertainment and discussion for veterans of the craft. For more motorcycle-related stories, be sure to follow us on Facebook or subscribe to our blog (below).

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Additional resources:

3 thoughts on “The Comprehensive Guide to Motorcycle Wheelies

  1. Pingback: Superbike vs Supernaked: A Real World Comparison | ChanceMoto.com

  2. Pingback: 5 Quick Tips for Spring Riding | ChanceMoto.com

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