Why You Should Learn Wheelies

What if I told you that almost every wheelie video on the internet missed the most important step in the process? And learning it without this element is not only making it harder to learn, but it’s preventing you from using your wheelie technique in other scenarios, which we are also going to cover in this video.

The reason why this is important is that it directly impacts your balance and power in the first and most vital phase of the wheelie.

In this video, we’re going to completely break down and master the wheelie, and then we’ll set you up to apply the technique to those other skills as well. I don’t want you to only be able to show off in the parking lot, I want you to use this skill to do things like riding up and off of obstacles.

The reason why some people struggle to learn wheelies is that you have to do a lot of stuff at the same time. You have to worry about your speed, keeping the bike balanced on one wheel, side to side AND front to back. You’re using your pedals, brakes and body to stay in that wheelie, which means that you’re learning how pedal pressure impacts your bike, how to use your knees and elbows to increase your overall balance and you’re also learning brake control by feathering the brakes.

Whew, that’s a lot. This is probably the only time I work on my posture as well!

To prepare ourselves for learning basic wheelies, let’s focus on our bike setup and how it applies to learning the technique:

Let’s start with your seat, the best place that everyone seems to agree on is that you should drop it down an inch or two from the maximum height. This helps get your body in the right position on the bike to make this process easiest. If you have it all the way up, you end up way off the back of the bike and your front wheel has to be a little higher up to maintain balance, plus you won’t be able to bend your knees out for balance when you’re pedaling, which is going to be a key element as we learn to wheelie. So when you’re just starting out, this lower seat position is going to help out in a bunch of different ways. Just like everything, you can always modify once you’ve got the basics locked in.

Next, and I think this is basically a requirement - you need to start with flat pedals - but for two reasons. Most importantly so you can hop off the bike in the event that you loop out, but there is another reason why this is important. Like I said earlier, not only will we need to balance the bike both front and back, but we’ll also need to balance side to side. While we’ll mostly use our knees and elbows to balance for that, you can also rock your feet on the pedals to enhance that side to side balance - and that’s something that is physically impossible if you’re clipped into your pedals.

One thing that the wheelie is going to test is your ability to feather, or modulate, your brakes. Our hand position on the handlebars should be as wide as possible to increase our balance, with just one finger covering the end of each brake. This gives us maximum control over the handlebar, but also the most range of motion for the brake lever, which we’ll be easing on and off of that back brake as we go.

You don’t actually need your front brake for this, but I guess it’s an old habit that I can’t ride without covering both brakes, so here we are.

Also, while we’re talking about our brakes…make sure your back one actually works. We’re going to need that to help us control the the front to back movement - if we start getting a little too far back, one quick tap brings us back safely.

Lastly on the bike setup, let’s talk about your gearing. One thing that I’ve learned about wheelies is that it’s not always the lightest gear that gets the job done. If you’re pedaling too light of a gear, it may be easy to pop the front wheel up at first, but then you start moving slow.

If you’ve learned anything from watching my other videos, you know that riding slow makes you work a lot harder to balance, so we need to find a gear that gives us a solid mix between easy pedaling but a little speed to keep our balance. I’ve got a twelve-speed cassette on my bike, and my preference is for fifth gear. You may go a gear higher or lower depending on your preference, and I know more than a few people that try to shift in the middle of their wheelies as well.

I never really thought about speed when I first started doing wheelies, but now that I’ve been practicing them for a while, I realize that the extra momentum can be useful. We’ll come back to that later in this video.

One other setup thing we need to talk about before we start this process is your stance. Which foot is your dominant, or strong foot? Your strong foot is typically the one that is forward when you’re coasting along on the bike when your pedals are level. This makes a huge difference when it comes to all bike riding techniques, and you should know which foot is the forward foot in your stance on the bike. There are more than a few ways to figure this out, the easiest is to just look down when you’re cruising along on your bike. Your body subconsciously puts one foot ahead of the other. I’m right foot forward, and honestly there’s rarely an advantage which foot you ride forward, but just keep this in mind as we continue.

The last thing we should talk about before we get started is your location. One thing that helps a lot of riders when they are starting their practice is to find a slight uphill spot to ride. Wheelie-ing uphill can be helpful because your body position is already partially in the right position and the front wheel doesn’t need to come as far off the ground to get started. If you’re struggling with the wheelie on flat ground, maybe try to find a slight uphill to practice your skills.

Now that we have our bike setup dialed and our positioning correct, let’s focus on the first phase, the takeoff.

Rolling slow on the bike, the takeoff consists of two things: a shift with our upper body from the front of the bike to the back while we simultaneously push the pedals to bring up the front wheel. The body shift to the back will unweight the front wheel, and the pedaling will boost that. Keep your back and arms straight, with your chest out like you have insanely good posture, and that will help you get into the right position, too. If you’re a smaller rider and you feel like just shifting your weight and pedaling isn’t enough to get the front wheel unweighted, you can also do some things like pumping the front suspension to give the front wheel lift a little extra momentum.

There is one key part of the takeoff that we need to pay close attention to, because this step is exactly where I think most people get it wrong. Most people will tell you to start your pedaling motion with your strong foot - and here’s why I think you should do the opposite:

When we use our first pedal stroke on the bike, the front wheel comes off the ground to put you in that basic wheelie position. This is an unnatural position for most people to be in, and if you start the motion with your strong foot, that means that your opposite foot is coming around right as you get to the place where you need maximum stability.

So in this case you’re basically starting your wheelie off with your weak foot forward, which for most people is an unbalanced position - and I think that’s main reason why most people struggle with wheelies in the first place. Also, if you were to use this same exact method to pedal up or pedal off an obstacle, you’d be landing with your opposite foot forward, which makes it even more awkward.

Compare that to starting the pedaling motion with your opposite foot and letting your strong foot come around as you get to the point of this technique where you need the most stable stance possible. Makes a lot more sense, right?

And beyond this stabilizing the first stages of a wheelie, you’re also going to be able to apply it elsewhere, which is one of the most important things about learning new skills. So many mountain bike techniques build off of each other, and the wheelie is no different. If we’re going to put in all the time to figure out something new, we should be able to use it elsewhere, and that’s exactly why I’m hammering this point about getting the pedal motion dialed in.

Ok, so let’s start practicing the takeoff in isolation, just so we can build up a little muscle memory and confidence before we move ahead. This is also a great time to get acquainted with your back brake’s role in the process. Do the complete pedal stroke to lift the front wheel up, and then grab your back brake to bring your front wheel back down to the ground.

After you’re feeling solid with your takeoffs, we can focus on the next phase of the wheelie, which is stabilization. You’ll need this as you start trying to get the first few pedals into your wheelie after the takeoff. We’ll first start with front to back stabilization and then move on to the side to side movement.

One thing about wheelies is that you’re never in a perfect balance spot, completely locked in. You’re always hovering around it, making tiny adjustments to stay balanced. So mentally, let go of this idea that you’re going to lock in to one spot and hold it, that way you can put your energy into using the different tactics to keep yourself near that balance point while you wheelie.

Here are the three things that stabilize you in the wheelie:

Number one: The position of the front wheel. When your front wheel reaches a certain height, you’ll hit your balance point on the back wheel. If it goes too high, you start to loop out - too low and your wheelie is over.

Two things affect the position of the front wheel, and they are your pedaling speed and braking. I used to think that wheelies were just about trying to hold the wheel in place with my arms and core - now I realize that I can modulate the back and forth movement of the front wheel - and my position over the balance point - by the two inputs of pedaling and braking.

If my front wheel comes up too high, I can ease on my back brake to drop it slightly. If my front wheel starts dropping too low, I can pedal a bit faster and that brings it up.

I know this might sound simple, but this was a HUGE unlock for me when I was learning wheelies.

Ok, number two stabilizer for wheelies, your side to side movement.

You can get a pretty decent wheelie done with just that first stabilizer, but if you want to get some serious distance, your side to side balance needs to be under control. If your posture is solid and your arms are out wide, you can still rely on your elbows to help you balance, but the main control is going to come from your knees.

I try to ride with my knees slightly out when I’m doing wheelies to give me a nice stable platform, and if I start tipping to one side or the other, I’ll push the opposite knee further out to help counterbalance the bike. That action with your knees usually shifts your hips over the balance point, which can also help rebalance us on the bike.

The other thing to pay attention to is what you can do with your feet on the pedals. Since we’re on flat pedals, we can rock our feet side to side on the pedals, which is an assist to our knees. Play with that movement a bit when you’re riding and see how that helps your balance.

The final stabilizer is our speed. If you’ve been around the channel for a bit, you know that I recommend riding super slow on flat ground to see how much harder your body has to work to maintain balance. Wheelies are no different. When we’re first learning, we ride slower than normal, which also makes us work harder to stay balanced on the back wheel. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if we’re going to try to get a decent wheelie happening, we need to consider our speed on the bike. The reason why this is the third step, once we’ve got our balance figured out, we can try to pedal a little faster to speed things up and pull it all together.

The third phase of this process is distance. We’re putting together our takeoffs and stability to hopefully start riding longer and longer wheelies. I like to pick out points along my practice route, so it becomes a game to try to hold a wheelie until I get to that point.

Another skill you can try to practice is coasting in the wheelie position. Technically, I guess this is called a manual, but really the point of this practice is being able to maintain your balance point on the back wheel without a pedal. If you build up enough speed on the bike, but you don’t want to use your brakes to modulate, you can stop pedaling and just try to maintain balance. This one is kind of fun and feels pretty cool, too.

At this stage of your practice, repetition is going to be the key to locking in all of the different tactics we can use to keep our front wheel in the air as we wheelie. Make it a game, set some goals, and over time it will start to feel a bit more natural to be pedaling along on one wheel. Practice makes progress!

Ok, so now comes the fun part. You didn’t do all this work just to be able to wheelie around a parking lot. Now that you can consistently get the front wheel off the ground into that wheelie motion, let’s talk about how we use it to do other stuff.

The same takeoff motion that we used for the wheelie can apply to a standing wheelie, where we do the same thing, just standing up on the bike with the seat dropped down. This version of the wheelie works when you want to pedal up onto obstacles, or if you wanted to pedal off of obstacles, too.

To do a standing wheelie, you’ll use your combination of body movement from the front to the back of the bike, with a strong pedal with your opposite foot. This brings the front wheel up and puts you in the perfect position to do whatever you want to do next. See how our strong foot comes around on top as the front wheel lifts up? That’s exactly why we learned wheelies starting with our opposite foot first - and now we’re set up to easily learn more skills as a result.

The way I like to practice this version of the skill is to start with a line on the ground. I’ll roll up to it slow, and as my front wheel crosses the line, I’ll initiate that same pedaling motion to bring up the front wheel. Grab your back brake and bring down the front wheel - or you can hold it a little longer if you want to hang out on the balance point.

Now I can apply this same skill to riding up, or off, of obstacles. Let's ride!