Impress Your Friends: How to Wheelie a Dirt Bike

Whether you’re an accomplished rider or just a beginner, being able to pop a wheelie is fun and exciting – plus, it’s a great way to impress your friends and fellow riders. Mastering the art of the wheelie takes patience and practice, and as with any motorsport activity, you should always keep safety and responsibility front of mind. That said, in principle wheelies are no more difficult than any other physical tricks like juggling or using a hula hoop. The only difference is that wheelies involve a vehicle instead of a simple plastic toy, and they’re done at speed instead of while standing still.

Successful wheelies start with the right equipment. Touring and cruising bikes will always be difficult if not impossible to bring off the ground, simply because their large engines and robust frames make their front ends too heavy to maneuver. By comparison, given their light-weight frames, smaller engines, and wide tires with heavy treads, dirt bikes and sport bikes are fairly easy to wheelie, provided you know the technique and can practice until you get the hang of it.

The Origins of the Wheelie

According to the Smithsonian, the wheelie a stunt bicyclist named Daniel Canary invented the wheelie in 1890. An early adopter of the era’s newest form of transportation, Canary was seemingly driven to test its limits. He could do flips, ride down flights of steps – including those at the Capitol Building – and ride with no hands, all at a time when most people were still struggling to stay upright.

By the early 1960s, stuntmen like Evel Knievel had popularized bicycle and motorcycle tricks, jumps, and feats of skill, and kids everywhere were practicing diligently in hopes of getting their dirt bikes onto one wheel. As motocross and supercross enjoyed increasing popularity in both the United States and Europe, motorcyclists around the world became more and more interested in showing off their agility and bravery via tricks and stunts. Then, in 1984, Doug Domokos was crowned “The Wheelie King” when the Guinness Book of World Records recognized him for performing the longest continuous wheelie on record. At Talladega Speedway in Alabama, Domokos wheelied for a solid 145 miles – a record remained unbroken for more than eight years. The wheelie had earned a permanent place in the world of motorsports, and men like Canary, Knievel, and Domokos had laid the foundations for modern stunt competitions and shows.

Common Wheelie Techniques

As with most feats of agility, the perfect wheelie technique is easy to describe, but harder to put into practice. Perfect, repeatable wheelies demand a synergy of will and physical motion that only occurs after hours of practice and dozens – if not hundreds – of failed attempts.

That said, there are a few fundamentals that every master wheelie artist will agree are required. With time and effort, each rider puts their own individual twist on these basics, but as in art or life, before you can bend the rules, you have to understand them.

If you’re new to popping wheelies, you’ll want to start on a bike that’s fairly small and light. It’s easier to get the hang of things if your feet can easily touch the ground and the bike is easy for you to control. Some riders even start by practicing on a bicycle.

Your best approach is to leverage the power of the bike to attempt a “power wheelie.” Sit all the way back on the bike – it will feel unnatural, but it’s the best position from which to start. Put the bike in first gear and take off smoothly. Once you’re underway, with the clutch out, open the throttle quickly. The bike’s front end should come up on its own. Lean back and try to keep the front end up for as long as possible, practicing until you can control the throttle and maintain your wheelie for a few seconds or even longer.

If you struggle to get the front end off the ground, try riding uphill. It will be easier to get the wheelie started with the bike at an angle, but use caution: it’s also easier to flip the bike over backward. Alternately, you can try popping the front up just as you hit a small bump. A natural rise in the trail or ride might do the trick.

Once you’re able to control power wheelies with ease, you can move on to a more advanced technique called the “clutch wheelie,” so named because it involves using the clutch and revving the engine to create sudden speed and bring the front wheel up. Start by scooting as far back on the seat as you can, until you’re almost sitting on the fender. Begin accelerating in first gear until you reach about 25 miles per hour, and then pull the clutch in about one-third of the way, so that it slips. Then rev the engine. Let the clutch out, leaning back to help the front wheel come up, and balance on the back wheel as you move forward. Concentrate on manipulating the controls, not on the front wheel. It’s all about getting your body to work in concert with the bike. With practice, you’ll be able to stay on the back wheel for longer distances, pop one wheelie after another, and combine wheelies with other tricks like stoppies and burnouts.

2-stroke vs. 4-stroke Wheelies

Most riders agree that 2-stroke bikes are easier to wheelie that 4-stroke machines, largely because they’re lighter weight and their power is more manageable. However, for long-distance wheelies, people who have ridden both say a 4-stroke is easier to control, and it’s easier to keep the front end up provided you can get it there.

Don’t Ignore Safety

As in all motorsport activities, proper safety is critical. Never practice your wheelies without proper gear, including long pants and sleeves, gloves, sturdy shoes, and most importantly, a helmet. Elbow pads are a good idea too since if the bike flips over backward you’re likely to land on your rear-end and arms.

Additionally, always be conscious of your environment. Practice doing wheelies on a level, smooth road that’s free of obstacles, and if your friends are riding their dirt bikes nearby, make sure everyone is aware that you’re going to be attempting tricks. Finally, use common sense: avoid wet, slippery, or otherwise hazardous conditions, and be sure to practice with a buddy nearby so that he or she can get help in case of an accident.

Finally, if you don’t already own a dirt bike, you’ll need to research motorcycle values and do a lot of research to choose the bike that’s right for you. Safety is an important part of the decision since attempting tricks on a bike that’s too big or powerful for you to control can be dangerous. Just as you might use a motorcycle loan calculator to figure out how much you can afford to spend on a bike, you can use an ergonomics simulator to determine whether your height is a good fit with the bike you’re considering. Once you’ve narrowed the field to a few top contenders, you can visit dealerships or individual sellers to test drive bikes, and be confident that you won’t be biting off more than you can chew.

Practice Makes Perfect: Tips for Beginners

One of the keys to succeeding with wheelies is to adjust your mindset. There’s nothing so unusual about wheelies – you’re using the same controls and body motions you’d use to ride your bike normally. The only difference is that you’re compressing those motions, and the bike’s acceleration, into a shortened timespan to force the bike upwards instead of forward.

Finally, don’t be afraid to fail. Even the most accomplished stunt riders were once beginners, and some would say failure is the fastest way to learn a new skill.