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Want to unleash your inner Peter Sagan or just show off for your buddies? Not only do they look cool, but wheelies are a great tool for navigating unexpected obstacles, learning how to pull your front wheel up and over large obstacles and for having a rad time.
Step-by-step guide to popping a wheelie on a mountain bike
Find a flat open area such as a road or grass/dirt field
If you’re a beginner, I would recommend a grass field as this will soften the blow if you happen to fall. And you will. But remember, if you fall and no one sees it, did it really happen?
Shift to a low gear (easy gear)
You want to find a gear that takes almost no effort. I start in my lowest gear possible and move up from there, if needed.
Start pedaling at a slow speed
Pedal slowly, keeping your speed down. Stay in a gear that you could accelerate quickly, if you were to pedal a higher cadence.
In one smooth motion, take a hard pedal stroke, starting with your dominant leg in the 11:00 position and lean backwards.
You want to make a short, quick acceleration so the front wheel pops off the ground. As you accelerate from the 11:00 position, lean back.
You shouldn’t be pulling the handlebars up, but rather keeping your front wheel steady as you use your weight and pedal stroke to pull the wheel off the ground.
Tip: Choose your strongest foot to push off from
5. Keep pedaling… but stay balanced
Now that your front wheel is in the air, balance is the next consideration. The two types of balance are front to back and side to side.
Front to back: Finding the balance between a position that’s too far forward and the wheel drops and too far back and risking toppling backwards, takes practice, but there are tricks to find this balance…
- Always keep your finger on the rear brake! If you ever feel like you’re going to topple backwards, just touch the rear brake and your front wheel will drop.
- If your front wheel starts to drop too far, pedal faster. Accelerating helps lift the front wheel back up.
- Feather the rear brake ever so slightly to modulate your speed and play with slightly shifting your weight around to stay balanced.
Side to side: Unless you have fantastic balance, you will find yourself starting to lean over. The best way to combat this is…
- Don’t wait until you’re already falling over to try to correct this, instead begin correcting the second you starting tipping.
- Use your knee and your upper body to shift weight from side to side.
- Work on your balance off the bike. Slacklines or just narrow things to balance on will help teach your body this side-to-side balance.
- A strong core means better balance!
Right: Notice my knee is out in order to stay upright.
Left: Notice how I am leaning more than the photo on the right and in order to compensate I am using both my knee and my upper body.
6. To stop the wheelie just touch the rear brake and your front wheel will drop.
This is your go to. A wheelie has a very easy bale out: just grab the rear brake and your front wheel will always drop.
7. Ride off like the rock star you are!
Common wheelie mistakes and how to fix them
- Wheelies do not come from the arms. While it seems logical to pull up on the handlebars to get your front wheel off the ground, wheelies are all in the legs. Your arms should be doing minimal work. They should be fairly relaxed and somewhat extended.
- Confidence is key! Isn’t that the trick to most anything? It is surprising how far back you feel like you have to lean, but just go for it. Practice somewhere you aren’t afraid to fall, like grass.
- A common concern is toppling backwards. When learning to wheelie, the only way to eventually find a balance point is to go too far back, but that doesn’t mean you have to fall. Practice sliding backwards off your seat so that you land on your feet, not on your back.
- Consider switching to flat pedals instead of clipless. Flat pedals allow your feet to come off the pedals quicker and with less thought.
- Struggling to get your wheel off the ground? Look for a slight uphill. This will make getting your front tire off the ground easier. I do not recommend learning on a downhill: your speed will increase significantly and get closer to manual territory rather than a wheelie.
- Try to look up (try being the key word). Looking down is natural but looking up will help keep your weight where it needs to be: right over the rear wheel. Looking down will naturally pull your weight forward and push the front wheel down. Try finding a rock, a tree, a pretty girl, a beer — whatever you can focus on in the distance. This will help keep your head up.
Notice how my weight is back, not over the handlebars
- If you keep your weight over the handlebars, a wheelie will be impossible. Make sure to get your weight off the front of the bike as soon as your front wheel comes off the ground.
- Play with your seat height. Some people find it easier to learn with a lower seat because it feels safer as your center of gravity is lower, making it easier to balance. The downside to having a low seat is that pedaling is harder. On the flip side, a higher seat makes it easier to put the necessary pressure on the pedals. However you are sitting higher up, which can seem scary.
- If you have a full suspension bike, try locking out the rear shock or, ideally, switch to a hardtail. Rear suspension can cause the bike to bounce, making it more difficult to balance.
- Trying to learn in the wind will be difficult. Since balance is such a crucial part of popping a wheelie, even just a little breeze can throw you off. If you live somewhere windy, try to find a trail in the trees where the wind is less noticeable.
How to wheelie on a road bike
Lower handlebars and skinny tires makes popping a wheelie on a road bike a bit of a challenge. But it’s certainly possible. Apply the same seven steps as above, but with a few subtle changes:
- Keep the bike in a lower gear and simply practice getting the front wheel off the ground at first. Because your weight is lower and positioned more over the front wheel than on a mountain bike, just lifting the wheel off the ground is a pretty big learning curve for most roadies.
- Position your hands on the hoods so you have easy access to the rear brake.
- Consider lowering your saddle and using flat pedals while you learn.
- The balance point will feel further back on a road bike, so don’t be afraid to lean!