How to Wheelie
Big wheels or small, suspended or rigid, no matter what you ride, being able to lift the front wheel is a handy skill to have.
You don’t need physical strength to lift the front wheel over obstacles, it just requires good technique.
Although it can look cool, lifting your front wheel isn’t about showboating (well for the most-part anyway). If you can’t lift the front wheel, small rock steps and tree roots may stop you in your tracks or send you spearing off the trail. However, if you can loft your front wheel, there’s a very good chance that the rear will just roll on through. Lifting the front wheel will help you to maintain momentum over obstacles and make you a safer, more capable rider.
There’s nothing to be ashamed of if you can’t get your front wheel off the ground; I know of people who’ve been mountain biking for the best part of a decade and still can’t loft the front end with confidence. What’s more, there are plenty of riders who can get the wheel off the ground but do so with poor technique. While they may get by, poor technique wastes energy and requires more strength to muscle the front of the bike up. Employ the correct technique and you’ll expend very little energy when lifting the wheel, regardless of your size and physical strength.
As with any skill, you’ll need plenty of practice. Thankfully this skill can be practised just about anywhere; you don’t need a trail or any specific obstacles. Do it whilst commuting to work, riding around at the trailhead whilst waiting for mates or goof around in front of your house. There are two ways to lift the front wheel; the first (and easiest) requires pedalling while the other is done whilst coasting.
The Wheelie - Easy
It’s easiest to practise on a gentle uphill at just above walking pace. Select a gear that’s neither too low or high; this may require a little trial and error to get the appropriate gear. Too low and the wheel will pop up quickly but slam back down too fast. Go too high and you won’t get sufficient lift.
Bend your arms and pull your torso towards the handlebars; crouch low and forward. Rest a finger on your rear brake. Don’t apply the brake, just cover the lever as it will act as your ‘safety net’ if things go awry and you lift the front end too high.
Lots of people try to lift the front wheel by pulling up with their arms, but this tends to be hard work and ineffective. The key is to throw your torso all the way back while simultaneously putting in a solid pedal stroke (you’ll probably favour one foot for this power stroke). With your arms outstretched and most of your bodyweight at the rear of the bike, it doesn’t take too much pedal power to pop the wheel into the air. Practise the pedal stroke and rearward weight shift until the action is coordinated.
Once you can lift your front wheel with confidence, start applying it with obstacles on the trail. Learning to keep the wheel in the air isn’t really necessary on the trail but it looks cool and it’s a further refinement of your bike handling skills. You need to find your balance point where your weight is centred over the rear wheel and keep it there.
If the front end starts to drop, pedal harder and lean back more. If you feel like you’re going over backwards, lightly apply the rear brake. You also need to be aware of your side-to-side balance; sticking your knees out to one side or the other can help with this. Practising on flat pedals will make it much easier to learn as you’ll be able to get your feet on the ground quickly if anything goes wrong.
The Coaster - Harder
When you are travelling at speed, it isn’t possible lift the front end with a pedal stroke—that’s where the coaster or ‘manual’ technique comes in handy. This technique is harder than a low-speed wheelie but even if you don’t get the wheel airborne, the action will still unweight the front end and help you over some obstacles. Start by lurch forward to get low over the handlebars.
Immediately spring up and back, throwing yourself to the rear of the bike. The sudden rearward movement will unweight the front wheel and the momentum in your torso will pull back on handlebars. As with the pedalling wheelie, it’s important that you pull back and up; the movement needs to come from your entire body shifting to the rear—don’t just yank the bars upwards with your arms.
As your arms reach full extension and the front wheel lifts, push forward with your feet. At this point you’ll be behind the saddle, and the centre of your body mass will be over the rear wheel. To lift the front end, the whole action needs to be executed with a good deal of conviction; it’s an explosive action so don’t do it half-heartedly and expect a result. That said, it’s not about arm-strength, it’s simply putting the mass in your body to good use as you weigh a lot more that your bike.
Keeping the front wheel up for longer can be handy on the trail; think of lofting the front wheel across a creek or the dip in a double jump. To do this you need to find the balance point over the rear wheel. If the front end drops, rock your hips rearwards—if you start to over-rotate, move forward or drag the rear brake.