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Wheelie Masters and the Journey

  Last year, riding up the road from the parking lot to the trailhead, reminded me that I absolutely sucked at a riding wheelies. After decades on a bike,I could hold the front wheel up for 10 ft at most. Even back when freeride started several of my friends learned to manual, I still had nothin'.

  Then a year ago, my friend Zane started making FB posts, declaring that he was going to learn manuals, by practicing 30-40 minutes a day, every day. By the end of the summer he posted an amazing video of an endless manual down a hill. This gnawed at the back of my mind, he's over 40, I'm over 40. Maybe it is possible. Maybe wheelie skills aren't something that only the gifted are born with.
  So around Christmas I started messing around popping wheelies in front of my house. I wanted to follow Zane's technique of solid repetition. I've read Malcolm Gladwell, I believed in the 10,000 hour rule.  So I tried on my own in the culdesac and got nowhere. Then I watched some Youtube. There are only about 10,000 videos on how to wheelie, so I went with an English guy because his accent was so great. The most important tip I got was to start on a hill, this made all the difference for me. He also had tips on seat height and gearing, but I'll give my take on those at the end of the post.
  Along my journey to the one wheel I contacted two of the greatest wheelie masters I know. I wanted to hear some of their thoughts on wheelies and some good stories. The first Master I called was Pat Jackson. He is a friend from my time in Bend, OR and an amazing cyclist. Pat could road ride a century one day, single speed some single track the next, and then meet us for a dirt jump session afterward. He worked at the best shop in Bend, Eastside Hutch's. Often the posse would gather at the shop as it closed, then the employees would join in for a night of urban riding mayhem.
Here's my interview:

ME: I think my favorite wheelie of yours was when it was closing time at the shop and we would all start bringing in the demo bikes from outside.  That's when you would grab some expensive road bike and wheelie it up the aisle in the shop, with brand new bikes on either side of you. You'd go super slow and in control, never even a wobble. And you might just ratchet the pedals a little and coast it down to the end. And I love that it could be any bike, any size, any seat height, it didn't matter.
PAT: Yeah, that was such a great time and a great shop
M: And you would do big wheelies out on road rides too?
P: Road races? yeah and in cyclocross races too. There's are picture of me, going past some friends who are all shirtless cheering for me and I'm riding by in a wheelie at a cyclocross race.
I just love being in that balance point. For me it's a really peaceful place. It's the same as finding the balance point in a corner. You know, you find the place where you are cornering right to the point just before you low-side out.
M: So is a wheelie something you just practiced forever?
P: Well, when I was a kid, I was always on my bike. At some point I just started popping wheelies up this hill by my house. Then eventually I was cresting the hill and learning to ride the flat up on top. Then I really had to learn how to use my brake.
M: Hmm, so I'm currently at the point you where at when you were about ten.

P: Do you remember when I got stopped by the police for riding a wheelie?
M: no
P: I wanted to ride a wheelie all the way from my house to Hutch's, and I was almost there. I came through the roundabout by Safeway and a cop pulled me over. While I was waiting for him to walk up I just balanced there in a track stand. He didn't think that was funny at all, he made me put my foot down. He told me I was a public nuisance and a distraction to drivers. Then he gave me a written warning, we hung up that warning behind the counter at the shop.

(Side jag- Pat and a couple other guys in the gang were amazingly good at riding manuals also. I remember several of us riding down a long downhill street, Pat and two others were coasting along in manuals. Some one called for 'bar humps.' So, instead of the standard position of arms straight out and ass hanging off the back of the bike. Each of them started pulling their crotch towards the bar stem. It was the funniest looking thing, and I have no idea how they maintained the front wheel in the air.)
M: Right now I can't figure out how to feather my brake, I just touch it and the front slams down.
P: You need to take it further back, start getting to where you tip over. You should do this on grass, since you're old. But if you tip way back then you'll learn how to feather it quick, so you just bring the wheel down a little.
M: I saw a picture of you racing with your front tire around your neck, what was the story there?
P: For a while I tried gluing my own tires on, and they kept going flat. So for that race I had a mechanic glue my tire, and it totally came off. I didn't want to take a pit, so I just rode it out like that.

My second interview was with my oldest cycling buddy Scott Bartzsch. It started with a text.

ME: So...wheelies.
SCOTT:Wheelies feel like the most comfortable easy-chair you've ever sat in. Finding that balance point is a feeling of total bliss.
M: So, what was your best wheelie?
S: It would have to be that climb at Kingdom, It just felt right that day, and I did the entire climb in a wheelie. It was a mile and a quarter from top to bottom.
M: Do you still find wheelies uphill easier, or is it all the same?
S: Uphill wheelies are the best wheelies! Think about it, you're using the same amount of effort with only half the rolling resistance.
M: Ok, I see the logic.
M: You mentioned no-handed wheelies on your mountain bike?
S: Yeah, not with flats, but if I'm clipped in I can hold the bike up with just the pedals. Obviously, not for too long. I can't steer it no-handed.
M: I'm trying to learn how to feather the brake when I tip back. Any tips?
S: I never touch my brake.
M: What!?
S: Yeah, I think I keep my wheel to the low side. It's always trying to fall back down, I never go to the point of tipping back. So I've never used the brake to wheelie.
M: You're a nut.
Scott setting up for a backwards peg wheelie while I watch in amazement

So, armed with the wisdom of the Masters and the cheerful Youtube bloke, I started practicing in earnest. The bloke mentioned the hill, and he also gave me another tip that I instituted. Instead of going out for a set amount of time, go until you start getting worse. I found that each session had a distinctive bell curve. I would start out rough, then I would start to get the hang of it. There would be a peak with a few really good attempts. And then the peak would pass and I'd realize that each try was getting worse than the last, that's when I would call it.
  The other two things you can control, are your gearing and your seat height. I started out in the first gear down from granny. This deep reduction gear is really helpful in lifting the wheel up easily, and it's a great place to start. Then as I got further along I would find myself chasing a falling front wheel. The wheel starts dropping down, so you try pedaling faster to bring it back up, but you just can't do it.
  When I finally started working into harder gears, like 3-4 down from granny, I had a breakthrough. These gears provide the torque and power that is enough to bring a falling wheel back into the sweet spot. So, start out super easy, but know that the goal is to move into harder gears.
  Seat height followed a similar pattern for me. I noticed I was having an easier time controlling the balance and lean of the bike when I had my seat almost all the way dropped. A low seat helped me get started, and a low seat is fine for a short distance, but that's not the goal. I reached a point where I was riding my whole hill (300 ft) with the seat dropped and my knees bending uncomfortably higher than my hips. That's when I had to start bringing the seat up. I spent a lot of time with the seat about midway. This still allowed decent control and was sustainable for a longer ride. But I knew a higher seat was the endgame, so now I only drop the seat about 1 and 1/2 inches from fully up.
  Another thing I picked up from a video, was arm position. Ideally you want your arms out straight. I guess some people can get in the habit of trying to pull the wheel back up with their arms, instead of torqueing the front wheel back up with a pedal stroke. Arms straight is also more comfortable.       Sometimes the nose starts to dip, but I don't want to change my cadence. I found I can shift my weight back and slip my ass off the back of the seat a little and it can be enough to bring the nose back up.
  Making the 300 ft up my hill was the first goal I've achieved. I'm still learning to ride on the flat, and I have no idea how to take corners. But the door has opened up and I'm having an incredibly fun time with it. I'm sure that local instructors/heroes Lee McCormack and Christian Peper have useful wheelie tips and a better sense for giving instruction. But I no longer feel like wheelies are a genetic ability. It has a lot more to do with how many times you want to pedal up the hill.


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