Wheelies: Essential Moto Skill or Stupid, Dangerous & Hurting the Sport?
Rock ‘n’ Roll. Image via bikesales.com.au
In 2016 I took my young Aussie family to Disneyland in California. After we’d spent way too much money on great rides and sugary American junk food, we drove north to San Francisco. Much more my type of city, we immersed ourselves by hiring a car and seeing some sights. Driving on the wrong side of the road with three kids in the backseat and my better half in the front, we sat in traffic waiting to cross the Golden Gate bridge.
Hearing a roar from behind us, I checked my mirrors where I spied a motorcycle lane splitting through the traffic behind me. Imagine my slo-mo surprise as I watched the bike’s front wheel rise up to reveal a set of exhaust pipes and a sump. With the words “WHAT THE…” in my throat but not yet made into sounds, I stared in horror as the bike’s trajectory crossed up and things started to go very, very wrong.
Next thing I knew, I had the bike cartwheel past the car and come to a grinding halt on the road ahead. Instantly, about a dozen other bikes appeared on the scene, righted the damaged bike and its rider, and roared off across the bridge with the same lightning timing that they’d turned up.
As a passionate rider and moto advocate, I was properly torn. It was probably some of the worst riding I had ever seen on a public road and it clearly put my family and kids in danger… but who was I to pass judgment? I’d done some pretty heinous things on bikes in my youth and there was a certain punkish, Mad Max vibe about the whole thing that was undeniably impressive. So ever since that day, I’ve been a real fence-sitter on the subject of wheelies. Now let’s delve a little deeper and look at the pros and cons.
The Case Against Wheelies
Let’s get the obvious things out of the way first. If you have access to a private road that’s free of other traffic, pedestrians or pretty much anyone else that’s not you and your bikes, then feel free to go nuts. Figuratively or literally, you can knock yourself out. If you are OK with the likelihood of a dropped and/or damaged bike and you’re not going to hurt anyone but your own good self, then off you go. It’s a free(ish) world after all. Hell, even if it’s an empty car park or vacant lot, you’ll probably be fine.
It’s when riders start to deploy them willy-nilly that things get a little iffy. And as we all know, the adrenalin and visual impressiveness of a proper wheelie is an addictive thing. Then there’s the ego boosting factor; whether onlookers are impressed or dismayed, it’s still a great reaction as far as you’re concerned. You rocked their world either way. It’s the equivalent of a skateboarder scratching the shit out of a park bench or a jet skier spraying a wharf. Sucks to be them, huh? And you wonder why bikers have such a bad reputation? Go figure.
But unless you’re a professional stunt rider who practices for hours a day, you’d be lying if you said that you were 100% in control of your bike when it’s on one wheel. It’s just not true. The reality of the situation is that there is no way you can stop quickly or safely if any excrement hits any rotational cooling devices.
70% of a bike’s braking is done by the front wheel and in case you haven’t noticed, it’s flapping around about 4 feet off the road right now, so when that small child runs out from behind a parked car and you need to stop quickly, you just won’t. Just try telling the judge how cool you looked just before you sent an innocent kid to hospital, or worse.
And it’s right about now that I should probably mention that wheelies are also illegal pretty much everywhere; unless you are a Saudi Prince or Evel Knieval, you’ll have the book thrown at you if any police see you ripping one. Then there’s the damage you can do to your bike. Quite apart from the excessive wear and tear you’ll create by ripping the throttle and pinging the clutch to get your bike vertical, heavy landings can weaken or even break frame welds and in particular the ones that hold your forks onto the rest of your bikes.
Also, there’s the fact that for any wheelie with a properly steep angle involved, you can starve your engine of oil as it all sloshes to the back of the sump and away from the oil pump’s collector. Need I go on? Wheelies are mad, bad and also just plain dangerous. Don’t do them. Ever.
The Case For Wheelies
Watch any military parade worth its salt and you’re more than likely to see soldiers on motorcycles doing stunts. That’s because most major armies of the world have specialist motorcyclists as part of their arsenal. And yes, these stunts often include wheelies, along with formation riding, jumps, obstacle courses and a lot more. But why, you ask? Well I can tell you that the taxpayer dollars that go to funding units like these aren’t justified by Army heads saying, “because it looks totally sick!” Of course not. It’s because in times of war, advanced motorcycle techniques like this can turn battles around and provide an invaluable tool for surprise attacks and reconnaissance.
But that’s only the tip of the internal combustion iceberg. Advance riding like this also has an advantage for civilians, too. To be able to know how your own motorcycle will behave outside of regular riding conditions is incredibly helpful in a wide range of situations, not the least of which is keeping your bike under control in moments where the unexpected happens.
To know how the bike feels and handles under high acceleration and braking forces means that you’ll be better prepared if and when your bike reaches its limits when you weren’t expecting it. I’d even go so far as to say that if you took two identically skilled riders and taught one how to wheelie while leaving the other to themselves, the wheelie twin would be a safer, better rider from then on.
Any arguments that may counter this logic with ideas around “proper” and “improper” riding need only note Marc Marquez’s “backing it in” cornering technique. Rule books are easily rewritten once a previously preposterous technique or habit is proven to have real, tangible benefits – like getting you around corners faster or improving your bike handling skills on the road.
Now just imagine if someone had told the Wright Brothers that what they were doing with their bikes in terms of getting them airborne was Illogically “wrong” or “bad”. Too long a bow to draw? Perhaps, but if they had stuck to using their bicycles “properly” instead of reaching for the stars, we’d all be worse off.
Yes, as a matter of fact I am done arguing with myself. And no, my mental health is not in question; at least not today. But hopefully I’ve gone a little ways to show you all just how two-sided the subject can be. So as to not leave you all hanging with some fence sitting, I will leave you with this thought. As with many things in life, motorcycle wheelies are all about context.
Sure, helping yourself to three double whiskeys in quick succession while in your dirty underwear after a big week at work is no big deal, as long as you do it in the privacy of your own home. But do exactly the same thing on live TV or while on stage with a local politician, and there’s little doubt that the end results will be very different. The same goes for wheelies. Rip one on a private road sans kids and old ladies and it’s perfectly fine. Rip another one in the carpark of your local daycare center during pick-up time on a Friday afternoon and you’re likely to have your license set on fire right in front of your eyes.
And then the debate gets even more complex. What if wheelies were somehow to become a kind of social or cultural phenomena? What if it was less a personal ego trip and more of a community performance highlighting the plight of your people? What if it was a creative expression in the same way that making music, creating art or dancing was?
Oh yes, I did go there. Feel free to be enraged or in total agreement as you see fit. But hopefully I’ve made my point clear. Wheelies can vary wildly from the stuff of sheer idiocy to the truly sublime depending on many, many factors. Just what they are is largely down to the rider themselves and the context they are performed in. All I will say in closing is that they are always done with a certain degree of danger and – as riding a motorcycle in general – you do them at your own risk. Once you’re risking the health and safety of others with your wheelies, it’s probably time to go home and plan that Californian holiday you’ve always wanted.