Popping Off: How to Wheelie on Your Mountain BikePublished on 05/13/2023 · 11 min readWondering how to pop your first wheelie? Cycling expert Gunnar O. tells you everything you need about how to learn the trick safely and accurately.
Photo by Jan Kopřiva
Wheelies are my favorite trick on my mountain bike. Not only are they super fun, but they are a great way to make the boring parts of rides a useful time for skill development. Wheelies are a cool trick that puts a big grin on my face, and they are also a helpful skill that leads to greater bike control and, thus, better overall bike handling when on the trail. Wheelies are a wonderful trick to have in your repertoire; they are easily practiced at home and provide an endless opportunity for progression. They have minimal risk, and once you get past the fear of looping out, you can constantly challenge yourself to wheelie further or around more obstacles than before.
First things first, the most common mistake that can happen when learning to wheelie is looping out. Looping out is when you wheelie too vertically, and your back wheel passes your front wheel, causing you to fall backward off your bike. This typically happens in the blink of an eye while you are still learning your bike's balancing point. It is important to learn to wheelie on flat pedals—not clipped in—so your feet can easily come off the pedals to prevent you from crashing onto your back during a loop out. It is also vital to wear proper safety gear, like a helmet, to protect the back of your head if you don’t get your feet down in time. Some riders prefer to use a backpack or back protection when learning to help provide extra padding in the event of a loop-out.
Bike setup is also crucial for learning to wheelie properly. First, a lower tire pressure than normal is helpful because it provides a wider footprint for you to balance. Higher tire pressures make the margin of error between balancing and looping out too small, so it is important to check your tire pressure before learning to wheelie. Note that too soft of tire pressure can make the bike feel less responsive, so there is a balance between too soft and too hard. I like starting at around 25psi (I weigh about 200 lbs), but this varies greatly from rider to rider and tire to tire, so experiment with your own during this process.
Brake Set Up
Next, it is important to have brakes set up properly. Your brakes should have a nice, consistent grab and plenty of remaining life on the brake pads. Trying to wheelie a brand-new bike is not a great place to start because your brakes have not had time to get bedded in and thus will not be grabby enough. Ensure your brakes are set up properly, and your lever doesn’t pull to the bar before engaging. A strong and responsive brake is a must for learning to wheelie as this is the primary way you will control your balance point.
Lastly, a proper saddle height is a must. If your saddle is too low, you will not adequately be able to maintain a wheelie position. If it is too high, you will be more prone to looping out and have a harder time quickly dismounting in the event of a loop-out. On my bike, which has a dropper post, I like to drop my saddle about an inch or two from its fully extended position when riding wheelies. Doing this gives me plenty of leverage to use my weight to maintain my balance position, but it is also low enough for me to quickly dismount if needed. Finding the right position for you will take some time, but the mid-extension of your dropper is a great start.
Learning the Balance Point
The hardest part in learning a wheelie is discovering the balance point of the bike without inevitably looping out. For the more risk-averse, there are a few ways to experiment with the tipping point of your bike before trying it at speed on pavement. One of my favorite ways to learn the balance point on my bike is using a manual machine. Although these are primarily designed for manuals, not wheelies, the same principles apply. There are some great tutorials online on building these for less than $30. They really come in handy when learning manuals as well.
Learning on the lawn or in a park is a great way to practice wheelieing without the painful consequence of looping out. Although you cannot modulate your brakes to control your wheelie as well in grass, this is a great place to practice dismounting when looping out. Practice popping your bike up as you put power to the pedals. Lean back as far as possible; your goal is to loop out and fall off of the back of your bike and land on your feet. Repeating this unnatural and scary maneuver will help your reflexes develop and give you the confidence to take your wheelies to the pavement. This is a great way to build confidence in yourself and your abilities.
Popping a Wheelie
The pop-up is the most important skill and the most common place to make a mistake when learning to wheelie. Learning how to pop a wheelie properly can set you up for a successful wheelie, but it can also be a frustrating skill to learn. First and foremost, it is important to preload your suspension by pushing down into the front of your bike. This will give you added boost to help you lift your front wheel higher. To preload your suspension, you want to start with your body in a neutral riding position. Then, you want to push your weight into your hands by lurching your body weight over your front wheel. In one swift motion, this will cause your fork to compress, building up potential energy to allow you to pop up your front wheel.
As soon as your suspension compresses, you want to instantly pull your handlebars back up, using your front suspension to pop your front wheel up. The two most common mistakes when learning to pop a wheelie occur during the pull-up stage. The first common error is only pulling up the front of the bike with your arms, leaving your body weight forward. This mistake will result in a small lift in your front wheel but will inevitably leave you unable to lift your front wheel high enough to maintain a balance point.
The second error is only using your torso to lift the front of your bike. By yanking your weight backward until your arms lock out, you set your body in a position that cannot micro-adjust to the forces of maintaining a wheelie. When doing this, it is common to tilt to the side of your wheelie, causing you to put a foot down rather than balance. Instead of just using your arms or your torso, it is important to use them both. A proper pull-up leaves your arms semi-bent and your torso moving back toward the rear of your bike. This is only possible with the aid of a pedal stroke.
To aid in lifting the front of your bike, it is also necessary to add power to your bike with a few pedal strokes. This will help you lift the front of your bike and get your forward momentum rolling to help you balance your bike on your rear wheel. Although the pedal stroke should ultimately coincide with the pull-up, it is helpful to practice the two independently to solidify your technique in each.
To practice your pedal stroke lift, shift your bike up two gears easier than you would usually need for your road’s grade. I find it easiest to practice the pedal stroke lift on an incline. Start with your leading foot at 12 o’clock and do a small preload with your bike as you take a strong pedal stroke. You should notice your front end lifting up with much more velocity than the previous step. Stay on your saddle during the pedal stroke, and do not stand up. Keeping your bum pressure on the bike seat will force your front wheel up as you put power into your pedals. This is the final ingredient necessary for getting your bike into a wheelie position.
Balancing your body and the back of your bike is the most important part of maintaining your wheelie position. I find that focusing on the position of your chin relative to your bike is the easiest way to know where your body position is. Once you have preloaded your fork, pulled up on your bars, and used a pedal stroke to power your wheelie, it is time to find your balance point. If your front wheel quickly sets back down, try shifting your chin position further back during your next wheelie popping sequence. If you fully loop out, try keeping your chin position further forward. Ideally, keeping your chin just in front of your rear axle is a great place to maintain a wheelie.
Riding the Wheelie
Finding the Ideal Road Grade
The ideal road grade for riding a wheelie is a slight incline. An incline allows you to keep pedaling to maintain your wheel lift. This allows your body weight to be slightly forward, which gives you less fear of looping out. Also, a slight incline keeps your speed down and allows you to keep your wheelie in control.
Finding the Right Gear
Riding a wheelie is a balance of pedaling and braking power. As mentioned before, an easier gear, about two gears lower than your normal for the specific road grade, is a great start. Keeping a bit of power on the pedals keeps your wheel lifting and ultimately allows you to ride your wheelie longer. It is worth noting that the second pedal stroke (your non-dominant foot) is the most important when maintaining a wheelie. If you do not get enough power in this stroke, your front wheel will drop before you can find your balance point.
Modulating Your Brake
Your rear brake is the fail-safe that allows you to set your front wheel down if you feel that your weight is too far back. To start, pop a wheelie nice and high and use your brake to drop your front wheel. This will get you comfortable with the feeling of controlling your wheeling with your brake. Once you are comfortable with that, try grabbing your front brake less abruptly for a more controlled set down of your front tire. The more control that you can incorporate with your front brake, the better.
Adjusting Your Body Weight
As you learn to add pedal power or brake to control your bike position, it is also helpful to know how to reposition your body to maintain balance. When pedaling, try leaning forward to see if you can counteract the front wheel lift. And vice versa, try leaning back as you slowly apply your rear brake to maintain balance while dropping your front wheel.
Dragging the Back Brake
Once you find your balance on a slight incline, you can bring your wheelies to flatter roads by learning to drag the rear brake. By constantly adding rear brake pressure, you can keep your weight further back and add more power to the pedals. Slightly releasing your brake raises your front wheel, and slightly squeezing your front brake lowers your front wheel.
Balancing Left to Right
As you begin to maintain your vertical balance from front to back and ride wheelies longer, you may notice that your bike shifts to the left or to the right, causing you to need to set down your wheelie early. Maintaining your sideways balance via knee position will allow you to ride wheelies even longer. If your bike is drifting to the right, stick your left knee out to counteract the balance and vice versa with your right. Turing your bars also helps turn your bike but usually leads to preemptively setting your wheel down. Learning counter steering—turning your front wheel to the left to lean right and vice versa—really comes in handy when attempting longer wheel rides and will aid in perfect balance.
Putting It All Together
Putting all of these steps together and constantly practicing is the best way to add a wheelie to your repertoire. As with anything, persistence will help you develop your skill set. Practicing wheelies on the concrete path or pavement section to and from the trails is a great time to work on my wheelies. Once you get more confident with your balance point, you can try more difficult terrain, be it steeper inclines, downhill slopes, winding trails, or around hazards or other trail obstacles. This also translates into better bike control and the ability to lift your front wheel on more technical climbs. With enough success, you can even bring your wheelies to the singletrack—the world is yours to wheelie!