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The Art of a Wheelie
Improper use of ATVs can cause SEVERE INJURY OR DEATH

ATV Wheelie How to Guide

“When we first started riding, we thought that a wheelie was just a wheelie, and a trick was just a trick. Then as we progressed we learned that a wheelie was more than just a wheelie, and a trick was more than just a trick. Upon mastering the sport, we now know that a wheelie is just a wheelie, and a trick is just a trick.” – K.Woods & M.Gorka

While I won’t be talking about very many different tricks in this little write-up, we will be talking extensively about wheelies. We will be going over almost every aspect, from the General setup of your quad, to the techniques used to help you go for miles on two wheels. I have read various “How to pull wheelies” articles and I hope that this one is much more in-depth, realistic, and helpful for you.

Before we get underway, I’d just like to start off by reminding you that wheelies can be dangerous, and should only be attempted by those who are extremely comfortable on an ATV. Please also remember to wear the proper safety gear every time you get on your Quad, regardless of the type of riding you will be doing.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s get started.

For the most part, wheelies can be learned and performed on a completely stock Quad (depending on the model). This article will focus more towards your Average sport quad (I.E. 400ex, Z400, etc…). However, there are some small tips that can make wheelies easier and safer. I will go over a few general areas of the quad setup, and let you know what I have found through my experience doing wheelies.

  • Tire Pressure – If you talk to anyone into “Stunting” or Wheelies, they will tell you that a lower tire pressure is helpful in most cases. It actually is very true, and helps in a couple of different areas; Turning and Balance. When using a lower tire pressure it allows your tires to “squish” more when your weight is placed over them. That means when you lean over the left or right hand side of the quad, the rear tire on the side you are leaning towards compresses some, making the diameter smaller, which causes the quad to turn in that direction. Don’t forget that the pressure in each tire needs to be adjusted so that the quad tracks in a straight line on a flat surface. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to have them equal; there can be a lot of factors that cause it to pull to one side or the other, so adjust accordingly.

    As I mentioned, another benefit to lowering your tire pressure is increased balance. Your tires are round right? Of course they are. When you are up in a wheelie your tires compress slightly, causing a small “flat spot” where they come in contact with the ground. The more air pressure in your tires, the smaller that flat spot is. Ask yourself; Is it easier to stand something up with a rounded bottom, or with a flat bottom? The answer obviously is something with a flat bottom. Running your air pressure softer than stock will cause the “flat spot” on the ground to be larger, making it easier to keep the front end balanced in the air.

    There really is no “ideal” pressure. It not only depends on the rider and the quad, but it also depends on the tires used. The higher ply tires are more rigid than the lower ply, and require more air to be taken out of them to get this affect. It is best to experiment and decide what works best for you. I typically run about 2-3psi in my rear tires, sometimes less.

  • Sprockets – In my honest opinion, if you are running an average sport quad, there is no need to mess around with the changing of sprockets. Most stock 400cc quads are capable of being pulled up in 5th gear. Quads like the Honda & Yamaha 450’s seem to have a fairly tall 1st gear, but for standard wheelies they are perfectly fine. I’m sure even the slower, and more advanced tricks are fine on them with a little seat time.

  • Chain Adjustment – Nothing major here, just check your chain for slack and adjust to factory specifications. If your chain is loose, you may have to make throttle changes in your wheelie to compensate for the “slop” in your drivetrain.

  • Throttle – Much like that Chain, just double check your throttle to ensure that it works smoothly and does not stick. Also check for “free-play” and adjust as needed.

  • Clutch – Everyone is different, so adjust your clutch so that you are comfortable using it. I like a clutch that grabs and releases nice and close to the handlebars, where others like a clutch that barely needs to be pulled in to grab. It is personal preference. Also, despite what you may have heard, wheelies will not kill your clutch (at least if done properly). I have been riding wheelies on my quad for almost 5 years, and my stock clutch has never been touched.

  • Grab Bar / Wheelie Bar – Call it what you want, but I’m talking about the bar on the back of your quad that you probably use mostly for lifting up the back tires, or moving the quad back or forth. This bar is important when doing wheelies because it can save your “you know what” if you do happen to screw up. Nothing really needs to be done with it, but look it over for cracks or weak points that could cause it to snap or bend when hit. If you have previously bent the bar, it may be a good idea to just replace it, as everyone knows that it will bend even easier the 2nd time. Some people choose to run aftermarket, or home fabricated bars that are stronger or last longer when scraped on the ground. I do not use those types of bars for more advanced wheelies, and I surely do not think they are needed for learning standard wheelies. If anything, you can have someone put a bead of weld along the back of your bar which will make it take longer to wear through. Keep in mind though, the idea is not to have to use it, as it does not always save you from a crash, and in some cases can even cause one.

Other than the few “Do it yourself” mods or adjustments that I listed above, you really do not need any. Anything you can think of us purely optional. Whether its different handlebars to give you a better feel, Nerf bars for added security, or a custom titanium scrap bar so you can cause 4th of July-like fireworks, it’s all up to you. One mod that I have seen that is helpful on a variety of quads is an aftermarket pipe. The more low-end torque you have to lift the wheels quickly, the better off you are. It is not needed on the higher powered quads, but it can really make a difference on the lower HP machines.

There are a few different body positions for doing standard wheelies. I will do my best to point out the ups and downs for the ones that I can think of.

  • Sitdown – Your average, run of the mill wheelie. The rider is sitting on the seat, with their hands on the controls, and feet on the pegs. This is a good position to be in because everything (The throttle, clutch, brake, and gear shift) is easily accessible. Also, the stress on your arms and legs is minimal, so you can ride like this for a long distance without getting tired. The downside is that for beginners, the front end of the quad can feel higher than it actually is which causes them to let off the throttle before the balance point is reached. This is also not an ideal position for beginners to be in if they do happen to go back too far on the wheelie, as the quad can tip all of the way backwards under some circumstances if the rear brake is not applied. In that case it is not easy to step off in this position.
  • Standup – Exactly how it sounds. Hands on the controls, and feet on the pegs, with the rider in the standing position. This position is nice because you get a clear view of what is ahead of you, and the front end of the ATV does not seem as high as it does in the sitdown position. In the result of an error that causes the quad to fall back on the grab-bar, you can often easily step off. Unfortunately, the brake and gear shift can sometimes be a little bit harder to reach, and there is a lot more stress on your arms and legs which can affect long distance wheelies for some.
  • Split – There are a lot of names for this method, but here we are talking about your hands on the controls, your right foot on the right foot peg, and your left foot in the grab-bar. This position is similar to the Standup, as you can see clearly in front of you, but in this case you have more support from your left leg, and the brake is easily used with your right foot. This position really helps you judge the height of the quad, and can be really nice when practicing slow wheelies, as you can just step off if you go back too far. You can also adjust your weight back and fourth easier in this position. One downfall to this position is the fact that the gear shift is not accessible, but that normally is not a problem. However a more serious issue can be the fact that your left foot can sometimes hit the ground if you hit the bar, which can cause you to be pulled off of the quad and possibly injured. I have no had this happen to me, but I have heard and seen cases where this has happened.
  • Seat Stander Standing with both feet on the seat (or grab-bar), with hands on the controls. The advantages to this position are the fact that more weight is towards the rear of the quad, causing the balance point to be lower. Much like the Standup, and Split, you have an unobstructed view of what is in front of the quad. Turning and control is good in this position because you can throw your weight around a lot easier (side to side, front to back). However your gearshift and brake are out of reach in this position. Luckily it is easy to bail in the chance that something goes wrong.

Basics of Throttle Control & Balance Point:
Before going any further, I would like to talk a little about throttle control and the balance point because these are the most important factors when you are in your wheelie.

Smoothness is the key here. Throw away any advice that anyone has given you regarding “blipping” or “chopping” the throttle, as that is nothing but bad news. The basic idea behind throttle control is to use a lot to get the quad from the ground to the balance point, but then smoothly adjust it to a point where you can almost hold it steady.

The Balance point is the angle where the quad requires no more acceleration to keep the front end in the air. Knowing this point is one of the keys to doing wheelies. While I can’t really describe in words where this point is, you will feel it when you get there. It varies depending on speed and seating position, as well as if you are on a flat surface, or an incline. It is higher the slower you are going, and lower the faster you are going.

Though Throttle Control and the Balance point may be the most important factors in a wheelie, you will soon learn that the Rear brake is your best friend.

Lifting the front tires:
There are a couple of ways to get the front end of the quad off the ground. Believe me when I say that it is very important to get the tires off of the ground quickly and smoothly. How easy it comes up varies a lot depending on the quad you are riding, but here I will assume you are riding an average, manual clutch sport quad.

  • Power method – This method uses the quads engine power, along with your pulling power to lift the tires off the ground. This way is pretty simple, but you do need to be familiar as to where your quads power band is, and it does take a bit of timing.

    Basically, the idea is to be at the base of the power band, just before it really starts to kick in, let off the throttle slightly, and then crack it open while tugging on the handlebars. The tug of the bars should occur at the same time the power is coming on. Keep in mind that the front will come up slower or quicker depending on the gear you are in. It’s obviously best to be careful and experiment a little before you actually grab a handful of throttle and throw all your weight back. We will talk a little more about gear selection later on.
  • Clutching Method – Similar technique as the Power method, except you are using the clutch to help make the lift more smooth and consistent. A slip of the clutch can also assist in getting the front end of lower powered quads up in higher gears. This is normally geared more for the advanced riders.

I personally only use this method when I’m going to wheelie from a dead-stop. It allows me to pull the front end up much quicker, which makes my wheelie speed slower.

Setting it back down:
Returning the front tires back to the ground is typically much easier than lifting them up, but there are still a few things to know.

It’s ideal to set the front end down with the wheels straight, and your body in a secure position. It also helps to accelerate as the front tires come in contact with the ground to really help smoothen the landing. In some cases this is hard to do because you could have the RPM’s tapped out. When that occurs simply pull in the clutch and hold on. It will be a lot more gentle than the front end slamming the ground under engine braking. If anything though, make sure that the wheels are straight and you are holding on.

A common question I see is “How do I shift in a wheelie?”. The answer is; Pretty much like you shift with all four tires on the ground. That means using the clutch and a smooth transition from one gear to the other.

Keep in mind; you should not Have To shift. Once you find the balance point, and develop good throttle control, you can virtually stay in a gear and wheelie forever without acceleration.

For those of you who are ready to shift because you want to, not because you have to, here is how you do it. Power up the wheelie like normal. Keep the front end near the lower end of the balance point, and slowly accelerate. Once you are almost to the point where you need to shift (I’m not talking about bouncing off the rev-limiter either), bring the quad up higher so you are slightly passed the balance point. Once there, you should be able to pull the clutch in, and shift to the next gear. Smoothly release the clutch while providing a little bit of throttle, as you normally would when shifting gears on the ground. The key here (as with most aspects of the wheelie), is to be smooth, and not try to rush things. Feel what the quad is doing, and compensate as needed after you have completed the shift.

Please use the clutch, for your sake, and for your quads sake. There is really no reason to do otherwise. If you cannot shift in a wheelie while using the clutch, you really need to practice more.

Steering the Wheelie:
If you listened to what I said in the beginning regarding your tire setup, this will be a breeze.

While in a wheelie, simply lean to the side where you want the quad to go. You will feel the quad start to pull in that direction. This typically does not happen instantaneously, so lean a little bit before you actually want the quad to turn. When you want to stop turning, simply lean a little in the opposite direction to get the quad to track straight again. It also helps to keep the quad as high in the balance point as possible, which causes more weight to be put on the tires.

Despite what you may have heard, turning the bars while in the air does not help at all in my opinion. Some say that they act like a rudder and cause the quad to turn. If this is the case, it is very minimal. The only advantage to turning the handlebars is to help you lean off to the side more.

The Rear Brake:
Besides good throttle control, and a good feel for the balance point, this is probably the next most important factor in a wheelie. Although theoretically you do not ever need to touch the rear brake to keep a wheelie going, it will come in handy at some point.

Everyone makes mistakes. That is a fact, and that is why it is important to know how to use your brake in a wheelie. I know what you are saying; “How is it any different than using my brake normally?”. The answer is, that it is not any different than you would normally use it, however hitting your rear brake is typically not your first reaction when you overcook a wheelie.

Usually what happens when beginners go passed the balance point, is they go into panic mode because they are nervous, and totally forget about everything else and simply just want to bail or hold on and ride the wheelie out. Well, neither one of those are the right solution to your problem. The proper way to correct a wheelie gone bad is to apply the rear brake (preferably before you hit the grab bar). Unfortunately, most people cannot make this their first reaction without it happening to them a few times.

A technique I used to learn the rear brake was to keep popping the quad up in 1st gear, and intentionally go passed the balance point and force myself to hit the back brake to bring the quad back down. At first your main goal is to just get the front end back on the ground, but eventually after you practice your technique, you will be able to apply clutch and throttle, to keep the front end up in the air. This is also the first step to learning slow, walking-speed wheelies.

Putting Everything Together:
Now that you know most of the steps, and how they work, we can put them together and go through a wheelie Start to Finish.

The thing to keep in mind is that nobody is the same, and you have to experiment a little bit to see what works best for you. Gear selection, body position, and etc., are all optional. Maybe you want to go slow in the split position, or maybe you want to do a fast standup. If you are worried about hurting yourself or your quad, it is best to start out in a lower gear, or if you are a little more fearless, maybe a higher gear works best for you. I personally learned to do wheelies in 3rd gear. The reason why 1st gear can be tricky to learn in, is because the slower you are going, the higher the balance point is. You also have less gear to work with, meaning it’s easier to run out of RPM’s if you have to make a lot of throttle adjustments. 5th or 6th gear (depending on how many your quad has) is theoretically the easiest gear to wheelie in because the balance point is lower, and you can make several major throttle adjustments and still not tach the engine out. Obviously the downside is that if you were to fall, or hit something, you’d probably be in a serious world of hurt.

Now that you know what gear you want to start in, it’s time to get the front end up off the ground. Since I typically use the “Power Method” to wheelie at speed, that is what I will use to explain it here.

Get the quad rolling low in the RPM range just below the power band (approx ¼ Throttle typically). Let off the throttle, and immediately open it back up and pull back on the handlebars. The front end will then lift.

Once the front tires are airborne, you will then have to make your initial throttle adjustments. This where wheelies are won or lost for the beginner. The idea is to get the front end up to balance point as quickly as possible, so stay in the throttle. As you approach the balance point, you can ease up on the gas, and once you are in the balance point you should be able to stay between ½ - ¼ throttle, making minor adjustments here and there. You do not want the front end dropping below the balance point, otherwise you have to apply more throttle to get it back up, and you may have to set the wheelie down if you run out of RPM’s, so conserve them as best you can. Also, always remember to keep that rear brake covered!

If you find that your engine speed is very high, you can slowly go back to the high end of the balance point, which will actually allow you to slow down a little bit.

Once you are ready to set the front end back down after a few miles or so, simply ensure that your bars are straight, slowly let off the throttle until the front wheels are only a foot or two off the ground, and then accelerate slightly for a smooth landing.

That’s pretty much all there is too it.

I don’t expect you to be able to read through this, and instantly be able to go out and ride wheelies for days. This is something that takes time and practice. Some learn faster than others, but practice always makes perfect.

Wheelies can be very tricky and elusive for some people at first. Just because your next door neighbor says wheelies are easy, doesn’t mean you should feel bad for not being able to do them yet. Once you learn them, you will think that they are easy too. Just be patient, take things one step at a time, and you will continue to progress each day that you practice.

Another thing that is never fun to talk about is the danger aspect. In general, Quads are dangerous machines and need to be respected 100% of the time. This becomes even more important when you are pulling of maneuvers that they were not specifically designed for. I have seen a lot of people get hurt doing wheelies, and I have taken quite a few spills myself. You have to accept the fact that there is a chance of seriously hurting yourself, or your quad every time you get on it. Regardless of the type of riding you choose to do.

Please be safe, and always ride within your limits. Remember that there will always be a chance for another wheelie. If things get sketchy, just set her down and try again when the situation allows. There is no reason to risk hurting yourself, or anyone around you by trying to go an extra few feet on two wheels.

Josh Lanphear


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