1 > 2 – Enrolling at Wheelie University

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Wheelies are a funny thing. You don’t need to know how to do them – I’ve been riding for over a decade now with no wheelies and no problems. But every time I’d go to a press launch, riders like Zack Courts, Rennie Scaysbrook, and Adam Waheed would be able to loft the front wheel on command and I’d just stare with my mouth agape in jealousy. I wanted the ability to do wheelies, even if I wouldn’t use it on a daily basis.

A few years ago, Nathan mentioned to me that he had discovered something called Wheelie University. I initially said no because it was $500, but I kept it in the back of my mind. When Spurgeon and I decided to do Baja in February, he figured that it was close enough to San Diego and Wheelie U, so Spurgeon, Nathan, and I all planned on giving the course a shot. You may remember that I also extended an invite to all of you to join us.

The big question for me was simple: even if I threw $500 at a class, would I actually be able to come out of it with the ability to get the front wheel up on command? Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate with us that weekend, so we had to postpone. Four months later, Nathan and I were finally able to go to school. Here’s how it went.

Me before Wheelie U:

An accurate representation of the amount of air I used to be able to get.

Me during Wheelie U:

Note the device on the back which prevents me from looping the bike.

Me after Wheelie U:

“Testing” with the long-term V-Strom 1000 loaner. Who needs training wheels? Photo by Aaron Schasse.

Wheelie University is a one-man shop run by Brian Steeves, an ex-stunt rider who can do some impressive things on two wheels:

The class is run out of Barona Speedway, though you only end up using the runoff after the actual dragstrip.

Brian starts class off with two valuable statements:
1.) You have to check your ego at the gate.
2.) The average motorcyclist has the skills to do this.

Especially with regards to point #2, he’s not kidding. But unlike most other motorcycling skills, wheelies are not easy to practice. It can be scary to learn, as your survival instinct is to chop the throttle once the front starts rising. As Nathan will attest to, I’m a bit of a wuss – I generally have no interest in risking my bones or my bike.

That’s why the morning starts at a standstill. Brian straps down one of his bikes to a ramp elevated at balance point and asks all of us to sit on it and get a feel. As soon as I get on, I start chuckling. This is ludicrous – I can’t even see around the gauge cluster. I’m supposed to ride like this? Not happening. But it’s helpful because I at least get an idea of the expectation, even if I think it’s laughable. Weirdly enough, the next step doesn’t even involve a bike. Brian puts us all in a wheelchair to help us practice maintaining a balance point. It’s all about small, controlled inputs, and balancing on a wheelchair is surprisingly effective. I’m hoping it’s not also some sort of foreshadowing of what I’ll need at the end of the day.

There are two reasons why this course is worth the substantial investment, as opposed to having your buddy who knows how to do wheelies just tell you “crack the throttle open harder” over and over again:
1. The Wheelie Height Controller (WHC)
2. Brian is excellent at identifying your problem(s) and telling you how to address it/them.

First, let’s look at the controller. I don’t want to divulge anything proprietary, so I’ll simply say that it’s a device on the back that electronically and mechanically keeps you from going past a certain height. It’d be easy to just call it a wheelie bar, but it’s more than that, as it also communicates with the bike’s ECU. For more information, check out this description of the WHC from Wheelie U.

Wheelie U is sponsored by Rev’It and Shoei, so there’s gear available if you’re not suitably equipped.

Then there’s Brian Steeves. Nathan and I weren’t sure what to expect from Brian (more about that at the end), but he’s passionate about teaching and he’s a very good instructor. Wheelies are often associated with goofing off, but Brian knows what he’s talking about and it legitimately makes him happy to teach other people this skill. As you go up and down the strip, Brian watches you with binoculars, pinpointing the small mistakes you’re making and concisely explaining how to fix them. His enthusiasm is infectious, and it makes the class a collaborative space where everyone is excited to see each other progress instead of competing to see who’ll be the best.

The class starts with baby wheelies, the purpose of which are simply to show Brian that you can modulate the throttle and keep the bike upright without banging off the safety net provided by the WHC. Prove that you can do it consistently and then he’ll let you go higher and higher.

You start off small. I’m impatient so I initially found this frustrating, but after a few sessions it became clear that Brian knew what he was doing. Prove that you can smoothly control the throttle and he’ll let you start going higher in a hurry.

Because the students have a wide variety of backgrounds and skill levels, Brian focuses on teaching you how to power wheelie. Clutch-ups introduce another variable and time is limited – the course is only 8 hours long and because you take turns on the bikes, you’re probably actually riding for about 1.5/2 hours over the whole day. The general premise is simple – accelerate up to a certain speed where the torque curve of the bike is fat, chop the throttle so the front suspension dives, and then whack the throttle open with perfect timing as the front forks rebound upwards. It might take you some time, but once it clicks, it’s a game-changer. My first session, I could only get the front wheel up about 20% of the time. The next time around, it was 50%. Brian explained that I was “accelerating” up to speed too gradually, so when I chopped the throttle, it wasn’t compressing the forks enough. The third session, I could get the front wheel up 90% of the time. And once you can do that regularly, you get to the fun part: practicing throttle modulation to keep the front wheel up.

Once you’re comfortable lofting the front wheel, the rest of the day is actually quite repetitive. That does not mean it’s not interesting. You simply keep practicing getting the front wheel up and keeping it there. Do it consistently and Brian will allow you to go another step higher.

You’ll have to get used to seeing around the gauges. And in my case, the cameras.

By the end of the day, Nathan and I had only hit level 10 of 20. It doesn’t sound particularly amazing (I don’t believe the scale is linear), but it was still enough for this:

As I expected, Nathan picked this up pretty quickly.

Brian uses Triumph Speed Triples for his course, but I haven’t focused on that simply because the principles apply to anything with two wheels and he could teach the course on just about anything. Still, my runs with the Triumph made me want to get a new one for extended testing – it’s a fun bike.

I can’t hit balance point yet, but to be frank, I don’t need to. For me, this school was all about getting the ability to get a wheelie shot for photos when I’m reviewing bikes, and I think this is good enough.

Free and clear, like a baby bird that’s just figured out how to fly. Photo by Nathan May

With that said, it wasn’t until a few days after the course that I realized I learned a lot more than wheelies. This course really makes you focus on three things, and the wheelies are just a byproduct. Your balance, throttle modulation, and rear brake control all will improve after Wheelie University, and these are all important skills whether you’ve got one wheel on the ground or two.

A happy graduating class from Wheelie University.

Brian’s a one-man shop, and that has pluses and minuses. I hope I’ve made the pluses clear above, but there were a couple of issues, especially for Spurgeon.

As a reminder, the original plan was that Spurgeon and I would fly up to San Diego after we finished our Baja trip, and Nathan would come down from LA to join us. That ended up being less than smooth – the weather forecast was teasing some rain, which should have shut down the course. Unfortunately, Brian tried to accommodate everyone around the weather, and the results were less than optimal. It wasn’t so bad for me once the class was eventually cancelled since I had to drive to LA anyway. But Spurgeon and his team at Common Tread (who have been making some great videos) had budgeted for a video crew to cover the day, and all that had to be scrapped. At the end of the day, this was a weather issue and there’s not much you can do about it. No problem.

Undeterred, Spurgeon planned on going back to the class a couple of months later (with a video crew that included Nathan). Tickets were booked and plans were made, but a couple of days before the class was scheduled to run, he got a notification from Brian saying that class would have to be rescheduled because the dragstrip had mistakenly not been booked. All of Spurgeon’s plans went up in smoke.

I’ve since spoken with several other students who have taken the class and it seems clear that this is not the norm with Brian, but Spurgeon and Nathan went 0-for-2 with him and you can understand why that would be frustrating. So when Nathan and I rescheduled, we didn’t have high hopes. As you can tell from the story, we were wrong.

I don’t want to end on a sour note: despite the initial scheduling problems, Nathan and I both thought Wheelie University was well worth it in the end. Brian may have had some organizational issues, but his passion for teaching wheelies trumps all and I’m glad I took his course.

Nathan and I keep talking about when we’re going to do Level 2…we hope to see you there.

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