One Wheel Fun

January 19, 2004
By James Hesketh
Get the front end high and Code s wheelie bar reduces engine power; get it too high and the rear brake will activate.
Get the front end high and Code’s wheelie bar reduces engine power; get it too high and the rear brake will activate.

I am loath to use clichs in an article, but a story occasionally just screams out for an over-used expression or two. So we’ll get them out of the way here in the beginning: “Growing old is mandatory; growing up is optional.” And the ever popular: “If you have to ask why, you’ll never understand.”

This story begins at the far end of a drag strip about a half-hour north of Tampa, in the town of Lakeland, Florida. Eight men, mostly middle-aged, all dressed in full racing leathers, are standing in the early morning chill. We all informally introduce ourselves first names are all we need.

One rider John, a retired oil executive, has flown down from his home in Toronto. Three others James, a cop from Queens; Vadim, a computer systems administrator from Manhattan; and Eric, a businessman from the New York City, have all flown in from New York. “Young John,” an Air Force fireman drove down from North Carolina. Two others, a doctor named Joe, and Shannon, a civil engineer, came over from Titusville on Florida’s east coast. These are my seven classmates for Keith Code’s newest school: On One Wheel.

We are all here because we all saw an ad that read: “Doing wheelies is one of the most frivolous and decadent activities known to man… Want to learn how? We all answered a resounding “Yes” by plunking down the $495.00 enrolment fee.

We watch head instructor Steve Nottingham attach the all-important safety device — that will keep us from bruising of our asses — to the lime green, 120 horsepower, Triumph Speed Triple. This device that Code developed looks like one of those rigid wheelie-bars that dragsters use to keep from flipping over while accelerating away from the starting line.

We all expected the bikes to be fitted with something like that, but this device is much more sophisticated: Mounted through the rear-wheel’s hollow axle, the five-foot long rotating arm provides a two-staged anti-flipover safety net. On the right side of the safety bar, an adjustable cam-shaped plate presses against a switch that, when opened, will cut power to one of the Triumph’s three cylinders. The plate’s first setting is set to kick in when the bike’s front wheel is only one foot off the ground. Subsequent settings allow the front to rise higher into the air before cutting power. Every rider starts at the first setting and moves up to higher positions when the instructors feel he is ready. If the bar moves past the cut-off position and the bike is still rising as when a rider is too aggressive with the throttle a rod on the left side of the bike that is attached to the rear brake pedal activates the brake and slams the bike back down to earth before the bike loops out and flips over.

Code chose Speed Triples (formerly Kawaski ZXR1200s) for the On One Wheel school because of their tremendous amount of midrange snap. Lesser-powered bikes may require a rider to snap the clutch or bounce the front suspension in order to launch into a wheelie, but all it takes is an aggressive twist of the throttle-hand to point the Triumph skyward.

A single day at wheelie school won t turn you into Gary Rothwell  but it will give you experience getting it up  safely.
A single day at wheelie school won’t turn you into Gary Rothwell, but it will give you experience getting it up, safely.

The course is divided into three equal-length sections of approximately 300 feet. The first section is for getting up to speed, the middle is the wheelie area, and the last part is the slow-down portion.

In order to keep thing simple as simple as riding a powerful motorcycle on the rear wheel can be we were instructed to keep the bikes in first gear and to crack on the gas at 21 mph.

Three things can happen when you do this for the first time: You can gracefully pull the front end up and ride out a controlled wheelie (none of us accomplished this); you can be timid and not hit the gas hard enough, just accelerating with both wheels on the ground; or, you can slam on so much power that the safety bar activates the rear brake and you come down so hard your voice rises a couple octaves. (Go ahead ask me how I know!)

Our class seemed to be wheelie-challenged at first. Throughout the day, each of us eight riders got about 100 runs down the track, working out to 10 five-minute sessions per student. The level of individual attention we received is truly impressive. After each run, an instructor would comment on our strengths and weaknesses, and most runs were videotaped so we could go over the ride with an instructor. Every one of us progressed at a different rate, and the school is designed for that disparity. One rider was even pulled after his second time out. He just didn’t have enough riding experience to attempt wheelies safely, but he retains credit for another, future school-date when he has more basic riding skills. There was no shame in this. He stayed with us and remained a part of our group throughout the day.

We all cheered when someone got it right. Eric became our star rider for the day. Although all of us progressed beyond the first setting on the safety bar, with most of us getting to the third position, Eric was the only rider who got to the point where he was learning to shift gears through the wheelie.

The secret is in throttle control, which gives consistency and smoothness. I probably had the longest wheelie of the day somewhere around 400 feet but I was not consistent with it. I’d get a great run, then grow too confident and blow the next couple rides. Eric could pull off the same ride almost every time out.

Non-riders, who see idiots riding up I-95 at triple-digit speeds, think wheelies are inherently unsafe, and they are under those conditions. But the wheelie school’s focus is on safely improving riding skills. The school also hires an EMT to stand by at the track in case anyone is injured. If any of the three instructors believed a rider would have crashed without the safety-bar, they took him aside to explain what they did wrong. Usually they could tell why the rider why he was making that mistake.

“This is extreme and it is radical,” said Steve, the head instructor. “It is not something that everyone who leaves here is going to do. But, everyone who leaves here will be a better rider.”

No matter what skill level of wheelieing we achieved by the end of the day, we all commented that our money had been well spent. On One Wheel has taught about 400 students since its inception last year, and the school travels to different locations around the country, usually making it back to any region every six weeks or so.

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