on one wheel school report
pomona fairplex drag strip - pomona, ca
feb 26, 2006

a wheelie nice weekend


mountains in the distanceGenerally it doesn't take long once you meet me to realize that I have a strong passion for 2-wheeled motorized devices. I'm not really sure why this is the case...I mean, I can come up with lots of good reasons why people might like it, but some might argue that my pursuit of this pastime borders on the obsessive. But you know what? It's wonderful to find something you love, so people can think what they like...I love what I love to do.

Riding is made up of many of different aspects, and I am constantly trying to learn more about different parts of it. While I love hardcore sport riding, one of the things I found to be really fun in recent years is something seemingly simpler...doing wheelies. The first attempts I had at this totally impractical skill ended in tears in a parking lot about 3 weeks after purchasing my first sportbike (back in 1992) where I managed to flip my bike over backwards. Back then, of course, I wore virtually no protective gear (luckily a helmet was the law), and I have the scars to prove it. But as I started to mature as a sport rider in the mid-90s, I felt the desire to try wheelies again...and thankfully I have gotten a lot better since. :)

So I kind of know how to wheelie...in 1st gear, anyway. I can do both clutch wheelies (where you pull in the clutch and use both clutch modulation and the throttle to wheelie) and power wheelies (where you use the engine alone to make the bike wheelie), but I like clutching better because I can start the wheelie from a slower speed. But anyway, I had tried doing more with my wheelies with limited success...I needed some coaching, but who could do it? Then late last year, I ran across a program that is affiliated with California Superbike School (one of the nation's top sport riding schools) called On One Wheel. And I was like...why the hell not? It would be a good break from the bone-chilling temps of a Chicago winter, and I have family and friends that live in LA...hmmm...flights aren't too expensive...I'm in!

Originally I had hoped to get a group of people to go with me, and at one point I thought I really had 4 others coming with me, but it just never really panned out. Figures...because really, when you think about it, it's a completely frivolous class. But it sounded like fun... :)

friday and saturday

Friday night I flew out from O'Hare after taking the L from downtown after work. I had to take a full sized suitcase because my leathers wouldn't pack down into a bag nicely enough to take on the plane. Oh well. Also, I hate that when you're sitting next to someone on an airplane who insists on using both armrests...

When I arrived in LA, the weather seemed a little chilly out, but then again I was only wearing a short sleeved shirt outside, so what the hell was I complaining about? :) Daphne picked me up at LAX and then we hit a cool diner in Los Feliz for a late supper and then hung out late into the night. We pretty much never get to spend time with each other without other family around, so it was nice to catch up.

Saturday we got up a bit late and then I got to hang out at a small recording studio with Daphne. She is a professional violinist; her job on this day was to be recorded to play most of the string parts on a debut album for a rock band called Acute. It was really interesting to see what goes on in a recording studio, and everyone was nice and answered all of my questions (including "what is a Mexican coke?" which is not a racial question at all).

whoo!!  we're done!

I had never really seen what my sister did for a living, and what I saw was very different than what I was used to overhearing at home as I was growing up. She basically had to look at sheet music she had never seen before and play it as the arranger intended it to be played within about 2 or 3 takes. The arranger was even changing what he wanted as the session went on, and she had to adapt on the spot. I was really impressed, and she did a lot of work that day.

It was a long day, but it was good, especially after meeting up with some old friends of mine for a good tapas dinner...

me, jay, elaine, jennie, matthew, thong, and daphne


Sunday morning I made Daphne get up early-early (she was still jet lagged from a trip to Hong Kong and Thailand with my mom the week before), and we arrived at Pomona Raceway at the LA County Fairgrounds (a MASSIVE complex) and drove over to the drag strip.

pomona drag stripThere weren't many people there yet and things seemed kind of disorganized, so we just kind of waited around for a while. When everyone finally arrived, there were 12 students, 2 school bikes complete with "special" wheelie safety devices, and 2 instructors (Steve and James).

First up was a sit down session where everyone kind of explained who they were, described their riding experience, and explained what they wanted to get out of the class. I got a few raised eyebrows from the other students when I said that I like to clutch wheelie and that as part of the class I want to try shifting and/or standing up. Oh well. Most people didn't have (err...intentional) wheelie experience, but there was still a broad variety of skills present; most people were street riders with just a couple or few years experience, but there was another roadracer who used to race 250gp bikes and a retired CHP motorcycle cop. About half of the people had brought their own gear, and others rented full leathers from the school.

a familiar faceinstructors explaining procedures and techniques

After the personal intros we were brought out onto the course (which was in the run-out area of the Pomona Raceway drag strip) for the instructors to explain the course layout and the procedures we should follow for safety and to keep the class running smoothly.

For those of you not familiar, a drag strip has 2 concrete dividers that creates a lane to separate the racing action from the crowd. Each course consisted of 6 cones...one in the middle of the track on each end; these were used to define where to turn around after each run. Then there were 2 on each side of the course. You were supposed to initially use the first set of cones to try to initiate your wheelies, and you were not to ride the wheelie past the 2nd set of cones before the turn-around. The cones were pretty widely spaced, so (at least initially) keeping the wheelie within the wheelie zone was not a problem. Basically you would do two passes and then the instructor would either stop you (to give advice or stop your session) or signal you to do it again. James then did a demo run on the course while Steve provided commentary, which was a good way to show people what the procedure was.

The school bikes were 2003 Triumph Speed Triples; this was convenient because I actually own a 1998 Speed Triple (which has the same frame but a different engine). The bikes were stock other than they were only running 25psi of air pressure in the rear tire (normal is more like 32-36psi), and they had what looked like a wheelie bar mounted to the rear axle. This bar actually pivoted with no resistance to activate each of the two anti-flip devices independently.

anti flip device - ignition cut-outanti-flip device - rear brakeThe first safety device to be activated was a switch on the left side of the bike that cut power to one of the cylinders (the Triumph has a 3 cylinder motor). You could hear when this was happening because the engine would sound strangled. The second safety device on the right side of the bike would actually apply the rear brake to try to rescue you from the "point of no return." The instructors said that nobody had ever managed to flip their bikes yet, and I wasn't really wanting to be the first.

There were two courses laid out, so there were 6 riders and one instructor per course. The basic instructions were the same all day:

* overgrip the throttle slightly (so that when the gas was opened and the bike wheelied, your hand would be in a normal riding position)
* cruise at 3500rpm in 1st gear (about 22mph) until we got to the cone marking the start of the wheelie zone
* roll on the throttle quickly to loft the front tire
* maintain the wheelie at the desired height as long as possible (this will be at a much smaller throttle opening than it took to loft the wheelie initially)

This class only teaches power wheelies. I completely understand why they do this, because this technique is much more predictable and repeatable; this makes it easier to learn and harder for people to hurt themselves. This is very parallel to the teachings of the techniques used in Keith Code's Twist of the Wrist books...if you can't do something consistently, you can't learn, so first do them consistently and then work on your skills from there. Unfortunately I have taught myself to almost always do clutch wheelies because I can do them from lower speeds, but I believe most of the techniques I learned in this class apply to my regular wheelie life. :) Anyway, I abided by the class rules to my benefit.

The first session we were just supposed to pop the front into the air a few inches to get used to the sensation. The limiter was set to "Level 1" (there were 5 levels available). I was chosen to go first in our group.

heyyyyy, macarenaThe first session, I had a couple of issues. Using the technique detailed above, I was not able to get the front wheel off the ground at all, which must have been pretty funny to our group as I was supposed to be the most experienced wheelier (is that even a word?). I tried a few times, but I don't think I weighed enough for it to work for me...there was just not enough weight transfer for the amount of torque available to loft the front end. Finally after a couple of passes I asked the instructor if I could roll off and then back on to get more weight transfer, and that made it all peachy--the front came off the ground.

However, I was now quickly into the second problem...the limiting devices were set so conservatively at first that the bike was cutting the throttle seemingly as soon as I would pick up the front. Our group's instructor, Steve, pulled me in to say that we would work up to higher levels (no pun intended) as we went on; the purpose of the initial drills were for people who had never wheelied before to just get used to the sensation of the wheel coming up without fear or flipping over...I was trying to do wheelies to the height I was used to and so was hitting the ignition cut-out switch immediately. He said to advance, keep it under the limiter but exhibit throttle control to prolong the wheelie once up, so that's what I did.

Somewhere during the morning, Thong showed up with his camcorder. Hopefully that footage came out okay... In the meantime, my sister was asking me a lot of questions about my camera and was snapping photos all over the place and doing a great job of it.

be patient...old friendsrock star.  literally?we don't need no stinking lunch break!

It was hard for the first few sessions to keep under the anti-flip limiters since the limit was set so low, and I was kind of getting bored, but my classmates seemed to appreciate him moving the level up slowly. There was a lot of frustration on the part of some people who couldn't get the front to come up; conversely, there were some rather wild passes going on out there because people were using way too much throttle to loft the front; it was amazing how high the wheelies were going once people discovered the limiter, but Steve kept reiterating that the goal was not to go as high as possible initially; these drills were to get a feel for control once the front was in the air.

At least it was a nice day and a scenic venue...the Pomona drag strip has a mountain range on one side of it that could clearly be seen while going towards the drag strip starting line.

When the levels started getting high enough to start to feel the balance out, Steve told us to try to adjust the level of the wheelie using a target on the horizon. I pretty much do wheelies by balance feel, but this advice seemed to help my classmates a lot as they began to look down the road instead of at the bike.

Finally in the 4th session I was getting to a point where I was not hitting the limiter because the level was finally set high enough. You can see in these pictures that although I didn't even realize it, I had taught my body to lean forward...probably a habit from roadracing.

i can't seei still can't see!why can't i see?hm.  i can't see

It was at this point that I got some good advice from Steve to lean my torso back and try to look around the bike instead of leaning forward and trying to see over the bike. Since the weight is more rearward, it allows you to carry a lower wheelie around the balance point. It also had the side effect of making my wheelies more stable since I was kind of caught in a vicious circle using my own self-taught way; I would wheelie, then lean forward to try to see, which moved the balance point so I had to wheelie higher, but then I couldn't see, so I would lean forward...you get the idea. Leaning back sounds easy, but it went against every instinct I have as a roadracer...it's hard to break old habits. :) Here's a picture of me trying to lean back and straighten my arms out more...better, but I needed practice:

attempting to lean back a bit

There was no real lunch break the whole day. We were encouraged to drink lots of water though; the weather was about 70-75 degrees, but with the sun beating down and with most of us wearing full protective gear, it sure felt a lot hotter.

After a couple of sessions, I started getting more comfortable leaning back a bit, although I have to say that when I would start thinking about other things (like shifting) it was very easy to revert back to my old habits.

Jay and Elaine showed up in the middle of the afternoon just as Steve started to talk to me about getting into 2nd gear. Apparently I had been going about it all wrong trying it by myself; the trick was to sneak the shift in (without the clutch) between lofting the front tire and using maintenance throttle to keep it up. Once coached on this technique, he had me run up and down the course just practicing clutchless shifts (no wheelies) for 2 passes, and then we gave it a try. It was surprisingly easy to do after the technique was explained to me, but I have to practice how much throttle to use while in the air since the ratio of how much power I would get is different in 2nd gear than in 1st. I did have a couple of botched attempts; these were normally when I would wait too long to shift or didn't shift positively enough and it would drop out of 2nd gear into neutral.

shift me, baby!peace, yookay, now i'm starting to get itbotched attempttoo high!!!

By the end of the session I had carried some longer wheelies than I had ever done. I was having to wheelie way before the wheelie zone or else I would overshoot the zone on the long end. :) Thong said that when I would put the front down at the end of a 2nd gear wheelie (80+mph), smoke would come off the front tire like the tire smoke when an airplane lands. Ha! I also noticed that when I would concentrate on shifting, I would revert back to my bent-arm wheelie style, so I had to try to try to think of both at once.

The end of the day was getting near, so next up was trying stand-ups. Steve coached me on the technique...essentially it was the same as normal except I stood up before the wheelie. To be honest this was much easier to balance than I expected...maybe it was because I could see a lot better. He initially set the anti-flip back down to a very low level, but I complained after only one pass, and he immediately switched the level up to where I could feel the balance again. Success!

starting lowworkingmy wayup!

The last session of the day was upon us, and Steve had me try to shift while standing up, but after 2 botched attempts, I told him that there was just too much new stuff to concentrate on, so I did a few more shifting wheelies and called it a day.

Thanks for the tips, Steve! You were a good instructor.

I was tired after a long day in the sun, and the drive to the Tongs' new apartment in Thousand Oaks was a struggle to stay awake. We had a nice dinner with them and hung out for a while. Thanks for the dinner and the company! :)


tsqHere is a cool logo Daphne made for her band...The Section Quartet...she's getting to be quite the graphic artist.

Before she dropped me off at the airport, we went to a cool little restaurant called Cha Cha Cha for lunch. They had cool paintings in the parking lot. :)

that chair doesn't look that comfynice kitty...

The flight back to Chicago was much worse than my flight to LA...the lady next to me was somehow well dressed and yet had tremendous body odor. If I had any of those Stick-up room deodorizers I would have tried to put them under her underarms. Um, lady, thanks for the memories.


I would recommend On One Wheel to anyone that might want to learn how to wheelie, but I would also say that if you have some wheelie skills, you might want to sign up for their Level II course (which wasn't really an option for me because you have to bring your own bike). I am sure that the tips I picked up will help me out, but I would have loved to have had more time to practice them. The class philosophy was good though, and it gives you tools to build your skills with.

On One Wheel

me screwing up a perfectly nice self portrait of my sisterEven without the class, I enjoyed my weekend immensely. It was great to see my friends from Chicago who have moved to LA...they are trying to get me to move there, and I am not fighting them much. :)

Lastly, it was good to spend some time with my sister. What a great person. Thanks for letting me crash at your place and driving me all over your city and taking kick ass pictures with my camera. :)

That little bit of riding is making me itch for race season to begin now...stay tuned.

Until next time...
Jeff Chen