OVERRIDING your natural survival instincts is one of the toughest things a human can ever do.
As a species, we’ve spent thousands of years
relying on our innate
self-preservation instincts to get us home intact, whether we’ve been out chasing woolly mammoths or riding motorcycles at high speed.
You may not realise it, but there are many occasions, especially in racing or stunt riding, when the rider is ignoring these instincts and forcing himself to go beyond what his brain naturally considers " safe " .
When Mick Doohan was learning to spin up his rear wheel and steer through corners with it, he had to make himself keep on the gas even though the rear tyre was breaking loose. Every sense in his body would at that point be telling him to back off.
It’s the same thing when it comes to learning to do wheelies. I’ve spent years rolling a throttle on gently to keep both wheels on the ground and make sure I don’t highside coming out of a corner. Whenever I see a crest in the road I ease my weight over the front so I don’t flip off the back.
All you guys – and gals – out there who are wheelie gods will be calling me a wuss. That’s fair enough. But on the few occasions when I did try to do a wheelie, my heart raced, I panicked, shut the throttle and thought: " Sod that, I prefer both wheels on the deck. " I’m a bit of a control freak and prefer to be taking a bike for a ride rather than it taking me. Cracking a throttle open and hoping the bike wouldn’t flip just didn’t seem to leave me with enough control. But, like most riders, I really wanted to wheelie because, let’s face it, it does look cool.
I’d read lots of " how to " features in magazines and sort of realised what I should be doing, but I still couldn’t get around that psychological barrier.
So when I heard about a new stunt school near Ramsbury in Wiltshire, with the focus on learning how to wheelie, I thought it was the perfect chance.
When I turned up at the disused airstrip where the school is based, it was being battered by strong winds and heavy rain – not exactly confidence-inspiring considering how nervous I already was.
But instructor Andy Burnett didn’t seem worried. He said: " I’ve got full racing wets in the van if the rear starts to spin up badly, but the standard road tyres should be fine. "
If the rear spins up? What the hell have I let myself in for?
Burnett has identified a huge niche in the market. He reckons any rider who says he doesn’t want to be able to wheelie is lying. And since he had already taught all his mates, he decided to start a business – even though it meant selling his R1.
Since he started the school full-time eight months ago, he’s been training between two and 12 pupils a day. To prove he knows what he’s talking about, he jumps on one of his two Suzuki Bandit 1200s and wheelies the length of the airstrip as myself and fellow pupils Barry and Tarne Westcott stand agog and wonder if we’ll be able to do the same at the end of the day.
Burnett assures us he’s never failed yet to teach someone to wheelie. He’s
so confident he offers a money-back guarantee to anyone who fails to get their front wheel up.
Burnett’s stroke of genius is his patented " wheelie inhibitor " . It’s an adjustable rod which hangs from the number plate and is linked to the sidestand cut-out switch. When it scrapes the ground the engine cuts out, getting you safely back on to two wheels again. As soon as the rod clears the road the engine starts again so you hardly even notice it while you’re riding. Simple, effective, brilliant. Oh, and he sells them, too, for £125 a shot.
Burnett says: " I’m a bit of a madcap inventor and I realised that most people’s greatest fear is that if they do a wheelie they’ll flip the bike. I figured if I could remove that worry, everyone would have a go. "
That everyone includes me, but my faith in the inhibitor didn’t come easy.
Burnett had us run up and down at 20mph in first gear on the Bandits so we could get used to what he reckoned was the ideal speed and revs to pick the front off the ground.
After that, we were told to " cough " the throttle to get used to the bike’s power delivery. Burnett explained that rolling the throttle on slowly as I normally would on the road wouldn’t do – it was something I’d have to " un-learn " . Neither was I to snap the throttle, as that would just make the rear tyre spin in the wet conditions. " Coughing " was a mixture of winding it on and snapping it. It wasn’t easy, but I got the hang of it eventually.
So far, so good. I thought my fears had been unfounded.
Next up, Burnett had us move our bodyweight backwards to make the front lighter while gripping the tank lightly with our knees to avoid any painful moments when landing from a wheelie.
Then came the first awkward bit – over-gripping the throttle. The way most of us hold a throttle, you’d have to be a contortionist to wind it right round to the stop, but you need that kind of power input to lift the front wheel. The trick is to grab the twistgrip farther round than you normally would. Sounds simple, but I found I lost all the subtle control I’d learned from having my hand in a " normal " position. It works, but it took me a while to master.
The course runs from 9.30am to 3.30pm and there’s a lot to learn. It would take some riders years to teach themselves what we’d have to absorb in a day. As I attempted my first wheelie, I found myself checking speed, revs, body position and throttle hand position… to the point where I’d passed the wheelie zone on the runway before I remembered to lift the front. Doh!
A few more passes and I managed to lift the front a tiny bit. This wasn’t so bad after all. But my fellow trainees were way ahead of me. Triumph Tiger owner Barry had woken up that very morning to celebrate his 61st birthday. Little did he know his son had got them both a voucher to go on the wheelie school! Barry was game and soon had the front coming up, much to the delight of Tarne, who was showing us all how to do it. He’d taken to wheelies like a vampire takes to blood.
Burnett gets all kinds on his course. He’s taught lots of women, a group of 10 policemen and two bikers who drove down from Glasgow, slept in their car on the runway, did the school and drove home. Oh, the power of the wheelie.
But his most bizarre call was from a gentleman enquiring if Burnett could travel up to where he and his mates were based instead of them having to drive down to Wiltshire. " Sure, " replied Burnett sarcastically, " if you’ve got your own airfield. " The answer was nonchalant: " Yes, we do actually – we’re the Red Arrows. "
I was soaking wet and freezing cold by now and side winds were making things worse. I didn’t have the confidence to twist the throttle as hard as I needed to, despite the safety device on the back. I tried to tell my basic instincts that I could come to no harm, but they weren’t having any of it. Every time the front lifted even slightly, I moved my body forward and shut the throttle. Some people have stronger survival instincts than others – call us chickens.
Eventually, with the help of Burnett’s no-nonsense instruction and persuasion (he was an army gunnery instructor, so he’s a master at explaining), I decided I’d have to make a leap of faith and just go for it. My fellow pupils were watching and MCN’s photographer had a camera trained on me. No pressure, then.
I reached the " wheelie zone " , making sure I had got everything as it should be, then tried to relax and ignore my senses, which were shouting at the top of their voice: " Don’t do it! "
Then WHOOMPH! I twisted the throttle harder than I’d dared so far and, lo and behold, I’d done a wheelie. It won’t be appearing in any stunt videos, but I’d cracked the principle and now it was just a case of practising. Burnett made me repeat the process time and again to improve my technique and my confidence. Sometimes nothing happened, sometimes I’d pop another little wheelie, but I was still nervous and didn’t feel in control.
Still, it takes most people years to master the black art of popping wheelies and I’d had a single day. At least I would now be able to pull a small ’un away from the traffic lights for the laydeez.
Looking at the photos back at the office, I couldn’t believe how poxy my wheelies looked. When I was on the bike it felt like I was vertical, but the pics prove I had a long, long way to go before I flipped the Bandit. And that in itself is encouraging. It has also taught me huge respect for anyone who can pull a massive through-the-box wheelie at high speed. Hats off to you all.
Burnett had taught me – and countless others – the technique and helped me take my first shaky steps in wheelie world. Now it was up to me to find a deserted patch of land and practice, practice, practice. But my biggest battle will still be against my pesky survival instincts, which seem happier at home with a bath robe and fluffy slippers in front of the fire.
But wait a second. Isn’t that fire dangerous?
If you want to book a place on the stunt school or buy a wheelie inhibitor, call: 07885-510130. The school costs £200 per person if there’s one or two pupils and £150 each if there’s more. Groups of up to 12 can be catered for.