Okay, I admit it. I’m a wheelie-holic. I’d practice wheelies on my bicycle, but I’ve been absolutely addicted to them since discovering an engine’s anti-gravity effects on a dirt bike’s front tire when I was 12 and abusing my amazingly durable Suzuki DS80 on the Canadian prairie.
I became fascinated by wheelies – the delicate art of lofting the front wheel and carrying it as far as possible. And I believe most riders are captivated by a long, well-controlled wheelie, no matter if they want to do them or not.
But, like many addictive things, trouble sometimes follows. It turns out the police generally aren’t as impressed with wheelies as you are. I first learned that after lofting the front end of my two-stroke Yamaha RZ500 while a cop watched from the shadows. A decade later I annoyed the po-po with a wheelie on a BMW R1200S press bike. A few miles later, I was surrounded by three patrol cars and a motor cop, had my arm twisted behind my back and threatened to be tossed in jail.
Flipping over backward is the greatest fear of those wanting to attempt wheelies. The distress you feel is absolutely justified. Flipping backward past the 12-o’clock position will cause inevitable pain to both your body and your wallet. If you’re foolish enough to attempt a wheelie, make sure to cover your rear brake, which can save your butt by instantly bringing down the front end given a strong toe tap.
Wheelie tip: Using an uphill section will make it easier to pull up a front wheel.
I must’ve logged tens of thousands of wheelies during my decades of riding, but only once have I ever flipped during mono-wheeling exploits. I was enjoying my second post-ride beer when my Honda CR125 silently asked me to practice more wheelies. The CR’s bent handlebar and my abraded chest taught a valuable lesson: Never involve alcohol with wheelies!
So, you’re brave and imprudent enough to challenge your moto skills with wheelies. But which motorcycle should you choose? What follows are 10 of my favorites.
10. Dirt bike – Any Dirt Bike
Okay, this is a genre rather than a specific motorcycle, but here’s why. I’m frequently asked how to do respectable wheelies, and I always advise learning on a dirt bike or dual-sport enduro. Their tall statures make them more sensitive to pitching, which aids the weight transfer needed to pull up a bike’s front end. And, importantly, wheelie speeds on a dirt bike are significantly lower than while on a streetbike, plus dirt is generally softer than asphalt.
And when riding in the dirt, there will be many times when it’s advantageous to loft a front wheel, forcing you to learn the throttle and clutch control needed to do it reliably. Dirt machines are also lighter than their street brethren, making them easier to control. Finally, a dirt bike will be less expensive to fix should your attempts require more skill than you possess.
9. Kawasaki Z1000
Kawi’s Z1000 is the Rodney Dangerfield of the American streetfighter market. Its angular Japanese design doesn’t seem to translate to round-eye tastes, so it’s often overlooked by riders who are instead drawn to classier European streetfighter styling.
Get past the Transformers styling and you’ve got one of the best bangs for the buck among performance motorcycles. Its upright ergos are relatively comfortable and allow considerable weight transfer for your wheelie pleasure. Its four-cylinder engine pumps out more than 120 horsepower to its rear wheel, but more important to the wheelie mission is its wide range of power and bountiful 74 ft-lb torque peak that’ll loft its anime-styled front end at will.
Kawasaki Confirms New Z1000 Arriving At 2013 EICMA Show
2010 Streetfighter Shootout: Kawasaki Z1000 Vs. Triumph Speed Triple
2010 Oddball Sport-Touring Shootout: Ducati Multistrada Vs Honda VFR1200F Vs Kawasaki Z1000
2010 Kawasaki Z1000 Review
8. KTM 1190 Adventure R
A seemingly unlikely choice in this list, the 1190 Adventure R is included for four key reasons. First, its V-Twin engine delivers plenty of torque to jerk up the front end even above 50 mph. Second, unlike some Ride-by-Wire throttles (MV, we’re looking at you…), the KTM’s tuning is predictable and willingly responds to the whims of your right wrist. Third, it’s a tall machine (taller than the non-R 1190), which allows lots of weight transfer to encourage hoisting the front end. And fourth, it’s capable of practicing in the dirt, which is preferable to concrete in the event of a spill.
7. Suzuki SFV650/Gladius/ SV650
The SFV650 (nee Gladius) makes this list because it’s closely related to the beloved SV650 that continues to hold a special place in our hearts for its playful nature and budget price tag. Although it has the smallest-displacement engine on this list, the torque thrust out by its willing V-Twin powerplant supplies ample torque for exuberant wheelies when provoked, even if they require a bit of a clutch dump. It’s an affordable way to get a wheelie-capable streetbike.
6. BMW S1000RR/HP4
Despite a low-slung riding position designed for roadracing, there is no denying the wheelie-inducing motivation provided by the best power-to-weight ratio of any motor vehicle in the world. The S1000 motor spins the dyno wheel to a tune of 193 crankshaft-rated horsepower, and the HP4 version scales in at 439 pounds with its tank full of fuel. That translates into just 2.27 pounds per pony. Bugatti’s 1200-hp Veyron 16.4 Super Sport carries with it 4400 pounds of car, so the million-dollar-plus car is burdened with 3.67 pounds per horse.
So, if you’re looking for the best option for wheelie-ing at triple-digit speeds, the S1000RR/HP4 is the bike of choice.
2013 Exotic Superbike Shootout: Street – Video
2013 Exotic Superbike Shootout: Track – Video
2013 BMW HP4 Onboard Video Review
2013 BMW S1000RR HP4 Review – Video
2010 Literbike Shootout: RSV4 R Vs S1000RR Vs CBR1000RR Vs ZX-10R
5. Triumph Street Triple
Its wheelie-ability wasn’t the only reason why we chose the Street Triple R as our 2009 Motorcycle of the Year, but it certainly didn’t hurt its cause! The Street Triple is simply one of the most fun motorcycles on the market regardless of engine size or price tags.
The Street Trip is playfully eager for whatever fun you’re looking for on two wheels, and its 675cc three-cylinder engine delivers a bigger, nicer power hit that its displacement would indicate. Midrange power is generous, so there’s a wide span of grunt accessible for your wheelie pleasure, and its light chassis makes its rider feel fully in control.
2013 Triumph Street Triple R Review
2012 Triumph Street Triple R Review
2011 Naked Middleweights Shootout
2009 Triumph Street Triple R Review
2008 Naked Middleweight Comparison: Triumph Street Triple 675 Vs. Aprilia SL750 Shiver
4. Ducati Monster 1100
The biggest Monster is one of my favorite motorcycles. It boasts delicious Italian style with a lovely trellis frame and single-sided swingarm, a minimalist design ethos, a relatively upright riding position and, most important to our discussion here, a grunty and responsive V-Twin engine.
Although relatively low-tech, being cooled by air rather than liquid and breathing through just two valves per cylinder, the M11’s power output is able to be finely controlled to deliver exactly what a right wrist is asking for.
3. KTM 690 Duke
KTM’s 690 Duke has changed the way we look at single-cylinder streetbikes, boasting what is likely the world’s most powerful one-lung engine. The 690cc motor rips out nearly 64 horses at its rear tire, nearly twice as much as a KLR650. More impressive is the 46 ft-lb of torque on tap just past 5000 rpm, which combines with a tank-empty weight of only 330 pounds to create a rompin’ wheelie machine.
If you use full throttle in first gear, it will wheelie whether you want it to or not. Second-gear wheelies are a little calmer than in first gear due to a slower rising front end, but they require a clutch dump or a bar tug. Despite having the least power of the bikes on this list, wheelies are an amusing part of the Duke experience.
2013 KTM 690 Duke Review – Video
2. Aprilia Tuono V4 R
The Tuono V4 R is one of my favorite motorcycles of all time, as it’s the best version ever of a retuned repli-racer. With 154 horses available at its back tire, the word “detuned” will never enter your mind. Thanks to its longer intake tracts, altered valve timing and shorter gear ratios in the first three cogs, its engine response is ultra-snappy and willing to loft its front end even at highway velocities. It’s one of the reasons why we gave it our Best Streetfighter/Hooligan award for 2013.
As I wrote in its review, the Tuono’s V-4 engine is “simply one of the most thrilling engines we’ve ever had the pleasure of twisting its throttle.” Yep, riding the Tuono is a special experience, and it’s one of the few bikes that can hoik a minger of a wheelie in third gear. Just make sure to switch off the wheelie-control electronics!
1. Triumph Speed Triple
This is the bike that made Triumph relevant again following the rebirth of the company in the 1990s, based largely on the appeal of its soulful three-cylinder engine. It’s not only one of the most tuneful motorcycle engines ever made, it’s also endowed with a ripping midrange-power wallop that relishes hoiking up a front wheel. It has a long, flat torque curve and predictable throttle response that abets long-distance mono-wheeling.
And you’ll look sharp on the fashionable Speed Trip on your way to Wheelieville. Its stripped-down and clean style is enduring, with a lovely single-sided swingarm and its iconic dual headlights (even though I still prefer the pre-2011 round lamps). It’s a hooligan’s hooligan, and it tops our list of favorite motorcycles to wheelie on.
2012 Literbike Streetfighter Shootout – Video
2012 Triumph Speed Triple R Review
2011 Triumph Speed Triple 1050 Review
2010 Streetfighter Shootout: Kawasaki Z1000 Vs. Triumph Speed Triple
2009 Streetfighters Shootout: Aprilia Tuono 1000 R, Buell 1125CR, Triumph Speed Triple
2008 Triumph Urban Sports Review