The Rolling Curb Hop
Wheelies are neat-o. That's just a fact. But being able to do even a little wheelie is more than just cool. After staying upright and riding with no hands, being able to pull the front end up is the most basic skill you acquire if you are an aspiring rider and not just a casual one. I'm not just talking about 'mountain bikers' either. Getting your bike's front wheel off the ground when you want to comes in pretty handy in all kinds of situations, on all kinds of bikes, and it never becomes less handy, no matter what other skills you develop as a rider. You’ll always find places where it’s useful to lighten the front end and lift it over something without stopping. And I have noticed that lots of people don’t know how to do this, including many people who ride a fair amount. You don’t need to wheelie to ride a bike but knowing how expands where and how you can ride. Lots of people reading this can already ride a perfectly respectable, full-blown wheelie, but lots of people reading this are riders who cannot do a wheelie of any sort. This essay covers the basics of how to get up and over curbs, logs, and lots of other small obstacles.
The idea behind the rolling curb hop is mainly weight distribution with some leverage on the pedals to help. Remember: a saddle is a perch, not a La-Z-Boy. You move around on it as you ride, sometimes standing up slightly, keeping your weight balanced against the terrain and inertia. You hold your body steady, suspending your head and torso with your arms and legs, allowing the bike to move somewhat independently beneath you.
A rolling curb hop goes like this: A few inches before the obstacle shift your weight back a little on the saddle. Pull up and back on the bar while gassing the crank (I usually like to have one of my feet just past top center so I can gain maximum leverage) and, if all goes right, the front wheel comes off the ground. Hey presto! It doesn’t have to be for a long time or very high off the ground. Just enough to get the wheel on top of whatever you’re trying to traverse. With some practice nearly anyone can learn to do this reliably and safely, except some physically or developmentally disabled people, recumbent riders, unicyclists, the extremely aged, or Luby’s mom, who always seems to end up on her back. Hey-O!
A good way to begin your road to wheelieing (wow, that word is a handful, isn’t it?) if you’re a novice rider is to find a small ledge to go down. Stand up slightly and shift your weight back a bit while approaching it at a ninety degree angle or thereabout. Let the front drop and follow along. Get a feel for it. This is to encourage an awareness of weight distribution.
Next find a smooth, unobstructed strip of terrain on which to practice, preferrably flat, like a parking lot or a long driveway. Go forward at a slowish pace. Shift back on the saddle and sit up a little. Press sort of hard on the pedal. It should be in a lower gear, but maybe not the lowest. Pull the bar toward your chest. Don’t forget to keep your weight shifted back.
Practice that a bunch. Experiment. Different balances and intensity of effort in these areas will gain different results. Don’t worry, you’re not going to fall over backwards at this stage of the game, but if it makes you feel better then keep your finger on the rear brake lever. This is your bail out button and if you squeeze it the front wheel will drop to the ground. Most people are frightened of getting the wheel off the ground. There’s no reason to be. You can do this. After practicing this a few sessions you will begin to get your wheel off the ground briefly and more or less reliably.
Next, find an obstacle located in a safe, traffic-free place. Up a curb from street to sidewalk works well if you’ve got one of those, because it's a decent height, it’s a common challenge for many people, and it goes from one level surface to another. If you don’t have that, however, don’t worry. Find anything you can ride over or onto that it is maybe 4 to 8 inches high. A branch, a flat rock, a low porch.
Now do it. Ride at it. Don’t go too fast, you can work up to that. Get your finger on the rear brake lever just in case. Stay loose. Line your feet up where you want them. Watch your approach. Don’t close your eyes. Get ready, lean back, and….
O.K., so now you’ve been practicing and you’re getting the front wheel up. Once you’ve got the front up and over, stand and move your weight forward a bit to lighten the rear wheel. Let it track or bounce lightly up and over. One fluid motion, from sitting with weight shifted back to not quite standing. Sit back down.
Now see there? Look at you.
My lovely and talented better half learned to hop curbs under this program. She was a strong and enthusiastic, if somewhat undisciplined, rider when I met her. And she, like many people, can get quite anxious when it comes to activities that seem likely to invite personal injury. But she kept at it and in about a month she could do it every time she tried and no longer worried too much about falling. By the end of summer she was ascending every curb she encountered with confidence.
Things slow down a little when you finally get the hang of it. You will never forget it. You will have one of those full mind and body memories of it. You will need never again fear a curb when there is oncoming traffic, objects on the trail, or whathaveyou. You’re superfly. Now go get ‘em, tiger.