Wheelie Academy with Rok Bagoroš: Lift it up
Everyone who’s ever watched a motorcycle stunt show, will have felt that urge; I want to do that! But as easy as it looks, the sort of stunts and tricks guys like Rok Bagoroš bring to the table are incredibly difficult to master. You’ll find that out soon enough once you book a lesson at the Slovenian stunt rider’s Wheelie Academy.
For years I tried to piece together an acceptable wheelie for the motorcycle magazine I worked for as a road tester, but unfortunately, the end result would never involve any sort of excitingly high lifted front wheel – or at least not to a point I felt in control. Lifting it up at a call kept getting me down. Especially when looking at the photographic outcome afterwards, it was hardly anything to write home about, though it felt like an incredibly high-flying frontend; it really wasn’t ever. Mere decimeters from the deck every single time. Knowing exactly what makes it such a hassle to achieve only fuels the frustration; I’m simply too afraid to flip the bike. Weirder still is the fact I’m sure I’ve never even come close to the infamous point of no return.
I’ve considered buying something cheap I could practice wheelying on, but never followed through. As I kept trying, I was more and more giving up on that illusive, controlled wheelie. Until I heard of Rok Bagoroš’ Wheelie Academy. As of last year, the Slovenian freestyle motorcycle stunt rider shares his knowledge of how to ‘lift it up’ – without crashing bike after bike, obviously.
Mounts of dirty dishes
Of course, I knew Rok Bagoroš as the YouTube stunt sensation he’d become over the years, throwing around bikes on videos. The sight of him near effortlessly swinging a bike around on one wheel – front or rear; it’s all the same to him – is bizarre to say the least. But as with any masterfully skilled person, the time and effort put in pays off tenfold – even though it takes both time and effort a plenty. Bagoroš grew up in Radenci, a tiny Slovenian town with barely 2,000 inhabitants, on the border with Austria. Humble beginnings didn’t stop Bagoroš from chasing his dreams. Selling newspapers and going through mounts of dirty dishes at a local restaurant, a 17-year-old Bagoroš made enough money to buy himself a scooter. Not to take him to work or to school, no; so, he could go out and stunt! “I loved Andreas Gustafsson’s stunt videos. He stunted scooters and I wanted to do that, too.” Rok turned out to be quite talented and after putting in the hours, he learned to up his game as he got better at more advanced tricks. “Back then I had gotten into Chris Pfeiffer’s stunting. Pfeiffer was the first stunter who got a contract with a manufacturer.” That outlined Rok’s mission; becoming a professional freestyle stunt rider. He worked as hard as he could, with his tricks catching on with fans. In 2011, the Slovenian caught a major break when KTM asked him to ride the orange machines professionally. “It really was a dream come true. Though I had always hoped I could one day stunt for a living, I did not expect things would go this fast.”
Eight years on, Rok Bagoroš and his team are taking on the next challenge. Of course, Rok and his buddies will still be doing the stunt shows we know and love them for, making awesome videos as they go, but as a sort of side gig they’ve started their very own Wheelie Academy. In a small group Rok teaches motorcyclists how to make a controllable wheelie. “No more than eight riders at a time,” he makes very clear. “I’m not interested in doing large groups; I want to focus on making sure students get the quality time to learn. That’s just not an option if you get too large of a group.” During the four-hour course, students start with a very simple looking exercise; doing laps. Rok has thrown me the keys of a brand-new KTM 390 DUKE, explaining me what I’m about to do, as we roll up to a marked-out course. “We’re going to make really tight circles, so you can adjust to using the rear brake.” It’s been a while since I did my road test, so I’m curious to see how I’ll do in a handling course like this.
Just three laps in, Rok stops me. “Don’t worry, you’re doing fine. But I can see you’re grabbing the clutch using all four fingers. That’s not how we’re going to be doing things today. We want to have the handlebars firmly in hand, and to do that, you’ll need nothing but your index finger and middle finger to operate the clutch lever. We’ve adjusted the cable to get the clutch engagement point just right to be able to work with those two fingers alone.” As I carry on making set out laps, I find myself having to switch directions occasionally, not to get sick. Soon enough I’m able to stay within the circle, only to be stopped again by my Slovenian teacher. “Not bad at all,” Rok tells me with a smile. “But now we’re going to try and tighten the circle up even further. Keep focusing on that rear brake.” Back to the circle we go, clockwise first then counter-clockwise. Occasionally I need to put a foot down real quick, but Rok seems to let those moments slip. It’s time to stop again. This time we’re parking the KTM 390 DUKE for now. “See, using the rear brake you can turn the bike much tighter than you first imagined, right? That’s easily overlooked, but very important part of controlling a wheelie.”
Baby get higher
After a short breather, Rok goes into the anatomy of a wheelie. “Firstly, what we’ll be learning today is to perform the wheelie in a controlled fashion. Basically, anyone can lift the front wheel off the throttle alone, but that is not what we’re here to do. It’s all about balance and knowing what you’re doing.” No wonder the Wheelie Academy uses a small fleet of KTM 390 DUKEs. “You don’t need a lot of power to wheelie, as you’ll find out. A light bike like the 390 is just perfect to get you going, with the torquey single-cylinder engine to help you lift that wheel off the ground.”
In order to give the whole group the attention they need, Rok has enlisted Radislav Mihajlov – a fellow stunt rider from Serbia – as a second instructor. He’ll be getting me up to speed for the first wheelie session. “Biggest advantage to how we teach our students to wheelie, is that it’s impossible to flip the bike. Once you go over balance point, the rubber mats basically catch you. When you do hit the rubber mats – and you will – don’t touch the clutch; stick to using the rear brake. You’ll come right back down.”
To set me off, Radislav allows me to get used to riding on the five-wheeled contraption. The KTM I’ll be wheelying today has been rigged with the weirdest pair of training wheels I’ve ever seen, keeping the bike upright. The cart hanging from those wheels carries the rubber mats that catch you, plus the additional rear wheel. Like riding a motorcycle with a sidecar, I try to get accustomed to the weird five-wheeler, going up and down the wheelie strip.
Not long after, it’s time to put the theory into action. Without a second thought, I let the clutch go with just a hint of throttle and before I know I’m lifting the front off the ground. Only to drop it right back down again. Four desperate attempts later, Radislav stops me again. I’m afraid I’m about to get a slap on the wrist here. “You’re not doing too bad, actually, but you should try to get more elevation; lift the front wheel higher. Try it, don’t worry!” His encouraging word should’ve calmed my nerves, but they haven’t. A sort of mental barrier keeps me from really taking flight, ending the first session with a wheelie that can only be described as moderately high. Most students are in a similar situation at this point, with a few of them going up and over, hitting the rubber mats that are there to catch you. Don’t think any of us can say they’re very much in control of anything at this point, but at least we’ve come to experience what it’s like to get a bike vertical.
As I head into my second session of learning how to wheelie controllably, my focus is on elevation. Luckily, it’s not just Radislav that’s noticed my progression; I can feel it, too. Rok chips in every now and again with an additional pointer or two. “If you just drop the clutch, you won’t need much throttle at all; your body weight should help lift the front as it moves back. Most students tend to do this; they’re trying to physically pull the front up, unknowingly transferring weight over the front in the process.”
No problem at all
As I conclude my second session, I’m starting to feel confident. Rok Bagoroš seems satisfied with my progress, even more so than I am. “You’re starting to get a hang of it; not bad at all. Right now, you seem to have the separate actions under control. Time to string those actions together.” I can tell you, practicing wheelies for long periods of time is pretty tiring, so I’m glad to get a little break, using my fellow Wheelie Academy students for entertainment as I catch my breath. Got to hand it to those KTM 390 DUKEs; they’re getting a beating, but they don’t seem to miss a single beat. Just a bit of fuel every now and again, and they can do this all day long. “Certainly, in the beginning, students really drop the front quite hard, giving the front suspension a hard time. So far, the 390 DUKE has been taking it on the chin like a champ,” Tomaž Bratusa, Rok Bagoroš’ mechanic tells me. “Students tend to think we’re constantly replacing clutch plates and front suspension parts, but that’s really not the case. We keep up with regular maintenance and that’s pretty much it. Of course, we check all the bikes before packing up at the end of the day. That way we can be sure all the KTM 390 DUKEs are good to go for the following group.”
Session three is when I really start to get a hang of it; a sense of control is slowly but surely creeping in, though it’s still no easy task pulling a textbook wheelie out of the hat.
It’s a mix of not shifting my weight back right on one go and being too eager on the throttle on the next. Still, as I get off the bike to hand it over to another student, it’s near impossible to keep the smile off my face. Rok gives me a thumbs up as I sit down on one of the comfy seats in the KTM awning. More than anything, I’ve come to the conclusion you don’t just go out and learn to wheelie. The Academy is a tough nut to crack. There’s so many bits and pieces you need to put together – that takes some serious focus. Sooner than expected, though, I’m back on the 390. The day is starting to draw to a close, I’m going all out; I want to put on that fully controlled wheelie Rok’s been trying to teach me all day. It seems the harder I try, the harder it gets. Focus on technique has made room for frustration, set on by me just wanting it too much. So, by session five I’ve really lost all focus and concentration – my fellow students are also feeling the strain. It just all seems so easy; you pay the man, you get on the wheelie machine, and there you go, you can wheelie. But it’s simply not that simple – one of the main things Rok Bagoroš’ Wheelie Academy has taught me above all. It still takes practice, you still learn to wheelie by doing it. Four hours of trying to lift it up later, the Slovenian freestyle stunt rider sends us off back home, but not before he sits us down for a few final words. “Consider learning to wheelie like learning to swim,” he says. “You don’t learn to swim in just one morning or just one afternoon. If it’s a good wheelie you want to make, you’re going to have to put in the hours of training. You’ve done a good job getting a hang of the basics, now you need a closed-off area to go and build on those basics – you need to practice. Do remember, though, today’s course hasn’t just saved you a lot of money in repairing a bike you will have crashed a few times before finding control, but you’ve saved yourself a few broken bones as well. How we teach, you can safely go up to and over balance point, without writing off a motorcycle. I believe, from what I’ve seen today, all of you could master a perfect wheelie at some stage. For now, it just requires you to invest the time and the energy to perfect it.”
Do you feel like having a crack at Rok Bagoroš’ Wheelie Academy? Well, you can! The next courses are on June 25-27 in Murska Sobota in Slovenia. Check out Rok´s website for all you need to know. Oh, and definitely have a look on Rok’s YouTube channel. It’s full of … let’s just call it inspiration!
Photos: Jowin Boerboom