Unweighting the Wheels
Upping a Curb
Getting Down a Curb
Hopping a Sewer Grate
The Bike Messenger's Hook
NOTE: The techniques below are described in terms of a fixed-gear bike with toe-clips or clipless pedals. There are similar techniques, such as the bunnyhop and the endo, for flat-pedaled MTBs or trials bikes. Check out "How to Bunnyhop Like Jeff Lenosky," by Jeff Lenosky and Jason Schwinabart, DIRT RAG #98, pp. 88-89. For online instruction in trials moves for MTB/trials bikes, see Biketrials.com's How-To Manual.There are several techniques that all fix riders would do well to have in their bag of tricks. Getting over small obstacles such as pot-holes, sewer grates and small curbs will save your hubs, spokes and tires. The key to getting over obstacles is unweighting your wheels. Unweighting your wheels also helps in skip-stopping and skidding, which are covered in my Fixed-Gear 101).
Safety note: Before proceeding, make sure you have read the safety measures in How not to get hit by cars.Unweighting the Wheels
To unweight the wheels, it's helpful to separate the motions for unweighting the front from the motions for the rear. Unweighting the front wheel is like the move in a wheelie. Unweighting the rear wheel brings your weight up and to the front of the bike with your hips in the air. In both cases, it helps to practice with your pedals in your dominant 3 o'clock - 9 o'clock position. If you do a wheelie, which foot likes to be forward? Perhaps your stronger leg prefers to be forward, for the extra push on the pedal. Find this position for your body and use it while learning. In real life of course, your pedals won't be in this convenient position when you enounter an obstacle. But once you get the feel of things at 3 and 9, it will be easier in the other pedal positions.
Front wheel. To bring the front wheel off the ground, lift your butt off the saddle and shift your hips up and back. Push downward with the forward foot, and pull up and back on the handlebars. Start out trying for just a quarter of an inch, concentrating on letting the tire down gently as well. (This is done by pulling gently up as the wheel reaches the ground again.) At first, try to find a playground, trying only to clear the white line of a basketball court. Then try for the lip of a driveway. Don't try anything higher until you can unweight the rear wheel as well. Your rear hub and spokes will appreciate it.
Rear wheel. To unweight the rear wheel, these things happen in maybe less than a second, in this order:
When you become more proficient with this, you can feather your rear wheel. That is, finesse step (7) above by pulling up again with your toes just before the rear wheel contacts the ground. (This is like how people imagine that falling-elevator emergency - in their minds, they'll jump up from the elevator car right as it hits the ground!) Again, feathering is good for your bike. I have those dodgy high-flange Campy track hubs, but with this feathering technique I've gotten away with these moves for years, even going up high curbs and down small staircases....Upping a Curb
Sometimes you need to get up a curb. Maybe it's the quickest way to that deli on the block, or to the railing where you can lock your bike. But you don't want to dismount and lift the bike. And you don't want the wheels to slam into the curb. You can approach the curb straight on, or at an oblique angle. Try to keep the angle of approach between 45 and 90 degrees - lesser angles can make you slide out. You can play with the angle and your available distance from the curb to help set up your ideal wheelie pedal position of 1:30-7:30. A vertical pedal angle of 6-12 is do-able, but difficult.
Start practicing on the 1- or 2-inch lip of a driveway, then move on to smaller and larger curbs. Upping these things is not a jump or a hop. One wheel always stays on the ground. You just bring the front wheel up, then set it down on the higher surface. Then the rear wheel.
OK, you've got your Snapple and unlocked your bike. You could roll it and gently lower it into the street with a cool over-the-front mount. But you can also ride down the curb. The trick is to land the wheels on the ground one at a time, without your body weight. As for the stress on the bike, this is about equivalent to the bike going down the curb without a rider. Actually, if you feather the wheels right before impact with the unweighting techniques discussed above, you can make the impact even lighter than the bike weight itself.
Here are the steps you can use. You can begin practice descending a driveway, then go on to low curbs:
You're there!Hopping a Sewer Grate
You're riding along next to the curb, traffic whooshing by. Suddenly you see a sewer grate up ahead. You're in traffic. You can't swerve around it. You're boxed in, going fast, committed in this forward direction. Hop over it!
Sewer grates can catch a wheel and throw you off the bike. And you can't always ride around them, because that will take you into traffic. So hopping them is the best thing. Most wheel-eating grates are shorter than 27", but if your weight is on the saddle, even a 4"-grate acts like a bottomless pot-hole. In terms of distance covered, the maximum you'll have to clear is the wheelbase of the bike plus the length of the grate. The faster you are going, the better. And of course there are distractions - traffic on one side, and a curb on the other.
So how do you do it? It's more like a hop or a lunge than an up, since you have to get both wheels off the ground at once. But it's adapted for distance over a flat surface, in narrow road conditions and traffic. You'll be going for speed and a bit of distance, not height for its own sake. You don't want your bike off the ground any longer than required to keep from catching a wheel.
The best way to begin is to find a piece of cardboard or noisy sheet metal about a 12" x 12" and take it back to the playground where you practiced unweighting your wheels. This will be your practice sewer grate. You'll definitely hear it if you land on this. The movements happen very quickly, almost at once. Basically, it all takes advantage of the unweighting you have done up to this point, but it's a different move. It's more like lunging yourself up and forward, pulling the bike up and after you. The wheels lift off almost together, maybe the front wheel a fraction of a second earlier. And the wheels touch down almost together, maybe the rear wheel a bit earlier. The steps, in slow motion, are these:
While in the air, try to keep the bike from leaning and the front wheel from jerking to one side or the other. This jerking can come from when you sprang out of the saddle and pulled upwards while the pedals were in a random funky position. Remember, when you're on the street with this, there will probably be traffic.The Bike Messenger's Hook
When crossing a street or intersection with side traffic, the normal way to do it is this. You slow down, stop, wait for the car to go by. You can do it that way, but it takes longer and forces you to slow a lot or even stop. That's not so convenient if you can't trackstand and you're clipless or your toe-straps are down tight. Who wants to put a foot on the ground?
So cross the street the way the bike messengers do it. Rush at the car and hook around the back. This is especially effective when you cross one-way streets. I use the messenger's hook all the time, even when I'm on foot walking through stalled traffic.
You do it like this. Check around both sides and in back of you. Check the side traffic. You see the car coming from your left to your right. There's no car immediately behind it. And the lane you're occupying is clear. So you go for it. You ride at an oblique angle towards the car. You're both moving. As the car passes, you hook around its back bumper and continue on your way. You will be the first one across the street.
It looks and sounds suicidal, but it's quite safe. The driver probably won't see you. But if they do, they won't worry because you aren't getting in front of them. They'll probably know you are planning on going around the back.
© Greg Goode, 2003