Condensed Answer: Standard 20″ BMX bikes are not ideal for performing classic wheelies. If you want a BMX strictly for long and clean wheelies, it’s recommended to get a model with 26″ wheels.
What is a wheelie?
First, it’s necessary to describe what a wheelie is because many people could mistake the trick for a manual.
During a wheelie, the rider lifts the front wheel of the bike via an aggressive pedal stroke and a weight shift towards the rear wheel. Then, the rider continues to pedal while balancing on the rear wheel.
During a standard wheelie, the rider is sitting on the saddle while pedaling. However, since BMX bikes have small frames and low seats, it’s not possible to pedal in a seated position during a wheelie.
Consequently, BMX wheelies are done standing. This alone makes wheelies much harder on standard BMXs.
Note: A manual looks like a wheelie to the untrained eye, but it’s not. The main difference is that the rider isn’t pedaling and is never seated regardless of the bike.
The Problems With Performing Wheelies On a BMX
- No seated pedaling
As already mentioned, a standard BMX bike with a small frame does not allow you to perform a wheelie while seating on the saddle.
As a result, the rider has to perform the trick standing. This style takes a lot of energy and requires the rider to aggressively spin the pedals throughout the entire stunt. As a result, the trick is draining and impractical.
Note: One way to circumvent this issue would be to install an extra-long seat post so that the saddle can be raised to a position allowing comfortable pedaling.
While this approach is technically viable, it’s not very logical. If the bike will be used as a standard BMX, then the extra long seat post will have to be removed or lowered for other tricks.
If it’s going to be used as a commuter, it’s wiser to look for a bigger bike that will be faster and more comfortable. If wheelies are the main goal, then purchasing a dedicated wheelie bike or an MTB is the more logical approach.
- Single speed
Since the rider is pedaling, the drivetrain has a direct influence on the trick.
A low gear makes it easier to lift the front wheel while a higher one increases the difficulty. For that reason, bicycles with gears make the learning curve of a wheelie faster because the rider has different settings to choose from.
Standard BMX bikes come with one gear and do not provide that opportunity.
- No Brakes
During a wheelie, the rear brake could be used to balance or to end the trick. (Pressing the rear brake brings the front wheel down.)
Many BMXs come without brakes for the sake of performing other tricks (e.g., bar spins…etc.) A brakeless BMX can still be used to perform a wheelie, but the trick is much more difficult and less safe.
But even if the bike has a rear brake, the wheelie position on a BMX makes it a little harder to use the brake gently, although it’s still possible to do so.
FAQ: I want a bike specifically for wheelies. What are my options?
- 26″ BMXs
If you want to combine a wheelie bike and a BMX, 26″ BMX models are a good option. Their frames are large enough for fairly comfortable seated pedaling, and the bike still has “BMX aesthetics”. That said, if you’re on the taller side, the machine may still feel a bit small.
- A dedicated wheelie bike
You can also purchase a dedicated wheelie bike. Those come in different tire sizes (26″, 29″) and are meant to elevate the wheelie experience to another level. However, their downside is that they are not the greatest commuters nor as capable as a standard BMX bike for other stunts.
MTBs are also a good and practical choice as wheelie bikes for the following reasons:
- Comfortable seated pedaling
- Tons of options
- The wheels are strong enough to take a lot of abuse and are highly unlikely to deform while practicing wheelies (the same applies to BMX wheels too)
- Gearing (MTBs have gears which make it easier or harder to lift the front wheel.)
- Utility (A BMX excels only at tricks. An MTB can be used for tricks, commuting and off-road riding.)
If your main goals are wheelies, you don’t need to purchase an ultra-expensive machine. A basic retro MTB from the 80s in decent condition will work just fine while also serving as a commuter.
Note: Technically, any bike can be used for wheelies, including an upright commuter. However, the models that excel at wheelies tend to have short chainstays (for easier lifting of the front wheel), short stems and shorter reach all while offering fairly comfortable pedaling from a seated position.