Automobiles & Bikes

Are wheelies a problem in San Diego?

On August 12, a motorcyclist popped a wheelie on the I-5 freeway heading northbound, then wiped out and fell to the pavement feet away from a fast-moving car — as depicted on an Instagram video uploaded by @sandiegoville.

The California Highway Patrol commented about the Friday afternoon motorcycle crash, relayed by 619newsmedia. “It occurred around 3:40 p.m. on I-5 northbound north of Main/Division [streets]. The rider fled the scene before officers arrived …. Stunting activities such as wheelies and ghost riding are reckless, unsafe, and unlawful and pose an extreme danger to those participating in the activity and to other motorists and bystanders.”

A wheelie is a trick when a bicyclist or motorbike rider tugs the handlebars upward while the bike/motorcycle moves forward propped on its rear wheel. In contrast, the front wheel remains elevated off of the pavement. (Ghost riding is another trick: it’s the act of driving a motorbike and then jumping off, so it appears as if a ghost is in the empty seat and controlling the handlebars.)

Busting wheelies on public streets has always been popular thanks to famous folks on the silver screen, from Evel Knievel in the 1960s-1970s to Tom Cruise’s character in the recently released Mission Impossible 7. And being so close to the desert and the Baja 1000 races, San Diego locals have witnessed, learned, and performed wheelies on knobby tires for a while.

Wheelies have made for popular YouTube content. One YouTuber, James&MoVlogs, followed his buddy Ric on his 3-wheeler from San Diego to Glamis; in part of the video uploaded in March, Ric popped a long wheelie on a side street.

The original story was published in the print edition of the San Diego Reader in August of 2023.

Then the wheelies continue on Instagram, on the 664stunts account in Tijuana. On August 19, motorcyclists from both sides of the border met at Tijuana for Tijuana Nights – a street bike cruise and stunting excursions around the border city. On the posted footage of the Saturday gathering, dozen of motorcyclists are shown riding wheelies for up to a minute on city streets and Tijuana highways. Then on a quick scroll down the group’s IG timeline, two posts show motorcyclists [crashing] while performing wheelies on busy roads.

Another reason why wheelies are more popular than ever is because “bike life” or the “urban stunt riding scene” going on in major cities. Large groups roll motocross bikes, 4-wheelers, street bikes, Honda Groms, electric and gas-powered scooters, motorized bicycles, ATVs and old-school 3-wheelers — and run amok in sizeable urban city downtown streets and neighborhoods – including San Diego. Many of the stunters in these groups pop wheelies and film the excursions while riding in the pack.

About two years ago, near San Diego State, Garrett M. heard a buzz of motorbikes approaching his El Cerrito home. He pulled out his phone and filmed “20 quads and dirt bikes” ripping around a street corner just feet from him. One rider on a motorbike with purple-colored fairings popped a wheelie past Garrett, then followed the quads, additional motocross bikes, two motorcycle cops, and two SDPD SUVs following the group. “Holy fu–ing shit,” Garret yelled at the end of the clip, then posted it on the NextDoor app.

I contacted Garrett for a comment, but he didn’t reply. The group grew in numbers after the 20 quads and dirt bikes passed Garrett. “My family [was] surrounded by 100s of [motor] bikes and 4-wheelers on Fairmont all the way up to Montezuma,” continued Lisa Johnson from the College neighborhood. “They were running lights to stay together going between cars and in the emergency lanes. Most didn’t have helmets on, and they were confusing drivers. It was dangerous and scary. They weren’t just riding as a group. They were being reckless. That’s what was illegal about it. We saw them jumping curbs and driving on the wrong side of the road. It was scary, and I had my kid in the car.”

On Instagram and TikTok, others posted videos of the 2021 “urban stunt riders” popping wheelies on undisclosed freeways around town; another video showed the stunters riding along the MTS trolley tracks.

While most people online were furious at the “wilding out,” some gave the stunters thumbs ups.

Kensington resident Linda M. said, “OMG, everyone [is] getting worked up over nothing. A motorcycle hitting a car does not typically injure those in the car. A motorcyclist knows that. So it’s unlikely they would get close enough to hit a car. It’s likely the ones doing stunts are experienced riders, or they wouldn’t be doing it. Also, remember, in CA, they are allowed to split lanes.”

“It’s fun,” admitted Tiffany W. from Spring Valley. “I’m the mom of the group, and I ride as well.”

But it’s not always fun when people stunt — as on many of the timelines of the stunting crews and off-road pages around town and in Tijuana – memorials to fallen motorbike members are posted regularly.

A Redditor saw the motorcycle crash video mentioned at the beginning of this article. “I hate when I see people doing this (wheelies on the freeways),” he said. “First, because it’s awful to see a crash happen no matter what the cause is, and second because you immediately have to start slowing down and figure out how to give this person as much room as possible while staying safe because I don’t want to be the person to run them over even if it wouldn’t legally be my fault.”