The Manual Machine

The Manual Machine

Of the many things I consider part of the RKP editorial mandate, service articles, that is, how-tos, aren’t really part of that equation. There are plenty of other places where you can find out how to learn to ride with clipless pedals or wash your bike.


How often to we really think about our skill set as cyclists? Sure, I’m sure many of you are doing specific intervals to elevate your lactate threshold or increase your power, but I’m not talking about fitness. What about actual skills? A couple of years ago I made a decision to begin branching out in my cycling pursuits, to do more different things on bikes. That’s led me to spend time at our local pump track, as well as the skatepark.

I left the big cuts to Sebastian, who had all the tools necessary for this little exercise.

It’s fair to ask why. There are three reasons that underlie a fairly reasonable, “Just cuz.” The first is that I simply want to be better versed in all things bicycle. To me, it’s like learning another language. I’d like to be able to travel across Europe without a phrase book in my pocket. The second is that I’ve been so devoted to road riding for so long that I get concerned about burnout. As a result, I want to take conscious steps to keep cycling fresh and interesting. The third reason is the knowledge that I’m becoming more fragile physically as I age. I’m concerned about what a fall would mean for me. Not just now, but 10 years from now. By making an effort to increase my skill set I’m that much less likely to go down if circumstances get weird.

Somewhere on social media a couple of weeks ago I ran across a video for a device called a Manual Machine. I was instantly enamored with it because it creates a no-consequence environment to learn a skill that, if done wrong, can have insanely high consequences. Just ask anyone who has ever hit the back of their head on anything from any distance for any reason. Every person reading this is going, “Yep, don’t want to do that again!”

Young Roscoe rides for one of the local NorCal League teams and got involved in building his own.

It’s helpful to note that a manual is different from a wheelie. With a wheelie the front wheel is held aloft by a combination of balance and drivetrain torque; if the front wheel rises too high, you pause the pedal stroke for a second and if the front wheel starts to drop, you pedal a bit harder to get it back up. With a manual balance is everything. When you consider how long the wheelbase is of the average full-suspension bike, trying to get the front wheel off the ground by wheelie-ing is noticeably more difficult than if you were simply riding a hardtail. Not impossible, but for those of us who didn’t grow up riding wheelies for blocks at a time, doing it on a full suspension bike is nearly out of the question. So manual it is, at least for now.

So last weekend I got together at a friend’s place and with an assembled peanut gallery of hecklers and helpers, and we knocked out three of these over the course of the afternoon.

Refreshments, yo.

We used four 2x4s per manual machine plus one sheet of plywood. The pieces worked out as follows:

2 pieces 2×4: 7’6″
4 pieces 2×4: 30″
2 pieces 2×4: 26″
1 piece plywood: 18″x6″
2 pieces 2×4: angle cut 18 3/8″ on the long side and 11 7/8″ on the short side
1 piece 2×4: 2 3/4″

Roscoe made big progress in just a few minutes. Oh, and a dropper post is (seemingly) mandatory. 

I ended up adding two more pieces of 2×4 immediately below the contact patch of the rear wheel. We found that the manual machine flexed a bit when you’re on it. The width of that 2 3/4″-wide piece of 2×4 and the 26″-long braces do a great job of holding a 2.35 29er tire or with a bit of pushing a 27.5-plus tire. It held the rear wheel securely enough to keep the bike from moving around and throwing my balance off.

The other important piece we added to these things were some lengths of nylon webbing with a spring-loaded buckle that can be run through the front wheel to keep you from flipping over backward as you practice. Tighten it just enough and it can stop you right at the balance point. Then with practice you can loosen it some so that you find the balance point on your own.

It’s my hope that my boys will put this thing to use as they learn how to manual. I’m looking forward to pulling it into the driveway as we cheer each other on. And once they have mastered it, I’ll pass it on to another family.


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  1. Girl

    What about putting your bike on a trainer? I’ve seen that on the internet, but I haven’t tried it. Also tried to practice manuals on my fat bike, but no dice. Maybe cuz it’s heavy (aluminum frame and heavy tires)? My other non-road bike is a 1989 Schwinn Sierra 26-er, which also is heavy. Never could do manuals on it, either.

    I know this introduces the whole male/female physical differences issue, but maybe I have a hard time because women lack the upper body strength that men have? I was watching the international BMX trials, where professionals do tricks on ramps and such. There was a big difference between the types of tricks that men could do, versus what women could pull off. It’s got to be an issue of power/muscle and not just technique.


    1. Jack

      Ladies are definitely different – and would probably be at a disadvantage hauling up on the long front end on a burly enduro bike, but if I remember my last trip to Circe du Soleil (sp?) they are pretty good at balance and strong enough to handle some bike stunts.

      As Padraig says – it’s mostly a balance thing. I think the issue on a fat bike would be the soft tires… Like trying to balance on a squishy gym ball. I’m sure it can be done, but requires even more fine balance. I’m intrigued by the Manual machine… it looks about my speed for carpentry and I’ve never mastered a manual for any length of time either.

      Stronger never hurts however – I try to do some standing rows now and then that I think help with biking ( Bar at your waist and lift up to your collarbones). I think it helps when I suddenly have to haul up on the bars on the trail

  2. lkb3

    In addition to finishing the unfinished sentence, would you happen to have links to instructional vids that show how to use this thing to learn to manual? Thanks!

  3. Girl

    I found that P90X has made an enormous difference in my upper body strength and enjoyment on the bike. (Less shoulder and neck fatigue.) I can even do a few pull-ups, but mostly I do assisted ones, so that I can get in more reps with good form. But push-ups and pull-ups (my least favorite) are the key. Rows, as Jack mentioned, are good, too.

    Cirque du Soleil is a great example of the fact that women can train to have such strength. And anyone with a daughter in gymnastics knows that they can do amazing things (from aerials to back handsprings). But the average woman can’t do a pull-up, even if she is fit. Yet I imagine most men can do at least one, at that same level of cardiovascular fitness.

    It won’t keep me from trying to figure out manuals and bunny-hops, though.

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