Everyone loves a wheelie, especially long ones at or near the balance point. However, the wheelie is also a fundamental skill needed as you develop your dirt riding skills for lifting the front wheel to cross over logs, ruts or a tricky patch of terrain.
Flipping the bike is quite common when learning higher wheelies, and ideally we should all learn to cover the rear brake the moment we start to learn wheelies. This needs a lot of practice as it needs to become second nature. No matter how much you tell yourself to use that rear brake, when the bike goes past the balance point your natural instinct is to jump off the bike.
I know this from experience - personally I've flipped the bike twice while filming myself covering the rear brake. It takes serious regular practice to make covering the rear brake an instinct. Even when you think it has become second nature, you will still find yourself occasionally jumping off the bike instead of tapping that rear brake gently!
Start with slow wheelies in first gear on a gentle uphill slope. Before you even lift that front wheel, always make sure your foot is just hovering above the rear brake pedal. As usual, you will throttle off, push down on the footpegs and bars to compress the front forks, then apply throttle just as the front forks start to rebound. The idea is to make the bike work for you as you will need less throttle and therefore little increase in speed. When first learning to wheelie, most riders rely far too much on power and build up far too much speed - the last thing you want when getting over most obstacles.
Once the front wheel is in the air, gently tap the rear brake to bring it down again. At first you don't need to have the front wheel very high - initially the important thing is to just get used to tapping the rear brake gently.
As you get comfortable with the smaller wheelies, start bringing the front wheel higher and higher. As you get closer to the balance point, the front wheel starts to come down much slower, and eventually you will reach the balance point and find the bike just 'floats'. This is a very unnerving feeling at first, and the instinct is to either jump off or jab that rear brake pedal viciously and slam the front wheel down! But if you work up very slowly to this, you will find you stay in control and lightly tap the pedal. Even if you are past the balance point, it takes very little rear brake to ease the front wheel down again.
You can also learn this technique for the sit down wheelie, although as rule any practical wheelie will mean you are standing on the footpegs - those slow sit down wheelies are mainly for stunt riders and messing around, but the same principle of constantly covering the rear brake applies.
It is a good idea to regularly practise this at the start of every ride for several months, even if you just do it five times. As mentioned, it takes a very long time for this to become an established habit. It will definitely save a few broken rear fenders and sore tail bones as you learn to wheelie!
To see a video version of covering the rear brake click here