Kids’ bike buying guide: Find the right ride for your little one

November 17, 2017 • Transportation

Biking is as akin to flying as humans can get, and that “look Ma!” moment when your child takes their first solo ride can feel gravity-defying.

So if your kid has outgrown the Taga, or is running circles around you and in need of a new mode of play, it may be time to teach them to fly. But first they’re going to need wings—er wheels.

Choosing the right children’s bike can be a daunting task, especially given the different approaches to learning to ride and the endless number of models to assess. Below you’ll find a discussion of different ways and bike recommendations for each.

Learning to ride at any age - the case for the balance bike

Learning to bike begins with balance, and most experts eschew training wheels altogether in favor of starting toddlers off on “balance bikes.” The concept is simple: It’s a regular bike except without the pedals or a drivetrain. Kids as young as 18 months learn to balance by sitting on a lowered seat and using their feet to scuttle then glide.

Balance bikes, popular in Europe and Australia for some time, are just starting to catch on in the United States. The theory is that balance is the fundamental you need to master in order to bike. Everything else, mainly (controlled) turns and pedaling, hinge on that skill.

Once a child can effectively glide on a balance bike, the next move is to get them a “real” bike, sans training wheels. Training wheels help stabilize a bike while a new rider learns how to pedal, but they’re considered an unnecessary crutch and make it harder to learn to balance on a bike.

If you start toddlers off with a balance bike, internet guidance says they’ll be riding by age 3 and without the drama that occurs when you remove the training wheels.

Sheldon Brown, revered in the bicycle community for his bike how-tos, opts to skip balance bikes altogether, and instead suggests getting a “too small” bike then removing the pedals. This is so the child can essentially “walk” while positioned on the seat. Walking turns to shuffling, and shuffling turns to gliding—basically, this is a balance bike with the added bonus that you can put the pedals back on once your child is ready to graduate. Read Sheldon’s entire guide here.

Balance bikes

If you’re looking to get your child a balance bike, the Woom 1 is the the top of the line, and one of the most expensive models, clocking in at $199. The Austrian company doesn’t skimp on quality components, and its extremely lightweight bikes have an upright positioning that make them easy peasy to handle.

If you’re looking for something a little less fancy (and cheaper) the classic Skuut is a great choice. It’s wooden, easy to ride, and will only run you $100. Properly maintained, a Skuut can last several kids. With no maintenance it might last one. Woom bikes are generally a better choice if you're going to have more than one kid.

If you want to do some more comparison shopping, Babylist has an excellent balance bike breakdown and Two Wheeling Tots ranked their top 2017 balance bikes.

Three wheels

Tricycles are still extremely fun for kids to ride, and some more recent models have pieces that detach as your toddler gains riding proficiency. The gold standard in this category is the Joovy Tricycoo 4.1. In its first form, it’s essentially a stroller with a push handle, padded seat that fully encloses your toddler, and a canopy for shade. As your child grows, you can remove various components like the canopy, seat arms, and push handle, so eventually your kid is pedaling what appears to be a regular tricycle.

At about $100, the Tricycoo 4.1 is on the pricier side of the tricycle spectrum though. Other vendors, like Radio Flyer, make similar 4-stage tricycles for $20 to $30 cheaper.

See here for a more scientific ranking of the best trikes on the market.

They won’t “grow into it” - choosing the right size pedal bike

If you’ve already done the trike or balance bike thing, the next step is getting to that “Look ma!” moment. Because kids grow so quickly, there’s a natural inclination to get things they’ll “grow into”—aka way too big. It’s important to fight this urge when choosing your child’s first pedal bike. The reason? A bike that’s too big will be more difficult to balance on, handle, and stop. This could thwart your kid’s confidence or worse, lead to some waterworks-style wipeouts.

A good rule of thumb is to get a first bike that will be easy for your child to stop simply by putting down the landing gear—aka feet.

So how do you find the right size? Adult bikes are sized according to the frame, but kid’s bikes are sized a la wheel diameter. Kids’ wheel sizes are generally available in 12, 16, 20, and 24 inches; 12 inch wheels are for 3-5 year-olds who are just starting out biking and 24 inch wheels are for kids around age 14 (although your mileage may vary; see this helpful sizing chart or ask your friendly neighborhood bicycle shop).

You also need to consider seat height, where the pedals are placed and braking systems. Two Wheeling Tots goes into more detail on different features of kids’ bikes and how to get the proper fit.

When it comes to choosing a the best bike for your child, age and size matter. Woom and Cleary bikes are much beloved for their quality and design, but this does put them at the top end of the price range. For a decent mid-range option, try Raleigh’s assortment of kid’s bikes.

Once again, our friends at Two Wheeling Tots have an excellent and comprehensive comparison of the best pedal bikes for different aged children. And Bicycling magazine put together their favorite kids’ bikes of 2017.

A helmet for every head

No matter what type of bike you end up buying for your child nor their age, getting a helmet is essential. You probably already know that toddlers aren’t exactly graceful, so protecting their head is a no brainer (pun intended).

These days, companies like Bern and Nutcase are turning out some super cool noggin covers. You can even get a helmet that matches mom or dads! More top helmet picks here.

Want more? If you’re looking for a bike for yourself or another adult, email us at srpgo@stanford.edu and we’ll send you our bike buying guide and answer any questions.

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