Introducing the next generation of young cyclists to the joys of the sport is one of the undoubted pleasures of biking, but it is important to bear in mind some key considerations when purchasing bikes for children.
There is a bewildering array of kids’ bikes on the market, but many offer little more than a flashy colour scheme and a tempting price tag. Bikes for children need to be able to withstand the rough and tumble of childhood adventure and so reliability – and safety – are paramount.
Take some time to consider the needs of your child and the punishment the bike will likely be subjected to, and you will be making an investment that will be repaid many times over in years to come.
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Read on to find out more about the features to look for when buying a child’s bike, and how to choose one that’s right for your little ripper.
The most important thing to consider when trying to find a bike for your child is sizing – kids will find it hard to control bikes that are the wrong size, especially if they are too big. Don’t be tempted to think a too-large bike will be fine on the basis that the child will ‘grow into’ it – it’s too big a risk to take.
Frame materials are generally either steel (on toddler and BMX bikes) or aluminium (on bikes for bigger kids), but wooden-framed balance bikes are also popular with tots and parents alike. As with adult bikes, a bigger budget will get you more bang for your buck in terms of a lighter and more durable frame and components, but bear in mind that many kids will grow out of bikes quickly. Also, most kids will care more about the colour scheme than about the type of brakes, so make sure you buy with your child’s preferences in mind – any bike will be ridden more if it is loved.
Most kids’ bikes will feature some range of size adjustment via seat or handlebar height, but in general, bikes for children are sized according to wheel diameter, with each size roughly correlating to an age group. Of course, there may be some overlap if your little one is especially tall or petite, so don’t worry if their age doesn’t exactly correlate to the size below.
AGED 2-5: 12”-14” wheels and hobbyhorse/balance bikes
Bikes with 12” or 14” wheels are aimed at pre-school or early school children (between the ages of two and five) and fall into two categories – ‘proper’ bikes and hobbyhorse-type balance bikes with no pedals or brakes.
The latter are great fun once mastered and can be an excellent way for small kids to build up the confidence to progress to a ‘real’ bike once they have perfected the ability to coast along under their own steam, although stabilisers may still be needed until they are comfortable with pedaling.
Meanwhile bikes with stabilisers, brakes and pedals are also available in the 12”-14” wheel size and represent most kids’ ‘first bike’. Bikes in this age/size group can sometimes be basic as the child will quickly grow out of them, so features like plastic wheels and solid rubber tyres are found at the budget end of the market (especially in the 12” wheel size).
If you want a bike that will last – long enough to be handed down to younger siblings, for example – look for durable but lightweight wooden or metal construction instead of breakable plastic; a low standover height that allows feet to be easily employed as brakes; wheels with pneumatic tyres and ball-bearing hubs; a sturdy plastic chainguard, good quality brakes, a comfortable saddle, and soft, rounded handlebar grips to avoid injury in case of falling.
AGED 4-6: 16” wheels
Bikes with 16” wheels are aimed at children aged 4-6 graduating onto their first (or second) ‘proper’ bike. Stabilisers will usually come as standard to help provide confidence for children who haven’t yet mastered the art of maintaining their balance while pedaling. Many may argue that stabilisers are more of a hindrance than a help for kids learning to ride a bike, but whether you keep them or bin them is a personal choice – as with anything, we advise not rushing kids until they are ready as you run the risk of turning them off!
In this age group the previous advice applies with regard to frame materials and parts, and it’s also worth remembering to look for a bike that is lightweight and easy to manoeuvre – heavy frames and parts will tire out little bodies and put them off cycling. Avoid unnecessary suspension and fat steel frames. Bells and whistles like this might appeal in the shop, but a heavy bike will get left in the shed.
Most bikes in this category will be single speed, fine for pedaling short distances on mostly flat ground, with at least one working brake. Check that little fingers can reach the brake levers, and that not too much effort is required to squeeze. Some bikes also come with coaster rear brakes which engage by backpedaling – these are fine as kids find them quite intuitive to use and great for skids.
Finally, make sure that the cranks are the right length – 20% of the inside leg measurement is a good rule of thumb, so at this age cranks of 90-100mm are about right.
AGED 6-10: 18-20” wheels
Riders from the ages of six to 10 will be covering longer distances so larger wheels are necessary, and gears will come into the picture – usually five- and six-speed rear derailleurs. Look for simple shifting mechanisms such as Shimano’s Revoshift system, but remember that singlespeeds are also less prone to mechanical trouble and more than likely fine for the kind of use that the bike will be put to. Crank length should be 120-140mm.
Fashionable extras like suspension (front and rear) will also be more common in bikes aimed at this age bracket, but for the most part they will only add weight and expense, not improved performance. Rigid bikes will likely be lighter, cheaper and more durable. Many riders in this age category, for example, find a BMX to be a great tool for buzzing around the neighbourhood with their buddies, while proper ‘mini-MTB’ bikes will also appeal to budding trail hounds.
24” and up
Older children (10+) are ready for 24” or 26”-wheeled bikes that in design terms differ little from those aimed at adults. In fact, adult bikes in smaller frame sizes (13”-15”) may suit perfectly, although be wary of going too big, too soon.
Dirt jump (DJ) style bikes are popular among teenagers, and in fact make tough and versatile all-rounders. Look for a decent range of gears, good-quality brakes and suspension forks that work as they should. You may need to spend a little money to get a bike with decent components and a frame that does not weigh a ton, but it should prove a tough and reliable companion for your offspring.
Some manufacturers have also begun to offer properly sized and specc’d road bikes for junior riders, with kid-friendly features such as 600c wheels, shallow-drop handlebars and short-reach brake levers. These light and speedy steeds are excellent for long-distance adventures and as first bikes for budding road racers.