If you’re lucky, your childhood memories are colored by the thrill and sense of freedom of riding a bike in the summertime. Like the spoke and the wheel, childhood and cycling. Whether your child needs a bike for transport or fun, finding the best bike for your kid can make or break their summer fun. However, before picking out the coolest bike based on color or style, there are some important factors to consider.
The first – and most important – step in picking a bike is getting the right size. In contrast to adult bikes, which are sized by the frame, bikes for children are sized by the wheels. Wheel sizes range from 12” to 24”. To determine the correct wheel size, you can measure the child’s height. For example, a 12-inch wheel is perfect for a child who is between 95 and 100 cm tall.
If the bike is the right size for the child, they should be able to comfortably straddle the bike with their feet flat on the ground. They should also be able to get back on to the seat with a slight lean of the bike, put their foot on the pedal and ride away (if/when the skill is there). This means that a properly sized bike shouldn’t cause your child’s knees to hit the handlebars. Nor should your child be so far back that they are unable to reach the handlebars easily.
The inseam (AKA inside leg length or step length) is a decisive factor in choosing a bike size for your child. This measurement will let you know whether your child can reach both feet to the floor at the lowest saddle height on the bike. Contact with the ground by both feet is especially important for new riders as it provides the child with safety during their first few test drives.
Because the inseam is such an important factor in determining the size of the bike, other factors – like age – are less important. However, if your child’s development is relatively average, you will notice a somewhat fixed relationship between their height, stride length, and recommended bike sizes for their age range. Even if your child’s development is average, it’s still recommended to measure their inseam and height to avoid any disappointments or confusion.
Thankfully, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in the United States has weeded out most dangerous bike designs, and the rest of the world has effectively followed suit. That said, not all bikes are of equal quality. You may be surprised to learn that a kids’ bike can cost the same as an adult bike, especially when it has the same quality of machining, bearings, assembly, and lightness. That said, most parents aren’t looking to spend between $300-600 on a bike that their child may only end up using for a year or two. This means that most bikes for kids don’t have the same level of quality found in adult bikes. If you (understandably) choose to go the cheaper route, don’t be surprised if your child’s bike weighs more than your own.
If your kid can get going, then they need to also know how to stop! Overall, the most important mechanical parts of any bike are the brakes. Unlike adult bikes, bikes for smaller children don’t have hand brakes due to their small hands and limited grip strength. Instead, bikes for young children usually have coaster brakes, which are on the back wheel and are engaged by pedaling backward. You’ll start to see hand brakes on bikes for kids around age 7-10, when the child’s hands are a bit larger and strong enough to use one.
Before moving your kid up to a multi-speed bike with a derailleur (the device that changes gears by moving the chain from one sprocket to another), you may wish to have them practice using hand brakes on a single speed bike. When assessing a bike with hand brakes, remember to look for a brake that is strong enough to handle the speed and weight of the rider. If the bike has pad brakes, check if the pads are aligned over the rim and make sure the nuts are tight. If properly aligned, the drag end of the brake pad should make contact slightly before the lead end. Some refer to this as “toe-in”. If the brakes are squeaky, they are likely not aligned properly, which can be fixed with a pair of pliers.
If the bike has brakes on the wheel rims, check that the rims are made of an alloy rather than steel. Steel rims are chrome plated and can be especially dangerous when wet because they have a low coefficient of friction making the brakes less effective.
As mentioned above, you may notice a range of prices when it comes to bikes for children. This is likely directly linked to their weight. The heavier bikes are made of steel and will be cheaper, whereas lighter bikes made of alloy metals will be more expensive.
Of course, the first thing that should come to mind when thinking of biking equipment is a helmet! There are three main types of helmets: recreational, road, and mountain. Unless your child is planning on going mountain biking, a recreational helmet is probably your best choice. They’re the most wallet-friendly choice for recreational, commuter, and road bikers. They’re also often used by skateboarders and inline skaters, and often come with visors to shield your eyes from the sun.
A helmet that fits properly should be snug, but not annoyingly tight. The helmet should sit level on the head with the front edge approximately 1 inch or less above the eyebrows. If the helmet noticeably shifts when you push it from side to side or front to back, that’s a sign that you need to adjust the fit.
If your kid is often biking outdoors and in poor weather or poor visibility (like at night), they’ll need a bike light and reflectors to keep them safe and make other road users aware of their presence. After a couple of rides, you may notice your child coming home with dirty pant legs or shoes that have gotten into the chain. If this is the case, opt for a chain guard that can enclose the chain and protect your kids’ clothes.