The world of kids’ bikes has been turned upside down in the past decade. Training wheels are out, balance bikes are in. There’s a slew of small bikes with suspension forks and disc brakes for little rippers. And even basic bikes have evolved to make riding easier to learn, more fun, and safer.
Getting the size and fit right is important too; it will make sure your little one gets the most out of their new ride. Here’s what to look for, and 10 of our top recommendations, reviewed and evaluated by our test editors and proven on the road and trail by our crew of test groms.
If they fit right, they’ll get used all the time. Too tight or too large and, just like pants left in a drawer, the bike at best will go unused in a garage. At worst they can be a safety hazard—ill fitting bikes can be dangerously hard to control. And just like pants, most bike sizes are based on inseam length.
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Check it carefully. Wheel sizes also are critical to a good fit. They, in part, determine the bike’s balance and stability, and how easily your child can get on and off the bike, as well as control the bike. Staff Shane Cusick, owner of Pello bikes says that a child’s skill and demeanor also play a part.
You know what? Weight matters even more for kids’ bikes. A three- or four-pound difference in bike weight for a 30-pound rider with just-developing leg muscles is like a 20-pound difference between adult bikes. If you wouldn’t ride a 40 pound road bike, don’t expect your little one to schlep around an extra-heavy bike when they don’t have to (and likely one with no gears!).
Going to a rim brake from a coaster brake can save a pound or more. Some brands hide a lot of weight in the wheels. A bike with aluminum rims and fewer spokes can save another pound.Just like it sounds, bike geometry can be as complicated as a college math class.
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As with adult bikes, kids’ bikes are getting lower and longer. A lower bottom bracket (the piece that holds the cranks) lowers the bike’s mass, making it more stable and also easier for the kid to get on and off. A longer wheelbase makes the bike less twitchy, which is a good thing as kids develop riding skills.
But many department store bikes still look smooshed together. They work, but make riding more difficult. The Cleary is very stretched out. So it’s more stable, and wobbles less. Cleary Bikes Training wheels, with all their good intentions, probably discouraged more kids (and their frustrated parents) from riding than anything else.
They were a necessary evil before balance bikes came along. Now, there’s no reason for them. To teach kids to ride, start them on a balance bike which teaches balance and body control while kids can still put their feet on the ground.The CPSC requires kids’ bikes to come with coaster brakes.
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The rim brakes on those bikes are often poorly assembled and of poor quality–not something you’d trust to stop in an emergency. Plus, rim brakes require maintenance. So: simple, reliable, coaster brakes. But, coaster brakes weight about a pound more than rim brakes, and they work by pedaling backward—the exact opposite motion you want to enforce when teaching a child to ride.
Go with air-filled rubber tires whenever possible. Generally, wider mountain bike style tires are better for younger riders, says Cusick. You can run them at lower air pressures so they cushion the ride, and they provide better traction on all surfaces. Save the skinny road-style tires for later when kids actually start doing long rides on pavement.
Some will be easier to pedal (better for hills) and others will be setup with a slightly harder gear (faster on the flats). Most manufacturers will list chainring and rear cog sizes so you can compare. To get the most use out of the bike, look for models that have saddles that can slide on rails, and handlebars you can raise and lower as well as position forward and back.
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Louis Mazzante Our test editors have a small army of pint size children who ride a ton and we used them to evaluate more than 40 bikes over the past year. We focused this review on bikes with wheels between 12 and 24 inches, which will cover most kids from 2 to 12 years old.