By Will Embliss
There are many different styles of bikes for children on the market so when choosing the right one for your child you can be confronted by a morass of confusing of possibilities. So I will start with the ones not to buy if you want your child to have a great time riding.
Big chain stores that sell anything and everything also sell very cheap bikes. But beware often the bikes they sell are not the bargain they seem to be. Typically these will be mountain bikes with fat heavy tubing; a big spring in the frame; be badly designed; have brake levers that are for adults so children’s short fingers struggle to reach them; and with twist gear shifters that most kids haven’t the strength to change easily. Because they have rear suspension (that big spring in the middle) the seat post is very short so can only be raised a couple of inches. Which means the bike will only last a year before the child has outgrown it. I would avoid like the plague boys bikes that look like a motorbike. Likewise avoid the very girly bikes with baskets and flowers. Both of these are toys and are often difficult and uncomfortable to ride. Ok now my rant about terrible bikes for kids is over let’s talk about the fantastic bikes that are out there.
Where to start?
I suggest that you buy from a local bike shop rather than a shop that sells bikes alongside other products. The staff will be knowledgeable and qualified mechanics will be there to sort out any problems.
You may wonder why I am always banging on about brakes. Easy control of the brakes is essential for good control of any bike. On many children’s’ bikes the parts they use are for adults, so children find it hard to stop easily. We recommend that anyone, adult or child, covers the brake levers with the first three fingers of both hands at all times.
There are some really good companies that specialise in making good lightweight bikes whose parts are ergonomically designed for children.
Isla bikes are made in Scotland and are said to be the market leaders for children’s bikes if expense is no barrier. These bikes will maintain their value after several years use. So they may cost an eye watering £450 but may sell 2nd hand after 3-4 years for £350 if it has been well maintained. (£25per year)
Following close behind are Frog whose bikes are well designed for children but cost less than Isla bike. These also maintain their value quite well. Frog bikes are not described by age but by size. They also have a handy Leapfrog section on their website for used bikes.
Raleigh and other companies have begun emulating these designs and are beginning to make better quality bikes for kids.
If you are short of cash there are lots of possibilities to find 2nd hand bikes for kids, but before you buy one which fits please make sure that their fingers can reach and squeeze the brakes. Check that the child can change the gears easily and the tyres aren’t worn or perished.
Often bikes are purchased as presents and the child doesn’t get to try one out in the bike shop. So to work out the correct size it is important to work out the length of their legs. So stand the child in socks against a wall, then place a small book between their legs, as high as is comfortable, then measure from the top of the book to the floor.
For a child who is not riding yet the saddle height should be a bit lower (the same as the leg measurement) so the child can put both feet flat on the floor when sitting in the saddle.
For a child who is already riding, the saddle should be a 2-3 inches higher than the leg measurement with the saddle is in its lowest position. This will mean that when on the bike the child can touch the ground with both feet when they are on tip toes. This will allow the child to grow and the saddle raised 7-8 inches so will last for several years.
Mountain bikes with front and rear suspension.
Pros – Make it a bit more comfortable to go over bumpy ground. Big fat tyres with heavy tread grip better in mud.
Cons – All the extra parts make the bike a whole load heavier – also the suspension makes the bike lose power going along tarmac and uphill as the pedalling energy is converted into bouncing up and down rather than going forward. The seat post can be very short so can only be raised a couple of inches. Tyres are pumped up less hard so don’t roll so well as hybrid and road bikes on tarmac.
Hardtail Mountain bikes
Pros – These are great off road taking the worst of the shock out of the handlebars. They have suspension on the front forks so will be lighter than a bike with suspension front and rear. These bikes have long seat posts so will grow with your child for several years.
Cons – They will have knobbly lower pressure tyres so won’t roll as fast as a road bike on tarmac. Your position is upright so not as aerodynamic as a road bike.
Pros – These are great for doing tricks on if they are well set up. You can spin the handlebars around and around, stand on the stunt pegs and do amazing awe inspiring tricks on.
Cons – Unless you pay a lot of money, the brakes are very hard to adjust and often children find them too hard to pull. Children can rarely get up hills due to the single speed. The comfy riding position is standing up which can lead to going over the handlebars. Many BMX riders get rid of the brakes so the spinning works better. Then these are very hazardous to ride on road. It is hard to travel any distance on a BMX.
Road bikes with drop handlebars
Pros – Road bikes with drop handlebars are lighter more responsive, aerodynamic and built for speed. Great on long rides on country lanes.
Cons – Often children find it harder to signal and look behind as in this leaning forward position more of your weight is on the arms. The position of the brakes and gear levers can be difficult for short fingers to have comfortable leverage on. Road bikes can be more prone to skids on wet surfaces, off road they can be uncomfortable and handle badly.
(It is possible to add extra brakes in the centre of the handlebars. These are highly recommended and allow the brakes to be covered in the higher position on the handlebars too.)
Pros – Hybrids handle well both on and off road. They have a comfortable riding position. Your child will have gears to get up hills easily. Most makes of Hybrid will have brakes that can be adjusted so they are easy to squeeze and short fingers can reach. Mudguards protect you from dirty and wet conditions. Many companies make them so you have lots of choice in price and more 2nd hand bikes available.
Cons – Whilst these all-rounders are not as good as mountain bikes for off road, or as good as road bikes for on road, but they still manage to give a reasonably good experience in both.
Remember that when buying a new bike you can ask the staff to move saddle forwards; turn the handlebars nearer or further from the saddle; have the brake levers adjusted to be easier to reach (the usual default position is for the largest hands); pump up the tyres to near the maximum. After 6 – 8 weeks you get a free service thrown in by good bike shops. If buying a bike for a complete beginner. Please avoid stabilisers – they only teach a child to lean slightly to one side or other, when they need to sit upright – and buy a bike that fits. Ask the staff to remove the pedals and have the child use it as a balance bike until the child is comfortable scooting along. Then they will be ready for pedalling. See my blog about how to get a child riding and confident.
These are perfect for a young child to learn to balance on. NB any bike can be turned into a balance bike by lowering the saddle and taking the pedals off.
“I have always cycled since the age of 6. I started cycling on London roads as a teenager to get around and visit friends houses and get home from events safely at night. One summer in my early 20’s I set off from London to catch the ferry to France, having never cycled more than 20 miles. I took a tent and my trumpet and rode and camped wild all the way to the Pyrenees and back, busking en-route. Since then I have cycled most European countries as an independent traveller and with my family. I have been a freelance cycle instructor in London for for nearly a decade. I also make musical instruments for school playgrounds.” Find out more: www.willembliss.co.uk
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