Pretty colours, smart stickers, TV or movie branding, perhaps tassels on the handlebars or baskets on the back. These are all things that will entice you and your kids when it comes to picking the perfect children's bike, but they’re all things that are mostly irrelevant to the bike's performance and suitability. Here are the four essential factors you need consider to choose the right one.
1. Say no to stabilisers
For years and years stabilisers, or learning wheels, have been the expected accessory on a small child’s first pedal bike. Stabilisers not only put off the moment when children have to learn to ride a bike properly but also actually promote ‘wrong-balancing’. Watch a child riding a bike with stabilisers — they’ll lean outwards as they go round a corner. Now watch someone riding a bike normally — they’ll lean into the corner.
How do we get around the tricky issue of stabilisers? With a modern but utterly simple product: the balance bike. These little machines have no pedals or drivetrain. Riders simply sit on the saddle and use their feet to push themselves along. Balance bikes teach young children the basics of balance, so that when they finally do take to a pedal machine, half the hard work is done for them. And they really are effective — our own three-year-olds were riding a pedal bike within 10 minutes, having learnt the basics on a balance bike.
2. The weighting game
So balance is the first requirement for cycling, but control, stability and pure enjoyment only comes with the right kit. Considering that top-level adult road bikes can weigh less than 7kg, and road riders can fuss about saving 100g from upgrading pieces of equipment, it seems ridiculous that anyone can be happy putting children on machines that weigh more than 10kg. Remember, weight is also relative: while 10kg is only an eighth of an 80kg adult rider’s weight, 10kg is half of a 20kg child’s weight.
A high-quality children’s bike will be now made from aluminium and also feature very good parts to keep the weight down. We’ll come onto sizes next, but nothing needs to be too big or too heavy on a child’s bike. Yes, if they have as much fun on their bikes as we hope, these bikes will be put through their paces. But that doesn’t mean they have to look like they will literally survive a bomb blast! In fact, good quality bikes won’t just be lighter: they’ll be more reliable, too.
3. Sizing up
“They’ll grow into it.” This is the favoured approach from the thrifty parent who has bought too big in the hope a bike will last longer. It doesn’t work with children’s bikes: the excitement upon seeing their new two-wheeled dream machine will dissolve to nothing if they have to wait weeks or months just to fit it. And a bike that is too big, even if they are just about able to ride it, will be no fun: it’s hard to control, hard to manoeuvre — a real chore.
So buy a bike that fits them now. Don’t go stupidly small, but don’t buy one for a 10-year-old if your child is eight.
And look very carefully at the components. Modern children’s bikes have components that have been designed with their small bodies in minds. So brake levers should be easy for their little hands to reach; crank arms should be short and size-specific; even things like saddle and handlebars should be designed especially for the typical child who is able to fit that particular frame.
4. Don’t buy cheap children's bikes
Look at the children's bike market today and you’ll find a wide-ranging selection of premium children’s bicycles. Islabikes started off the trend almost a decade ago, and now firms such as Frog, Hoy, Raleigh and Dawes have all followed with their own selections of lightweight, high-quality kids’ bikes. That said, there’s still no end of retailers — from supermarkets to catalogue companies, to even some bike shops — still selling cheap, heavy BSOs: ‘Bike Shaped Objects’. They look like bikes, they sort of ride like bikes, but they’re not proper bikes in the sense of being performance sports equipment.
Decent children’s bikes range from about £200 for a first pedal cycle, up to £400 for a junior drop-bar road bike. That’s a lot of money, but if you’ve been persuaded by our argument so far, you’ll see it’s worth it. If you still have your doubts, consider this. If you spend £300 on a high-quality bike, we guarantee your children will love riding it, will get a lot of use from it and — because it’s bound to be a good make — you’ll be able to command a decent second-hand price when you sell it on.
Conversely, you could buy a £100 supermarket special and save yourself £200. It’s a false economy. The bike may never be ridden because it’s too heavy, too unwieldy and could well keep breaking. Any bike that isn’t ridden is a waste of money to begin with, but your child will have also lost out on months or years of two-wheeled fun. With a cheap bike, you’ll be lucky to get £20 for it when you’ve all finally had enough of it.
So invest both time and interest in your child’s bike and help them begin a lifetime of cycling enjoyment.
If your child is thinking of cycling to school, why not check out our essential cycle commuting accessories guide here: http://cp.blogs.ripeinsurance.co.uk/blog/commuting-bike-accessories.
Round-up: what to look for in a children's bike
- Lightweight — the lighter the better
- Aluminium frames and parts are best. Only use steel for the fork
- Size-specific components such as short-reach brake levers and short cranks arms
- No stabilisers — start your child off on a balance bike if possible. Even if not, avoid stabilisers
- If possible, get the bike fitted properly in the shop and let your child have a test ride
- Make sure gear changes and brake action is light enough for little hands to operate
- If the bike has gears, make sure it has a replaceable rear derailleur hanger or derailleur protector
- Buy a decent, fitted helmet to go with it
- No suspension forks — children's legs can soak up the bumps naturally
- No tassels, bulky plastic chain cases, or any unnecessary promotional accessories
- Most importantly, don’t buy big or cheap in the hope they’ll cope with it. Make sure it fits and works perfectly for them now