There can be quite a number of factors involved when considering how to choose a bike for kids - do we go balance bike or pedal bike as a starter? What is the best size bike? How does the weight affect the bike? Where is the bike being used? and what about mountain bikes versus hybrids?
In this buying guide, we are going to answer all these questions and a few more to help you choose the best suited bike for your child.
Contents and Quick links
- Pedal bike or balance bike
- Should we fit training wheels?
- Frame size and wheel size
- Kids bike Weight
- Kids Bike Price
- Intended Use
- Should we go for a kid's mountain bike?
- Longevity, what to expect
- On the cusp of smaller adult bikes?
- Final thoughts
Pedal bike or balance bike?
When buying the first bike for a toddler or a young child, a question that commonly comes up is 'do we opt for balance bikes or small pedal bikes? The answer to this really comes down to the child's height and age. Most balance bikes are for the 18 month to 3 years age range whereas pedal bikes will generally start from 3 years old upwards. If you have a child that is over three years old and would be ready for a pedal bike, an option here is to consider stabilisers (training wheels).
Stabilisers or not?
When we are asked the questions of whether stabilisers are a good option, especially on a first pedal bike, our advice usually depends on whether the child has had a balance bike before as this would have taught the balance skill previously and then when they jump onto a bike with pedals, they will only have to contend with the pedalling motion.
From this, our advice is that if the child has had a balance bike, stabilisers are not necessarily required but if they have not had use of a balance bike, it can be quite advantageous to have stabilisers as it can be quite tricky for some children to master all the skills of balance, pedalling motion and cornering all together. Stabilisers will also save the parents backs as less bending down will be required to secure the child.
Useful tip: When choosing stabilisers, pick some that can be moved upwards so you can reduce the reliance on the stabilisers gradually.
Frame size & wheel size
The bike size is one of the most important factors when choosing the correct kids bike sizes as - too small; the bike will not last as long as it could meaning that your money will not go as far and - too big; this has the potential to put the child off cycling. Not to mention that too large a frame size will likely be less safe as standover height will be higher and the reach for the brake levers will be harder on a longer bike.
The trick to getting the perfect fit is getting in the sweet spot of maximum longevity and comfort and ease of handling for the child. Our advice is that, when seated on the new bike with the saddle height at it's lowest position, the child has the balls of their feet touching the ground (feet flat on the ground indicates a bike that is too small) and another safety check is to get them to stand over the top tube to check standover height as there should be clearance between them and the frame.
When sitting on the bike, we will make sure the rider can steer the bike without straining and can reach the gears and brake levers comfortably. If the bike is too long, this will be a struggle for the child and make them less confident riding the bike.
One useful tip is for first pedal bikes - if there is doubt, err on the smaller side as they are likely not as experienced as some older children but the child's riding ability should always be considered regardless of the size.
Children's bikes will generally be measured by their wheel size - these can start as small as 10" wheels on some balance bikes up to 26" size wheels on the larger kids bikes. If you are not able to take the child in to sit on a bike before purchasing, there are very handy kids bike size chart available.
This is a huge one. We have heard countless stories of parents buying their children a cheaper but heavy bike that has lasted only one or two rides before the child gets sick of it and throws in the towel.
Bike manufacturers such as Frog bikes have been responsible for a shift in the way kids bikes are manufactured - they make a lightweight bike with specifically selected componentry for small hands to make cycling an enjoyable experience for the wee ones. Bike brands like Specialized and Ridgeback also make quality and lightweight children's bikes now as most manufacturers realise that there are a great number of benefits in designing bikes that children will actually want to ride.
With a lighter bike, you will generally pay a bit more but we will cover this in the next section and some mitigating factors involved and why investing in a better bike might save you (and the environment) in the long term.
We know, as parents, it can be tough to spend a lot of money on something that only lasts a relatively short space of time. We also realise the temptation in buying cheaper kids bikes but there is an argument that spending more initially might save you in the long run. Frog bikes especially hold their value really well and it is not uncommon for them to sell for up to 70% of their RRP. The other argument is quality - a more expensive and better quality bike will easily last through two or sometimes three children and still can be sold on to claim some of your costs back.
Lesser quality and cheaper bikes will sometimes struggle to last the two years due to the quality of the componentry used and will likely need to be taken to the dump thus being bad for the environment.
Then, there is the big plus that more expensive bikes are lighter and will actually encourage your child to cycle more rather than causing tears and frustration on a heavy, unmanageable bike.
We have a blog for more information discussing the prices of kids bikes and why cheap kids bikes are not quite the bargain they appear.
Intended use of the kids bike is not as big a decision as when choosing an adult bike. 9 times out of 10 the best bike is a lightweight all-rounder that is as happy on tarmac as it is on light gravel and forest paths. The exception to this is for children's mountain bikes - these are designed for children that ride on technical off-road trails and require good suspension for jumps, tree roots and uneven terrain.
The funny thing is - a lot of children will insist that they need a mountain bike when what would benefit them would be a hybrid with versatile tyres. There are pros and cons to children's mountain bikes that we will discuss in the next section but essentially, a lightweight hybrid will suit most children.
Mountain Bikes? Yay or Nay?
As with adult mountain bikes, kids mountain bikes are designed for a specific purpose - going fast on mud, tree roots and loose surfaces either cross country or downhill. Now, there are no issues to a child riding a mountain bike as an all purpose bike but there are three main considerations before you decide if this is the correct option - the suspension forks, the price and the weight.
1) The forks - There are two main types of forks - coil sprung and air. Coil sprung are by far the cheaper option but these consist of a steel spring that reacts as you hit bumps, rocks etc. The downside of these forks for children are that they are designed for adult weights and do not compress as much for a significantly lighter rider and they are also quite a lot heavier. The trade off here is whether younger riders get the benefit of the compression for the detriment of this weight. In our experience, the answer to this is; unfortunately not.
The other option is to go for kids mountain bikes with air forks and there are a number of benefits to these as well as a few cons (for the parents mostly). The benefits are that these forks can be customised to an individuals' weight meaning lighter riders will get the benefits of the suspension as they are intended - to make going downhill and across rough terrain easier. Another benefit to these kinds of forks is that they are significantly lighter than their coil sprung fork equivalent.
As for the cons, as good as these forks are, they will still be heavier than a rigid, hybrid fork and the other con (for the parents) is that these forks add to the overall cost of the bicycle. To the tune of approximately £200.
As we say though, for the avid younger mountain biker, a mountain bike is a must for taking on the rough terrain but for most family, day-to-day use, an off road hybrid will usually suffice.
2) The cost - As mentioned briefly in the precious section, a good quality kids mountain bike with a lightweight frame and air forks, is going to cost more than for the equivalent hybrid. The main bulk of this increase in price is in the forks but a mountain bike will likely be kitted out with hydraulic disc brakes and mountain bike gearing (1 x 10 Shimano usually) adding to the cost as well.
3) The weight - We have covered this in the last few sections but just to sum up - a hybrid will be the lightest kids bike, a mountain bike with air forks will be next and the heaviest will be the mountain bike with coil sprung forks.
Longevity, what to expect
A frequently asked question about children's bikes is 'how long will the bike last?' and the answer to this, of course, depends on a number of factors but to give a rough guideline, a balance bike will last approximately a year to a year and a half. This will likely be the same for other smaller bikes such as the 14 inch and 16 inch frames. As the child grows, and they become a more confident rider, is is possible to get onto a slightly bigger bike and to get approximately 2 years out of the bike.
On the cusp of kids or adult bikes
There gets to a point when we no longer need a child's bike and we can consider small adult bikes. In our experience, this is usually at the 11-13 age bracket where a small or extra small adult bike will be the better option as this can last longer. Of course, we would always still look for the fit to be that of when sizing on a children's bike - make sure there is clearance between the rider and the top tube of the frame and that the reach is so that the rider can steer the bike comfortably, reach the brake levers and change the gears without having to strain.
Once we get to the early teen age group, bikes will start to last a bit longer as the growing is not as fast (usually) but if you stick to the sizing tips (standover height, reach, steering and brake control) then you can be confident that the bike will be a good size, safe and will last a good amount of time.
We are always on hand to help with any sizing queries and to help in store with sizing younger riders on the perfect size bike and encourage a test ride to make sure to get the right size bike.
If you are doing this yourself or online, there are some great kids bike size chart about and Frog have a handy sizing system that the number in their name (i.e Frog 53) means that the rider needs an inseam length measurement of at least 53cm for this to be the correct frame size.
Most size charts will go by either age, height or inside leg measurement so all you need to do this at home is a tape measure and a willing child (this may be the tough part).