Buying the correct bicycle for your child is the first step to creating a lifelong love of the sport. Bikes that aren't suited to your child's size, ability or riding style, aren't just unpleasant and cumbersome to ride—they may also put the child in unnecessary danger. Riding a bike is only fun if no one gets hurt. Read on to learn how to find the “right bike” for your child.
Why the bike itself is so important
When picking out a kids' bike, it’s important that you choose one that is age appropriate and fits well, two important factors (among several) in determining a bicycle’s overall safety. It’s better to give your kiddo a bike they can manage so they can safely build riding skills and confidence as safely as possible. Bikes that are uncomfortable or difficult to ride (for any reason) aren’t going to promote a child’s interest or love for bicycling. Focus on what they need and before you know it, they’ll be ready to step up to larger, more advanced models after they’ve mastered the basics.
What makes it the “right one?”
Buying bikes would certainly be easier if they were a “one size fits all” kind of thing, but unfortunately they are not. When it comes to what kind of bike a child needs, safety should be the greatest priority when searching for the “right one.” There are several important factors to consider before determining whether or not the bike in question is safe for your child.
It’s never too early to introduce your kids to biking. Bike seats, trailers, and cargo boxes make it possible to carry children of all ages and sizes before they learn how to ride themselves. Once they’re ready to be independent riders, there are all kinds of options to get them started. Just make sure that the bike is age-appropriate.
A bike is only safe if the rider can control it; that means it needs to fit their body. As tempting as it may be to buy a bike for your child to “grow into,” it’s recommended that you don’t. Unlike buying clothes, buying a bike that is a few sizes too large with the hope that your child will “grow into it” is never a good idea because an ill-fitting bike is cumbersome to manage. Imagine their frustration as they attempt the impossible task of riding a bike that is too big or small? Without good control of the bike, a fun ride can quickly be turned into an unnecessarily dangerous one. A correctly fitting bicycle is easier to handle, making it more fun and far safer.
Unlike adult bikes that are measured by frame size and seat height, sizing for kids’ bikes is determined by wheel diameter. Generally, the geometry of the bike will correspond to the wheel size on which it is based. As is the case for anyone riding a bike, your child should be able to stand over the top tube of the bike facing the handlebars with both feet on the ground. They should be able to easily mount the seat by slightly tipping the bike to one side. At no point should their knees be hitting the handlebars or should they be so outstretched that maneuverability is compromised. Sometimes, simple bike adjustments are all that’s needed to make it work. Measure your child’s inseam and use one the tables below to narrow down your search.
Weight just might be one of the most commonly overlooked considerations when shopping for a bike. Believe it or not, when it comes to kids’ bikes, weight is an exceptionally important factor—more so than when shopping for an adult bike. A heavy bike is difficult to manage to the point that it takes the fun out of riding, quickly putting an end to your child’s interest in bicycling.
Consider for a minute that an average adult bike weights 35 lbs, which would be roughly 19% of the weight of a 185 lbs adult. In comparison, a 25 lb bike would be exactly half the weight of a 50 lb child. Unlike adult bike frames, many of which are made out of aluminum, most kids' bikes are made out of steel. Steel is a cheaper material that’s easier to manufacture, effectively keeping the costs low and weights high. While a truly lightweight kids' bike is going to be difficult to find and will likely be on the expensive side, when presented with multiple options and with everything being close to equal, always opt for the lighter bike.
Gears and brakes
There’s a good reason why it’s nearly impossible to find a toddler’s bike with gears; shifting gears while pedaling and steering creates quite a cognitive load for a kid. Even amateur adult riders still struggle to get it right! Until the child has established solid riding skills, go with a single speed bicycle.
Most kids’ bikes are equipped with coaster bikes because they are easy to use. To engage the brake, the child needs to pedal slightly in reverse, which is an easy thing to do at low speed. It’s best to stick to coaster brakes until your child is strong and old enough to handle handbrakes.
When making the switch from coaster to hand brakes, it's possible for kids to pitch themselves over the handlebars before they master the braking process. The latest kids’ bike technology uses a single handbrake to apply front and rear brakes almost simultaneously, making it impossible for kids to fly over the handlebars while delivering the shortest stopping distance. The technology applies the rear brake slightly ahead of the front brake.
What’s out there?
Before buying the first bike you find because it looks like it’ll “do the job,” know this: there are all kinds of kids’ bicycles on the market and they are not all created equally. There are a myriad of factors (including the ones listed above) that should be considered. Ultimately, the type of bike your child needs depends on your child's age and development, as well as their abilities, needs, and interests - not on what you hope their age, abilities, needs, and interests are. You might long to have your child join you out on the trail, but pushing them along too quickly can make them resent the sport or even become injured.
A balance bike is a safe way to introduce the youngest of kids to bicycles because of their simple design, which is meant to help develop coordination between balancing and steering a bike. Balance bikes are recommended as a first bike for children under the age of three because they’re generally more developmentally appropriate for toddlers than tricycles are.
The very design of a balance bike makes it easier to control than a tricycle. Balance bikes are lighter than trikes and have no pedals or brakes, which is what makes them such excellent training tools for developing those early bicycling skills. The absence of pedals also means they fit toddlers’ bodies and physical development better than trikes. A good balance bike can easily traverse rough surfaces, so don’t be surprised to see little shredders jump them off curbs and even ride on pump tracks! Because these little bikes are so versatile and easy to use, many toddlers who master the balance bike skip the training wheels step and go straight to a “real” bicycle.
To propel the bike forward, the rider uses their feet to push off the ground. The best way to ease into “riding” is to start off by simply walking the bike and progressing to scooting. Eventually, the rider graduates to lifting both feet off the ground and cruising while balancing on just two wheels. It’s easy to see why children who learn balance and steering on these little bikes have a much easier time transitioning to pedal bicycles - the only new skill to learn is the actual pedaling.
Just like all bicycles, balance bikes come in many sizes and getting one that fits right is key to success. Balance bike size is related to its wheel size, ranging from 10” to 14”. Most come with an adjustable seat post, so fine-tuning the fit is a matter of minutes. To figure out which balance bike will fit your child best, use the table below to translate the pant size or the inseam measurement to a tire size.
|Pant Size||Inseam||Tire Size|
|18 mo||10 to 12 inches||10 to 12 inches|
|24 mo||12 to 13 inches||12 inches|
|2T||13 to 14.5 inches||12 inches|
|3T||14.5 to 16 inches||12 or 14 inches|
|4T||16 to 18 inches||14 inches|
A tricycle is another great way to introduce your child to cycling due to the added safety and stability offered by its third wheel, but is recommended as a starter bike for kids who are a little bit older because children smaller in stature might not be able to reach the pedals. (As mentioned above, balance bikes are the way to go for toddlers). Keep in mind that even though the extra wheel adds stability, trikes are not immune to tipping; uneven riding surfaces should be approached with great caution as stability becomes severely compromised.
There’s not much to a tricycle other than looks, size, and quality and choice of materials. The only word of caution is to avoid tricycles with plastic tires; while plastic is a perfectly good, lightweight material for most parts of the trike, it provides neither adequate traction nor a smooth ride.
Training wheel bikes
For older children who haven’t ridden balance bikes or trikes and still need to master the basics, a training wheel bicycle is a great way for them to start their adventure of cycling to independence. These simple, single-speed bikes come with smaller training wheels that each rest on either side of the rear wheel. (Some kids who reach a high level of comfort and proficiency on a balance bike might be able to skip training wheels).
Riding a training wheel bike is a pivotal step in cycling development. The added stability of the training wheels helps the rider to maintain balance as they gain more experience in the saddle. Bikes small enough to accommodate training wheels usually have “coaster” brakes that operate by pedaling backward, but some models add a rear brake and hand lever. As mentioned above, hand brakes are generally not recommended for younger children because their small hands often lack the required strength to activate the brake. For some, the added feature can even be confusing or distracting. If your child’s bike is equipped with a hand brake in addition to a coaster brake, it’s best to take it off. Remember—the simplicity of the bike allows kids to focus on safety while gaining confidence without the distraction of gears and gadgets. Most children between the ages of four and five are able to handle the challenge of training wheels.
Trailer bikes aren’t especially common, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a place in kids’ cycling. A trailer bike is a great option for kids who have grown restless pedaling around their neighborhood or riding in a standard tag-along trailer or kids' seat, but who aren’t quite ready to ride on their own. A trailer bike is basically a miniature bike (complete with pedals and chainring) attached to the back of a standard adult-sized bike, with the bulk of the work resting on the adult’s shoulders (or legs, if you will). A trailer bike is the perfect way for your kiddo to combat their growing restlessness while tagging along during your ride.
Not only do trailer bikes allow your child to take part in the pedaling action and develop basic riding skills, but they provide the opportunity to learn real-world navigational and safety skills from you. They’re also a great option for longer rides because the combined effort helps overcome the fatigue they would experience if they were riding a bike of their own. Trailer bikes are generally recommended for children between the ages of four and seven and not recommended for children under the age of three.
Once you know your child can maintain balance and safely handle a bicycle, it’s time to upgrade to a “big kid bike.” Many training wheel bikes can be converted by simply removing the training wheels, but if the wheels cannot be removed or if your child has physically outgrown their training wheel bike, it’s recommended that you upgrade to a bike that is more appropriate for them. Kids’ bikes are often branded as “off road” or “mountain” until they reach a certain size (usually 650b or 27.5” wheel size), but that’s mostly meant to suggest the bike’s capability and shouldn’t deter you. These bikes ride like adult hybrid bikes and are a good fit for a wide range of riding skills and terrain.
The typical wheel sizes for kids bikes are 12”, 14”, 16”, 18”, 20”, and 24.” Just like balance bikes, kids' bike sizes are tied to wheel size, which in turn is determined by the child’s inseam. Use the table below to find the optimal bike size for your child.
Kid-size specialty bikes
These bikes let kids get used to specific riding styles with simpler controls and features than those found on adult bikes. Less complex features not only keep the price of these bikes down, they help kids learn about bike safety and maintenance with simple components.
- Cruiser bikes have wide balloon tires, a steel frame, and comfortable seating appropriate for mellow trails and riding around the neighborhood. These bikes also make great school commuters.
- Road bikes come with flat bars for versatile upright riding positions or drop handlebars to put them in a more aerodynamic position for developing road riding skills.
- BMX bikes with knobby tires and lightweight frames were originally designed for racing on pump tracks with banked turns and jumps. Today, kids also use them for doing tricks at the skate park or just riding around the neighborhood.
- Mountain bikes take kids with more developed bike skills out on more challenging terrain and trails. Designed with kids older than 10 years in mind, mountain bike tire sizes are usually 20 to 24 inches as opposed to adult bikes, which have tire sizes ranging from 26 to 29 inches.
Where should I buy a kids' bike?
When it’s time to buy a bike, where you purchase it is mostly a matter of personal preference and availability. Whether you’re looking for a new versus second hand bike or high end versus budget bike will help narrow down your search.
Bike shops are a great place to start looking (even if you ultimately decide to go with a previously enjoyed bike or a budget bike) because it gives you and your little one an opportunity to see what’s out there and even go for a test ride to ensure the bike style and size in question is in fact appropriate. Remember—just because you’re browsing kids bikes at the shop doesn’t mean you’re obligated to buy anything. If you’re hoping to go with a new budget bike, big-box retailers (or department stores) are probably the way to go. Many bike shops and big-box stores also have online shopping options.
If you’re hoping to get a previously loved bike, be sure to consider all options, including bike shops (many have second hand bikes available), garage sales, and online marketplaces. It can be tempting to buy your child the first used bike you see at a garage sale or Craigslist; this spontaneous purchase could prove to be a good or bad decision, depending on what you end up with. Although paying less leaves more in the budget for an upgraded helmet and other safety gear, make sure you're not buying a bike that could put your child at risk. Whether you buy your child's bike new or used, the factors you need to consider are the same. Luckily, kids grow out of their bikes rather quickly, so there are plenty of quality used bikes to choose from.
How much should I expect to pay?
The age old saying “you get what you pay for” certainly holds true when it comes to bikes. Unless you’re eyeing a specialty kids bike from a reputable manufacturer, don’t expect to find many kids’ bikes with the same high quality features that you would expect on an adult-sized bike. No matter the size of the bike, high quality bikes always cost hundreds of dollars and that’s a bill that most are either unwilling or unable to pay—particularly when it will be outgrown in a year or two. However, it’s important to understand exactly what you are (or are not) paying for before you pay for anything at all.
Most decent kids’ bikes hold their value well, so while it’s not recommended that you opt for the most expensive bike your budget can handle, it could be worth taking a look at some of the less expensive kids’ bikes available from reputable bike manufacturers. The cost of a higher quality bike will obviously be greater at a bike shop than if you found the same bike secondhand at an online marketplace; where you purchase it doesn’t matter. In fact, it’s better to have a top quality bike for your child with a few scuffs or scratches than a shiny bike with mediocre components. As long as you keep the bike in good enough condition, it shouldn’t be hard to get back a significant portion of what you originally invested once your little one is ready to upgrade to a large bike. Some bike manufacturers even have trade-in programs for kids’ bikes where the cost of the trade-in can be put toward a new kids’ bike. Higher end kids' bikes from reputable brands range in price from $150.00 to $500. These bikes usually have aluminum frames and higher quality components and normally sold by specialty bike shops.
There are plenty of budget bikes that can be had for much less than a higher end branded bike and can also be safely enjoyed—if you know what to look for. Make sure the materials used are solid and can withstand whatever abuse your kiddo might subject it to. New budget kids' bikes cost anywhere from $95.00 to $175.00 and can be purchased online or at big-box retailers. If this is the budget you’re working with, carefully inspect, even scrutinize the quality of parts and assembly. Ensure that the critical safety components such as brakes and pedal crank arms are not flimsy, and installed correctly, before letting your child pedal away.
One more thing to be aware of is that the bike industry is unique. Don’t be surprised if the used bike in question isn’t cheaper (or is even more expensive) than a higher quality new bike. Some people get emotionally attached to their child’s bike or simply fail to take the depreciation curve into consideration when setting a resale price. There’s nothing wrong with turning to the internet to learn more about the bike in question. Bicycle Blue Book is a quick, easy way to verify value, but if you’re still not sure how to proceed, don’t be afraid to take it to a bike shop for an inspection to ensure it is mechanically sound before considering the purchase.
The best way to ensure your little one’s safety is by protecting them with a properly fitting bike and safety gear. Since kids are much more accident-prone than adults and don’t have the life experience necessary to make certain predictions, they’re going to need the adults in their lives to teach them how to be safe cyclists. Helping your child develop a safety-focused mindset will keep little accidents to a minimum and ensure that their enthusiasm does not diminish with a few spills.
Accessories & gear
Before letting your child ride off into the sunset, make sure they (and their bike) are suited with whatever protective gear they need. Lights and reflectors should be prominently displayed on the bike and a bell should be easily accessible. A solid helmet is an absolutely essential piece of protective equipment and should never be overlooked. Gloves and elbow and knee pads are also recommended at least at the early stages to soften any spills they might take.
Before purchasing for the eye-catching helmet that your little one is excitedly clutching, make sure the helmet in question fits. A helmet is undoubtedly the most important piece of protective gear any cyclist can wear, but if it doesn’t fit, it won’t effectively do its job. Always check packaging for size measurements and age ranges to increase the likelihood of choosing an appropriate option. The helmet should not move freely or easily slide around when worn, nor should it feel especially tight; a helmet should feel “snug.”
Regular equipment checks
Once you’ve found the bike and put together the perfect arsenal of safety gear for your kiddo, be sure to do regular equipment checks. Make sure the bike is mechanically sound, has all the necessary safety features, and the tires are properly inflated before each ride.
Because children are always growing, it’s only a matter of time before you either have to adjust their helmet or size up entirely. They’ll eventually outgrow their knee and elbow pads, too. A growing child also means that seat or handlebar adjustments might need to be made.
It’s clear that there’s a lot to be considered before purchasing a bicycle. Before settling on a bike for your little one, here are a few more tips that could prove useful.
Features to look for
Whether you go with a budget bike or a higher end bike, there are certain features you should look for to increase the likelihood that the bike in question is durable and safe.
- Wheel with metal hub, spokes, rim
- Single chainrings (doubles add extra weight and can be a confusing concept to grasp)
- Well-mounted chain guard that does not rub against the chain (applies to single-speed bikes)
- Child-specific brakes
- No suspension (unnecessary until they’re older and strong enough to use it)
A quick inspection
Before purchasing a bike, be sure to do a quick inspection of the wheels, frame, and braking system (if there is one). Doing a quick inspection can save you the hassle of having to identify possible issues before you take it home.
- Check the front wheel. It should spin freely, but should not shift from side to side.
- Look at the bike front-on. Both wheels should be inline with the frame.
- Examine the frame. It should be strong and durable. Under no circumstances should you be able to bend it by hand.
Bicycling is an activity that can be enjoyed by everyone in your family. Whether you’re already an avid cyclist or haven’t ridden in years, make it a point to get out there and spend time biking with them. It doesn’t matter if you’re simply pedaling around the block or developing skills on a scenic trail ride—your love of the sport will be contagious.
For many cyclists, a big part of enjoying bicycling is establishing a sense of safety and protection. (There’s a reason why people opt for safety gear—even when it’s not legally required). Safety gear does a lot to protect the rider, but there’s always a chance that either your bike or your child’s bike could be damaged or stolen. If you splurged on your bike or even your kid’s bike, it might make sense to insure the bike against loss, damage and theft. Other coverages worth considering are liability, medical gap coverage, and roadside assistance.