first bikes for children – the fun and the freedom

First bikes for children - cycling helpSo your little one has mastered the balance bike, or wants to ditch the stabilisers, and is now ready to move on to a first proper pedal bike. At this level, there is considerable choice with different styles, colours and materials, so in theory there is something for everybody.

first bikes for children – description

From about the age of four upwards, young riders start making the progression to a first bike. Bikes in this sector range from small 14” and 16” wheels up to 20”, commonly seen on bmx-style bikes.

All budgets are catered for, with the more expensive products having ‘dialled’ components. This means that items such as brake levers, crank, seat and handlebars are child size, and this is important for a variety of reasons. For example, brake levers are closer to the bars for little hands to actually reach and use, seats are narrower for smaller bottoms, and handlebars are of a narrower diameter for a comfortable grip.

what size?

Some parents may be tempted to buy a bike that is slightly too big to avoid future outlay. The problem with this is a bike that’s too big for a child is not only more difficult to ride but can be unsafe. Many children feel very nervous if they can’t get their feet flat, or nearly flat, on the ground. Balance problems, an inability to reach the floor and brake levers that are too large for little hands can lead to a cycling experience that is uncomfortable at the least and, in some cases, downright dangerous.

Nerves, unsteadiness and an out of control bike will not lead to a long-term passion for cycling. Children grow and bikes can be expensive, but if you want to maximise enjoyment it is essential that you buy the size that fits. It is better to buy a cheaper second hand bike in the correct size than an expensive bike that is too big.

Why Cycle? have a good guide to bike sizes which should help you to match your child to the correct sized bike.

Children’s bikes are small in stature but many of them weigh as much as an adult’s mountain bike. Children don’t have the strength of an adult, so riding a heavy bike is going to have a real impact. Additional weight will reduce journey lengths, make hill climbs difficult and increase fatigue, so check out the weight and ensure it is appropriate. For guidance, a lightweight bike in this category is the Islabikes Beinn 20 and this weighs around the 20 pound mark (9kg).

features

As you move up to 20” wheeled bikes there are a number of manufacturers that have models with front suspension, or front and rear. Also at this stage, gears begin to make an appearance. Some or all of these things may be of use if you need them, but if not then they can be off-putting.

suspension

It can look impressive and cool to other kids, but unless you’re going to be heading onto tracks and trails on a regular basis it probably has little use. Even then, as the forks are small the amount of suspension travel (how much it compresses to absorb bumps) is limited, so really only a fork from a quality manufacturer will provide any real benefit. On road a lot of energy will be wasted from compressing the suspension rather than propelling the cycle forward, which when taking account of the additional weight of the suspension, means extra huffing and puffing. In summary, suspension may look cool but is probably of little use on road.

However, if off-road riding is your thing there are a number of manufacturers, such as Specialized and Giant, who create mountain bikes for children. These are built with lightweight frames and quality components, designed to give mini thrill seekers the ride of their lives.  So basically your little one can have a miniature version of mum and dad’s bike to join in the fun.

If your riding is going to be mainly on roads but you enjoy getting out on tracks, companies such as Islabikes create delightful lightweight machines with rigid forks (no suspension) that will have your young one nipping at your heels. Well designed with dialled components and an exceptional eye for detail, Islabikes stand apart from most manufacturers, with many parents returning when it’s time for the next bike in the chain.

gears

If your child has progressed from a tag-a-long equipped with gears they will already have had some exposure to gear changes resulting in faster or slower pedalling. Gears take time to master and there will be occasions where little legs will be spinning rapidly because their owner has jumped to first at high speed, but time and experience will help.

Gears can be useful, especially if you ride or live in a hilly area, but only if they are used correctly. If not, they can be a distraction (and we all know kids of this age are easily distracted).

Gears tend to become available on 20” wheeled bikes and will be purchased for children usually from five or six years upwards. If you purchase a bike with gears then consider not mentioning them initially, and if necessary advise them to leave alone at least until they’ve mastered controlling this new and larger bike. Once they have familiarised themselves with the controls and size, gearing can be introduced at an appropriate time.

what else do you need? 

Whilst not legally compulsory within the UK, a lot of parents tend to want their child to wear a helmet when they are on their first bike.

Depending on time of year and when you intend cycling, it may be necessary to purchase a front and rear light set. If it’s dark, you may also want a luminous tabard.

If your little one isn’t quite ready to go solo, you may want to fit stabilisers until they have mastered the art of balancing and pedalling at the same time. These should be removed as soon as possible. Sustran’s have a good guide to ditching the stabilisers.

A bell or hooter can be useful for alerting others that you are coming but this can be a distraction on a first bike so it may be best to have a bell on the adult’s bike to start with.  When they are ready for their own, there are plenty of designs to choose from.

A set of mudguards can come in useful, especially if you intend using the bike for the school commute as this avoids the problem of soggy and dirty skirts or trousers.

If you’re cycling in wet weather, then a waterproof jacket and over-trousers will help prevent onset of a cold.  Gloves in cold weather are a must, and a scarf can make all the difference.

There is a small but growing amount of cycle clothing specifically for children available. Useful if you have a budding Mark Cavendish or Victoria Pendleton in your family.

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