|The blue one is the homemade balance bike.|
There's no better way to learn how to ride a bike than a balance bike (or toddler bike). That's one of those little bikes with no pedals, no training wheels, and no brakes that you see more and more lately. They are good for early practice learning to stop, go and make good turns in a park or playground, way before your kid ever tries out intersections and stops on a sidewalk ride.
This is a homemade balance bike, though you can't see it well, ridden by this
2 1/2 year old all the way from the Art Institute past North Ave, in
Chicago's Bike the Drive a few years ago. I think he got up past
the zoo (about 4 1/2 miles) and then he rode in the trailer and fell asleep.
Our now-10-year-old played around with one for a few months back when he was 3, then suddenly hopped on an older friend's Batman bike and roared off on his own around the park. Other kids we know have done the same. Our 6-year-old liked the balance bike so much he wouldn't get off it, and he refused to take a pedal bike long after he was able to ride up and down our sidewalk on his own. The 2-year-old isn't quite big enough to fit on it yet but he calls it his bike already.
You can get them as adaptive bikes for grownups, old-fashioned velocipedes, or for kids, made out of hardwood plywood in fancy toy and stroller stores. Even Target has them. There are a few metal ones for kids now becoming available. The wooden ones that are common are light enough to pop under one arm and carry back from the park if your small person gets tired of riding, and many have a limitation built into the steering to prevent the wheel from turning so far to the side that it causes a fall. None that I have seen have any brakes, so they are only for use in flat or slightly sloping places that are safe for kids to be running around. Playgrounds are good, parking lots and sidewalks downhill to big streets are not. Kids this age can't (in my opinion) really use brakes that well anyway yet. The bikes are toys and teaching tools, not real transportation. Yet.
The original wooden balance bike for kids that we know about, the Like-A-Bike, was made by Kokua, a wooden toy company in Germany, and was probably priced to provide its manufacturing workers a living wage, health care and a safe working environment. In other words, it was way too expensive, but it was the only one for a long time. It was made better than most others are now. You can still get one.
I guess that many clever penny pinchers in the bike or toy industry realized that by copying the design and getting it built elsewhere by people without those protections, the bike would be a lot cheaper, and the manufacturer could get a great big nice profit and the consumer could save $50. I can't think of another reason why these things cost as much as they do considering where they are made now.
But you aren't limited to those choices. How about a recycled one? It is really easy to make your own if you have friends with old bikes, access to a used bike store that carries children's bikes, or a cheap 5&10 nearby that has tiny pink and blue kids' bikes with roughly 10 inch wheels (though that isn't recycling really). You need only a wrench or two, a chain tool, and pliers or something to bend wires, on most bikes, or unscrew the thing that holds the cranks on (the bottom bracket) on others. Eyes glazing over? You can just take your chosen bike to your favorite neighborhood bike shop and ask them to take off the cranks and chain for you. But let's say you have your tools ready:
(If you need a bigger version, for an older kid or a grownup to learn how to ride a bike for example, you can of course use any larger bike instead. Remove any gearing, but I'd probably leave the brakes on. The rest of the post assumes you're building a bike for a small child.)
Make sure it's small enough for your child to fit on it (bring the child with you?) and put his or her feet down at a comfortable angle to the ground. Remember, your small person will be walking with big, long steps like Groucho Marx while resting weight on the bike, so the seat has to be a lot lower than he or she would need it if actually bicycling. It takes them a few tries to get comfortable enough to actually rest their weight. Note that homemade balance bikes don't have the built in limit on the steering, but that hasn't been a problem for our guys so far.
If the bike is covered with stickers and brand names you don't like, check that they are removable before you buy - most in this class of bikes are easily peeled off. Or, with a little reflective tape you can make a nicer design than what it came with anyway. Black bikes look good with yellow stripes - a bumblebee bike! Multicolor - a rainbow bike! And so on. You can put a big piece of reflector tape over the picture of Tinkerbell or whoever if you think she's not a good role model for your child. Make the bike look appealing and cool for your kid.
Take off any training wheels. Next, remove the non-drive side pedal. It should have a 15 mm wrench size, and it's threaded backwards - with the wrench pointing up turn it toward the back of the bike like tightening a regular bolt- and use penetrating oil if needed. This is a good time to use a real wrench, not an adjustable one. Then break the chain with a chain tool. Or a chain saw. Just kidding. Remove the chain and set it aside. (A big pliers can mangle a chain apart too; a hacksaw won't usually work well.) You won't likely need it again, but who knows? You can take off the chain guard now, too.
Most of these little kids' bikes, if not all of them, have a one piece crank shaped like a Z with the chainwheel stamped on, like the old Schwinn "Ashtabula" cranks. You can usually find out how to remove the cranks by looking at the non-drive side - there is a bent wire retainer or a (probably backwards threaded) screw-on nut that holds the crank bottom bracket, such as it is, to the frame. Remove it and loosen the other side if you need to, then remove whatever you can of the bottom bracket. Often on those we've done this is just a piece of plastic on each side with a hole in its center. Greasy metal ball bearings might jump out at you if someone built it a little better than that. See the pictures for an example. Now, hold the drive side pedal arm, the one with the chainwheel, and move the zigzag crank out of the bottom bracket opening of the bike until it's free of the frame. Clean up the grease, if any.
|1, loosens clockwise!|
|2, crank arm with outer nut removed - see the washer?|
|3 Under the washer (fits in that slot!) is another backwards threaded thing. This is the cone.|
|4, The cone comes out, also clockwise, by hand or with a screwdriver or punch|
|5. The ball bearing cage just slides out (goopy grease!)|
|Ta-Da! It's off. Now (when the chain and guard are off) you can ease the|
cranks out of the frame by pushing them through from this side and wiggling them.
It might not be birch plywood, but it's not bad either, and it's waterproof enough to be left outside. If your kid ever needs it, you can reverse the above steps and reinstall everything. Set the pieces aside now.
If you reassemble it, this is the order. Use new grease, and it tightens backwards!
4/10/12: Recently we've noticed that a lot of people who come to this site are looking for ways to make one of those wooden bikes. There are instructions on line, I think. But since kids often learn how to balance within a month or two, after which they are ready to ride a real bike, you might consider saving your woodworking effort for a project that will be usable for a longer time. It'd be a shame to spend time making something handmade and beautiful if Junior isn't going to enjoy it for long.