Thursday, November 17, 2011

Buying a bike for your child

This question seems to keep coming up, so here is our take on it. 

This bike is too small, and
the seat is too low...
PS - the blue bike above is a
Schwinn Princess we got out of the
garbage near the airport.
It's still a princess, though.

When buying a bike for a child, consider that they grow pretty quickly. Despite that, don't buy a bike that is too big to try to save money for later (or a bike that won't hold up). You'll need to get them another one soon no matter what you do. Get them something they will enjoy riding so much that they want to keep doing it! 

Consider (instead of buying a new bike at all) seeking out an older used bike. A used, quality bike costs a lot less than new and it will be nicer. Try to avoid bikes covered with cheap plastic doodads like rear fins or motorcycle fuel tanks that will make it look old or outdated in a year or two. These parts can break easily. 

Usually a kid's bike will last through several kids, maybe with some new tires or seat or a small repair. 

To buy a new new bike for your child, go to a local bike store you trust and think about the sizing and positioning suggestions we have below as you go through what they advise.

We recommend looking at a community bike cooperative or store like the Hampshire Bike Exchange in Western Massachusetts or Working Bikes Co-opBlackstone Bicycle Works, West Town Bikes, The Recyclery... in Chicago. Many cities and smaller towns have small bike co-ops that sell used kids bikes with staff on hand to help you get fitted and tuned very cheaply. Many have workshops for young riders. 

For another option, friends often also are outgrowing bikes that are not getting handed down to siblings — ask around and see who is moving up to a new bike. Old bikes at flea markets and yard sales can be great too, though there can be clunkers. Some of our kid bikes were in dumpsters. Used and dumpster bikes often just need some oil, chrome cleaner and car wax to look and work like a brand new one. You can often peel off scratched or ugly stickers.

Don't pay too much! They should run $20 to $80 or so. More for something really special. But how much is a new one? $200 and up? Even department store bikes run $60-140 (and are often very similar to name brand ones in this size range. Have a look). It can be a huge investment for a child's bike.

If you don't know how to maintain the old bike you found, you can always take it to your friendly local bike shop to tune it completely and fit the seat correctly for your child. They'll sell you a new set of streamers or a bell to make the old bike new again, too. They will be able to rescue most problems, and even a new wheel for a kid's bike isn't all that expensive.

Don't forget a helmet for your kid, whatever you think about helmets for yourself. 

1974 Raleigh Colt, rideable from 10
years old to adult? Durable, and 26 inch
tires just like a big Raleigh (behind it).
Lovely colo(u)r.
What We Did
Our three kids have never had a new bike and they love the ones that they ride.

We like older style, more upright bikes. Some pictures are below, too. We have an old Huffy Rock-It, a Turbo Turtle and a Rad Cat from (probably) Pacific Cycle, a Schwinn Pixie and Typhoon, and there are a few assorted recent models that the kids don't like so much (low seat, high handlebars - see the big picture at the top) at Grandpa's. Several are lent out to friends.

After trying lots of bikes out, our 10 year old agrees that the older upright style bikes (26 inch wheeled made-in-Nottingham Raleigh Colt or LTD-3, or 24 inch wheeled but heavy Chicago Schwinn Varsity/Suburban, etc) are easier to ride than the newer low bar bmx/mountain style bikes with knobby inefficient tires, at least for moving fast on paved routes here in the city. The fenders and comfortable riding positions of these bikes make it easy for a bigger kid to ride to get places, not just around and around the park. We like step through frames, too, which extend the age range of potential riders. 

If you can find old Raleighs, they did make tiny versions of their larger bikes in 20 inch wheels (the Mountie) and 24 inch (the Space Rider) in addition to the 26 inch small frame Colt. We found an old Mountie and it has been a big hit with our kids and others at about 8 years. Has fenders, 3 speeds, rim and coaster brakes; it used to have a chainguard, and we added lights.

You can lower the seat and bars
to make this fit your kid
but main tube may be too long
Can You Get a Bike That will Last Through High School?
Though everybody asks, there are very few good bikes that a 10 year old can ride until high school, even if that's what you really want. The best option might be one you haven't considered: you could look at folding bikes. Maybe you'll find a nice Dahon or a cheap used Brompton.(but not likely...) The Dahon Boardwalk is inexpensive but usually too long for a kid's arms. A Raleigh 20 is cheap and easy to find used. It's not very zippy and it might be a bit too long for some kids. If you keep your eyes open, though, and find a good deal that can fit, folders could be an excellent option -- they have good components, they are lightweight and easy to pack and store, they grow with your kid, and you can borrow them if you need to. 

Seating Positions
the new 'hybrid' style Vortex Emesis 3000
might not be the most practical choice.
Get something used, or go to your LBS!
One thing we see often out on the road are kids on bikes that are a bit too long, that cause them to lean in an exaggerated position forward, too stretched out toward the handlebars. The long top tube causes kids to lean too far forward, affecting their ability to make turns or react to traffic. Often these bikes have handlebars that are too high for the rider, too, the other side of the same coin. Arms should always easily reach the handlebars with a relaxed and comfortable posture. It's not the low seat or high handlebars that's the problem - on a bike that's too big there's too long a reach between them.

Kids should always be able to step down on a bike with their feet flat on the ground, usually sliding off the seat to do so. Cross bars should clear a child's inseam by at least two or three inches standing over the bar.

If you get a bike like this, don't set the seat here if you can avoid it.  See how a kid who could
fit on this seat would have to lean to reach the bars? On some bikes you can tilt the
handlebars back to compensate, but it's better if it fits well in the first place.
It should fit well like this, or a bit lower, because a kid with
legs this long will be able to grab the bars with no problem.
This one is a 24 in Trek mountain style bike with smoother tires, fenders and lights.

Oddly, even on a bike that's too big, kids usually sit too low. Just look around you for examples. For kids who can really ride a bike, if their knees aren't almost straight at the bottom of the pedal stroke, think about raising the seat. It makes pedaling much easier and they can go faster, or that's what you can tell them. It does help them tire out less quickly. Don't go overboard -- their knees should still be bent a little bit. 

The guy in the picture on the right has a bike that fits well - he can see the traffic, he can move and pedal easily, and he will stay comfortable for a long time in this riding position.

Sizing Bikes
Remember that kids always want the one that's bigger, but they might not enjoy riding on it long term. Hold your ground and get the smart one.

For a younger kid, start with a balance bike or make your own out of a very lightweight (even flimsy) kid’s bike by taking off the cranks. Did you read our post about that? Don’t buy a real bike at this stage. They are all too heavy and most are identical, regardless of price. Forget training wheels - they just delay learning to ride. When your kid can cruise and steer pretty well on a balance bike, move up to one with pedals or re-install the cranks you took off earlier.


12 1/2 inch department store bike -
a future balance bike? Or a first real
bike? These always have ape hanger
bars for some reason, which is fine.

Once your kid is on pedals, something with a coaster brake is good. You usually start with a 12 1/2 inch wheel model, but choose something that fits your kid. Here is a link to Trek Bikes sizing suggestions

Bridgestone in Japan says the size is right for small kids when the child sitting on the seat can just touch toes to the ground on both sides. (That seemed too low to me for older kids, who I thought should easily be able to put just one foot down, but lately it seems that it's a good guide for most kids after all.) 
Bridgestone advice (click to enlarge)

At the early stage, riding is often learning to spin around the park a little and then getting back in Mom or Dad's bike and going for a snack or snooze somewhere. When the kid seems as big as the bike, like the fellow on the red bike above, you have waited too long — move up to the next size! 

No brand Rad Cat, done up with reflective
tape as The Bumblebee, 16 inch wheels, with
a new too-long stem, hand brake and bars.
With 16 inch wheels you can really start moving. Some of these bikes have multiple gears, though most kids are still figuring out the brakes at this stage and the gears confuse everyone. If they want to go fast swap out the bumpy tires. We usually add a rear hand brake in addition to the coaster, to get the habit started early. We prefer fenders at this stage because it's often wet or slushy here, and fenders give you a good place for reflectors or lights.

We always adjust the brake levers to be closer to the handlebars than usual to make them easy to reach for small kid hands. Did you notice that little screw on the opposite side of the housing from the brake lever itself? It usually has a little blue or red blob of thread lock. Tighten it until the handle is close enough, then readjust the brake cable tension to be normal. You can do this on your own bike, too!

1960s Schwinn Typhoon, 20 inch, single speed, flat tire.
Generator lights front and back. Seat is a little low here.
Next step up is 20 inch wheels (skip 18 inch - not enough difference from 16) and at this point you could have a gear or two extra, two hand brakes to encourage learning to ride, maybe a coaster as well just in case. 

See the blue bike below? Our kids have several gears, lights, reflectors, a rack, two hand brakes and smoothish tires at this stage, none of which costs a lot. Go to bike swaps if you can and look for great replacement parts cheap

Lighter bikes and good components begin to make sense at about this stage, where your child begins using the bike for actual transportation purposes more frequently. If you can find a good frame it may be worth the extra money. We have replaced the junk components on some of our kid bikes (like no-name, SIS or Tourney) with old used excellent quality ones (like old Deore XT) from the co-op. Most indexing derailers are compatible with each other. Not SunTour.

Remember that BMX bikes are also an option here, but they don’t have many gears and the tires are often impractical. We have never seen a BMX that seemed better than the old ones we find at the co-op, at least not so far. They are built to be durable, though, and you could probably soup one up with fenders and so on pretty easily. 

Also, good quality folding bikes or extra-small cyclocross or racing bikes are sometimes available in these sizes. Though they aren't the least expensive option, if your kid is a bike enthusiast a lightweight high quality machine could be a good choice. Look for used ones.

20 inch used Jamis Fester steel mountain style bike (2003?) made fancy.
The tires (from a bike swap) made all the difference in handling and speed.
We added fenders and switched knobbies for road tires. It's fast now!
At 24 in or 26 in sizes your kid will tell you what he or she wants, not the other way around. The entire range of adult style bikes comes in these sizes too. You can get something really nice at this stage since they will use it for a long time. We suggest buying something for a practical rainy day commute to school or a nice family weekend ride, not for an awesome extreme mountain trail competition. Your kid might not see the wisdom of this, but they'll get tired pushing all those tire knobs through the autumn sidewalk leaves. If you can't win, at least look into smoother road tires and fenders and lights for their Viper 30000.

Keep riding. Good luck.

last edit 4/5/13


  1. Are the bars on a Dahon easily modifiable? If the top tube is too long could not a set of albatross or other equally back swept bars fix that issue? As long as the bars are narrow enough for the child's body type (like a VO Belleville bar) and not so exaggerated as to affect handling I'd think folders would be a solid option for kids as young as 6 or 7.

  2. Yes, I guess so, but it depends on the model a lot. It would probably work after a fashion if you fiddled enough.
    I looked at the Dahon site, and they have pretty non-adjustable stems, especially in terms of forward and back angle. Old ones didn't adjust up and down, I think.
    It's true that you can fit different swept back bars on most folders but there are extra problems compared to other bikes. Even changing the angle of the standard bars often messes up the fold, and lots of folders don't have adjustable (enough) stems, so the special bars might have to point down and back. And sometimes these bikes just don't adjust at all.
    The stem/handlebar area is quite variable - R20 had welded (or not) stem/bar combo, Birdy had 2 options, one adjustable the other not, Bike Friday handlebars separate in two...
    Maybe you get more play if you set the seat forward?
    I think you can make most folders work for smaller kids in an emergency but it seems like a kludge until they get big enough to ride comfortably, and even then I'd wait til they are good responsible riders before handing over the keys to the Brompton.

  3. I was thinking about this and remembered that (if price is no object) Bike Friday builds custom sized folding bike frames. You could get one for your 5 year old! It's out of our price range though. I think a 5 year old would need lots of lightweight titanium to be able to lift it...

  4. As opposed to the Typhoon which they can twirl effortlessly above their heads.

  5. The 12 1/2" wheels are the key. You mentioned that the child's feet need to be flat on the ground when the sit on the bike. This is what will let the kid forget his/her fear and jettison the training wheels. The bike will not last long. Once the child is riding without training wheels he or she will soon want a bigger bike. Its well worth having a bike that is not used very long. I started my oldest on 16" wheels and she did not lose the training wheels until she was 6. My youngest started on the little wheels and was riding without training wheels at age 4.

  6. Hi David-
    We found also that the balance bike freed our oldest to just get really comfortable getting the feel of how to ride. His friends with training wheels definitely had a harder time -- though every kid is different. Our middle guy wouldn't give up the pedal free bike for some time after he could ride on two wheels. He just liked the feeling of it too much!


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