Learning to ride a bike – transitioning away from training wheels, figuring out how to manage hand lever controlled brakes for the first time, and the like - is both an exciting and a scary time for kids and their families. To enjoy the freedom of bike riding, one must first endure a learning stage, discovering how to balance, how to turn properly and most importantly, how to stop and slow down safely. With so much attention focused on the actual process of riding a bike, looking to the bike itself as a part of this learning journey can seem out of place. But what does a well-crafted and safe children’s bike look like? What features help ensure a child experiences the freedom of riding a bike without the pain of crashing one?
We asked Brian Riley, co-founder of Guardian Bikes, what features consumers should be looking for when purchasing a kids bike.
“Most kids bikes are just mini versions of adult bikes,” said Riley. “Because of this, many of the features of the bike don’t fit the needs of kids learning to ride a bike.”
Before purchasing a child’s bike, check out Riley’s list of what makes a safe, fun and durable bike:
A somewhat intuitive thought, the weight of a kids bike greatly affects the child’s experience in riding it. The average kids bike weighs around 30 pounds, which, for a 40-50 pound child, presents a significant challenge for balancing.
As a comparison, an average 6-year-old weighs around 40 pounds, that’s only a mere 10 pounds more than the average child’s bike. This extra weight requires strength most 6-year-olds haven't developed yet, and it can frustrate the learning process.
Where is this weight coming from, then? Frame material generates the majority of a bike’s overall weight. Most bikes (kids bikes included) are constructed from steel, which is on the heavier side of metals. Riley recommends a bike that utilizes a lighter metal, like aluminum, to help reduce the weight of the bike, while not giving up the integrity of the frame. With a lighter frame, balancing, turning and stopping all become much easier and much safer.
The structure and shape of the frame also greatly affect riding experience. Two factors are important here: the distance from the front wheel to the back wheel and how low the child sits on the bike.
Kids bikes with extended wheel bases (longer distances between the front and back wheel) will be much easier to balance on. By distributing the weight throughout the bike, the overall stability of the bike increases significantly and accidents from sudden (but sometimes necessary) jerks become much less common.
Additionally, bikes that sit lower to the ground, lowering the child’s center of gravity, ease the strain of balancing while riding. Like riding in a canoe, the chance of tipping over is greatly decreased if a person is sitting versus standing. The lower the center of the bike sits, the closer the child is to the ground, and – you guessed it – the more balance he/she has.
When riding a bike, stopping is just as important as going. Any road a rider is on can contain a variety of different obstacles: people, cars, trees, the neighborhood cat, etc. As a child transitions away from a bike with training wheels, which usually feature a back-pedal brake system, the adjustment to a two-lever brake system can be challenging and confusing. Learning to use these levers in tandem can decrease one’s confidence and adds another layer to an already complex operation. And, if a child needs to stop suddenly, he/she often instinctively pulls on the front brake lever just as hard as the rear brake lever and can therefore flip over the handlebars – ouch!
Guardian Bikes directly addresses this problem in their bikes by taking advantage of a novel technology called SureStop. By reducing a two-lever system to an easier to control one-lever system, SureStop maintains all the capability of a two-lever system with half of the complexity and learning curve, and does this without compromising stopping power. In fact, kids consistently stop faster when braking with SureStop than when braking with two lever brakes - allowing them to avoid dangerous obstacles. SureStop always distributes braking in a way which prevents common front wheel lockup (head over handlebar) accidents. So, not only are accidents from braking mistakes avoided, but children can focus their attention on riding the bike, knowing that they can stop confidently at any time by the squeeze of a single lever.
Often forgotten, the look of the bike is also important, especially for the child. Like the components, the design of most kids bikes resemble a miniaturized adult bike. Although not a huge factor for safety, a bike with a design that appeals to the child increases confidence on the road. Besides, a bike is often a child’s first vehicle; and like a first car, the design is an important aspect of feeling a sense of ownership in your ride.
The little things matter on any bike. Be sure to check, for example, the material of the pedals. Are they made from a cheap plastic or something that will last through countless hours of sunlight? How about the headset (part of the bike that connects the handlebars to the frame)? Is it thread-less, meaning it doesn’t contain screws that can come loose, or do you have to tighten the screws that hold it in place so steering isn’t an issue? These kinds of inspections can be applied to any aspect of a bike. Determining whether materials are used because of their price, ability to quickly assemble, or rather because a high quality bike contains those materials will help round out your decision.
We hope this list provides a helpful checklist as you search for someone’s dream bike.