Skip the training wheels and tricycles: this month, we tell you why balance bikes are your best bet in the art of transitioning from ride-ons to independent two-wheeled cycling.
Balance Bikes: What Are They?
A balance bike is a two-wheeled pedal-less ride-on that teaches kids as young as 18 months to balance on two wheels. They start by pushing their feet to move themselves along, gliding, and after a brief learning period, riding, jumping and coasting on their bikes with no assistance from their parents.
Balance bikes are a recommended replacement for tricycles and training wheels as they focus on developing the real skill behind the art of cycling: balancing, and not pedalling. With the skills learned from being on a balance bike, riders transition seamlessly to a regular two-wheel bike without the assistance of training wheels.
Balance bikes ride like regular bikes and don’t get stuck on uneven surfaces, easily gliding over rocks, dirt, curbs and even jumps. They are sometimes referred to as glider bikes, strider bikes, run bikes, or pedal-less bikes.
Why Are They Better Than Training Wheels?
Balance bikes are much safer and more practical than tricycles and training wheels. With three wheels, tricycles are slow, awkward to maneuver, and easily tip on uneven or angled surfaces; and are highly impractical for long-distance rides. Training wheels, on the other hand, significantly delay a child’s ability and desire to ride a two-wheel bike – why would they be motivated to learn to balance themselves, when they have training wheels in place to do the job for them? Even if they want to, the most they can learn with trainers is how to pedal and not how to balance, the latter of which we all know is the real challenge.
On a balance bike, children are focused on balancing, rather than pedalling.
In summary, balance bikes teach toddlers and kids how to ride while balanced, whereas training wheels and tricycles do the balancing for them, allowing them to practice what is possibly the easiest skill to learn when cycling: pedalling.
When Do I Start?
Balance bikes come in many sizes – the smallest bikes fit toddlers as young as 18 months old, while the largest come designed even for adults. The younger they start, the longer they will ride their balance bike. We have had customers who started their children as young as 2 years old; and after 6 weeks of daily play, transitioned to a 2-wheeler right after.
Unlike tricycles and training wheels, toddlers can hop on a balance bike and start scooting around from day one. Balance bikes never come with push bars for adults to assist the child, as there is n4o use for them; one of the greatest advantages of balance bikes is that kids ride them all on their own.
What Should I Look Out For Before A Purchase?
Size is by far the most important factor to get right when choosing a balance bike. While balance bikes are often marketed as “one-size-fits-all,” the reality is that the same bike will not properly fit an 18-month-old and a six-year-old. Tire size and seat height should both be considered when determining the right bike for your toddler or child.
Tire Size: Most balance bikes have 12″ tires, although 14″ and 16″ tires are popular for tall pre-schoolers and grade-schoolers. 10″ tires do exist for starter balance bikes but aren’t recommended because toddlers outgrow them very quickly.
Seat Height: While tire size is an indicator of the overall size of a balance bike, seat height is the most accurate indicator of how a bike will fit your child. To properly ride a balance bike, a child’s feet must be able to hit and push off of the ground while they are sitting comfortably on the bike. A properly fitted balance bike allows the seat height to be set 1″ to 1.5″ less than a child’s inseam (measured crotch to floor without shoes on).
Proper Seat Height Should Allow for a Slight Bend in the Knee
To allow room for growth, it is ideal to purchase a bike with a maximum seat height of at least 2″ above the child’s current inseam. Most balance bikes will fit a child for at least 2 to 3 years or until they move up to a regular kids’ bike.
As a general rule, you don’t want a bike to weigh more than 30% of your child’s weight. Keep in minnd that the more features that are added to a bike, the heavier a bike will get.
Riding a balance bike is all about running and gliding. Kids naturally lean forward to run and need enough room to do so. Poorly-designed bikes limit a child’s ability to lean in by creating minimal space between the seat post and the handlebars. Well-designed bikes have ample room between the seat post and the handlebars, providing plenty of space for a child to extend their legs properly to run comfortably and naturally.
The position of the seat on the frame is also noteworthy. A well-designed balance bike has a small gap between the rear tire and the seat when it is set to its lowest position. A poorly-designed bike has a large gap between the rear tire and the seat, creating a high center-of-gravity for the rider, making the bike more difficult to balance and control.
The tires on a balance bike determine how smooth it will ride and whether it will maintain traction on various surfaces. There are five basic types of balance bike tires: air, foam, rubber, plastic and big apple.
Big Apple, also known as Fat Boy tires, are wide profile air tires with extra traction and cushioning to accommodate confident kids that enjoy jumps or tricks at the skate park. These are top-quality tires, and bikes that utilize Big Apple usually tend to be better made models and cost more.
When riding a balance bike, the main source of stopping will always be the rider’s feet, but hand brakes can help to prevent injury, save kids’ shoes and better prepare a child to ride a bike. Around the age of 3.5, pre-schoolers have enough hand/eye coordination to use a hand brake. Once learned, kids tend to use their hand brake in conjunction with their feet for faster, safer stopping. Once mastered on a balance bike, they don’t need to relearn this skill on a regular bike. Toddlers should not be encouraged to use a hand brake, but if you plan on your toddler riding a balance bike for several years, it may be wise to invest in a bike with a hand brake.
The design of hand brakes varies greatly. Higher-end bikes have short-reach brakes which allow the small hands of pre-schoolers to reach the brake with greater ease. Lower-end bikes generally do not have brakes at all or use standard reach levers. These levers require the hand to stretch farther, making them more challenging to use. If you have a chance to test out a bike in person, try to activate the brake with your pinky finger, which simulates the strength of a child’s hand. If it is easy for you to compress with your pinky, it will also be easy for them, and vice versa. Lastly, for increased safety, all brakes should be on the rear tire and activated with the right hand.
The majority of balance bikes do not have footrests because they are not needed. When gliding on a balance bike, kids instinctively hold their feet up to glide. A properly designed footrest usually doesn’t hurt to have around; unfortunately, poorly designed footrests are common and interfere with a child’s stride, causing them to hit the back of their calf on the footrest while riding.
Typically, a properly designed footrest is for a child’s heels rather than toes, which doesn’t interfere with their stride.
7. FRAME MATERIALS
Balance bikes come in metal alloys, wood, and composite frames, with metal being the most common. Aluminum alloy 6061 is the cream-of-the-crop in bike frames.
Wood bikes can be more environmentally friendly but are less adjustable than metal bikes. Higher-end wood frames can last for years if properly taken care of.
While seemingly minor, handlebar grips will most likely be one of the first safety features used on the balance bike. A rubber grip with a knobby end protects kids’ hands when the handlebars run into a wall, trees, etc., and also protects their hands from hitting the ground during falls. All balance bikes have grips, and most have grips with protective bumpers. Because this is an easy and common way to keep your child safe, be cautious before buying any bike without protective bumpers