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Tips for Choosing the Right Bike for Your Child

Published Mar 23, 2015 | Updated Feb 19, 2020

Spring is here, and with it comes bike season. Weather you're buying their first bike or not, it's important to know what you're getting yourself into.

For parents that read this, in case it hasn’t already happened yet, it’s very likely that you’ll be in the position where you will be purchasing your child’s first bike. As with many other facets of parenting, this often comes with many questions. From my experience in supervising a bike camp for kids for many years, I’ve experienced first hand the confusion many parents have when it comes to choosing the right bike for their kids.

It happens quite often that a child will arrive to camp with a bike that will not serve them well in their hopes of learning to ride on their own. This is an understandable occurrence as it is safe to say that most parents are not experts in the field of kids’ bikes. If you’re someone that is nearing the time when a decision will be made in regards to purchasing your child’s first bike, please consider the following questions:

Where to buy a bike?

There are three basic categories of where to buy a bike:

Bike shops

There are likely several shops in your area that specialize in bikes. If your child is a keen rider, or if you plan to pass the bike down to younger siblings, a reliable name brand bike from a bike shop is a great choice. Norco and Adams are good brands for a durable kid’s bike that won’t break the bank. Giant, Trek, and Kona also make great children’s bikes although these choices usually range on the higher end of the price spectrum.

One thing to keep in mind is that every bike sold by a bike shop has been checked and tuned by a qualified bike mechanic, and many shops offer free tune-ups for the first year. Most department stores don’t offer either and the later is nice if your child rides a lot.

Department stores

This term would apply to places like Walmart, Superstore, and sporting good retail chains like Sportcheck. While neither of these stores specialize in bikes, they do devote areas of their stores to selling bikes along with accessories. The bikes at these stores will be less expensive than the bikes you’ll see at specialty shops. The quality won’t be quite as high, which isn’t necessarily a problem for new riders.

What can be an issue, however, is that often these bikes are assembled by people with little bike experience and therefore aren’t assembled or adjusted correctly. This can result in gears that don’t shift properly or brakes that rub or don’t stop properly. With a proper tune-up these bikes are totally suitable for a child’s use, especially if your child is just getting into the sport. Just remember that you may need to get the bike tuned up by a mechanic at a bike shop, which usually runs $40. Factor in this cost when you’re comparing prices between bike shops and department stores.

Used bikes

Many times used bikes offer great value for growing kids. Especially with the smaller sizes, children usually outgrow their bikes before they wear them out. Private sales like you’d find listed on Craigslist usually offer the lowest prices, and if know what to look for you can get a great deal. It’s not unusual to find lightly used kid’s bikes for 30% of their original price.

Of course, if you’re not careful, you could end up with a worn out clunker, so you always want to give a used bike a good look over. The most common things to wear out on a child’s bike are tires, brake pads, and grips. The most common things to break are training wheels, seats and plastic pedals. In addition, look for rust and any obvious structural damage such as bent handlebars or wheels.

Second hand sports consignment stores are often a safer choice if you’re not very bike savvy, as any good one will turn away bikes that are junk.

What should the size of the bike be?

Size is one of the most important things to consider when choosing your child’s bike. It is essential that they are able to easily stand over the bike’s frame with their feet flat on the ground. Buying a bike that is too big, with the idea that the child will grow into it, is a terrible idea as it will greatly impair your child’s comfort and safety while riding. Along the same lines, you want the bike to be large enough that the seat can be adjusted to a comfortable height for pedaling. For an experienced rider this translates to a slight bend in the knee when the pedal is at the bottom. For someone who is just starting out setting the seat extra low will help with learning how to balance.

What type of braking system should the bike have?

If your child is starting to become familiar with the concept of riding a bike, the braking system on the bike is definitely something to keep in mind. For children under 6 years old pedal brakes, as opposed to hand brakes, are a better choice. For the most part, kids at this age don’t have adequate hand strength and dexterity to use hand brakes effectively, and in addition, the brake levers can be an added distraction for some kids as they are learning to ride. They may look at their hands as they try to reach the levers, rather than keeping their head up and looking where they are going! For kids 6 and up hand brakes are a good choice, they will have the ability to use them properly and they will need to learn them before they get their first bike with gears (geared bikes don’t have any pedal brakes).

Hopefully the previous tips will help you in your quest for setting your child up with the best opportunity to excel in cycling. It might seem like a lot to take into account, but paying a little extra attention to detail will go a long way towards your child’s new found appreciation for biking. Happy pedaling!

-Nick Pavlakis / Community and Media Liaison – Pedalheads

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