We have been living in San Francisco Bay Area for 13+ years and have been benefiting from the vast network of bike lanes that connect everywhere we need to go. As a family of 4, we each have our bikes and use them to commute to school, work and to many other destinations.
One of the challenges we have with this is to keep up with the pace the kids grow. Between ages of 3 and 9, we found ourselves having to upgrade their bikes for proper fit almost every season. After having bought 5 or 6 bikes in the last few years, I have read many reviews and suggestions – unfortunately none of them touched bike selection process from a parent perspective the way I wanted to see. So I wanted to write this post.
Starting with the size. Seems obvious, bike should simply match kids’ size. Too big, they can’t carry the weight, can’t control and bad things happen. Too small, they can’t turn properly, get tired quickly, can’t go fast enough. General guidance I’d give on this is that the biggest bike they can sit on with feet comfortably touching ground typically works. Simply go to a bike shop and try. But, this is not the only thing that matters.
Next… Purpose… I see a lot of 6 year olds riding those heavy mountain bikes on paved roads. When asked a couple of parents, it quickly became apparent that they have no practical use for any of the “mountain” capabilities. They haven’t even considered different types of bikes available. They bought based on looks, price and color. Key mistake here is to ask the kid what he or she wants in a bike shop. They are simply not equipped to handle a decision like that, and a single bike shop does not give you the breadth of options necessary. You can ask kids about the color once you reduced options to 2 or 3, but not before. I’ll tell you more about this below, but first let’s talk about those first bikes.
As a highly motivated parent who wished to hit the trails with the kids soon as they are able, we experimented with variety of bikes to ensure they learn fast and build stamina to ride with mom and dad.
Starting with balance bikes… Skuut. Seeing Skuut work wonders with some of our neighbor’s kids, we gave this a try. Recipe was simple, you’d get Skuut and in few days they’d be riding – not worked like that. For whatever reason, our kids did not like this one bit. Never used it really. So off it went to a neighbor.
Then, we tried more of a regular bike with training wheels. Raleigh 16”. At this scale, preferences like weight cannot come to play because no brand makes an aluminum frame – prices range between $80-$150. Despite wanting to get a lighter one, we could not find any. So both of our kids learnt how to bike on this. As we later come to realize, lack of hand-brake on this bike was quite a shortcoming. So if you are shopping for a bike of this size, look for one that also has a hand-brake. There are options in the market.
One important piece of accessory that I recommend to parents, is the tow bar; specifically “Trail Gator Bicycle Tow Bar”. When used properly, this enables two things:
- – Allow kid to ride “as far as he can” on his own; both on the way there and back. Easy to attach on/off. Many use cases for this, tow him uphill, let him enjoy the ride downhill. If there is a dangerous, high-traffic area, tow him for more control; when safe, unhook and let him go on his own. You get the idea.
- – Save on space at home because you will not need to buy a separate tow-bike (i.e. those single-wheel bike trailers that attach to adult bikes)
Fast forward another year or two… Need to get more serious, no towing anymore and need long-range for family trips.
For both of our kids, we went with the flat-bar road-bikes. At ages from 4 up to 8 or 9, we don’t go to unpaved trails with steep inclinations. Thin, lightweight tires, no suspension and minimalistic frame works wonders. Adding a picture of a 2011 Specialized Hotrock 20 here. No suspension, flat bar, seat height can go really low if needed and additional chain guard. It was also the lightest of the typical kids bikes in price range of $200-$400.
Which takes us to weight… The #1 benefit you get from lightweight bicycle is that kids don’t get tired quickly, can go nearly twice as long and still maintain positive attitude. Right now my 5 year old can go 13 miles with a lunch break in between; 9 year old does twice that and doesn’t complain one bit. Paying extra $100 for the lightweight bike is an investment well worth the money.
In terms of accessories, we focus on weight and function; each of our kids’ bikes have:
- Under the seat, small storage bag made from cloth, like “BV Bicycle Strap-On Saddle Bag / Seat Bag”.
- Entry level lock that fits in that small bag. We use combination chain locks (like this) that is long enough to tie two bikes to a post, has the ability to change the combination and has fixed heads (i.e. don’t wobble around while you try to lock your bike). We leave the locks that we don’t need at home on family trips. Every gram counts.
- Bell for kids. We pick the smallest and lightest ones (like this), leaving the color decision to the child.
- LED, micro-USB chargeable lights (front and back).
- Lightweight, plastic water bottle holder.
I also want to share how we come to these guiding principles. Key example is the Scott 24” Mountain Bike pictured here. When my daughter was tall enough to ride 24” bikes, we had very few options. At this size, when you add “flat bar” as a convenience feature, you eliminate 95% of all bikes in the market. Only ones we could find were really expensive road bikes designed for racing. Torn between having to go to size of 24 and keeping the cost reasonable, against all of these criteria above, we went with Scott JR 24 Mountain Bike, pictured here. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great bike – for those who want to do mountain biking. At age of 7.5-8, for our family that just wasn’t a common use case.
This bike is front-heavy due to suspension, and also otherwise heavy due to stronger frame. If there was a version that doesn’t have the suspension, we’d have gotten it instead. So anyway, while she rode this bike for a while, she had two complaints (coming from Hotrock 20)
- Ride is not as smooth (tires this bike comes with are made for dirt, too bumpy on a paved road)
Still, she maintained same distance of our typical 13 mile route and never made a big deal out of it, but I could tell she’s not as comfortable and willing.
Fast forward another 18 months, she tried her mom’s 2010 Giant Dash – what a great bike btw, and size was perfect!. We wanted to get a Dash for her but soon figured out it was no longer available. To-date, Dash remains the lightest aluminum bike we came across. It looks like this.
So we started looking for alternatives. From local servicing and general parts quality perspective, we limited our brand options to Specialized, Giant, Scott and Trek.
One of the challenges with bike purchase is that not every store carries all models. For example, you’ll see Giant Escape 3 (heavier) but not Escape 0 (lighter) in the store. Ditto for all others.
After long deliberation, we ended up with Specialized Vita 2014, pictured here. This is about 1.5kg heavier than Giant Dash, but still is the lightest we could find in aluminum options between those brands I listed. At ~$800, sits slightly on the expensive end of the price scale but each gram counts so we decided to get it. She’s really happy with it. Long range, excellent straight-line performance, well-working gears. Cables are concealed within the frame, which most other bikes lack – we love this feature because those cables tend to get in the way when hanging on a rack and stain clothes if not careful. Only issue with the bike is with the hand-grips – they are made of really bad quality rubber, leaving black stains on her hands after a 10-15 minute ride. Looking for a good leather grip replacement. Let me know if you have any suggestions on that.
In summary, I recommend parents to use following process when buying bikes for their kids:
- Get the bike with the size they can comfortably ride. They grow fast, but don’t buy too big as it’ll take the fun out of it, they’ll quickly stop riding.
- If you’re not going to primarily do mountain biking, don’t incur the weight of suspensions and stronger frames.
- For smaller size, first bikes; make sure they have hand-brakes. It makes it easy to transition up later.
- After age of 8, start paying close attention to weight of the bike. Ask bike shop the “lightest” version of the model irrespective of price. You can always ask for “next best thing” for your budget. Don’t get the one “in stock” for instant gratification.
- Don’t load up with heavy accessories like storage baskets or fancy bells.
- Carry portable scale (like this) to weigh bikes as-built in stores so you can compare. You’ll be surprised how different bikes weigh despite looking very similar. Bike manufacturers often don’t publish their weight numbers.