Simply put, balance bikes are bicycles without pedals. Balance bikes are designed to introduce toddlers as young as 18 months old to bike riding. They are a more efficient, safer, and less intimidating method of teaching bike riding than using training wheels or even tricycles.
Learning to ride a bike involves three main skills: balance, steering and pedaling. Tricycles and training wheels may teach pedaling, but pedaling is a skill that kids tend to pick up very fast. Balance, on the other hand, tends to be a much more difficult skill to master. Balance bikes offer kids an unintimidating opportunity to focus on learning how to balance and steer. A quality balance bike with hand brakes will also offer a young child the opportunity to learn how to brake, an additional skill that saves many pairs of shoes.
By the way, my earlier statement that balance bikes are bicycles without pedals was a simplified explanation. Since balance bikes do not need to accommodate pedals they can be constructed in a way that is lighter and lower than pedal bikes, therefore they are not precisely the same as a bike without pedals.
When sized properly, balance bike geometry makes them unintimidating. Sometimes referred to as run bikes, they necessarily require both feet to be placed firmly on the ground so that the rider can “run” with the bike under them. Toddlers will quickly realize that they will not fall because they already have both feet securely on the ground. This is in sharp contrast to most bikes with training wheels from big box stores, where the rider is situated so high off the ground that they cannot easily place a foot down for support.
A perfect age to start a toddler on a balance bike is around 18 months up to 2 years old. By this point, they will most likely have mastered walking and running, both necessary skills to be able to use a balance bike. Not to mention, an 18 month old should be tall enough to fit on a small balance bike (be sure to check the sizing specifications).
Some toddlers won’t take to it right away. The key is to have the balance bike available for when they are ready. Every kid takes to a balance bike in their own way. Some pick it up and immediately start experimenting. Others need to be be shown how to use the bike.
It’s not uncommon for children to show disinterest in the balance bike even beyond 2 years old. It’s important to recognize that for a child that doesn’t know how to ride a bike, the entire concept of balancing on two wheels can seem confusing and challenging. Bike playdates are a fabulous way to sway an uninterested toddler. Watching other kids on two wheels (1) acts as a demonstration for learning toddlers and (2) helps to motivate toddlers (children have a special way of motivating each other).
Keep in mind that forcing a toddler to ride (or for that matter, forcing any kid to do anything) risks taking the fun out of the activity. Riding a bike should be fun! So gently encourage your child to ride, give them opportunities to ride and put them around other kids who are riding, but be careful about pushing too hard.
The earlier a child is encouraged to ride a balance bike, the easier it should be for them to learn. Very often, younger kids haven’t yet developed the “fear” factor as compared to older children. Young children have a lower center of gravity, have more gentle falls, recover from falls easier and are less likely to experience the kind of hardcore embarrassment that older kids tend to experience when they feel they have failed at something.
Tricycles and bikes with training wheels should be put out of sight or completely gotten rid of. Once a child is exposed to tricycles and training wheels, they may prefer the stability they offer and resist the challenge involved with learning to balance a bike on their own.
After watching many toddlers go through the learning curve, here are the features that we at Prevelo believe are the most important:
Your toddler doesn’t weigh much, therefore their bike shouldn’t either. A target weight for a balance bike should be roughly 35% of your child’s weight. One cannot expect toddlers to learn to balance a bike that they cannot even lift. A heavy balance bike places an unnecessary obstacle in front of a learning child.
Aluminum is an ideal material for a balance bike frame since it is lightweight and strong. Steel is strong but heavier than aluminum. Plastic can work for small riders, but even moderately sized children can cause plastic bikes to flex. Wood is vulnerable to the elements and may wear faster.
Stand-over height refers to the height of the part of the bike that a child will stand over when off the saddle. It is one less thing for a toddler to get caught up on and have to maneuver around.
The parts of the bike that the rider touches should look and feel as similar as possible to those same parts on a pedal bike. The idea is that when you get your child their first pedal bike, as much as possible, you want the bike to feel familiar. Grips that feel like real bike grips, hand brakes, and a more typical bike saddle are features to look for. A major goal is to acclimate a toddler to the feeling of a real bike and make the transition that much easier.
Footrests are a popular accessory that we believe are unnecessary. Toddlers will naturally lift their feet up off the ground to coast around and can also gently rest their feet on the rear wheel stays. In particular, be cautious of footrests that may impede the rider’s running motion or add unnecessary weight. Finally, consider that if a child is coasting well and ready to rest their feet on a foot rest, perhaps they could be doing the same thing on a pedal bike and simply resting their feet on the pedals. And if so, perhaps while the child’s feet are on the pedals, the child could simply start pedaling. You get the point... If a child is confident enough on a balance bike to make real use of a foot rest, perhaps they are ready for pedals.
Finally, pay attention to sizing guidelines provided by the manufacturer. You will need to measure your toddler’s inseam to ensure a proper fit.
A good indication that a child is ready to transition to a pedal bike is that the child is coasting on the balance bike and riding out the momentum. The question we ask parents is:
Can the rider coast on the balance bike and not use their feet until they run out of speed?
If the answer to that question is “Yes”, the child is ready to start the transition to pedals.
If you are unsure, a good test is to take your child to a gentle downhill slope that is over thirty feet long (for safety, make sure that the slope isn’t too steep and that there aren’t dangerous things like traffic at the bottom). If they can coast over 30 feet without putting feet on the ground, then it’s probably a good time to start the transition to a pedal bike.
There are six features we think are important for a kids first pedal bike:
A target weight for a first pedal bike should be roughly 35% of your child’s weight. Any heavier than that and your child may struggle under the weight of the bike and be intimidated. We use custom formed 6061 aluminum tubing for Prevelo frames to create a frame that is both light and strong. Prevelo bikes also feature lightweight and strong alloy parts throughout the bike.
We also avoid using plastic components as a tactic to drop the weight of the bike. Too much plastic and the bike will not wear well nor last nearly as long.
We have found that when young riders are closer to the ground, they are more confident and less apprehensive about learning to ride. For optimal first bike fit, the rider should be able to get both feet flat on the ground while seated in the saddle. (Later, once comfortably riding, a rider can be fitted so that only their tip toes touch the ground while seated in the saddle.) With both feet planted firmly on the ground, a young rider should feel confident that they will be able to catch themselves and avoid falling.
This works in conjunction with a low minimum seat height. A young rider should be seated closer to the ground. If the seat is low, the bottom bracket also needs to be low to avoid the rider’s knees pushing up into their chest.
Short cranks make the ride more comfortable and efficient in conjunction with a low minimum seat height. Short cranks also provide increased pedal ground clearance in conjunction with a low bottom bracket.
A narrow Q-factor, the horizontal distance between the pedals, will make a bike easier and more comfortable for a young rider to straddle.
Hand brakes, unlike coaster brakes, allow the rider to apply the brakes even when their feet are off the pedals. This has the huge benefit of allowing the rider to brace for a stop (i.e. being able to put their foot down) without sacrificing braking ability.
Further, when learning to ride, coaster brakes can cause unnecessary frustration for young riders who will, on occasion, and usually on accident, pedal backwards thus triggering the brake.
CPSC standards require us to ship our smallest pedal bike, the Alpha One, with a coaster brake. We offer a freewheel kit that allows parents to remove the coaster brake feature.
Finally, since larger bikes rely solely on hand brakes, why not familiarize your child as early as possible? This avoids the confusion of having to learn a new braking method. Let’s keep things simple.
Kids are tough on their bikes. They do things to their bikes that adults would never do (like throwing them on sidewalks and curbs). Therefore, a good kids bike should be durable enough to withstand such abuse. Look for details such as good frame construction, sealed bearings, and alloy (as opposed to plastic) components.
For a young child who is just learning how to ride a pedal bike, a bike should fit in a way that makes the experience as unintimidating as possible. We recommend that when your child is seated in the saddle, both feet should be flat on the ground when their legs are fully extended. This should give your child the confidence that they are in control of the bike and not the other way around.
Once your child is more comfortable riding, the seat can be raised so that both tip toes (as opposed to the entire foot) touch the ground while seated in the saddle and legs fully extended. Take note as to how your child reacts to raising the seat. If they show any apprehension, keep the seat lowered until their confidence grows.
The first step to transitioning your child to a pedal bike is to treat it like a balance bike. That is, remove the pedals. Let your child ride around without the pedals on to get used to the increased size and weight of the pedal bike. This is one instance where a narrow Q-factor comes in handy since the cranks shouldn’t get too much in the way.
Once your child is confidently coasting on the bike, put the pedals back on. Instruct your child to give three running strides to give themselves a little momentum, and then “pedal, pedal, pedal!”
Don’t run alongside your child. Let them understand that they are in control and can always put a foot down to prevent falling.
And remember, lots of cheering when they start riding all by themselves!! Possibly even some ice cream…