We understand: shopping for kids bikes can be confusing. For starters, kids bikes are sized strangely, and many of the best brands are different from those in the adult market. And then there are the more subtle questions: What’s better–coaster brakes or hand brakes? And, how much should one expect to spend to get a quality kids bike?Take a deep breath and relax. We’re about to help cut through the confusion and provide the down-low on how to choose the best bicycle for your child. Here are 7 tips to help you get started.
Kids bike sizes reference their wheel (tire) size. This is different than adult bicycles that are generally measured by the size of the bicycle frame.
The typical wheel sizes for kids bikes are 12”, 14”, 16”, 18”, 20”, and 24.” The bigger the child, the bigger the wheels.
The chart below gives you a rough indication of what age and height correlates with which bike size. That said, the best way to know which size bike is appropriate for your child is to measure their inseam. Which brings us to our next tip….
Measure your child’s inseam.
The best way to fit a bike to a child is to measure their inseam. Don’t skip this step.
A bike suggested for a 5 year old may fit one child at 4 and another at 6. Each kid is different, and each one deserves a bike that fits. Good bike manufacturers will disclose the appropriate inseam length for each of their bikes.
To measure your child’s inseam, grab a tape measure, a book, and a kiddo. Ask them to stand against a wall, either barefoot or with socks.
Have them hold a book between their legs, as close to their crotch as possible, and mark the wall at the top of the book. Then, use a tape measure from the floor to the mark. Easy!
Choose a lightweight bicycle.
Most kids bikes on the market are ridiculously heavy. It’s common for children’s bikes to weigh as much as 50% of their body weight, and weigh more than an adult bike. If you are going to pick a bike based on any one factor, pick it based on weight.
A bike that is too heavy is going to be hard for a child to maneuver and exhausting to ride very far. I had a Dad tell me the other day that his 8 year-old son hated riding his bike and refused to go more than 5 miles. Dad finally broke down and bought him a more-expensive, much-lighter bike and was shocked to find that his son did a complete 360. He suddenly was begging to go biking and riding long distances fast.
An aluminum or titanium frame is going to be lightest. Don’t completely write off steel though. If the wheels and other components are light enough, steel can still be a sturdy, quality option.
Check the Brakes.
Contrary to popular belief, coaster brakes are not the safest option for kids. On cheaply made bikes, inferior hand brakes can be difficult for children to pull, making a coaster brake necessary. On a well-made bike, however, the brake levers will be designed for small, weak hands. An adult should be able to squeeze the lever with their pinky finger.
The reason I don’t recommend coaster brakes is two-fold. First, you can’t back pedal with a coaster brake, which is incredibly difficult for a child just learning to ride. For kids going directly from a balance bike to a pedal bike without training wheels (which I highly recommend), when they backpedal, they stop suddenly and fall over. Watching my son do this repeatedly, I realized I would suggest any child—even very young ones—start on a bike without a coaster.
The second problem with coaster brakes is that there is no modulation—they are either “on” or “off.” For families doing serious riding, down hills, etc, this is a real problem. In the “off” position it is easy to skid or lock-up.
One of the arguments for coaster brakes is that young kids are not coordinated enough for hand brakes. I don’t buy that.
Particularly for children that learned to ride on a balance bike with a hand brake, a transition to a pedal bike with hand brakes as opposed to coaster brakes can actually be easier. My son learned to use his hand brake at 2.5 years old. 2.5 years folks! Even if he was some kind of prodigy (which he’s not), an average 4 year-old should totally be capable of mastering a hand brake.
If you do feel safer going with a coaster brake, pick a bike that has both a coaster and a hand brake. Almost all bikes with wheels larger than 20” have hand brakes, so it is important for kids to learn how to modulate and ride with a hand brake while they are still young.