Kids Bikes – Making the Right Choice

And so it begins

There comes a time in most kid’s lives where they declare that it’s time to move up to a kids bike, aka “two-wheeler”. Those little scamps will come to you with their sweetest smile and work their magic and before you know it you’ve gone from “we’ll see” to on your way to the store.

In general, choosing a bike for you or for anyone can be a daunting task. There are so many choices today. However, when selecting a bike for a child there are a few guidelines that I’d like to suggest that will make your purchase a good experience.

I will remind you that I am not a bicycle professional. What I’m going to share with you is simply my opinion coupled with my experience. So, the bottom line is that this article is worth exactly what you paid for it.

If you have questions about kids bikes and proper fitting for your child then I encourage you to reach out to a proper bike shop.

1. What kind of bike

Balance bike

Balance Bike If you can start your child out young enough then I really recommend a “balance bike”. These bikes have no pedals, no crank set and of course, no chain. Balance bikes are great for younger riders.

The rider first walks the bicycle while standing over the saddle, then while sitting in the saddle.

kids bikesEventually, the rider feels comfortable enough to run and “scoot” while riding the bicycle, then to lift both feet off the ground and cruise while balancing on the two wheels.

The best scenario is that the rider is tall enough or the bike small enough that the rider can walk the bicycle while sitting comfortably in the saddle (seat), the whole time putting their feet flat on the ground.

Balance bikes allow the rider to concentrate on bike handling fundamentals such as balancing, leaning and steering without loosing focus due to the distractions of pedals and training wheels, etc.

We purchased one of these for our granddaughter and her 1st birthday and it was amazing to watch her over the next year or so. There was no training offered and yet she intuitively knew that if she got her momentum up she could lift her feet and coast. The only thing left is to introduce pedals, but I’m going to leave that for her mom and dad.

Pedal Bike

Pedal BikeThis of course is the most common type of bike you’ll find in both the big box stores and the bike shop. They range in price, style, quality and gearing. You’ll be tempted to go this way just because of familiarity.

I am a proponent of balance bikes but in all honesty a pedal bike can be converted to one if you wish. The pedals can be removed long enough for this to act as a balance bike, and then reinstalled.

It’s not easy to remove them but it does often require a special tool. Your bike shop can do it in less than a minute.

If you do go this route, keep this in mind; the left pedal on every bike is a reverse thread. This means that to install or tighten it you will turn the pedal COUNTER clockwise, and to remove it or loosen it, you will turn the pedal clockwise. Counter clockwise = towards the front of the bike. Clockwise = towards the rear of the bike. If you think about a while the reasoning will make complete sense.

Most pre-teens, middle-school kids, and teens love BMX bikes. These 20″- or 24″-wheel bikes are great for cruising around the neighborhood. Some BMX bikes, called “freestyle” or flatland bikes, have special pegs and handlebars for learning tricks and doing stunt riding.

Pedal Bike with Training Wheels

Pedal Bike with Training WheelsThe next question to ask is, “training wheels, or no training wheels?” While I’m not a big fan of training wheels, you may be. My reasoning is that the wheels are rarely installed properly or are of such poor quality that the rider leans one direction or the other so that there really isn’t a lesson in balance at all. It seems to me that more bad habits are developed than are overcome.

If you do choose to go with training wheels I would suggest you get them off the bike as quickly as possible. In other words, work with your child a few hours each day over one weekend and you’ll make wonderful progress. I will say that I have had great success in teaching my own children to ride by doing so on grass. It is a bit harder to get momentum up but if the crash and burn the landing is much better than pavement.

2. Size

Selecting the properly sized kids bike is important here. Avoid the mistake of purchasing a bike that is too big, with the logic that “she’ll grow into it”, or “he can almost reach the ground”.

For safety reasons your new cyclist will need be able to slide off the seat and while continuing to straddle the top tube, be able to put at least one foot on the ground.

She has figured this bike out.
She has figured this bike out.

It may be difficult to size the right bike especially if you are trying to surprise your little guy or gal with a new kids bike. You may be able to strike an agreement with your local bike shop (LBS) to return after the surprise, and get the correct bike with your new rider available.

Here are some guidelines of kids bike sizes based on child’s age and height. Remember this is only a guideline; your child must be able to put a foot down in order to be safe.


Child’s Height

Bike Wheel Size

Age 2 – 5

26 – 34 inches

12 inches

Age 4 – 8

34 – 42 inches

16 inches

Age 6 – 9

42 – 48 inches

18 inches

Age 8 – 12

48 – 56 inches

20 inches


56 – 62 inches

24 inches

Note: With adult bikes they are measured with frame size. Kids bikes are measured by wheel size as detailed above.

3. New or Used

I love new, but that isn’t always my choice. A used bike might be the best to start with. Not only do you have to teach your kid how to ride but also how to take care of a bike. You child must learn that a kids bike is an investment and should be treated well. Dropping it on the ground should be discouraged, leaving it outside to be rained on is a big “I don’t think so”, in my house.

Finding a used bike should be very easy. Hopefully there is one in the family. If not, there’s Craig’s List, The Swap Sheet, The Little Nickel and of course yard sales. But remember just because you found a great deal doesn’t mean you put your kid on a bike that is too small or too big. The right sized kids bike is a safe bike.

4. Where to buy

If you go the new bike route you’ve got a big decision to make. You can find new kids bikes at places such as Target, Walmart, and many other large box stores. You’ll be tempted to go there because you can walk away without emptying your retirement account. One bit of caution, “you get what you pay for” really comes into play here. The qualities of the bikes are subpar. The welding appears to have been squeezed out of a toothpaste tube and the components are the cheapest thing the builder could find. This bike is built as a throw away bike.

I really suggest that you go to a LBS and buy a brand you’ll recognize. You can find kids bikes made by Trek & Schwinn and others that will be far more superior for just a little more investment.

In the late 80s we purchased a “mountain bike” for our oldest daughter. We spent somewhere between $200 and $300 for a brand name, Raleigh. That was a lot of money then and is so today. However, we passed that bike down to the next 2 kids in line. Each new kid was able to choose a new paint job and I rebuilt the bike for them. This bike is still in my shop, with my youngest daughter’s paint scheme, and it has held up all these years. In the long run the investment paid off much better than buying a $75 bike every 2 years.

The other nice thing about buying from a LBS is that many shops offer free lifetime tune-ups or at a minimum a check up after 30 or 60 days. You’ll also be able to tap into the collective knowledge of the LBS guys and gals to help you in sizing.

5. Equipment

For older kids and larger kids bikes you see an introduction to equipment such as brakes, gears, shocks, etc.

Smaller kids bikes will come with “coaster brakes” where you pedal backwards to engage. Hand brakes may be too difficult for small hands to pull, or not sufficiently powerful for safe stopping if they are designed for small hands.

As you move to larger sizes you’ll find gears and hand brakes. This will add a new dimension to your cyclist but as they mature they’ll naturally get the idea. If you are not familiar with gearing and shifting your LBS can help you explain that to your son or daughter.

6. Color

For some, color, is at the top of the list and more than likely getting the right color will be the most important feature for your child. If you’ve found a bike that is adorned in a “Dora the Explorer” theme, the success of passing that down to your son is greatly diminished. I really like the idea of repainting the bike with your kid but that is time consuming and challenging if you’re not familiar with bikes.

Therefore, I recommend buying a bike that has been painted a neutral color, such as green, yellow, red, blue, white etc. Avoid camouflage or pink if you want to hand this down to a sibling of a different gender.

7. Budget

I really hope you’ll be able to push out of your comfort zone and spend a wee bit more on the bike. It will last longer and most importantly, if taken care of, it will continue to work. This means your kid spends more and more time outside being active.

8. Safety Equipment

This cannot be overlooked. In many states helmets are required on minor children, although I’ve rarely seen it enforced. Helmets save lives. It’s that simple. Get your kid in the habit of wearing one each and every time he or she gets on the bike. If you can get them to wear other equipment, gloves and guards, etc., that’s good but the helmet should be non-negotiable.

Trying to describe how to measure your kid and find the proper helmet could be an entire post. Rather than do that I’m going to link you to this very good article on how to do so.

I’m sure that after I post and re-read this I’m going to find a lot of information that I missed sharing with you. I may update this as I go along. I’ve been working on this post for about 5 or 6 days now and during that time I’ve been trying to write while under the haze of pain medication. A back injury 10 days ago has set me backwards and certainly kept me off the bike but I didn’t expect it to keep me from writing well. If this post seems disjointed, I’ll apologize now.

Let’s bring this to a close. I really want your kid to ride a bike. Not because it helps me but because it may be one the greatest things your kid can do during his or her adolescent years. It’s healthy and it may, as it did in my case, launch me into a healthy adult life.

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