Kids Bikes - My View as a Dad and Instructor
Content by Chris Wood
Being a dad of fledgling cyclists and teaching mountain bike lessons to other people’s kids has taught me a lot about how to help kids have fun on a bike. One thing that it has become clear to me is that it‘s not always fear or lack of effort holding kids back from riding well and having fun. Often it's their bikes. Sometimes it’s because the bike needs a tune-up, sometimes it’s the way a bike fits, and sometimes it’s the quality of the bike.
Here's a breakdown of key things that can make-or-break a child's experience on a bike.
In order for biking to be fun, kids need bikes that fit their body dimensions. They need to be able to pedal uphill, stand up to go downhill, lean the bike to corner, and resist the bike to stop. A bike has to be the right size, it really is that simple. Two years is typically the longest you can expect a bike to fit a child well. Choosing a bigger size so the bike will stick around longer risks having your child spend a year feeling awkward, out of control and uncomfortable, all the while developing bad habits to overcome the poor fit of the bike. All of these factors can have a negative impact on how much a kid likes to ride. It’s like putting your kids on skis that are too small or too large for them and hoping they can still turn. Every parent knows how hard it is to balance lifestyle and financial choices. But if your family is even a little serious about riding bikes together, you'll need to start flipping bikes every year or two, just like hockey and ski gear. Fit equals fun.
Hang in here with me through this part. It’s a little complicated but important.
Most kids’ bikes come from the manufacturer with gears meant more for the road, but we want your kids out on the trail. Off-road bikes need better shifters and easier gears for pedalling up hills. Some bikes come with up to 27 gears, (3 x 9 speeds) making shifting confusing for new riders. Single front chain ring gearing called “one-by” is much easier for kids (and adults) to learn. It’s also a little lighter. Front chain rings connected to the pedals with 28-32 teeth are the right range for summer riding. On the other end of the bike, look for a cassette (that’s the clump of gears on the back wheel) with the largest cog having between 34 and 40 teeth. If you can, avoid rear cassettes with 8 speeds or less as the gearing typically will not be easy enough to allow your child to climb hills on the trails. If you can get something with 9 or 10 speeds, it is always better. Some brands like Rocky Mountain and Kona are shipping bikes that offer better gearing and brakes and if you are going to invest in a better ride for your little ripper, we highly suggest you check those two specific brands.
If your eyes glazed over during the last paragraph here is what you need to know. When your child is going to be riding trails and you want them to have the most fun and grow, the perfect gear set up would be a 30 tooth front single chain ring and a 12-40 tooth rear cassette.
"PUSHING MY BIKE UP THIS HILL IS SO MUCH FUN!"
- Said no child ever
Safety and fun are the first priorities on any kids’ lessons with us, and good stoppers are pretty high on the list of priorities when choosing a bike. As pint-sized riders build more trail skills, the ability to control speed becomes increasingly important. If anyone is going to have the confidence to progress and try new skills they need to trust their brakes to stop them. Learning to use and trust equipment builds confidence, and confidence improves learning, which increases fun!
Kids have specific brake challenges because their hands are small and their grip is not as strong as an adult’s. Brakes need to provide ample stopping power and have levers that can be moved closer to the handlebar to fit shorter fingers. Disc brakes that allow for one-finger braking are the absolute best because then kids can keep all their other fingers on the handlebars for greater steering control. (Same for adults BTW)
There are three basic styles of brakes.
- Coaster brakes. These work by pedalling backwards and are fantastic for skidding on the sidewalk, but not great for control on the trail. The biomechanics are fundamentally at odds with trail riding. They are good for very small children on their first bike, learning to ride on pavement, because they are easy to learn. Kids can develop a sense of stopping power and distance as they learn on these simple bikes.
- Linear pull or “V” style brakes. These brakes squeeze the rim of the wheel to stop. They used to be on all adult bikes too. There is huge range in quality and cost, but on kids’ bikes they are often cheap and not effective. With less power than disc brakes they are dependent on straight wheel rims as a bent rim causes the brakes to drag on the wheel, affecting how the bike rides. Pads must be closely aligned to the rim and checked for wear and alignment regularly. Bikes from reputable bike stores will be set up correctly and should have good stopping power. Regular adjustment is required.
Disc brakes. These come in two basic styles, cable actuated and hydraulic. Cable actuated disc brakes are less expensive and offer greater stopping power than V-brakes. Hydraulic disc brakes are the gold standard, just like brakes on adult bikes, with way more stopping power and more adjustment for reach. They are more expensive and found on better kids and youth bikes.
As important as brake choice is, brake lever setup is just as important, and it is free! Correct positioning requires moving the levers inwards, along the handlbar, towards the center of the bars, so smaller hands can reach the end of the levers for more leverage. As your child progresses they will spend more time standing out of the saddle, so levers should also be rotated down to a comfortable angle while standing. Good levers should be adjustable in terms of distance from the bars (called “reach”), so that small fingers can hook onto the lever at the first and second finger joint. When you buy a bike, insist that the shop sets this up with your child present to test it. If they are unwilling to do this or do not know how, contact us and we’ll arrange for you to meet with one of our partner bike shops who understand the importance of correct bike setup for all riders, including kids.
"CAN YOU HOLD MY JUICE BOX AND WATCH ME RIDE THS ROCK ROLL..."
- Every rider parent's dream
Nothing has changed mountain biking more than dropper seat posts in recent years. Dropper posts allow for changes in seat height with the simple push of a button on the handlebars. Being able to have the seat all the up allows for full leg extension and powerful pedalling for climbing like any regular bike. But dropping the seat down and out of the way allows a rider to get low and is safer for going downhill and over obstacles. At this point in time, very few youth bikes come with dropper posts.
Fortunately, they can be added with after-market parts, although they are expensive. A dropper post with 100mm of travel is plenty for a kid is is probabaly the only size that will fit most kids bike. If the cost is just too much to stomach, then a good option is to make sure that the bike is equipped with a quick release so that the seat can be lowered and raised manually as needed. This is something you can teach every kid to do by themselves whenever the trail starts to look rough. In our kids’ clinics, we carry wrenches and Allen keys so we can adjust seats when we do certain exercises. l wonder how many lawns a kid needs to cut to earn a dropper post?
Unless you take your kids to Whistler every summer or vacation near a big hill like Mont Ste. Marie, good fit, good gears and good brakes are more important than suspension on a kid’s bike. And to be clear, low-end bikes from chain stores like Canadian Tire and Wal-Mart are not usually good full-squish bikes. The cheap, low quality suspension typically found on those bikes is worse than no suspension at all because it adds a lot of weight, cost, maintenance, and usually doesn’t function well. Quality suspension adds stability and control. If kids are riding trails, front suspension is going to help on bikes with 24” wheels and up. Full suspension is good for rocky trails, but it will make the bike a bit heavier, add significantly to the price, and requires maintenance every season to keep working well. On bikes with 20” wheels and smaller, you are better off budgeting for better brakes, gears and more ice cream on rides if you want your child to really like bike rides.
That said, there are some pretty sick kids bikes being offered now from Rocky Mountain, Kona, Spawn and some other boutique companies. If you are serious about a full suspension rig for your little athlete, we highly recommend you purchase one through your bike store. Just like adult bikes, these are complex, performance machines that must be assembled and adjusted correctly before you hit the trails, and they will require regular service every year to keep them running well for maximum fun.
“CHEAP STUFF BREAKS”
- My son
Sigh. Kids break things, and lose things, and since we have to feed them EVERY day, they grow out of things. Quality kids’ bikes purchased from and set up by bike shops are built to last and need less maintenance than department store bikes. Take care of a good youth bike and you will be able to sell it in two years when your child outgrows and recover a lot of the original cost. If you sell the bike for a few hundred less than you paid for it, that is the same amount of money that you would have spent on a department store bike that could suck most of the joy out of mountain biking for your child. Some of our partner bike stores even have buy-back programs and lists of parents looking for used bikes. If you are the parent of a young ski racer, you are probably familiar with these programs and how they work. Give your Local Bike Store a call and ask them if they can help you out. Some stores are now offering kids demo bikes for rent and trial.
As a father of two there are few things that make me happier than seeing my kids have fun on bikes, because if I can see them having fun on bikes it likely means I’m riding too. This is part of my definition of quality parenting and is not to be confused with goofing off.
Many things go into helping your children find joy in riding. The choice of trails, the pace, good snacks (never underestimate the power of a well-timed gummi-bear stop), your attitude, and the equipment they use all play into determining if the day ends in tears, or high fives and fist bumps. And when they say, “Can we ride again tomorrow?” you get to say "Yes!", like it wasn’t your idea all along.
We hope this little guide helps to clarify what makes a good kids bike.
As always, feel free to email us with any questions. And we are always happy to introduce you to bike stores that we know can set you up with appropriate, quality products.
Links to other resources:
- Singletracks' 10 Best Kids bikes of 2018
- Rascal Rides - Best Kids Bike Brands
- Cycle Sprog - How to buy a kids bike
- 2 Wheel Tots - How to choose a kids bike
Chris Wood is a Dad, an MTB instructor with Ride Ottawa, and a lover of all forms of bike riding. He loves to instruct both adults and kids and also makes time to coach baseball. He is constantly working on being a better rider and is one of the nicest people you will ever meet.
He is based in Ottawa, Canada.