Try a specialty bike shop first, and get your child fitted with the right-size bike. Then if you want to go to a department store or buy a secondhand bike, at least you’ll know what to look for. A test ride will ensure the bike is comfortable to ride, something a bike shop will let (and even recommend) you do, but not a department or variety store.
Size and fit
The most important consideration is size. While it’s tempting to get a larger bike that your child can grow into, until they do it’s dangerous because they won’t be able to control it properly, and it won’t be much fun to ride. Buying a bike to fit means taking your child with you to the bike shop, and while it may spoil an intended surprise, a bike that's the right size will be appreciated more.
A bike is the right size when your child can:
- Sit on the saddle and rest the balls of both feet on the ground.
- Straddle the top bar with about 3-5 cm clearance and with both feet flat on the ground.
- Reach the handlebars with a slight bend in the arms when sitting on the seat. If there are handbrakes, your child should be able to grasp them and apply enough pressure to stop the bike.
As your child grows, you can raise the seat post and handlebar stem.
A reasonably good-quality bike with 12 inch wheels plus training wheels for a three- to five-year-old is likely to cost around $140 to $200, while a larger (20 inch or 24 inch) bike for a child up to 12 can cost upwards of $240.
If money is an issue, you could consider a secondhand bike. In theory, you should be able to get a very good-quality used bike for the same price as or less than a cheap, not-so-good-quality new bike. While kids would probably prefer the shiny new bike, no matter how poor its quality, you could compensate for the ‘usedness’ of the bike by allowing them to decorate it as they please with paint or stickers — something their friend with the new bike might not be allowed to do.
The Australian standard requires that children’s bikes should have at least two braking systems, of which one must be a back-pedal brake (where brakes are activated when you pedal backwards). In any case, pedal brakes are usually recommended for beginners, especially very young children who don’t have the hand and arm strength to operate handbrakes safely. There’s usually a handbrake for the front wheel too — check its quality and make sure it’s not a flimsy plastic lever that bends when squeezed.
Aluminium rims provide a better braking surface than shiny chrome-plated steel rims, and are therefore safer. Our sister organisation in the US tested both types, and braking distance with steel wheels was five times greater than with aluminium ones. If you’re not sure how to tell the difference, take a magnet with you (it won’t stick to aluminium).
It’s better not to get a bike with a quick-release front wheel for a child, because it’s not really necessary and could be dangerous if not installed correctly.
Some argue that your child should learn to ride without training wheels (see What about balance bikes?). They are potentially the easiest way to learn to ride but can also be the slowest and at times dangerous. With training wheels, the child sits higher up and the base width of the training wheel is quite narrow. So, if your child starts to pick up speed, the bike could topple over if they were to turn a corner. When turning the weight is shifted from the rear to the outside training wheel, which will also reduce braking power.
For others, training wheels can be invaluable while your child is learning to balance. If this is your approach, start with them on the ground, and gradually raise them as your child gains confidence.
Children’s bikes should have a guard that encloses the chain wheel and the upper run of the chain, and you should only be able to remove it with a tool. In one variety store we visited, only half the kids’ bikes had the guard, so if you notice the bike doesn’t have one, insist it’s put on (or don’t buy the bike).
Gearing depends a lot on how good a cyclist your child is and the terrain where they’ll ride. For young beginners, a bike without gears is usually recommended, whereas for more experienced riders a few gears might be useful to make going up hills easier. The main thing is to listen to your child — don’t give them a bike more complicated than they feel confident with.
Pedals and handlebars
There should be a tread on both surfaces of the pedal, and if it’s mean enough to necessitate wearing shoes, so much the better!
The ends of the handlebars should be covered so raw metal doesn’t protrude, and the handgrips should be secure.