How to buy a child's bike

Getting the right bicycle for your child can help make cycling fun — and safe.
 
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01 .Introduction

Boy fixing bike

In brief

  • The most important consideration when buying a kid’s bike is safety and size and fit — don’t be tempted to buy a large bike they can ‘grow into’. It may be hard for them to control and could lead to a crash.  
  • While all new bikes should meet the Australian standard for bike safety, it’s useful to know what to check for — especially if you’re buying second-hand.
  • Buying a better-quality bike can mean getting a safer bike, and it will also hold its value better if you want to sell it later on.

Getting their first bike is a big moment in many a child’s life. A safe and comfortable bike, along with lessons in cycling safety, can mean opening up a whole new world of fun, freedom and independence. It’s a comfort that new bikes sold in Australia must conform to the relevant Australian standard (AS/NZS 1927:1998 Pedal bicycles — Safety requirements) to ensure they’re safe and of good quality. But choosing a bike that suits your child and his or her needs is equally important.

Bike sizes are based on their wheel diameter, usually stated in imperial and/or metric measurements on the wheel itself, and are generally appropriate for the following age groups:

  • 3-5 years 30cm/12in
  • 6-8 years 40cm/16in
  • 9-11 years 50cm/20in

This is a guide only, and will vary according to your child's growth. We recommend getting your bike assembled, checked and adjusted at a bike shop; for a small fee it's a smart investment.

This article provides a checklist of things to consider when buying a new or secondhand bike for your child, with the aim of creating safe and fun times ahead.

For more information on Bikes, see Babies and Kids.

What about Balance bikes?

A balance bike is a modern version of the draisienne or hobby horse. It has no pedals, crankset and chain or training wheels, so the child simply scoots their feet along the ground to gain speed and then raises their feet to coast along. Some come with a rear-wheel hand brake, however if the child isn’t comfortable using it they simply drag their feet to stop.
The idea behind this concept is that the child learns to balance, steer and stop before they move onto the more challenging task of pedalling. This approach has been popular in Europe, and in recent years this method has become more accepted in Australia. 

Balance bikes are light and easy for children to move around, and have a low centre of gravity. The child needs to be able to walk and tall enough to straddle the bike before they can use one, generally around 18months is a good age to get started.

Manufacturers of balance bikes say that children can learn to ride faster and generally move onto a bike with pedals and no training wheels with ease. Kids may become dependent on training wheels, and could acquire bad habits that may take time to unlearn. If training wheels are not adjusted correctly they can become an obstacle to learning.

The concept is good, but balance bikes have a limited life span. You could achieve the same effect by simply removing the pedals from a normal bike and then attaching them again when the child is ready. It’s a cheaper option – avoiding the extra expense of a balance bike. Simon Vincett of Ride On magazine recently reviewed the ByK E-250 First Bike ($250) and gave it a score of 96%. It’s not a balance bike, however could be used as one with the pedals off.

 
 

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Boy on bike

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.

Price

 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.

Brakes

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.

Wheels

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.

Training wheels

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.

Chain guard

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).

Gears

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.

Boy riding bike

Safety accessories required by the Australian standard are a bell or horn, so your child can alert pedestrians and other cyclists; and front, rear, pedal and spoke-mounted reflectors. If your child is going to be riding at night — which generally isn’t recommended — they’ll also need lights.

An Australian Standards-approved helmet is an essential component of the bicycle package. Don’t even consider giving your child a bike to ride without a helmet. It’s important that it fits properly and your child likes it. If it doesn’t fit well, it’s next to useless in an accident, and if your child doesn’t like it, they won’t wear it. A helmet can't be a surprise present — your child needs to try it on for size and style before you buy it.

A good helmet

  • Fits snugly but comfortably on your head. You can use foam pads provided with the helmet to fine-tune the fit.
  • Sits firmly about 1–1.5 cm above the eyebrows. You shouldn’t be able to move it forwards, backwards or sideways.
  • Feels comfortable to wear — not too hot or heavy.
  • Allows good visibility all round — a sun visor can help keep the sun out of your eyes.
  • Is a bright colour so it’s more easily seen.
  • Is easy to do up and undo, and has straps that are easy to adjust.

Riding on the footpath

While the rules for teens and adults riding on the footpath vary from state to state, children under 12 are allowed to ride on the footpath in all states. Cyclists must give way to pedestrians, keep to the left, and if there’s a sign saying no cycling (near shopping areas, for example) get off the bike and push it.

Bikes that you put together yourself need some technical expertise if it’s to be done correctly and safely. For safety’s sake, the Australian standard recommends you have the bike assembled by a qualified bicycle mechanic. Bikes that come fully assembled should meet the standard for assembly — look for a checklist or certificate that confirms this.

When we last tested adult bikes, we found several of them not properly assembled — with, for example, loose handlebars or headset (the bearing assembly that connects the front fork to the frame). So check that things like handlebars, brake pads and pedals aren’t loose and that the wheels spin true (look at the spinning wheel from the front with the bike upside-down).

Instructions and labelling

The Australian standard for bikes requires certain instructions, labels and warnings be included with the bike when applicable. If you’re buying secondhand, some of them will be missing, but it’s useful to know what is expected.

  • All bikes should come with use and maintenance instructions.
  • Bikes styled to look like off-road or stunt bikes (such as ‘BMX’ or ‘mountain’ bikes) but which aren’t suited to such use should carry a warning label. Of course if you want a bike that suits these purposes, make sure it’s the real McCoy.
  • If the bike is only partially assembled, simple, clear and adequate instructions for putting the pieces together, as well as which tools should be used, should be included.
  • Assembled bikes with misaligned handlebars and/or pedals removed (for fitting in a box, say) should have a label warning that adjustment is required and/or pedals need to be attached.
  • The bike should carry a permanent marking with the name and address in Australia of its manufacturer, importer or distributor, and an identification number.

When your child’s not quite old enough to ride a bike, you can still take them with you when you ride.

Your three main options are:

  • a trailer
  • a child seat or
  • a trailer bike (also called a half-bike trailer)

Trailers

A trailer is probably the safest way to carry a very young child, although it’s not without risks. For one, it’s a pretty rough ride, and your baby’s brain will get quite a rattling. Experts say you shouldn’t take a baby under 12 months old in a trailer. In any case, you’d be hard-pressed to find a helmet that fits, and you shouldn’t for a second consider carrying a child without a helmet.

Depending on the model, a trailer can also tip over quite easily (if one wheel goes over a rock or kerb, or you turn too sharply, for example). When you’re choosing a trailer, get one with rollbar protection, a five-point harness and a hitch that will allow the trailer to stay upright even if the bike tips over.

Also consider ventilation (it can get pretty hot in there); protection from the elements (rain and wind); protection from bottom bumps; ease of attaching; and ease of storage and transportation (a fold-up model with removable wheels will take up less space in your home and car).

Child seats

A child seat can be mounted on the front or back of your bike. Your child needs to be strong enough to wear a helmet and still keep their head upright (over 12 months). The seat should have guards so their hands and feet can’t get caught in the spokes.

As with trailers, it’s a pretty bumpy ride. When you go over bumps, you use your legs and saddle to absorb some of the shock, but the baby will feel every jolt. The main problem with a child seat is the destabilising effect it has on the bike: one wriggle and the bike goes careening sideways or, worse, tips over. A large number of accidents happen when the child is sitting in the seat while the bike is leaning against a wall or on its stand before you get on — putting your child in a child seat is really a two-person job.

Half-bike trailers

A half-bike trailer has a seat, handlebars, pedals and a rear wheel and attaches to your bike like a trailer. It’s the ideal option if your child is old enough to keep their balance and do a little pedalling, but not strong enough to cycle a long way on their own. And with a little luck, it will make your job easier on the uphills!

See our Child bike seats and trailers review for more information.

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