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Bicycles for Children of All Ages
June 22, 2012

Teaching children how to ride a bike can be a stressful yet exhilarating experience. They wibble, they wobble, they weave. You anxiously watch, coach, and encourage. Then they master the two-wheel roll—and everybody smiles with glee. Understanding the equipment options for the entire learning process, from beginning cyclist to expert speedster, can help foster a lifelong love for this fun, healthy activity. Here's what you need to know.

Scoot Time: Push Bikes
Most kids crawl before they walk. When it comes to cycling, a similar concept can dramatically accelerate the learning progression: Kids should push before they pedal. Push bikes (also known as balance bikes or scoot bikes) have no chains or pedals—all forward momentum is provided by the feet—and allow novice riders to gain balance and confidence on two wheels without having to worry about the complications of pedaling. Most push bikes are pint-sized models designed for only the youngest cyclists (ages 2 to 5). If you want to avoid the expense of a push bike ($50 to $100), or if your rider is too old or too big, you can accomplish the same thing by simply removing the pedals on a standard bike. In both cases, adjust the seat height so the rider's feet easily reach the ground when sitting but can be held up when coasting and balancing.

Pedal Time: Trailers and Training Wheels
Once their balance skills have been honed on a push bike, new cyclists usually find it easier to focus on, and quickly master, the pedaling and braking elements of riding. Many beginners transition directly from push bikes to standard pedal bikes without difficulty. This progression can be made even easier with some additional training techniques and equipment. Young riders can first practice pedaling on a trailer bike ($75 to $150), a one-wheeled contraption, complete with seat and pedals, that attaches to the back of a full-sized bike. (They are sometimes called bike extensions or child bike trainers.) The adult rider provides the balance, allowing the young trailer-pumper in back to focus on pedaling technique.

Training wheels—that decades-old bike-learning staple—transform a tippy two-wheeled bicycle into a stable four-wheeler and can significantly ease the transition from push to pedal. Many of the smallest children's bikes come with training wheels pre-installed, or you can purchase a pair to attach yourself ($10 to $20). Try to avoid using training wheels, however, as a replacement for the pedal-free "push and coast" learning experience, which most quickly develops the necessary balance skills.

Tour Time: How to Fit a Kid's Bike
Young riders, especially beginners, must be able to quickly and easily place their feet on the ground for balance—and to catch themselves before they topple over. When checking a bike for fit, first have the youngster straddle the top tube between the seat post and handlebars; the feet should easily reach the ground on both sides. Next, check the seat height. For first-time riders, you should be able to set it low enough so their feet reach the ground even when seated. As they progress in skill and confidence, move the seat upward so their feet just barely touch the ground; this offers the most ergonomically correct, and strongest, position for pedaling.

Never buy a bike that's too big—a new bicycle is not something that young riders should "grow into." If their feet don't reach the ground, or if it's challenging for them to reach the handlebars, the potential goes way up for confidence-killing crashes. A single-speed bike with pedal brakes, rather than hand brakes, helps simplify the riding experience and can help boost new-rider confidence. Note that children's bikes are generally sized by wheel size, rather than frame dimensions (16-, 20-, and 24-inch wheels are most common). Frame size varies correspondingly; size them up based on the steps outlined above.

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COMMENTS

By: terimorrow
Posted: 07/22/2012 10:24
Rating:

Thanks for the great advice!  When we bought our six-year old twins their first good bikes, the bike shop told us to consider buying the taller of the two a 24-inch bike since she'd probably grow into it in a year.  We thought about it momentarily, and then decided it was safer to get her a bike that fit her properly and buy her a new bike when she needs it.  We're so happy we did that.  It's a year and a half later and the smaller bike looks like it will fit her just fine for at least another summer.

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