The Big Need for Little Bikes

– Originally published in Momentum magazine (print edition 35)

Each year brings a new crop of young cyclists and kids who’ve outgrown last year’s ride. Below, some helpful tips and sizing information to make sure the itty-bitty-biker in your family enjoys their two-wheeled freedom. 

“How about a campaign to bring back the kids’
starter bike of yore – or a contemporary version?”
Michael Clague
Vancouver, BC

Momentum reader Michael Clague has reason for concern. The inevitable Google search for youth bicycles delivers few modern interpretations of the simple, straightforward versions children used to ride. As with many adult models, the formerly utilitarian kid’s bike has become an off-road plaything, plagued by unnecessary features and overbuilt construction.

It’s not just a sentimental journey – to look down memory lane and find favor with the classic designs. Nor is it a feat of great prescience to suggest it’s time to revive the kind of bicycle that a child can use as daily transportation. Some builders are recognizing this trend. Better bikes await the discerning young rider. Some things to consider:

It Is About The Bike
The best bike almost always the lightest, most durable model in your price range. Unless it won’t get ridden because it’s the wrong style, colour, or brand.
“I know that some kids make better choices after hearing about a variety of bike types and their benefits… and some just want that new or cool thing that their friends have.” says Paul Bogaert of The Bike Doctor in Vancouver.
“Just don’t get the cheapest one of that type available. That is the biggest mistake. Hopefully the family can negotiate a good decision and avoid an unnecessarily heavy or otherwise inappropriate bike – which may slow down their kids and make a family ride much slower and harder than need be.”

Sizing Them Up
Kid’s bikes come in five main sizes 12, 16, 20, and 24. Because for some reason all bike-sizing methods are confusing and different… the numbers in this instance refer to wheel size (in inches) rather than frame size. Typically, inseam length should be your guide to bike sizing rather than the child’s age, as kids all grow at different rates. Here’s a rough guide:

Age Child’s Inseam        Bike Size
2-4 years     14-17 inches                12 inches
4-6 years     16-20 inches              14 inches
5-8 years     18-22 inches              16 inches
6-9 years     20-24 inches             18 inches
7-10 years   22-25 inches              20 inches
9+ years      24-28 inches             24 inches

Giving Kids The Gears
The next factor to consider – brakes and gears. First-time riders at any age are probably going to be better off with a single-speed, coaster brake style bicycle so that they can concentrate on balancing, pedaling, and being aware of potential hazards. Fiddling with gears, or hand brakes that are too big for small hands will turn the joy of cycling into a frustrating exercise in failure. This could sour the child’s experience. That said, for older children capable of using gears, the additional range and speed they provide may make the investment worth it.

Kid’s Bikes – the next generation
“Kids should also enjoy riding a bicycle that is configured and built like a quality adult bicycle,” says Sean Virnig, the founder of Rawland Cycles in Northfield, Minnesota. Virnig is planning to unveil a new 24” children’s model at the 2008 Interbike show, based upon the ‘Olaf” a hand-built single-speed 650B sized adult bike.
“This model will allow kids to benefit from the proper riding position, unlike that of the BMX bicycle, which is really designed for out-of-the-saddle sprints and jumps around a BMX track,” adds Virnig.
Rawland isn’t the only manufacturer reacting to the need for a better kid’s bike. Miele’s Potenza Elite 2008, the Gary Fisher PreCaliber series, and even kid-size racing bicycles such as the Luath models from British builder Islabike point to an increasing array of quality choices. Which is a good thing because finding a reasonable deal on a vintage kid’s bike is practically impossible. High demand for yesteryear’s cachet, unsurprisingly, means high prices. What’s being sold of course is far more than just a bike. Classic children’s bikes evoke memories of freedom and adventure.
Michael Clague remembers, “When I set out to find bikes for grand-children I was looking for something similar to what I had bought for my daughter when she was 5 or 6… it extended her range and she could travel around the neighbourhood quite independently!”
The remembrance of rides past may imbue the view of Memory Lane with a rose-colored tint, but the bike is back – for young and old alike. Coming with it – a rebirth of classic bicycle functionality for children… and the rediscovery of a world where kids can get around on two wheels too.

No matter how much you love your first bike, there may come a time when you should consider a slightly larger size.

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