There is nothing quite like the joy of bicycle riding. Not only is it fun, but it can be a real teaching tool for children. Riding a bike allows a child to experience things like inertia… and gravity. They may not know the scientific terms, but they will learn about the real-life effects of those thrilling and complex ideas. Plus, it’s a great family activity!
Learning to ride a bike is a culmination of multiple developmental milestones being reached. In addition to being physically big enough, a child must have the coordination to handle the bike, mental readiness/self-confidence and the motivation to learn to balance and ride a bike. Any of these developmental markers can put the brakes on bike riding; so, it’s good to consider these factors when purchasing a bike for a child.
Through the years, bikes have changed their looks and have more “bells and whistles”, but the basics are the same. Having a bike that is the appropriate size for the rider is key. It can make cycling not only more comfortable and fun, but can also help prevent injury due to awkward positions required to use a bike that’s the wrong size.
Walking into the bike section of your local store can be overwhelming with all of options available. So, how do you know what bike to select?
Generally speaking, there are 5 things to pay attention to:
- Frame size (wheel size for children)
- Saddle (seat) height
- Saddle position
- Saddle tilt
- Handlebar position
While a bicycle has many moving parts that can be adjusted, the frame is the frame. Few, if any, adjustments can alter it, so it’s especially important to start off with the correct size. While some charts refer to a rider’s height, it’s actually more an issue of leg length.
Two people that are 5 ft tall may have very different leg lengths. The best way to know if a bike frame is good for you, is to try it out. If you can straddle the bike with both feet flat on the ground with a little clearance, then you should be good. If you have to fully extend the leg to reach the lowest vertical position of the pedals, then it’s best to look at a smaller size.
For a road bike or hybrid bike, 1-2 inches of clearance over the top tube is probably sufficient. If you are looking at a mountain bike, you’ll want to allow about 4 inches, especially if you will be riding over rough ground.
Be careful when looking at bike “sizes”. Even bikes with the same frame size may not fit the same, due to various degrees of incline of the top bar.
For children, bikes are typically sized by wheel diameter. There can be a tendency to “size up” so that the child “grows into” the bike size. However, this could put them at higher risk of injury. Think about their positioning and if they would be able to hop off the bike quickly. They should not need to lean the bike to get off the bike.
The basic sizing charts by height can give you a good ballpark size, but you will still be best suited to try it out.
If the bike saddle, or seat, is too high or too low, this can lead to pain and may cause injuries of the back and knees. Additionally, having the correct saddle height can help you pedal more efficiently, something you’ll be grateful for when you hit the big hills! What’s a good saddle height? Adjust your seat so that when the pedal is at the lowest position, the ball of your foot is on the pedal and your knee has a slight bend. Try that out and if you feel adjustment needs to be made, do so in small increments.
You will need someone to help you check the saddle position. While you are stationary, rotate the pedals so they are in horizontal alignment (neither being higher or lower than the other). When you seat is positioned properly, your forward knee will be directly over the front pedal. If it isn’t, loosen the seat post and slide the saddle forward or backward as needed. Be sure to keep the seat level when you do this!
Saddle Tilt & Design
While some types of bikes have different positioning, most will have you sitting on a seat that is level. You can check with a level from your toolbox, as you would when checking a floor or window. Having the saddle tipping either forward or backward can cause undue pressure on your arms, shoulders and/or lower back. If you are having trouble getting the saddle level or if you have a bike that you think may need to be adjusted differently, a bike shop will be able to help you with recommendations specific to your bike and your usage of it.
Saddle design is primarily a matter of personal preference. There are a number of models available, some designed for comfort and others for performance. You will have to try a few out and see what feels best to you.
The handlebar is another adjustment that is primarily personal preference. Just as the frame height requirements for different people, so are handlebar positions. For comfort, adjust your handlebars a little higher, creating an upright riding position and alleviating stress on the shoulders, neck and back. For better aerodynamics, lower your handlebar for a more streamlined riding position. The handlebar should not be so low that your knees and legs are hitting it as you pedal.
Types of Children’s Bikes
In addition to these differences, there are now bikes made with developmental age in mind. These start very basic and progress in both size and features as the child matures physically. Before looking at features consider your child’s size and maturity. Brakes are a vital factor for riding safely. Most young children find coaster brakes to be easier to use than hand brakes. They may be tall enough for one of the bigger wheel bikes, but may not yet have the dexterity and coordination to handle hand brakes. The good news is that most of these can be found in several different sizes, so you can find one that is best suited to your child both in physical size and maturity. Trust your parental instinct and when you think you’ve got it narrowed down, have your child take a test ride before making your purchase.
These are the simplest of bikes. They are geared to children around ages 2-4 years old who are just starting to experiment with 2 wheelers. The balance bike usually has 12-inch wheels and has no pedals. The child uses their feet to push off to move forward and then plants their feet down to stop. They are an alternative to tricycles or pedal bikes with training wheels to build confidence and sense of balance in preparation for pedal bikes.
Small Wheelers are simple pedal bikes geared towards children 3-5 years of age. They have handlebars and pedals, and generally range from 12–16-inch wheels. Often, they will have coaster brakes, which are easier for young children in that they require less manual dexterity and coordination.
You won’t see this term in stores, but it references bikes that are made for children 4-6 years old. These bikes are typically described by wheel size with 16 inch being the most popular. At this stage, you will start to see hand brakes and even gear sets on some. At this point both the bike and generally the child is able to pick up some speed. It’s important that they understand steering and working the hand brakes
20-inch wheel bikes
Children riding bikes in this category are generally 5-9 years old. Once you get to the 20-inch wheel bikes, you will see gear sets, hand brakes and even suspensions being included. You will also see terms like “road bike”, “mountain bike” and “cruiser” used in the names and descriptions, meaning they are getting closer to the specialization found in adult bikes.
Within the 20-inch wheel bikes are the BMX bikes. Originally designed to mimic the motocross motorcycle, they were made for dirt track racing with jumps and banked turns. Now, they are widely popular due to their durability and rugged look. Typically, they have 1 gear, lightweight frames and knobby tires. While 20 inch is a common tire size, you can find this style in many other sizes, as well.
24-inch wheel bikes
This stage, most often 7 years or older, is when things really begin the transition to adult bikes. These bikes can have transmissions with up to 36 gears, front suspension and more. Of course, extra features often mean higher price tag, but depending on the rider and how they plan to use the bike, it may be worth it.
Whether you are purchasing a bike for yourself, for a child, or both, there are many factors to consider. Take your time and do your research. Having a bike that fits properly will go a long way in your ride safer and more comfortable. Air up the tires, grab your helmet and get ready to enjoy the great outdoors. Your body will thank you!
Landesberg, Warren DC American Chiropractic Association “Bike-fitting Basics” https://handsdownbetter.org/bike-fitting-basics/
Cycling Today. The ultimate guide to kids bike sizes https://cycling.today/the-ultimate-guide-to-kids-bike-sizes/
Kids Bike Size Charts and How to Choose the Perfect Bike for Your Child https://spokester.com/blogs/news/kids-bike-size-charts-choose-perfect-bike-child
Children: Choosing A Bike / Buying a Bike https://www.ibike.org/education/buying.htm