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Balance Bikes: How to Choose
From Size to Brakes to Tires, We Guide You Through the Features that Really Matter
Balance bikes seem pretty simple, but it’s not a simple task to choose the best balance bike for your child. While essentially any balance bike can teach a toddler or child to balance, riding experiences vary widely as a result of differences in bike size, quality, and features. The 11 main criteria to help you choose the best balance bike for your son or daughter of any age and ability are: 1) size, 2) weight, 3) geometry, 4) tire type, 5) brakes, 6) turning limiters, 7) footrests, 8) bearings, 9) frame materials, 10) hand grips, and 11) bolts.
Size is by far the most important factor to get right when choosing a balance bike. While balance bikes are often marketed as “one-size-fits-all,” the reality is that the same bike will not properly fit an 18-month-old and a six-year-old. Tire size and seat height should both be considered when determining the right bike for your toddler or child.
Tire Size: Most balance bikes have 12″ tires, while 14″ and 16″ tires are popular for tall pre-schoolers and grade-schoolers. 10″ tires do exist for starter balance bikes but aren’t recommended because toddlers outgrow them so quickly.
Seat Height: While tire size is an indicator of the overall size of a balance bike, the seat height is the most accurate indicator of how a bike will fit your child. To properly ride a balance bike, a child’s feet must be able to hit and push off of the ground while they are sitting comfortably on the bike. A properly fitted balance bike allows the seat height to be set 1″ to 1.5″ less than a child’s inseam (measured crotch to floor without shoes on).
Proper Seat Height Should Allow for a Slight Bend in the Knee
To allow room for growth, it is ideal to purchase a bike with a maximum seat height of at least 2″ above the child’s current inseam. Most balance bikes will fit a child for at least 2 to 3 years or until they move up to a regular kids’ bike.
Measuring Your Child: The easiest way to measure a child’s inseam is with a hardbound book. Without shoes on, have the child stand against a wall, squeeze the book between their legs, and then slowly raise the book up until it hits their crotch. Level the book with the floor, then measure the distance between the top of the book to the ground.
As a general rule, you don’t want a bike to weigh more than 30% of your child’s weight. A 10-pound bike can be difficult for a 25 lb. 2-year-old to maneuver around, but is a piece of cake for a 35 lb. 3.5-year-old. Generally, the more features that are added to a bike, the heavier a bike will get. Building a lightweight bike without eliminating features is possible, but requires high-end specialty components which significantly increase the cost of the bike.
Given that weight should have high priority when choosing a balance bike, parents may need to sacrifice some features in order to achieve the desired bike weight. Athletic kids usually can manage heavier bikes without concern and the extra features may be worth it. However, petite or less coordinated kids can struggle with heavier bikes, so it is recommended to adhere to the 30% rule.
When riding a balance bike, it’s about running and gliding. Kids naturally lean forward to run and need enough room to do so. Poorly-designed bikes, like the WeeRide, limit a child’s ability to lean in by creating minimal space between the seat post and the handlebars. Well-designed bikes, like the Cruzee, have ample room between the seat post and the handlebars, providing plenty of space for a child to extend their legs properly to run comfortably and naturally.
The position of the seat on the frame is also noteworthy. A well-designed balance bike has a small gap between the rear tire and the seat when it is set to its lowest position. A poorly-designed bike has a large gap between the rear tire and the seat, creating a high center-of-gravity for the rider, making the bike more difficult to balance and control. The Cruzee shown below has good geometry while the Weeride does not. WOOM1 and Strider balance bikes are additional examples of ideal geometry. Manufacturers typically don’t provide geometry measurements. Luckily, we’ve done the work for you! Be sure to read our full review on a bike for information on geometry.
The tires on a balance bike determine how smooth it will ride (cushioning) and whether it will maintain traction on various surfaces. There are five basic types of balance bike tires: air, foam, rubber, plastic and big apple.
Air (pneumatic) tires provide the most cushion and traction and are the best all-around tires. Various treads are available on air tires, but for most riders, any tread will be sufficient. For more advanced riders, air tires with a knobby tread are ideal on all-terrain surfaces. To prevent flats in air tires, tire sealant is highly recommended (Read our page: How to Use Tire Sealant).
Air tires add about 3 to 4 lbs. to the weight of a bike (depending on the quality of the tire and rims), but the extra weight is worth the overall comfort and smoothness of the ride. For example, the Radio Flyer Glide and Go with Air Tires weighs 9.5 lbs., while the same bike with foam tires weighs 6.5 lbs.
EVA Foam tires are cheaper, lighter, and puncture-proof (will never go flat). They are as common as air tires, but provide limited traction and little, if any, cushioning. Because they are solid and have very little give, more experienced riders will be left to absorb almost all of the impact when going down a curb, over a jump, or on a rocky surface. Foam tires provide enough traction for riders on paved surfaces but can lose traction on all-terrain surfaces as well as on smooth surfaces like gym floors. The tread on foam tires is minimal and quickly wears away. Foam tires are found on Strider, Glide Bikes, and many lower-end bikes.
Rubber tires are a puncture-proof tire that provides a small step up from foam tires in traction and cushioning. They are uncommon and only available on two bike models. Solid rubber tires – found on the FirstBIKE basic – provide the most traction of the puncture-proof tires, but offer no cushioning. Rubber honeycomb tires – found on the Burley MyKick – attempt to mimic the cushioning benefits of air tires by offering internal sealed air chambers. While better than foam, rubber tires don’t match air tires in traction or cushioning on any level.
Hard Plastic tires are the lightest of the bunch but are also the lowest in quality. They provide no traction or cushioning and are suitable for indoor use only. They are found on the yBIKE.
Big Apple, also known as “Fat Boy” tires, are wide profile air tires with extra traction and cushioning to accommodate confident kids that enjoy jumps or tricks at the skate park. Be prepared to pay more for these higher quality tires. Found on LikeaBike Jumper, Early Rider, and the FirstBIKE Limited.
When riding a balance bike, the main source of stopping will always be the rider’s feet, but hand brakes can help to prevent injury, save kids’ shoes and better prepare a child to ride a bike. Around the age of 3.5, pre-schoolers have enough hand/eye coordination to use a hand brake. Once learned, kids tend to use their hand brake in conjunction with their feet for faster, safer stopping. Once mastered on a balance bike, they don’t need to relearn this skill on a regular bike. Toddlers should not be encouraged to use a hand brake, but if you plan on your toddler riding a balance bike for several years, it may be wise to invest in a bike with a hand brake.
The design of hand brakes varies greatly. Higher-end bikes, such as the WOOM1, have short-reach brakes which allow the small hands of pre-schoolers to reach the brake with greater ease. Lower-end bikes generally do not have brakes at all, like the Schwinn, or use standard reach levers. These levers require the hand to stretch farther, making them more challenging to use. If you have a chance to test out a bike in person, try to activate the brake with your pinky finger, which simulates the strength of a child’s hand. If it is easy for you to compress with your pinky, it will also be easy for them, and vice versa. Lastly, for increased safety, all brakes should be on the rear tire and activated with the right hand.
6. Turning Limiters
Turning limiters block the handlebar and front wheel from completing a full revolution, preventing sharp turns and keeping the brake cable from getting twisted. Proponents claim they are safer, while detractors claim they prevent kids from learning proper steering while they are young and still riding at slow speeds. While there are pros and cons to turning limiters, the overall effect most limiters have on riding is minor, and their presence shouldn’t be a determining factor in your purchase. Poorly designed limiters that greatly reduce the turning radius of the bike should be avoided, while elastic limiters (found on the WOOM1 and LikeaBike Jumper), are desirable as they provide gentle correction and are removable.
The majority of balance bikes do not have footrests because they are not needed. When gliding on a balance bike, kids instinctively hold their feet up to glide. In fact, in our seven years of testing bikes, we have never had a chid ask where to put their feet, but lots of parents ask that question! A properly designed footrest usually doesn’t hurt to have around, but for some kids, footrests can be a crutch as they feel they have to use them and spend more time worrying about their feet than balancing and steering.
Unfortunately, poorly designed footrests are common and interfere with a child’s stride, causing them to hit the back of their calf on the footrest while riding. An example of a poorly designed footrest is found on the Schwinn (see below). Typically, a properly designed footrest is for a child’s heels rather than toes, which doesn’t interfere with their stride, found on Strider (see below).
The bearings of a bike determine how fast and how smoothly a tire spins around the axle. Sealed bearings have a rubber seal around them that prevents water, dirt, and dust from entering the bearings. As a result, a bike with sealed bearings experiences less friction when spinning. Less friction means that your child will enjoy a smoother ride while exerting less effort on their balance bike. Sealed bearings are considered to be a higher-end feature and result in a higher price tag. When choosing the features for your ideal balance bike, sealed bearings are a “nice-to-have,” rather than required.
Sealed bearings are part of a sealed hub, so a bike stating it has a sealed hub has sealed bearings as well. The video below demonstrates how this plays out in real life. Both bikes are made by the same manufacturer, Ridgeback, and are the same size balance bike. The bike in the front (Dimensions 14) has sealed bearings while the bike in the back (Scoot XL) does not. The Dimensions 14 tire spins longer and easier.
9. Frame Materials
Balance bikes come in metal alloys, wood, and composite frames, with metal being the most common. Aluminum alloy 6061 is the cream-of-the-crop in bike frames, while wood is the most problematic. Composite is extremely durable, but the frame is prone to flexing with taller/heavier kids 4 or 5-year-olds.
Metal bikes come in steel or aluminum alloys which play a contributing factor in the total weight and weight capacity of the bike. Aluminum alloy 6061 is lightweight, strong, rust-proof, and is used in higher-end bikes, such as WOOM, Islabikes, and Scoot. Steel frames are common on less expensive models, but create a heavier bike and are prone to rust. If bikes don’t specifically state they are made of aluminum, they will be made of steel.
Wood bikes can be more environmentally friendly but are less adjustable than metal bikes. Higher-end wood frames (ex: Early Riders) can last for years if properly taken care of, while cheap, lower-end wood bikes (ex: Smart Gear), tend to fall apart fairly quickly.
Composite frames are a glass fiber reinforced nylon composite found only on FirstBIKE. They offer a lightweight frame with a high weight capacity, without the concerns of rust or chipping paint. Composite frames, however, can bend or flex when in use by an older or taller rider, but most kids transition to a pedal bike before the flexing becomes an issue.
While seemingly minor, handlebar grips will most likely be one of the first safety features used on the balance bike. A rubber grip with a knobby end protects kids’ hands when the handlebars run into a wall, trees, etc., and also protects their hands from hitting the ground during falls. All balance bikes have grips, and most have grips with protective bumpers. Because this is an easy and common way to keep your child safe, be cautious before buying any bike without protective bumpers.
11. Recessed, Rounded and Covered Bolts
With time, exposed bolts become scratched and can scratch kids’ inner legs while striding or during falls. This is particularly problematic with smaller-framed toddlers. Covered, rounded, and recessed bolts prevent or minimize the possibility of scratches. Exposed bolts are the most common and are found on most balance bikes, including Strider. Recessed bolts are found on the FirstBIKE and Cruzee and rounded on the Islabike Rothan.
Which bike is best for you?
Now that you know what to look for, head over to our our Balance Bike Comparison Charts for help finding the balance bike that best matches your desired features, your child’s age and size, and your budget.
And for help teaching your child to ride their new balance bike, read our How to Teach a Child to Ride a Balance Bike page.
By: Natalie Martins
Last Updated: January 27, 2017