Thanks to balance bikes, kids as early as two are ready and often able to ride a pedal bike without training wheels. Now while I am all for kids transitioning to pedal bikes as soon as they are ready (and willing!), in most cases, I usually tell parents to hold off. Why? Quite simply because the bike industry isn’t prepared for them (with a couple exceptions explained later) and the toy companies (the people behind any 12″ bike at a big box store and Amazon) are more worried about the look and price point of the bike, rather than its functionality.
The problem lies in the fact that building an efficient, small bicycle is challenging. For starters, toddlers legs simply aren’t long enough to provide enough clearance for the crank arms (metal bar that attaches the pedals to the bike). For example, the Huffy Rock It 12″, Walmart’s smallest pedal bike, has a minimum seat height of 17″. Kids with 17″ inseams, however, are often wearing 4T or 5T clothes and are too tall for the Huffy Rock It as it does not provide enough horizontal space (their knees can hit the handlebars when turning). As a result, most 12″ bikes are generally only ridden with training wheels or by older kids who are simply too big for the bike.
For those amazing two and three-year-olds who can pedal a bike without training wheels, the frame of the bike is usually the right size, but the seat is too high as they can’t reach the ground when sitting on the seat. As shown in the video below, two-year-old Luca does an amazing job riding a Huffy Rock It without training wheels, but he cannot reach the ground to stop, so his parents have to run beside him the entire time he is riding.
Option One: Buy a Balance Bike
If your child has not yet mastered a balance bike, start there. Not only are they safer than bikes with training wheels, they are much more fun, allow kids to easily travel over uneven surfaces as well as travel up and down hills. The first part of this ad from FirstBIKE does a good job showing the differences between the two. Related Post: What to Look for When Purchasing a Balance Bike
Option Two: Buy a 12″ Bike (High-end vs. Low-end)
If your little cruiser is truly ready to move on to a pedal bike and has an inseam of at least 15″, there are a couple good options for them. If however, your child’s inseam is less than 15″, then you are better off leaving them on a balance bike until they grow taller. Even though they would be able to fit on a 12″ bike with training wheels, introducing them to training wheels at this point could cause them to unlearn how to balance a bike and further delay transition to riding without training wheels. For the smallest of kids who are eager to ride, the Cleary Gecko is the smallest 12″ pedal bike on the market with a seat height that ranges from 15″ to 21″. The ByK E-250 (which we are currently reviewing), is also a great choice it’s seat height ranges from 15.7″ to 18.1″ and has 14″ tires, providing more room for growth. For those kids with an inseam greater than 17″, my top choices are the Specialized Hotrock 12″, the Islabikes Cnoc 14″ and the WOOM2 (which is are14″ bike, but is sized like a 12″ bikes).
To understand how good our top choices are, you have to first understand just how bad the Huffy Rock It and other cheap 12″ bikes are. To demonstrate the difference, we had several riders, aged 4 to 6, each ride three different bikes and then compared hundreds of pictures of them riding the bikes. Upon compiling the pictures, it was quite clear why all of the kids favored the higher-end bikes, they were simply easy and more comfortable to ride. Why? Because, they are better designed and have the specs to prove it.
What do all these specs mean and how does each affect the usability of a bike? Luckily, finding a good bike for your child does not require memorizing formulas or various specs on bikes, but knowing what to look for and what to compare, can mean the difference between a well-loved bike and a bike that collects dust.
1. Seat Height vs. Inseam Length
Measuring a child for a pedal bike is different than measuring them for balance bike. While the inseam measurement is still taken the same way (crotch to ground without shoes), unlike a balance bike, a child can technically ride a bike whose minimum seat height is taller than their inseam. Since a child’s feet only need to touch the pedals as they ride, versus the ground like on a balance bike, they can technically fit on a bike that has a minimum seat height about 3.5″ taller than their inseam. For this reason, Islabikes lists the minimum and maximum inseams for their bikes on their website rather than the minimum and maximum seat height. That being said, as shown in Luca’s video above, even if a child can ride a bike without touching the ground, they can’t stop themselves or get on and off safety. As a result, we recommend buying a bike in which your child’s inseam is at a least equal to a bike minimum seat height.
2. Geometry & Center of Gravity
Objects with a high center-of-gravity fall over easier than objects with a low center-of-gravity. This phenomenon is quite apparent with small boats. If two adults try to stand up in a boat, the boat has a high center-of-gravity and the boat quickly tips over. If those same two people, however, sit down in the same boat, the boat is much more stable and less likely to tip over.
Bikes are the same way. If the geometry of a bike forces the rider to sit more upright on the bike, the bike will have a higher center-of-balance and be more difficult to balance and maintain balancing. How upright a child sits on a bike depends on several factors with the two main being the wheel base and the top tube length of the bike. The wheel base is measured from where the two tires touch the ground and the top tube length is measured from the center of the head tube to the center of the seat tube.
The longer the wheelbase and top tube (within reason), the lower the center-of-gravity on a bike and the easier it generally is to ride. The wheelbase on the Islabikes 14″ is six inches longer than the Huffy and as a result, the body position of the riders on two bikes is vastly different.
Considering the Islabikes minimum seat height in only 0.5″ taller than the Huffy, it’s hard to imagine that these two bikes are essentially created for the same size child. The Specialized’s wheel base is 2″ shorter than the Islabikes, yet is still able to maintain a similar body position to the Islabikes.
April 2015 Update: While the center of gravity of the rider is important, after testing newly released bikes, we found that when implemented correctly, an upright body position has several benefits over a more aggressive (leaned forward) body position. Younger kids naturally prefer their body weight being centered over their hips (like when standing or sitting). The same applies when riding a bike. An upright body position allows a child’s weight to be centered over the seat of the bike, which allows kids to more easily and more naturally balance their bikes. To compensate for the higher center-of-gravity of the rider, a longer wheelbase and a lower center-of-gravity of the bike itself is necessary. This unique combination can be found on WOOM bikes, as shown below. Islabikes and ByK have similar, but not the same, geometries.
For taller kids who may be ready for 16″ bikes, the same principles apply. A bike with a longer wheelbase and a lower center-of-gravity is always going to be easy to ride. Watch what happened when we had the the same five-year-old boy ride two 16″ bikes with very similar weights but very different geometries.
3. Handlebars & Manuverability
The shape of the handlebars can also affect the body position of a rider. Handlebars that are placed higher up on a rider’s body provides for a more upright body position. The lack of arm extension for the rider can also lead to twitchy steering. Handlebars placed lower on the body help to lower the center-of-gravity as well as provide for the proper arm extension, leading to better overall control of the bike.
4. Wheelbase Length & Stability
Like cars, the longer the wheel base of a bike (within reason), the more stable the bike is. As a result, a kids bike with a longer wheelbase is going to be easier to maneuver and handle.
Can you imagine attempting to ride a bike that is over half of your body weight? Not only would it be hard to pick up, keeping it steady long enough to mount it and then balance it, would be extremely difficult. Sadly, kids bike often weight close to 50% of a child’s weight. One reason why higher-end bikes are more expensive is that they are made with lightweight aluminum frames vs. steel. As shown below, the larger and longer aluminum Islabikes is several pounds lighter than the others and the Specialized, although larger than the Huffy, only weighs slightly more.
6. Bottom Bracket Height, Placement and Knee Angles
The ease at which a child can pedal a bike helps to determine how easy a bike is to ride as well as how long a child is able to ride without getting tired. The amount of leverage a child has on a pedal can make a huge difference in the ease of pedaling. According to BikeDynamics.uk.co, when the knee is bent between 72 and 144 degrees, the most leverage can be obtained for adults on a bike and the more efficient pedaling is.
Since kids need to be able to easily get on and off their bikes, their seats cannot be set hight enough to achieve the ideal angles, but getting close as possible will certainly help in pedaling. To see the various levels of knee bend, we set all three bikes to the same seat height and had our four-year-old tester ride each one. While slight, the Specialized provided the most optimum minimum knee bend while the Islabikes provided the most optimum maximum knee bend.
These are a result of two different methods these companies used to alter the child’s position on their bikes. Specialized pushed the bottom bracket on their Hotrock 12″ forward on the frame (a bottom bracket is usually inline with the seat tube, the tube of the frame that comes down from the seat, of the bike), which prevents a higher knee bends at the top of each pedal stroke. Islabikes improved their bikes by lowering the bottom bracket of the bike, where the pedals attach to the frame. By doing so, the child has additional room for leg extension while pedaling. This method also allows the frame to sit lower on the wheels, thereby allowing a 14″ bike to be sized like a 12″ bike. As far as we know other higher-end bikes, like the GT Mach One, Trek Mystic and Jet and Haro z12, have not implemented changes to their frames to alter the riders positions, which is why we prefer the Specialized over the others.
Due to a combination of several things, most cheap bikes provide less than ideal knee bend angles for kids. To remedy this, kids often stand up to ride as it allows them to achieve more ideal angles. As a result, kids who ride poorly designed bikes tend to stand up a lot more than kids with properly designed bikes. Standing up can also simply be a sign that a bike does not provide enough room for proper leg extension and is too small for the child.
The q-factor, or the width of a bike, can additionally play a role in how easy a bike is to ride. A wider bike is going to require a child to splay their legs out to pedal, thereby making the bike less comfortable and their pedaling less efficient. When building kids bikes, most bike companies simply use adult components to build their bikes because they are cheap and readily available. Sized for adults, these components are too wide for kids and require kids to widen their stance to pedal. Islabikes, however, only uses child specific parts (that they redesigned themselves) which do not require kids to splay their legs in order to pedal.
8. Side-by-side Comparisons
Last, but not least, while remembering all the technical terms of bike geometry can be a challenge, simply doing a side-by-side comparison of two bikes can be very informative. By doing so, any large variation in the wheel base, top tube length and handlebar shape are clearly apparent. Between these three bikes the similar geometries in the Islabikes and Specialized can be seen while the poor design of the Huffy is impossible to miss.
ByK’s kids bikes side-by-side comparison
Who knew there was so much to learn about one little bike? In the end, however, any bike is usually better than no bike. Even if the only bike in your budget is found at your local big box store (although be sure to check for a better designed used bike first), your child will eventually be able to learn to ride it.
If your child is on the petite side, a master on a balance bike, has inseam less than 18.5″ AND is anxious to move up to a pedal bike, buy the Specialized Hotrock or the ByK E-250 or another well made 12″ bike that fulfills the requirements above. If your child has an inseam greater than 18.5″, then buy the Islabikes 14″, otherwise, stay clear of all 12″ bikes and either buy a balance bike or wait until they are old enough to move up to a 16″ or a 14″.
All opinons in this review are that of Two Wheeling Tots LLC. Please do not reuse any of the pictures without linking back to this page. In order to help facilitate this review, Islabikes provided their Beinn 14″ and Canyon Bicycles (an awesome shop in the greater Salt Lake City, Utah area with three locations) provided a loaner Specialized Hotrock 12″ (THANK YOU!). We purchased the Huffy Rock It at Walmart. Two Wheeling Tots is not an affiliate of Islabikes, Specialized, Canyon Bikes or Huffy, but is an affiliate of Walmart.