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Why You Should Never Buy a 12″ Bike! (with a few exceptions)
Spoiler Alert: Could you ride a bike that was half your body weight?
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’m 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 including the WOOM2, ByK E-250 and Specialized Hotrock 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 than its functionality.
Question your child’s bike before you question your child’s ability
The problem lies in the fact that building an efficient, small bicycle is challenging and expensive. As a result, well-designed 12″ and 14″ bikes that are light enough and properly designed to fit a preschooler are as expensive as some adult bikes! The images below show a range of bikes marketed to 3, 4, and 5-year-olds. You can easily see that the better a bike is, the less it looks like a toy, and the more it looks like an actual bike.
Cheap vs. Well-Designed 12″ (and 14″) Bikes
These $200+ bikes shown here are significantly easier to ride than big-box store bikes, but are at a price tag that is out of reach for many parents. We understand the predicament, but also want parents to apply reasonable expectations to their kids when they are riding hard-to-ride, lower-end bikes. Remember that buying used is always an option as more expensive bikes are built to last.
What makes cheap big-box store bikes so bad?
The quick answer is that cheap 12″ bikes are too tall for the age of child they are designed for. 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. With longer legs and bodies, the bike doesn’t offer enough horizontal space to give them room to ride (their knees can hit the handlebars when turning).
For those amazing two and three-year-olds who can pedal a cheap bike without training wheels, the frame of the bike is usually the right size, but the seat is too high and they can’t reach the ground when sitting on the seat. As shown in this video, 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.
So what’s a parent to do for 2 to 5-year-olds that need a bike?
Option One: Buy a Balance Bike
If your child has not yet mastered a balance bike, start there. Not only are balance bikes safer than bikes with training wheels, they are much more fun and 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 a balance bike and training wheels.
Recommended Balance Bikes for 2, 3, and 4-year-olds
For more of our favorites, check out our 10 Best Balance Bikes list!
Another benefit of the balance bike route is that by the time your child outgrows their balance bike, they should be tall enough for a 14″ or 16″ bike. While many of these larger bikes are just as poorly designed as 12″ bikes, their larger wheel size and corresponding longer wheelbase can make them more stable and easier to ride than 12″ bikes. Related Post: What to Look for When Buying a Pedal 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 of 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 the transition to riding without training wheels.
Here are a few well-designed 12″ or 14″ bikes that we can happily recommend for kids aged 2 to 5-years-old.
Top Picks for 12″ (and 14″) Bikes
Cleary Gecko: 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″. Because of its small size and low height handlebars, this is a great bike for advanced 2.5 – 3.5 year-olds.
ByK E-250: Larger than the Gecko, the ByK E-250 has 14″ tires, which provide more room for growth than the 12″ Gecko. Best for kids aged 3 to 5-years-old, the ByK E-250 has seat heights ranging from 15.7″ to 18.1″. Reflective of its price compared to the others, the ByK is a great bike at an affordable price, but is not as high quality as the other bikes recommended here.
Specialized Hotrock 12″: Our only Highly Recommended 12″ bike found in local bike shops, the Hotrock is uniquely designed to help young riders learn to pedal forward versus accidentally pedaling backwards. Great overall quality, but lacks a hand brake.
Islabikes CNOC 14″: Built specifically for kids from the ground up, the Islabikes is the cream-of-the-crop for 14″ bikes. Everything from the seat height to the pedals and handlebars were trimmed down to fit a child’s small frame. The CNOC 14″ is the perfect bike for adventurous kids who need a lightweight bike to get started but are likely to advance to more ambitious riding.
WOOM2: Our top pick for hesitant riders, WOOM2’s unique geometry centers the child’s weight over their hips (like when standing), allowing them to naturally transition to balancing a pedal bike. Extremely lightweight with 14″ tires, dual hand brakes and a removable turning limiter, the WOOM2 is dream to ride for young riders.
Why are the Top Picks for 12″ Bikes So Much Better than Cheap 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 easier 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. Simply 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 a 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 because they do not need flat feet on the ground to run, push, and glide. However, for a child’s first pedal bike, in this case a 12″ bike, we strongly recommend that you treat the seat height as if it were a balance bike. A child first learning to ride a pedal bike is still gaining confidence and ability, and needs to be able to stop the bike with their feet. As a result, we recommend buying a bike for which your child’s inseam is at least equal to the bike’s minimum seat height so that both your child’s feet can comfortably touch the ground.
A Beginning Rider’s Inseam Should Be At Least Equal to a Bike’s Minimum Seat Height
As a child transitions to their second pedal bike and beyond, their feet only need to touch the pedals as they ride, not touch the ground like on a balance bike. As a result, they can technically fit on a bike that has a minimum seat height about 3.5″ taller than their inseam. That being said, even if a child can ride a bike without touching the ground, if they can’t stop themselves or get on and off safely, the seat height is too high.
2. Geometry and Stability (Balance)
Having a high center of balance (created by the rider on top of the bike) makes maintaining balance while riding a bike easier. When at rest or at slow speeds, however, a bike is very challenging to balance. As a result, for kids who are first learning to ride and who do not ride at fast speeds, a bike with a lower center of gravity is actually more beneficial to them.
WHEELBASE & CENTER-OF-GRAVITY
To create a lower center-of-gravity for the rider, a bike needs a longer wheelbase (the distance between where the two tires touch the ground), which allows the rider to sit lower on the frame and closer to the tires. Although the three bikes shown below have similar seat heights and are marketed to essentially the same age group, the position of the rider on the bike is vastly different due to the difference in the wheelbases of the bikes. The Islabikes’ wheelbase is 6″ longer than the Huffy, yet the minimum seat heights on the two bikes only differ by 0.5″. The Specialized Hotrock’s wheelbase is 2″ shorter than Islabikes’.
A Longer Wheelbase Generally Means Better Body Position and Balance
Like cars, the longer the wheelbase of a bike (within reason), the more stable the bike is. As a result, a kid’s bike with a longer wheelbase is going to be easier to maneuver and handle.
RIDER’S BODY POSITION – UPRIGHT VS. LEANING FORWARD
How the bike positions the rider on the bike also makes a difference in the overall feel and ease of use of the bike. The wheelbase, together with the handlebar height, can either place the child in a more upright or aggressive (more learned forward) position on the bike. Upright positioning is generally better for beginning and/or very timid riders as it naturally centers a child’s weight over their hips (like when walking) and over the seat of the bike. Already accustomed to learning to balance and run while upright, timid and beginning riders feel less hesitant and “off balance” on an upright bike, making those bikes easier to learn to ride. More aggressive or ambitious riders, however, often enjoy being able to throw their weight around on the bike and have little concern with having to lean forward while riding a bike.
An upright body position, however, doesn’t always create a stable, easy-to-ride bike. An upright body position only works when the higher center-of-gravity created by the upright body of the rider is counter balanced with a long wheelbase and a lower center-of-gravity of the bike. Oftentimes cheap bikes have an upright body position, but they lack the longer wheelbase, properly sized handlebars, and low minimum seat height required to provide the much needed stabilization. This can clearly be seen when comparing Walmart’s Next Rocket to the WOOM3. Both have similar upright body positions, but the WOOM3 provides more space for the rider and places the rider’s hands closer to hip level for greater control. As a result, the WOOM3 is generally the easiest bike for our timid testers to ride while even our experienced testers struggle on the Next Rocket.
An Upright Body Position Produces Very Different Effects on High-End vs. Cheap Bikes
3. Handlebars & Maneuverability
As shown above, the shape of the handlebars can have a huge effect on the body position of a rider. Most handlebars on lower-end 12″ and 16″ bikes (like the Next Rocket) position a child’s hands well above the child’s waist while riding. This positioning doesn’t allow for proper arm extension, thereby minimizing a child’s overall control of the bike and creating twitchy steering. Handlebars placed lower on the body help to lower the center-of-gravity as well as provide for proper arm extension, leading to better overall control of the bike.
In the images below, both the Specialized Hotrock and the CNOC 14″ have low and wide handlebars that allow a child to properly extend their arms and maintain better control of the bike.
High and Narrow Handlebars Make for Twitchy Handling
Can you imagine attempting to ride a bike that’s 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’ bikes often weigh close to 50% of a child’s weight. Ideally, a bike should weigh no more than 30% of a child’s weight, but that can be hard to come by for young, or lightweight riders. One reason 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.
5. Knee Angles, Efficient Pedaling, and Bottom Bracket Height
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 because it’s easier to pedal. Standing allows kids to fully extend their legs as well as prevents inefficient low-angle knee bends. 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.
Kids Stand Up to Pedal on Cheap Bikes to Get Sufficient Leverage
The ease with 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 get on and off of their bikes easily, their seats cannot be set high enough to achieve the ideal angles, but getting as 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. The most important differences in knee bend can be seen when the crank arm of the pedals is flat, and when it is down at its lowest point.
CRANK ARM FLAT and KNEE BEND
CRANK ARM DOWN and KNEE BEND
At the bottom of each pedal stroke (with the crank arm down), the maximum leg extension can be seen. The Islabikes comes close to the ideal 143 degrees while the Huffy does not. As a result, every pedal stroke on the Islabikes is significantly more efficient than the Huffy Rock It.
BOTTOM BRACKET HELPS DETERMINE LEG EXTENSION
So how does a bike company determine how well their bikes will allow kids to extend their legs for efficient pedaling? The position of the bottom bracket on a bike plays a major role in providing additional space for proper leg extension. The bottom bracket is the hole in the frame where the crank arms (and then pedals) attach to the frame. A lower bottom bracket (along with shorter crank arm) and larger wheels (14″ instead of 12″) provide more space between the pedals and the seat, creating more space for proper leg extension.
Differences in Bottom Bracket Height, Low-end vs. High End
Lowering the bottom bracket (in conjunction with a longer wheelbase) also allows kids to sit lower on the bike (closer to the tires), which helps to lower their overall center-of-gravity on the bike, making it easier to balance. In the “crank arm down” images above, you can clearly see that the child’s seat is closer to the tires on the 14″ CNOC than on the 12″ Huffy Rock It. The Specialized bottom bracket has also been lowered, but its smaller frame prevents the child rider from sitting as close to the tire as she does on the Islabikes.
7. Q-Factor (Bike Width)
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 the child’s 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. High-end companies like WOOM and 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 wheelbase, 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.
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 an inseam less than 18.5″ AND is anxious to move up to a pedal bike, buy the Specialized Hotrock, the WOOM2, 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 your child is old enough to move up to a 14″ or a 16″ bike.
- Kids’ Pedal Bikes: Ratings & Comparison Charts: A comparison of the top bikes in all tire sizes.
- Balance Bikes: Ratings & Comparison Charts: A comparison of the top balance bikes on the market.
- Why a Balance Bike Should Be the First Bike for Your Toddler: How and why balance bikes benefit toddlers as compared to tricycles and training wheels.
All opinions 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 Amazon and WOOM.
By: Natalie Martins
Last Updated: February 21, 2017