Bike shops are vital and play an essential role in building and establishing biking communities. But due to circumstances often out of their control, they are not the best place to purchase a bike for a child. For various reasons, true “family bike” shops are hard to come by these days. Shops generally cater to the high-end market focusing on either road, mountain or electric bikes, but rarely (if ever) kids. Yes, bike shops are FAR better than big-box stores or toy stores, but they are no longer the best place to buy a kids’ bike.
Kid-specific Bike Design
Over the past couple years, true kid-specific bikes have begun to flourish. Instead of miniature adult bikes, bikes have been redesigned from top to bottom to specifically fit children’s bodies. Frames are getting lighter, brakes are getting easier and bikes are getting narrower to fit the needs of a child. Due to the specialized parts to make these bikes they are usually more expensive than bike shop bikes, but they do fit them better. Sadly, these advancements, such as a narrow build (q-factor), are rarely found on the kid’s bikes found in local bike shops? Why? The profit margin on kid’s bikes is simply too small.
Bike manufacturers, such as Trek, Specialized, Giant, etc., are not in the business of designing bikes for kids. They put their focus on high-end, high-margin adult bikes and design kids bikes on the side. In addition, their kids’ bikes are often designed by someone who is not familiar with child-specific needs and may have never even taught a child to ride. They simply just scale down an adult bike, make it look “cool” and call it good. Realizing that most buyers assume that if their company makes awesome adult bikes, they will also make awesome kids bikes, they allow their name to sell their bikes, not the design. Norco Bicycles out of Canada, however, is an exception, as their kids’ line of bikes is significantly better than those offered by other major brands (they ofter dual-hands brakes, a freewheel 16″ and better geometry).
Outside the US, the biking world is vastly different as there are many kid-specific manufacturers. Islabikes from the UK, woom from Austria, ByK Bikes from Australia and Spawn Cycles from Canada only design kid bikes. To them, kid bikes are not an afterthought, but rather their only thought. Seeing a lack of well-designed kids bikes in the US, all four companies now offer their bikes in the US online. Independent US kids-specific bike companies are also changing the game, Guardian Bikes, Priority Bicycles, Cleary Bikes, Pello Bikes and Lil’Shredder are all based in the US and are also available online.
With their profits based solely on kids’ bikes, these companies have to rely on the design and functionality of their bikes, rather than their name alone. Not available in bike shops, the technological advancements on these bikes are far superior to the kid’s bike larger bike brands are selling in the US. Most are lighter, have a lower center-of-gravity (lower bottom bracket w/smaller cranks), easy-pull, child-sized brake levers and are often narrower (use a child-specific crankset versus the standard adult-width crank).
Visiting a Local Bike Shop
Beyond the bikes, visiting some bike shops can be intimidating for families. Again, this is not all bike shops, however finding a true “family bike shop” is becoming more difficult. In the vast majority of shops, high-profit adult bikes are given the prime floor space while kids’ bikes are often banished to the ceiling or small corners of the store (except maybe during the holiday season). Without the profit margin’s from these big sellers, the shops would likely go under, so it is completely understandable why shops are laid out as they are. But what the big-name bike manufacturers, as well as many shop owners (not all!), fail to realize it that brand loyalty goes a long way in families. Parents often don’t have the time or energy to travel from shop to shop, especially with kids in tow. They want and need a one stop shop. If a shop provides amazing customer service and offers well-designed bikes for their entire family (kids included!), you’ll likely have all of their business for years to come.
Furthermore, employees are often quite knowledgeable on adult bikes, but rarely on kids’ bikes. Kids require different geometries and setups than adults. Over the years, we have been told countless myths and incorrect information about kid’s bikes while visiting various shops (shopping as everyday parents, not Two Wheeling Tots). Training wheels are not a replacement for balance bikes (especially for toddler and preschoolers), all 14″ bikes are not “crap”, kids CAN use hand brakes (when properly designed) and coaster brakes do more harm than good.
Sporting goods stores like REI, Dick’s and even Performance Bikes are in the same boat as local bike shops. To save money (and increase profit margins), their bikes are built with components sized for adults, making the bikes wider, heavier and with poor geometry. Like bike shops, their bikes are generally MUCH better than those at big-box stores but do not stand up next to those from online kid-specific bike manufacturers.
What’s the Solution? (for parents)
Don’t discount your local bike shop (they are still a great asset), but know what you want as well as what your child needs BEFORE you visit the shop. Knowing your child’s weight and their inseam will also help you determine if a bike is a good fit. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Ask them to weight the bike without the training wheels and have them measure the bike minimum and maximum seat height. Ask if a hand brake can be added to the bike (most kid’s bikes in bike shops don’t have them). Lastly, if you feel that a bike available online would be better for your child, ask them how much they would charge for expert assembly and tuning.
What’s the Solution? (for bike shops)
Train your employees on the specific needs of kids. Be aware that balance bike graduates need to be able to touch the ground with almost their full foot in order to stop a bike. Like adults, consider the weight of the bike versus its rider. A 20 lb. bike is half the weight of a 40 lb. child! Understand that kids naturally pedal backwards when learning to pedal, so coaster brakes often cause more harm than good. When possible, make kids’ bike more accessible and don’t banish them to the ceiling or corners. Lastly, if a family can’t find a bike that works in your shop, be understanding and offer to assemble one they purchase online and be sure to help them try on helmets or gloves.
Bike shop are vital to our communities and need our support, but when it comes to kids bikes, they can’t compete with bikes available online. Until Trek, Specialized, Giant and other big-name bike brands, step up their game in their kids’ lines, bikes shops hands are tied. If you prefer to purchase a bike at your local bike shop, Norco’s line of kids bikes is hand-downs the best compared to other major brands. Lastly, the expert tuning and bike assembly offered by your local shop, cannot be replaced, so be sure to utilize them when possible.
Kids Pedal Bikes: Comparison Charts – To view and filter even more 16″ bikes, and read reviews (works better in desktop)
Best Kids Bikes: The Authoritative Buying Guide – Detailed information on what to look for when choosing a bike.
How to Teach a Child to Ride a Bike – It doesn’t have to be painful!