The Cleary Owl is the perfect 20 inch bike for aggressive kids who want to ride fast, do tricks, go off-road, or just cruise around. With a durable steel frame and high-quality components, these little ponies are designed to last the long haul through several kids, even if they’re rough on their bikes!
With a gorgeous matte paint job and an embossed vegan leather saddle, the Cleary Owl is as beautiful as it is functional. We’ve tested three different Owls over the last seven years, and have been impressed every time with just how much fun our little riders have on a Cleary bike. Read the review below to find out more reasons we love the Owl!
Cleary Owl Overview
BEST FOR: Aggressive young riders who love to get off the paved trails or do tricks, and want to occasionally use gears
SEAT HEIGHT: 20.5″ – 26.1″
WEIGHT: 20.3 lb. (single speed)
GEARS: Single speed, or 3-speed internally geared hub
- Stable and sturdy design instills confidence in young riders to try new things
- Durable steel frame – designed to take a beating!
- High-quality Tektro dual hand brakes
- Internally-routed brake cable
- Fast and high-performing on varied terrains – it’s the “FUN” bike
- Gorgeous matte paint jobs and vegan leather saddle
- Trigger shifter can be hard to engage (on 3-speed)
Cleary Owl Review – Results of Our Test Rides
Built for performance and built to last, the 20″ Owl is available as a single-speed and as a 3-speed with an internal hub. We’ve extensively tested both models and found the single-speed Owl to be a worthy investment for kids who love to adventure on two wheels and have awarded it our “Exceptional” rating.
The 3-speed version of this bike is identical to the single speed except that it features a Sturmey Archer internally geared hub and a trigger shifter. While the geared Owl still offers an exceptional ride, we found the shifting on the 3-speed to be difficult for our young riders, especially compared to other geared 20 inch bikes. As a result, we’ve given the 3-speed Owl a “Recommended” rating (more details about shifting below).
I was nervous that our primary tester wouldn’t want to ride the Cleary Owl because the last bike he tested was the Islabikes CNOC 20″, which is like the Ferrari of kids bikes. My worries couldn’t have been further from reality.
This kid fell in love with the Owl pretty much immediately, asking to ride the “fun bike” when requesting to go on rides with me. His very eloquent summation of why he loved the Cleary more than other bikes was, “You can do so much more fun tricks on the Owl!”
Our tester was confident and daring on the Owl in a way I’ve never seen him on a bike. The Owl was lightweight enough for him to maneuver easily, but also substantial and sturdy enough to give him a feeling of security and confidence. What resulted was one joyous ride after another as he left the paved trails to ride through the grass, dirt, ditches, rocks, and hills.
Sizing of the Cleary Owl 20 Inch Bike
With a seat height range of 20.5″ to 26.1″, the Cleary Owl has the shortest minimum seat height of any 20″ bike we’ve tested. We’ve had testers with inseams as low as 18.5″ and as high as 23.5″ happily ride the Owl. But like all kids bikes, the Owl has a “sweet spot fit”.
Based on our experience, the best riding experience is going to be when your child’s inseam is between about 20″ and 23″. While your child can certainly ride the Owl shorter and taller than that, their riding abilities will be limited. Our primary 6-year-old boy tester had a 21.5″ inseam and was a perfect fit.
Because kids are constantly growing while the bike’s size stays the same, a limited sweet spot is something that just comes with the territory with kids bikes. However, the sweet spot is generally more narrow on bikes like the Cleary Owl that we would categorize as more aggressive. Lower, flatter handlebars that cannot be raised higher make the adjustability for your child’s growth limited to the seat post.
Most Room for Growth vs. Best Fit
So should you buy a Cleary Owl for a child on the smaller end of the sizing range (with an inseam between about 18.5″ and 20.5″)? If you are in the market for a bike right now, you can certainly make it work, but it does come with some constraints that you need to be aware of. Once again, these limitations are inherent in most aggressive kids bikes and we’re pointing them out so you can adjust your expectations for your young child’s ability to ride a larger bike.
As an example, here is our very tall and confident 4-year-old tester who is 43″ and has an inseam (with shoes on) of 18.5″. On the left, she is on the 16″ Cleary Hedgehog, and on the right, the 20″ Cleary Owl. On the Owl, the seat is set to 21″ and she can touch the ground with solid tip toes.
The smaller and lighter Hedgehog is currently more nimble and responsive for her small frame, and she could grow another inch or two before really growing out of it. But if I needed a new bike for her now, the larger 20″ Owl does fit (stretch fit) and provides much more room for growth.
Benefits of Buying the Larger Bike for a Small Rider
There certainly are potential benefits to buying the larger Owl for a rider this size.
(1) More room for growth. If you are on a budget, this reason will be high on your list.
(2) Your child is ready for gears. There aren’t many geared bikes this size. (But keep in mind, small riders may have difficulty using the gears on the Owl. More on that in the gearing section below.)
(3) Larger wheels allow a child to go farther, faster…. they can keep up better with you on your rides together. But important note… the Owl has a low gain ratio. If the larger wheels for more distance are a motivator for you, you should also consider getting a freewheel cog with fewer teeth to raise that gain ratio. (More on that in the gear section below!)
Limitations That Come with Buying the Larger Bike for a Small Rider
So how will a larger bike affect your child’s riding experience if they are about the same size as our little rider?
(1) The larger Owl is harder for a child this size to manage. While our confident 4-year-old could do her same tricks at the skatepark, she was noticeably less agile and fell off her bike several times when she stopped on inclines. When attempting new terrain or new tricks, her confidence level isn’t as high as on the smaller Hedgehog.
(2) It’s heavier! Heavier is harder to manage as well.
(3) Standover height. This little rider doesn’t have any clearance between her crotch and the top tube when standing over the bike frame. To prevent injury in the event of a crash when a child slides forward off the saddle, there should be at least 1″ of clearance.
(4) With the seat set almost to its minimum, her knee bend is very cramped on the upswing, as you can see in the image below. This requires more effort to push down on the pedals, decreasing overall efficiency.
It’s important to remember that there’s no reason to rush your child off a 16″ inch bike to get them on a bike with larger wheels. There are advantages to both situations (as long as both bikes are lightweight and have kid-friendly geometry), so you’ll need to decide what is best for your family.
Lightweight and Rugged Steel Frame
Weighing in at 20.3 pounds, the Owl is one of the lighter 20″ bikes on the market, even though it has a steel frame. While not as lightweight as the 17.9 lb. woom 4, it seemed that those few extra pounds actually helped our 6-year-old tester feel more stable and confident in doing tricks and going off-road.
Remember, Cleary has purposely chosen steel frames, while most high-end kids bikes are aluminum. For those few pounds, you get a more rugged and durable bike. If your kids are rough on their bikes, or you want a bike that will hold up strong through several kids, that’s what the Cleary Owl was born to do.
Semi-Aggressive Geometry for Adventurous Riders
The Cleary Owl was obviously designed by a company dedicated to kids’ bikes. The overall design and all of the bike’s components are perfectly suited for a confident child rider to be comfortable, adventurous, and ride efficiently.
A lot of kids’ bikes are designed with high handlebars that push a child into an upright position. While an upright position (when combined with a long wheelbase for stability) is great for young riders on 14″ and 16″ bikes who are still learning to balance and pedal, it’s not usually ideal for older, more experienced riders.
By the time a rider is on a 20″ bike, many kids are confident enough with balancing a bike that they enjoy a slightly more aggressive, leaned forward position that better allows them to shift their weight while riding. This also lowers their overall center of gravity for better balance.
The Owl’s Lower Handlebars Allow for Better Shifting of Weight
Rider’s Position on Bike
As mentioned above, the low handlebars of the Cleary Owl create a more “aggressive” body position as compared to most 16″ bikes that your child has probably been riding. (This is because 20″ bikes are designed for more experienced riders.)
This body position, along with the Owl’s wider tires, is perfectly suited for more adventurous riding like off-roading and beginning trail excursions, or simply doing tricks around the neighborhood or at a skate park. It’s also great for paved trails, but don’t be surprised if your kid wants to leave the pavement and venture off for something a bit more exciting.
The newest 2021 version of the Owl features a slightly shorter stem (35mm vs the old 50mm), which doesn’t require a child to stretch out quite so much to reach the handlebars as previous models. In this review, the blue Owl is the older version with a longer stem, and the red Owl is the 2021 model.
There are some riders who still prefer upright positioning on a 20″ bike. If you have a timid rider who wants to stick to casually riding around the neighborhood, a more upright bike like the woom 4 or the Pello Reddi would be appropriate.
Wider Q-Factor for a More Stable Base
The Owl’s q-factor (width between the pedals of the bike) is actually wider than most other high-end kids bikes. As you can see below, the crank arm is angled outward to widen a child’s “base”. Cleary did this intentionally to give more advanced riders a wider stance, making the Owl more stable for aggressive riding.
Dual Hand Brakes – Plenty of Stopping Power
The Cleary Owl features high-quality dual hand brakes (Tektro V-brakes). Once adjusted properly, they are easy to reach, easy to engage for kids’ hands, and can stop on a dime. The bike we received did require a minor but important adjustment to the brakes before they worked properly.
On the front brake, we had to tighten the tension of the cable where it attaches to the brake arm. This occurred on the 2017 version of the Owl we tested, and on the 2021 version. If you’re knowledgeable about bikes, this would be a minor inconvenience, but the average parent would have needed the help of a bike shop or a YouTube video.
Two Finger vs Three Finger Braking
Out of the box, the brake levers are positioned about 0.5″ away from the end of the grips (image on the right below). You can leave them that way, or adjust them to be flush with the grip (image on the left).
By pushing the levers out towards the end of the grip, your child will be able to brake with three fingers. Having the levers positioned farther away from the grips encourages two-finger braking. This is really a matter of personal preference and your child’s ability.
Tires – Best for Paved and Mild Off-roading
The Owl’s 20″ tires are 1.9″ wide, which makes the tires heavier, but a bit more cushioning for impromptu off-roading. By comparison, the Prevelo Alpha Three’s tires are 1.5″ wide, while the woom 4’s tires are 1.4″ wide.
Gearing (Gain Ratio) for Single Speed
Easy to get started pedaling, and easy to maintain momentum (even on hills!), the Cleary Owl is geared ideally for pretty much every situation our kid testers found themselves in. From going up and down skatepark ramps, to off-roading on grassy and uneven dirt terrain, the single-geared Owl was a dream.
The only area our 6-year-old tester had trouble with was steep dirt hills, but hey, this isn’t a mountain bike! If, however, your child will regularly be tackling steeper hills, you should definitely look into geared bikes (like the woom 4 or Prevelo Alpha Three), which are much more suited for hilly riding.
With a gain ratio of 3.37, the Owl won’t gain as much speed on flat rides as single speed bikes like the Guardian 20 Small with a higher gain ratio of 3.96. This, however, is in exchange for the benefits mentioned above. Single-geared bikes can’t have it all, and one gain ratio isn’t necessarily better than another – it all depends on how your child will use the bike.
Changing the Gain Ratio
If you’re sold on the idea of the Cleary Owl but are concerned that the gearing is too low for the riding your family will be doing, Cleary single speed bikes are unique because you can easily change the gain ratio.
Cleary offers freewheel cogs with a different numbers of teeth to raise or lower the gain ratio. The Owl comes with a 19 tooth freewheel, but you can swap that out for a freewheel with teeth ranging from 13 to 20.
Because the gain ratio is pretty low already, you’d probably only want to mess with the gain ratio if you’ll be primarily riding long distances on flat, paved roads. By purchasing a freewheel with less than 19 teeth, you can raise the gain ratio. The most ideal option to start would probably be the 16t freewheel, which would increase the Owl’s gain ratio to about 4.0. This would allow a child to get more distance with each pedal stroke and more easily keep up with big kids and parents.
Cleary Owl 3 Speed vs. Single Speed
The Cleary Owl was originally available only as a single-speed, and was the first version we tested (the blue bike seen throughout this review). We gave it an “Exceptional” rating. Cleary Bikes later released a 3-speed version of the Owl that we tested about a year later and gave a “Recommended” rating.
The geared version has just 3-speeds, vs the 6 to 8 normally found on kids’ bikes. Three speeds is a great middle ground to introduce young riders to the world of gears and shifting.
With an internally-geared hub, versus a traditional derailleur, the Cleary Owl 3 speed is also lower maintenance than traditional geared bikes. With no exposed moving parts to get bumped, scratched, or covered in dust, internal hubs usually equate to more consistent gears and performance, especially with kids who are typically tough on their bikes.
The Sturmey Archer internal hub on the geared Owl is slightly different than other internally-geared 20″ bikes we’ve tested. To change the gears on the Owl’s internal hub, it is recommended that the rider stop pedaling and begin to coast before engaging the shifter. Technically the gears on the Owl can be changed while pedaling, it’s just easier (and officially recommended) to shift while coasting.
Our 8-year-old aggressive tester, however, found it challenging to stop pedaling when he wanted to shift as it was just one more thing he had to think about. This is probably something he could get used to over time, but he did express that it was hard when he was trying to shift gears while going uphill because he would lose all of his momentum if he stopped pedaling to shift.
The shifter lever, not just the hub, also made the Owl challenging to shift. Even when he did stop pedaling prior to shifting, our 8-year-old tester found the triggers a bit sticky and hard to push. Once pushed, the throw between gears two and one was also a little long for his hand, making it a challenge to smoothly engage the gears.
After a phone call with Cleary and a trip to a bike shop, we confirmed that the shifter was working properly and the Sturmey Archer set up just requires a bit more muscle to use compared to other brands. Cleary, however, has not had other purchasers mention a problem with shifting.
Beyond performance, Cleary Bikes’ aesthetic design is pretty eye-popping. We consistently have parent friends comment about the stylish matte paint jobs, the rich color choices, and the embossed, vegan leather saddles. Cleary has managed to design a bike that is “kiddish” and sophisticated all at the same time.
Ease of Assembly
Compared to a cheap kids bike, the Cleary Owl’s assembly is much more straightforward and streamlined. As a mom who is quite experienced assembling kids bikes, it took me about 15 minutes.
The process has a few more steps than brands like woom or Guardian, but is definitely not so complicated that this should affect your purchase decision. As mentioned previously, you may need to adjust the brakes.
Bottom Line on the Cleary Owl
For adventurous kids who love to tackle new terrains and tricks, the Cleary Owl is one of our very favorite bikes. Easy to maneuver and just plain fun to ride, you won’t regret your investment in this well-designed, high-quality kid’s bike. And just as importantly, your kid will looooove you for it!
The 3-speed version features everything we love about the single-speed, but has a trigger shift system that may be difficult for your child to use.