Scoring high in style and performance, the Guardian Ethos 16 kids bike offers fun designs that appeal to kids, and safety innovations that appeal to parents. Win-win!
With a semi-upright body position, lightweight frame, no coaster brake, and Guardian’s innovative SureStop braking system, Guardian Bikes’ 16 inch bike simplifies the riding experience for first-time pedal bike riders as well as more confident riders already cruising the neighborhood.
In our review, we’ll cover why the SureStop braking system makes Guardian Bikes so unique, and what size and type of rider the 16″ bike is best for.
Guardian 16 inch Overview
RATING: Highly Recommended
BEST FOR: Kids 4 to 6 who will be doing neighborhood and paved trail riding. The SureStop braking system is ideal for timid riders who need the security of an easy braking system, as well as adventurous riders who need extra stopping power.
SEAT HEIGHT: 18.25″ – 22.6″
WEIGHT: 17.5 lb. (ETHOS)
BRAKES: Surestop Dual Hand
GAIN RATIO: 3.5
WHEELBASE: 898 mm
- Proprietary SureStop braking system for faster and more controlled braking, and NO coaster brake
- Comfortable upright positioning for young riders
- Lightweight, durable frame
- Eye-catching designs – fun, colorful graphics and colored rims
- Insanely easy assembly
- Upright design not ideal for aggressive riders
Guardian 16 Inch Video Review
Want to see the Guardian bikes and their proprietary SureStop braking system in action? Check out our video summary which details the main reasons why parents and kids love Guardian bikes! Please note that Guardian’s (now discontinued) Airos line is referred to as “Original” in this video.
Guardian Ethos 16 – Results of Our Test Rides
NOTE: As of December 2022, the Guardian 16″ bike is only available in the steel-framed Ethos model. The upgraded, aluminum-framed Airos 16 has been discontinued.
A well-designed bike is helpful for any child riding a bike, but it’s especially important for young kids who are still developing their gross motor skills and muscle strength. Perfectly sized for the small frames of 3 to 5-year-olds, Guardian 16 inch bikes are built to work naturally with young riders.
While more expensive than a bike you’ll find in a big-box store, the kid-friendly weight and geometry of a Guardian 16 inch bike make the process of learning to ride (or progressing your riding skills) significantly easier. We’ve watched a sea of kids try to ride cheap bikes as well as Guardian bikes. There’s no contest here – a Guardian bike is worth the extra money.
Every time we put a rider on a Guardian 16 inch bike for the first time, it’s a hit straight out of the gate. Built on a lightweight frame with a low center-of-gravity design and complemented with upright handlebars, the Guardian 16″ is easy to balance and easy to maneuver, especially for beginners or more timid riders. It’s a smooth ride that immediately builds confidence.
But of course, there are several amazing kids bike brands on the market that also offer lightweight bikes with kid-friendly geometry. So what makes Guardian bikes shine among these other shining stars?
The SureStop braking system of course! Guardian’s proprietary braking system stops the bike using the power of two v-pull caliper brakes, just like many high-end kids’ bikes. However, it simplifies the process for kids by requiring them to pull just ONE brake lever to activate both brakes in sequence.
With SureStop, the difficulties that can arise with coaster brakes, as well as the confusion of dual-hand brakes for young riders, are both eliminated. How does the SureStop system work? Keep reading!
Guardian’s Unique SureStop Braking System
Our favorite feature of all Guardian Bikes, is their proprietary SureStop braking system. Unique to Guardian, the SureStop system allows riders to stop faster and with more control.
We’ve seen time and again that SureStop allows kids to feel more in control on their Guardian bike, and as a result, their confidence level increases. With less anxiety about stopping the bike, many kids are more willing to ride more adventurously.
Our 6-year-old testers on the 16″ Guardians both mentioned the brakes without being prompted. They accelerated and then stopped over and over again because they thought the brakes were “fun”.
Having tested out SureStop brakes ourselves, their description of “fun” is understandable. Braking with SureStop brakes provides a similar feeling to braking in a new car with an advanced braking system versus an older car with a standard braking system. Not only is it easier to brake faster, you feel MUCH more in control of the car. As a result, you’re more confident while driving a car with advanced brakes.
In our experience, the same applies to kids using SureStop brakes. With much of the anxiety of braking gone, many kids are more confident in their riding. This also applies to adventurous and aggressive riders who really appreciate the extra stopping power SureStop gives them.
How does the SureStop system work?
Guardian’s unique braking system allows both the rear and then the front brake to be activated sequentially with the pull of ONE brake lever. When the lever is pulled, the back brake is activated first.
Activating Guardian’s Single Brake Lever
Once the rear brake has engaged, the SureStop system on the rear brake pad then activates the front brake. This sequential stopping system allows the bike to stop faster and with more control. It also prevents kids from going over the handlebars when accidentally braking with just the front brake.
SureStop Rear Brake and Front Brake
No Coaster Brake – Hooray!
While many parents think coaster brakes are just a normal part of 16″ kids’ bikes, we absolutely love that Guardian’s 16″ bikes do not have a coaster brake (back-pedal brake). Coaster brakes can be very confusing for kids new to pedal bikes.
When learning to balance a bike, both kids and adults naturally pedal backward when they lose their balance. Upon doing so on a bike with a coaster brake, the brake is unexpectedly activated, which often causes kids to fall. This process can be very frustrating for young riders which can then delay their mastery of a pedal bike.
On a bike without a coaster brake, a child can naturally pedal backward without activating the brake. Once they regain their balance, they can continue to pedal forward without a break in the momentum they just gained on the bike.
No coaster brake also allows kids to easily set the pedals to “start” position, and allows more confident riders to quickly re-position pedals to “do tricks”.
What size child will fit on the Guardian 16 inch bike?
The seat height on the Guardian Ethos 16 ranges from about 18.25″ to 23.5″. If you’re trying to get the seat height as low as possible, you will need to take off the rear reflector.
FIRST PEDAL BIKE: If the Guardian 16 is a child’s first experience riding a pedal bike (without training wheels), they will need an inseam of around 18″ to fit on the bike (usually kids’ in 4T pants).
First-time bike riders need to be able to place their entire foot on the ground when sitting on the seat in order to comfortably start and stop the bike while they are learning to balance, pedal, and use a handbrake.
EXPERIENCED ON A PEDAL BIKE: For experienced riders who are already comfortable riding a pedal bike without training wheels, they only need an inseam of about 16″ to fit on a 16″ Guardian. Experienced riders are comfortable starting and stopping a bike without using both of their feet, so they only need to be able to touch the ground with their tip-toes.
TRAINING WHEELS: While we always recommend the balance bike method over using training wheels, the Guardian Ethos 16 is compatible with training wheels which can be purchased for an additional fee.
Kids using training wheels only need to but able to touch the ground with solid tip toes, as the training wheels generally keep them upright.
It is NOT SAFE to ride with training wheels if your child can’t touch the ground with their toes. This means kids using training wheels should have an inseam of at least ~16″.
Guardian 16″ Sizing Overlap With 14″ and 20″ Small
When choosing the right size Guardian bike, be aware that the Guardian Ethos 16 has some overlap with the smaller Guardian 14″ and the larger Guardian 20″ Small.
NOTE: The Guardian 14″ is not currently available, and there is not estimated return to stock date.
Guardian 16 Inch or 20 Inch Small?
Think your child is a bit on the sizing fence and might be able to fit on the 20 inch small? Here you can see how our 4-year-old tester fits on the Guardian 16 and the Guardian Airos 20 small. She is 43″ tall and has an inseam of 19″ with shoes on.
Guardian 16 and Guardian Airos 20 Small
The Guardian 16 is an excellent fit for her right now and does provide some room for growth. (She has the seat height set to 21″.) The Guardian 20 small is more of a “stretch fit”. She can reach the ground with her tip toes when the bike is at its minimum seat height (21.25″), and has considerable room for growth.
As an experienced rider, the 20 small is a better buy as it will provide much more room for growth. But if this were her first pedal bike, the 16 inch would absolutely be the way to go. The 20 small is manageable for her, but even as a very experienced rider, it’s still a lot of bike for her to handle.
For example, the higher handlebar (on the 20″) in relation to her body will make it more difficult for her to manuever. It would be very difficult for a new pedal bike rider of her size to learn on the larger bike.
Like with any bike brand, kids typically grow out of their first pedal bike faster than you would like because you need the minimum seat height to be lower to allow them to reach the ground with flat feet.
Can you skip from a 14″ to 20″ Small?
If your child is already on a Guardian 14″ bike (or other high-end 14″ kids bike with similar sizing and geometry like the woom 2 or Pello Romper) and you’re looking for their second pedal bike, can you skip the 16″ size and go straight to the 20″ small? Although there is no overlap in seat height, if you’re on a budget, this certainly is an appealing option.
Here you can see our 4-year-old on the Guardian Ethos 14″ at its maximum seat height (20.25″) versus the 20″ small at its minimum seat height (21.3″). We also raised handlebars on the Ethos 14 to their max, which increased their height from the ground by 1 inch.
While having an intermediary bike between these two would be ideal, you could absolutely skip the 16 inch if can’t (or don’t want to) afford an additional bike.
While our little tester hadn’t been on a 14″ bike in quite some time, she hopped on and sped through the neighborhood with ease. With the smaller wheels and shorter crank arms, she was “spinning her wheels” a little bit, but if you’re on a budget and not trying to set any speed or distance records, this is a great solution.
How Long Will My Child Fit on the Guardian Ethos 16?
The Guardian Ethos 16 features a high-quality quill stem (the piece that connects the handlebars to the body of the bike). While this style of stem is generally considered to be more “basic”, a good one can have a huge advantage on kids bikes.
Quill stems can be raised higher as a child grows, just like you would raise the seat height as they grow. (Although the stem has a much shorter adjustment range than the seat.) Raising the stem raises the height of the handlebars.
Below you can see our 47″ tall 5-year-old test rider, maxed out on the seat height of the Guardian Ethos 16. She has outgrown the bike (feet almost completely flat on the ground when seated), but she can still ride it pretty comfortably.
In the image on the left, the stem and handlebars are at their lowest point. On the right, the stem and handlebars are at their highest point – 1″ higher from the ground.
While raising the handlebars isn’t a miraculous fix for a bike that’s a bit too small, it is a minor adjustment that can be made to allow a child to ride more comfortably until you’re ready to spend money on a new bike!
Guardian Bikes Virtual Bike Sizer
Still confused about which size is best? Guardian has an avatar-based sizing guide to help you visualize and confidently determine which size bike frame is best for your child.
Their RideSizer technology will allow you to see how your child will grow on the bike and predicts how long before they outgrow the bike. It takes into account your child’s riding experience, as well as growth rates for kids at specific ages.
The recommended bike size comes displayed right away, and you can see an avatar of how your child will fit on the bike now, and when they have grown to its maximum seat height.
Based on our experience, it works great, but if you have a child with a long torso and shorter legs, be sure to check their inseams against the bike’s minimum seat height to ensure a great fit. It’s a super cool tool – be sure to give it a try!
Other Features of the Guardian Ethos 16
While the SureStop braking system is the big selling point of all Guardian Bikes, here are a few additional important points to consider about the Guardian Ethos 16 inch.
Guardian 16 Geometry – Body Position & Handlebars
Guardian Bikes 16 inch models are designed for beginning riders who often prefer an upright body position. Sitting upright centers a child’s weight over their hips, just like they’re accustomed to when standing and walking. As a result, beginning riders are usually able to master balancing a bike faster when sitting upright.
Experienced riders, however, may prefer a bike with lower handlebars that place the rider in a more aggressive position. A more aggressive position better allows the rider to shift their body weight during turns and while on hills.
Body Position on Guardian 16 vs. More Aggressive Bike
Compared to other higher-end bikes, the Guardian 16″ is upright like the woom 3, or Priority Start 16 neighborhood bikes. More aggressive bikes like the Prevelo Alpha Two (purple bike above) have lower handlebars and are better suited for confident riders who like to lean in for super speed or who will be attacking ramps at skate parks and dirt trails.
Above you can see the difference in body positioning of our tall 4-year-old 43″ tester on the Guardian 16 vs. the Prevelo Alpha Two. Notice both the angle of her back as well as the height of the handlebars.
All that said, an aggressive rider certainly could happily ride the Guardian 16. This super confident 4-year-old had a blast on her test rides through our local paved and wide dirt trail system. Even with the standard street-tread tires, the Guardian was able to rock those packed dirt trails.
How much do the 16 inch Guardian Bikes weigh?
Budget-friendly bikes are almost always built with steel frames, rather than more lightweight and expensive aluminum. For a steel-framed bike, the Ethos is pretty light, weighing in at 17.5 pounds with the pedals and kickstand.
This weight is about a pound lighter than 16″ bikes by REI and Raleigh, and those bikes don’t even have handbrakes. The Ethos is several pounds lighter than Schwinn’s 16″ offerings.
Gain Ratio (How easy is it to pedal?)
The gain ratio on a single-speed bike is a number that represents that single gear, or how hard or easy it is to get started pedaling and maintain fast speeds.
The gain ratio on the Guardian Ethos 16 is mid-range at 3.55. This makes the bike geared perfectly for cruising around the neighborhood. As a comparison, the Cleary Hedgehog is designed for aggressive riding around hills and is geared at a low 2.88 while the woom 3 is geared a bit higher at 3.8, which will allow a child to ride slightly faster on flat surfaces.
We have noticed, however, that as our test riders gain experience and confidence on a bike, the 3.55 gain ratio can be a bit low. It does limit top speeds and causes kids to “spin their wheels” as they try to go faster but can’t.
In the end, a single speed kids bike will always have limitations that can only be solved by gears on a larger bike.
Insanely Easy Assembly
Over the last 12 years, we’ve assembled hundreds of bikes. While high-end bikes are generally much easier to assemble than cheap bikes, Guardian Bikes wins the gold medal for easiest bike assembly.
Guardian 16 inch bikes come almost entirely assembled. Even the front wheel is already on the bike! The only things you have to do are attach the handlebars, the pedals, and the seat.
Because parents often get confused when attaching handlebars and pedals, Guardian made a tiny but genius addition to their bikes. Removable stickers take all of the guesswork out of the minimal assembly required.
To line up the handlebars and the stem correctly, just line up the stickers! To make sure you’re tightening the pedals in the direction of the threads, simply follow the direction on the sticker on the crank arm. Simple genius.
Guardian Ethos 16 Bottom Line
Guardian’s combination of SureStop brakes, a lightweight frame, and upright positioning make their 16″ Ethos bike one of our top choices for 4 to 6-year-olds riding around the neighborhood and paved bike trails. For under $300, you won’t find a better 16″ bike.
- The Best Kids 16-inch Bikes: A rundown of our favorite 16″ bikes (Guardian made the list)!
- Guardian 20-inch Kids Bike Review: Our review of Guardian’s bike one size larger than the 16″.
- Guardian 24-inch Kids Bike Review: Our review of Guardian’s bike for kids 8+.