I was taught to bike the old-fashioned way. My mother tossed me and a little red bike off the end of the pier by our house and I pedaled with all my might for land — and I was a competent bicyclist by the time a wave swept me onto the sandy shore. Or something like that.
Kids these days have it much easier with lots of nifty options that don’t involve the Pacific Ocean, avoid scraped elbows and knees, and aren’t uphill both ways. This week I’ll share what I’ve learned about balance bikes, tricycles and trailer bikes.
➤ Balance Bikes
Also called push bikes, run bikes, and b-bikes if you’re in a hurry, balance bikes are mini replicas of the world’s first prelude to a bike, the dandy horse, circa 1818. Cool then, cool now. Balance bikes come smaller than pedal bikes and allow kids to master balance before worrying about pedaling. They’re extremely fun and lots of kids like hanging onto their balance bikes for a while even once they’re pedaling proficiently.
I’m of the mind that balance bikes are all pretty much the same, but there are some different features and a lot of different brands.
➤ Material: wood vs. metal
Metal balance bikes hold up better if left outdoors, but wooden bikes are lighter. I’m not sure that rule always applies, but when a friend borrowed our metal Kinderbike when he’d left his wooden Like-a-Bike at home, his mom noted it was heavier than she was used to.
Which leads me to another great point about balance bikes: no protuberances in the middle of the bike make them incredibly easy to tuck into trailer cargo holds, messenger bags, panniers, etc, and bring along on bike rides.
➤ Hand brake
Some balance bikes come with a rear hand brake! Our two balance bikes — a KinderBike Mini and KinderBike Laufrad — both had hand brakes. Our kids never used them (hence my feeling that all balance bikes are pretty much the same); but in theory they’re a wonderful addition.
➤ Tires: air-filled or solid
Our balance bikes had air-filled tires I rarely needed to pump up (thank goodness because there’s little room for squeezing a pump nozzle in) and they lasted through two kids and lots of rough treatment each — but just barely. Our KinderBike Mini needed a new back tire when it was time to pass it along. For this reason many parents choose balance bikes with solid foam rubber tires.
➤ Super small balance bikes
10 years ago the KinderBike Mini was the smallest balance bike I could find. The only other option I was aware of back then was to get a wooden Skuut and assemble it with the frame upside down, though that was still a bit taller than the KinderBike Mini. But these days there are many tiny options, including the smallest: the Strider Bike Baby Bundle (right) that includes a base and can fit toddlers as young as six months old!
➤ Can’t you just take the pedals off a regular bike?
You sure can! But most toddlers seem to start balance biking when they are still too small for the smallest pedal bike. However, taller kids can use a bike with pedals removed. It’s also a wonderful way to get balance bikers used to the size and weight of their new pedal bikes — turn them into balance bikes temporarily before working on pedaling. Pedal removal is a quick task for your local bike shop or you can do it yourself with a pedal wrench. I have a $10 consumer quality pedal wrench and do pedal swapping myself, but old pedals can be extremely hard to remove (even when you know only the right pedal is rightly righty-tighty-lefty-loosy and the left pedal is opposite) and I abandoned my first solo pedal swap in tears. Generally just removing the pedals is fine and little legs won’t bang on crank arms, but you can also take out the whole bottom bracket if you’re so inclined.
➤ Bigger balance bikes
You can take pedals of a bigger bike as mentioned above, but that will probably be heavier than getting a big purpose-made balance bike. Strider has a special needs category of bikes including two bigger balance bikes, a 16-inch for ages six and up with a weight limit of 187 pounds and a 20-inch for ages 10 and up with a rider weight limit of 242 pounds. They both have front and rear hand brakes.
➤ Before balance bikes
Before they could shuffle around on two wheels, my kids loved shuffling around on four wheels thanks to the tiny Radio Flyer Scoot-About™ designed for ages one to three. There are lots of tiny things with three and four wheels that look a lot like balance bikes for toddlers eager to join the biking fun.
➤ Trikes and training wheels
Pedal-free pushing isn’t the only prelude to bicycling. Furthermore, while my kids got the balance part down pat, they had a bit of trouble getting used to pedals. So it’s nice to have some sort of pre-bike vehicle with pedals to introduce the concept. We tackled this by test-riding bikes with training wheels on the REI showroom floor. That said, there are plenty of success stories of balance bikers who zoom off into the sunset the moment they straddle their first pedal bikes.
Ideally balance bike kids can skip training wheels altogether, but one neat thing I learned about training wheels while my kids attended a Pedalheads bike camp was that putting training wheels on bikes just after kids learn to pedal — and only for a day or a couple hours — allows kids time to figure out braking. If only I had known this when my younger son started pedaling because he loved going top speed yet had zero interest in using his brakes for several nerve-racking weeks.
➤ Trailer bikes
Also known as trail-a-bikes (after the popular Adams brand) and tag-alongs, trailer bikes are a great way to introduce pedaling while not having to focus on balance. You can also use them when you want to go faster than you’re able to with kids trying to keep up on their own. I don’t see a lot of kids actively pedaling when on trailer bikes (my own kids included), but they’re there for experimenting with.
I’m sure I’m missing a lot of helpful items so please share in the comments any additional pre-bikes and not-quite-bikes you’ve found useful or seen in action. What’s your favorite starter-wheeled thing?
Thanks for reading. Feel free ask questions in the comments below or email me your story ideas and insights at madidotcom [at] gmail [dot] com.
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Madi Carlson (@familyride on Twitter) wrote our Family Biking column from February 2018 to November 2019. She’s the author of Urban Cycling: How to Get to Work, Save Money, and Use Your Bike for City Living (Mountaineers Books).
In her former home of Seattle, Madi was the Board President of Familybike Seattle, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting bicycling as a means for moving towards sustainable lifestyles and communities. She founded Critical Lass Seattle, an easy social group ride for new and experienced bicyclists who identify as women and was the Director of Seattle’s Kidical Mass organization, a monthly ride for families. While she primarily bikes for transportation, Madi also likes racing cyclocross, all-women alleycats, and the Disaster Relief Trials. She has been profiled in the Associated Press, Outdoors NW magazine, CoolMom, and ParentMap, and she contributed to Everyday Bicycling by Elly Blue.