Joe Bike

Family Biking: A cautionary tale of kids riding too-small bikes

Posted by on August 7th, 2018 at 2:45 pm

Sitting on one’s rear rack looks pretty cool, but it doesn’t look comfortable.
(Photos: Madi Carlson)

As a kid I rode a succession of wrong-sized bikes and loved them all. Heck, as a teenager and adult I’ve also had a lot of bikes that weren’t perfectly sized for me, including the bike I rode with my first-born (which was two sizes too big). However, my knees and my back appreciate that my current bike is the perfect size for me.

Our Family Biking column is sponsored by Clever Cycles.

➤ Read past entries here.

As a parent I’ve learned the hard way to keep pace with growing kids.

It started last winter, without my really noticing, when my younger son stopped sitting on his saddle because his bike was getting too small.

That morphed into doing a lot of riding on his rear rack for fun, since it was so easy to reach on the too-small bike, plus it provided him a spot to sit more comfortably (or so he said) than the saddle.

I don’t want to share what he named this position, but it includes the words “hurts a little bit.”

Then he started sitting on the top tube, though I don’t know how that was better than using his saddle. It was probably a cry for help in the form of a new bike that I tuned out.

I finally got the message and purchased a new bigger bike for his older brother so I could hand down the current one. My kids are both on Islabikes, which we bought new at their Portland warehouse. I love them for their light weight, compact frames that boast big wheels for covering more distance, and strong brakes. But they’re not the only great option out there. If you didn’t see my March column on where to buy used kids’ bikes in Portland, check it out.


My children have gone to the dark side.

Is it easy to move kids up to bigger bikes?
For us it is now, but our previous upgrade was a disaster until I realized all I had to do was affix name stickers. I order them online from Do It Yourself Lettering, but I bet there are local sources (and I’d appreciate your sharing them in the comments).

The rear rack sitting looks much less comfortable on the new, bigger bike.

So did the upgrade fix the silly riding?
Well no, since I let it go on for so long. It’s not as easy for him to get his caboose on the rear rack now, but he still manages.

The new normal: seated for a change, but no hands.

First day on their new, bigger bikes!

Plus I think his newfound love of riding hands-free is related to all the clowning around he’s been doing, but I can’t complain because at least he’s seated when he’s gesticulating!

Has this happened to you? Or do you have a different cautionary tale you’d like to warn us about? I’d love to hear it!

Thanks for reading. Remember, we’re always looking for people to profile. Get in touch if it sounds like fun to you. I’d especially like to profile families of color so please get in touch or ask friends of color who bike with their kids if they’re interested in being profiled. And as always, feel free ask questions in the comments below or email me your story ideas and insights at madidotcom [at] gmail [dot] com.

— Madi Carlson, @familyride on Instagram and Twitter

Browse past Family Biking posts here.

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  • Hello, Kitty
    Hello, Kitty August 7, 2018 at 4:56 pm

    I used to ride in the “hurts a little bit” position as an adult since it was kind of fun in a weird yet slightly hurty sort of way.

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    rachel b August 7, 2018 at 5:06 pm

    This just made me laugh and laugh! So innovative, he! Thanks. 🙂

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    Dan A August 7, 2018 at 9:54 pm

    We’ve got a Beinn on CL if anyone’s in the market 😉

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    Kate August 8, 2018 at 9:39 am

    This seems like the place to drop by with this question. I’m happily tagged to be the ‘fun, bikey’ aunt to my best friend’s kiddo. He’s turning 1 this week. He can’t walk or anything yet- but I’d like to get him a little scoot bike or something to play around with inside/ in their back yard as he’s able to stand and walk in the next few months. Where should I find such a bike? Given that’s it’s really more a play thing that a scoot around the street thing at his age, does it matter what kind i purchase?

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    Cpt. Obvus August 8, 2018 at 11:40 am

    Don’t sell the rack-sitting position short — it’s a skill worth developing! It’s great practice for shifting your weight far back on the bike, like you have to do in mountain biking for steep descents and log hops — and more practically, for panic stops on the road, so you can use the full power of your front brake without flipping yourself over the handlebar.

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      Alan 1.0 August 8, 2018 at 1:11 pm

      “…full power of your front brake…”

      Yeah, the pics of Madi’s kid made me think of Jan Heine’s braking article:

      They also remind me of the time about 1970 I was bike camping, and it felt so good to get the bags off that I jumped on my Continental chopper-style. The resulting crash and road rash made riding home the next day not quite so fun.

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    Dave August 9, 2018 at 7:35 am

    I know this won’t solve all dimensional difficulties as a child grows, but relatively inexpensive mountain bike seat posts are available in every diameter from 25mm to 27.4mm, and in 350 and 400mm lengths.

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    El Biciclero August 11, 2018 at 9:32 am

    I have a different sort of tale. “Relatives” wanted to buy my kid a first bike (to replace the Strider). The Strider was way too small, and since I wasn’t involved in the bike purchase, the kid picked one that was essentially the same size. At the time, being overly concerned about offending said relatives, I thought, “oh well, at least he’ll learn to pedal”. Big Mistake. Fast-forward, and after having been sick of watching him ride around on his clown bike while friends his same age are jumping curbs with their 7-speed mountain bikes (that are waaaay too big for them, BTW), I went to get him a right-sized bike. Right size happened to be two sizes bigger (12″ wheels to 20″, skipping 16, which is what he should have started with). The difference in geometry and height set my (admittedly a little bit of a scaredy-cat) kid back to zero. With all confidence gone, I was back to holding his seat and/or bars for every 15-foot minor scoot, with panicked flailing at the slightest tippy feeling. “Why can’t I just ride my old bike!!!??”, “Because we sold it at the garage sale.”

    After four months of attempts, he finally did two laps around a parking lot, thinks he’s done and has been happy not to touch his bike since. He just hates riding now.

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      Dan A August 11, 2018 at 2:16 pm

      My nephew just went through that, because his parents didn’t leave him in the glide stage long enough for him to become proficient before putting him on a pedal bike, and someone told him to lean hard in the opposite direction when he turns, which looks as crazy as it sounds. He was unable to glide for more than a second without falling over, so he quit riding.

      His mom brought him over to visit his ‘bikey uncle’ and I removed the pedals from his 20″ bike and we started the gliding practice all over again. I strongly suggested that they hold off on putting the pedals back for at least a month or two, and make sure he can glide 10 seconds before putting them back on. Last I heard, he was enjoying himself as a glider, but I’ve been meaning to check in again and see how he’s doing….I wonder if he’s got the pedals back on now.

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      Atbman August 13, 2018 at 10:52 am

      One small tip (from teaching 50/60 kids/year to ride). Never hold any part of the bike: the bike then goes where you’re pushing it which may not be quite where s/he is steering it. Better by far to just place fingertips between shoulder blades to provide a small input and push, while leaving him/her to learn to balance, steer and correct same. They then feel in control of what the want to do.

      Good luck in getting him back on the bike (eventually)

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