What to Look for in a Kid's Bike (3-7 years old)

by - Tuesday, April 28, 2015

If you want your kids to fall in love with cycling, you need to start them on the right bikes. Ideally, you would start them on a balance bike around two years old, then graduate to a pedal bike as soon as they are ready. For some children, bike readiness can occur at the age of 3; for others, it may not happen until closer to five years old.

A light bike lets kids ride off trail and up hills with ease.
Here, Big POG enjoys riding the Woom 2.
So, which bike is best? First things first, I always recommend you buy the lightest bike you can afford that fits your child. If your child's bike is too heavy, she will have a hard time maneuvering and getting up hills, and will not be able to ride for very long before being thoroughly frustrated and exhausted. Consider that a five pound difference in weight between a mid-priced and cheap bike is 17% of a 30 pound child's weight, and that 22 pound bike you are looking at is 73% of her weight! Would you ride an 88 pound bike (assuming you were 120 pounds)?? A lighter bike is not only easier to control, and easier to ride up hills, it is also a lot more fun to ride. While my oldest learned on a heavy $5 garage sale bike (because we could not find an affordable 12" bike), she really took off when we upgraded to a much lighter bike (below). 

Big POG and the Spawn Banshee (16")
Other important bike buying considerations follow:
  • Geometry
    • a) The angle of the top tube will affect how easy it is to get on an off the bike. Look for a low stand over height for safety and confidence. Can your child get on and off the bike easily (and safely)? 
    • b) The top tube should be long enough to allow comfortable riding. When pedalling, her knees should not go higher than her hips.
    • c) Check out the handlebar height. When seated on the bike, is your child leaning forward, or sitting upright? While you may like low handlebars on your road bike, kids are more comfortable and better balanced when they are sitting upright. Look for higher handlebars, or adjustable handlebars. 
    • d) Sitting low (low centre of gravity) and upright makes it easier to balance and thereby makes learning to ride a bike easier. Get your child to try a few bikes at the same time so you can see what looks and feels best.
The Woom 2's 70 degree seat tube angle and 38.5 cm top tube
makes for an upright sitting position and low centre of gravity. 
  • Size - Kids' bike sizes are dictated by wheel size. The most common wheel sizes are 12", 14", 16", 20" and 24". Check with the manufacturer regarding recommended bike size for your child's height. Typically, 12" or 14" bikes are good for 3 & 4 year olds, while 16" bikes are good for 4-6/5-7 year olds. 20" bikes are good for 7-9 year olds, but depending on geometry and if your child is big for her age, she may be ready for a 20" bike by 6 years old. A good bike shop will measure your child to ensure the bikes you are considering are not too big or small. 
    • Ideally, when seated on the bike, your child can put both feet on the ground (beginner) or reach the ground standing on her toes. Too small and you risk knee and back injury (make sure knees are not coming up too high when pedalling). Too big and you risk a lot more injuries because your child falls off the bike or can't control it. 
    • Many parents are tempted to buy a bigger bike so it will last longer, but a bike that is too big is heavy and difficult to maneuver. While it is costly to get a new bike every couple years, a high quality bike will retain at least half of its value when you go to resell it. 
           
WOOM #    

Age1.5 - 4 years3-5 years5-7 years7-9 years9-13 years

Height
85-100 cm
33-39"
95-110 cm
37-43"
105-125 cm
41-49"
120-135 cm
47-53"
> 130 cm
> 51"
  • Crank arm length and bottom bracket height - If the crank arm (pedal arm) length and bottom bracket (where the pedals attach to the bike) height are tailored for kids, your child's knees should not be coming higher than her hips when pedalling. While watching your child pedal, make sure her knees are pointing straight forward (and not sticking out to the sides).
At 107 cm, Big POG can comfortably ride the Woom 2 (above), Woom 3, or Spawn Banshee (below).
  • Coaster Brakes or Hand Brakes? As soon as your child is able, get her using hand brakes. Coaster brakes are downright dangerous, especially when mountain biking. It is far safer for kids to use hand brakes or simply put their feet down on the ground than try to back pedal to stop. They could also accidentally hit the brakes when riding downhill (if using coaster brakes), then end up flipping over. For more information, read here. Teach your children how to use the brakes properly (don't just hit the front brakes!) to avoid endos (flying over the handlebars).
  • Front and rear hand brakes (v-brakes) with kid-sized hand grips -  Ensure your child can comfortably reach and squeeze the brakes. High end name brands have specially-designed grips and brake levers that are made for small hands. Brakes should be easy to squeeze - try a few different ones to see which work best for your child. There is a huge difference between makes!
The hand grips are narrow and the distance to the brake levers is short.
  • Front or full suspension? Suspension adds a lot of weight, so only get it when your kids are big enough to need it (in other words, doing real mountain biking). If you mountain bike frequently and can afford front suspension, it makes for a more comfortable ride, but keep in mind that younger kids' bikes come with wide tires that absorb a lot of shock relative to their low weight, so they do not feel as many bumps as we would on a bike without front suspension. Front suspension is available on some bikes size 20" and up, but I wouldn't recommend it until you get to 24" to give your child the advantage of a lighter bike for as long as possible (again, unless you actually mountain bike!). Full suspension is overkill, heavy, and not necessary for most cyclists, including adults, unless they are downhilling. 
Extras You Do Not Need to Pay For
  • Training Wheels - Please do not let your child use training wheels; they do not teach your child to balance and prolong the learning period. The most pain-free way to learn to ride a bike is on a balance bike. Check out my introduction to balance bikes here
    • Kick stand - I used to think kick stands were a necessity, but have been converted by my hubby who says kickstands are just extra weight. Also, since most do not work that well, more often than not, the bike falls over when it gets bumped resulting in a bruised kid or scratched bike when the bike falls down. It is better to keep bike weight down and lie your bike on the ground (chain side up) or park it in a bike rack.
    • Chain Guard - A chainguard is useful in keeping grease off of pants, but is not a dealbreaker. If I were looking a light bike with no chain guard or heavy bike with a chain guard, I would choose the light bike without hesitation. As a kid, I never had a bike with a chain guard, rode my bike almost every day, and never hurt myself. My children also have never had a problem with their chain guard free bikes other than getting a bit greasy from time to time. 
    The Woom 2 (red) and Woom 1 (blue)
    After considerable research, we found that Woom, Spawn, Isla, Prevelo and Frog Bikes are some of the best kids' bikes. We are proud owners of a Woom 3, Spawn Banshee, Kokua Like to Bike (had to modify it to make it rideable), MEC Dash, and Specialized Hotrock, and have tested the Woom 1 & 2. If the premium brands are out of your desired price range, I would highly recommend the MEC Dash, or looking for any of the above used. 

    More Information

    Woom 1 Balance Bike Review
    Woom 2 (14") & Woom 3 (16") Review
    Spawn, Kokua & MEC 16" Bike Reviews coming soon

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    12 comments

    1. A kickstand might be extra weight but it was everything to my son so it was added afterwards. He had a MEC dash and it has been an amazing bike for him.

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    2. Ya gotta do what ya gotta do. : ) My girls are all about the water bottle cages even though they have hydration packs! Hubby ziptied one one to the handlebars since there isn't a place to attach one on the frame. Glad you're loving the MEC Dash! It looks really good! We were gonna get one, but we got a screaming good deal on a used Spawn and then just had to buy a Woom 3 after test driving the Woom 1 & 2.

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    3. Sofia, have you looked into a tandem bike (Trail-a-bike or tandem with a seat like the Weehoo)? That's a great way to start - to get used to balancing and pedalling! You can often pick them up used for not too much money. If he's able to ride on his own, since he's too big for a balance bike (most are only good for children up to 4 yrs old), you could take the pedals off of a regular bike and let him try that. I feel it's a lot safer than training wheels. Best of luck!

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    4. Hi there... I have a a boy that turns 4 in January but is big for his age (42" tall and 18" inseam). I am considering both the Woom 3 and the Banshee. Since you own both can you give me a comparison? I want something that can go around the neighborhood (this will probably the most common activity) but that can hit light trails too when we have a chance or go camping.

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    5. Also considering an Islabike Cnoc 16 but would have to get from UK because I don't want a coaster brake.

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    6. Hello! I am trying to make the same decision! Did you finally decide? If so, which one did you go with?

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    7. BMX race bikes are a great choice. They are light and handle well, they aren't cheap, but can readily be found used.

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    8. The Spawn Banshee's geometry allows kids to start sooner than they could on other 16" bikes but it maxes out at the same time as most other 16" bikes (exception: Kokua Like to Bike 16" as it has longer crank arms, but they could be too long for some kids). As far as ruggedness, the Woom 3 & Spawn Banshee can handle the same terrain but the Woom is better for riders with less experience as it has a more upright stance. Spawn has a more aggressive stance that is better for kids who have been riding on a 14" bike already (not as good for kids going straight from balance bike, but my oldest did fine). Hope that helps!

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    9. The Spawn Banshee does not have a coaster brake and the Woom can be delivered without the coaster brake if you choose (at least to Canada! Not sure if that's allowed in the US).

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    10. We got my oldest daughter a used Spawn Banshee when she turned 5 and she did great! She was on a cheap 14" bike briefly, but it was too heavy for our hilly neighborhood. As soon as she got the Banshee she could crush the hills! :) My youngest is almost the same size as my big girl, but is a lot more risk averse, so she found the Banshee's forward stance scary compared to her balance bike. We eased her into riding on a Woom 2 14" then a Woom 3 16". As of this month, my oldest (now 7) is on a MEC Dash and loves it! While it isn't as light as the Woom or Spawn bikes, it is WAY cheaper and is still a high quality bike.

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    11. Doug D, you are right! BMX Racing bikes are also a great lightweight alternative. My parents got me a Diamond Back BMX when I was a kid and it was awesome!!! Thanks for the reminder. :)

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