Without a question of a doubt, one of the best purchases I made for my young daughter was a balance bike. For those of you who haven’t heard of a balance bike before, it is just like an ordinary bicycle, but without pedals, the idea being that the child uses their legs in a running like motion to power the bicycle along and also to brake. Despite being a somewhat expensive initial outlay, in terms of cost to usage ratio, it has been superb value and I would definitely recommend it as an activity for all little folk. With that in mind, here is Podflower’s definitive guide to balance biking and what to look for when purchasing….
Why balance bike?
Growing up in the 80’s most kids, myself included, learnt to ride using stabilizers, or if they had willing parents, with an adult running alongside gripping the handle bars, essentially controlling the speed, steering and balancing whist the kid concentrated solely on not falling off. The problem with either approach is you are expecting the kid to become proficient at both pedalling and steering, and balancing in the case of the latter, in a short space of time. Until the complete combination of skills is mastered, the bike ain’t going nowhere and it’s only the kid’s enjoyment that is rapidly going downhill. Pedalling can be quite tough on little legs, making it almost impossible to get going, which in turn impacts their ability to balance. Stabilizers may help with balancing initially, allowing them to master pedalling and steering, but considering balancing is by far the hardest technique to master, as soon as you remove the stabilizers they are pretty much back to square one. Stabilizers also have a rather precarious habit of rocking the bicycle from side to side, and can even topple it over on uneven ground.
With a balance bike, the kid uses their legs to provide the motion and can have their feet in constant contact with the ground, being able to gradually lift their legs for increased periods of time as they become more proficient at balancing. As there are less skills to coordinate, kids can start with a balance bike far earlier than they could with a stabilized pedal bike and they tend to learn much faster. They also often progress straight to pedal bikes without the stabilizer stage.
One of the huge advantages in getting your toddler proficient at balance biking is the fact they can cover a far greater distance on their bike than they can with their legs. Going for walks of a mile + is no issue at all – in fact we often found ourselves jogging to keep up with her!
When to start
As soon as your kid can walk and has an inside leg measurement of approximately 30 – 35cm, depending on the model of bike you go for, you can get them started. Our daughter was 18 months old when we introduced her to balance biking. Initially she would just stand over the top tube ringing the bell. Gradually she started to waddle around the living room, straddling the bike. Once she had the hang of that, we would take her to the end of the street and back (on the pavement). She learnt to steer first, then as her confidence grew she learnt to balance. By the age of two she could build up considerable speed and do long periods of balancing, or “no legs” as she coined it.
One thing that we found motivated her to keep practising was the fact that we as parents are keen cyclists. Before we even got the balance bike, we would go on long family bike rides with the daughter on the back of one of our bikes in a Hamax seat. Wanting to ride a bicycle like “mummy and daddy” definitely helped with her perseverance.
Safety and Equipment
So is there any additional equipment you need?
Your little nipper is likely to take a few tumbles when they first get started and once they are proficient will be capable of reaching considerable speeds so a proper cycling helmet is a must. You may also want to consider some cycling gloves as they can potentially bruise their knuckles on passing walls whilst getting the hang of steering.
Even if you choose a bike with a rear brake it is unlikely your child will make use of it to begin with so their shoes are going to take some battering as they use either the soles or toes as a substitute brake. Make sure you invest in footwear with a decent toe covering (do NOT let your child balance bike in sandals or flip flops!), and also be prepared for them to wear them out quite quickly. Don’t have them in anything you are too precious about.
What to look for when buying
We didn’t know a great deal about balance bikes when we first started looking into getting one but from our own experience with adult bikes we knew that if you go for something too cheap, which goes hand in hand with being too heavy, it becomes a burden rather than a joy to ride. With that in mind we went for the Kokua Jumper as it was one of the lightest balance bikes on the market , not to mention a fun, striking design. Having extensively used it for the best part of 18 months, it is certainly a great little bike but it is not without its design flaws. I’ve now got a pretty good idea of what you should look for in a balance bike, and also what you should avoid, in order for your child to want to use it, and for them to use it safely. Here’s the low down…
As I mentioned above, weight is probably the one defining factor as to whether your chid will even pick the bike up, let alone practise. Many of the cheaper offerings on the market have heavy frames. If your child can’t easily lift the bike and manoeuvre it around, then there is little chance they will learn to ride it. The best balance bikes are between 3KG – 4KG.
Another advantage of a low weight is when your child inevitably gets tired, inevitably a considerable distance away from home or the car, then it is you that is going to have to carry the thing.
Insert Kokua Jumper pic with caption. “The Kokua Jumper bike weighs in at 3.5KG and is easily manoeuvred.”
Some balance bikes come with brakes, some don’t and others have optional brakes you can add at a later date. My feeling is when first starting out, particularly with very young children (under 2.5 years) then you definitely don’t want a brake. They are too young to understand that they need to use varied sensitivity on the brake handle and are likely to squeeze it too hard and have an accident. Kids have also been known to remove their hands entirely from the handle bars to operate the brake, which is also dangerous. Using their feet is a far more intuitive and safer method of slowing down.
However for kids over 2.5 years then a brake is quite useful, but not essential. As their confidence grows and they become heavier and therefore building up greater speed then they may find they feel safer with a brake to use rather than relying solely on their feet. You may also want to consider the terrain where your child will mostly use the bike. If it is very flat then you will probably find that a brake is not needed regardless of their age and ability but if you live somewhere with more gradient variation then a brake may become essential.
One thing is certain though, if you do opt for a bike with a brake then make sure it is a rear brake – front brakes present a high risk of the child flying over the top of the handle bars.
Some balance bikes, such as the Puky LR Ride and Kokua Jumper, come with rear suspension. This can make a big difference in the comfort of the ride and the type or terrain the bike can handle. Rear suspension can add another layer of fun with the ability to ride dirt tracks and tackle mini jumps. However if you will mostly take your child on tarmac then you may be better off without suspension, as just like with a regular adult bike, having suspension eats up effort and slows the bike down.
As soon as our daughter had got the hang of “no legs” we quickly realised that one of the design flaws of the Kokua Jumper was also “no legs”, in regards to the fact there was indeed nowhere for her legs to comfortably go whilst balancing. As your child gains the confidence to balance for extended periods of time there is nowhere for their legs to go apart from up and out, which is a little bit ungainly. It also means that they won’t be able to do any standing tricks. Foot platforms certainly aren’t essential but they are worth considering.
Bikes such as the Specialized Hotwalk come with foot platforms built in and the Strider has the optional XL Freestyle Footrest which can be added if your child wants to progress to tricks.
We’ve covered the biggest considerations when choosing a balance bike for your budding biker but there are few other minor ones to bear in mind. One thing that I have found incredibly difficult with the Kokua Jumper is pumping up the tyres. With the wheels being so small it is very difficult to squeeze your hands between the spokes and unscrew the pump to the Schrader valve. By the time you have managed to get the adapter off the valve most of the air you have just pumped in has come out. I’m not sure if any models come with Presta valves, but this would certainly help. There are options such as the Pinnacle Tineo that have the valves sticking out at an angle, which also alleviates the problem.
It is definitely worth shelling out a bit more for bikes that have frames made of lightweight alloys as it can mean the difference between a much loved activity and a waste of money. However if you are struggling with the expense, it might be worth bearing in mind that the top end of the range bikes are beautifully engineered and will stand the test of time meaning that you can hand me down to future siblings, or they will retain a good resales value. If you are planning to hand me down then you might want to opt for a unisex design. In my opinion, the Kokua Jumper in green, white or orange is ideal for this (we went with green) or alternatively the Early Rider Alley Runner is a design classic that is an eye catching option for either gender.
I haven’t found the perfect bike yet – there are some very good designs available but not one that I feel has the complete package. If I were to design one then it would probably have a lightweight aluminium frame, have an optional back brake, foot platforms, rear suspension and angled presta valves on the tyres and to finish off would be a striking unisex silver, perhaps with retro styling. Maybe it does exist and I’m just unaware. However until it does then there are still some fantastic balance bikes on the market and I would highly recommend introducing your toddler to the childhood right-of-passage that is learning to ride a bike with one.