From Size to Brakes to Tires, We’ll Help You Find the Perfect Balance Bike!
Balance bikes seem pretty simple, but it’s not a simple task to choose the best balance bike for your child. While essentially any balance bike can teach a toddler or child to balance, riding experiences vary widely as a result of differences in bike size, quality, and features. The 11 main criteria to help you choose the best balance bike for your son or daughter of any age and ability are: 1) size, 2) weight, 3) geometry, 4) tire type, 5) brakes, 6) turning limiters, 7) footrests, 8) bearings, 9) frame materials, 10) hand grips, and 11) bolts.
Size is by far the most important factor to get right when choosing a balance bike. While balance bikes are often marketed as “one-size-fits-all,” the reality is that the same bike will not properly fit an 18-month-old and a six-year-old. Tire size and seat height (as it related to inseam) should both be considered when determining the right balance bike for your toddler or child.
12″ wheels are by the far the most common tire size for balance bikes. 14″ tires are found on larger balance bikes for older or taller preschoolers. There are a few 16″ and 20″ balance bikes designed for kids in grade school who do not have the confidence or ability to ride a pedal bike yet. These large balance bikes are also often used by children and teens with special needs.
While wheel size is a good reference point for the overall size of a balance bike, the seat height is the most accurate indicator of how a bike will fit your child. Balance bikes come in a vast array of seat height ranges.
To properly ride a balance bike, a child’s feet must be able to hit and push off of the ground while they are sitting comfortably on the bike. To achieve this, the bike’s seat height should be set 1″ to 1.5″ less than the child’s inseam (measured crotch to floor with shoes on), to allow for a slight knee bend.
Proper Seat Height Should Allow for a Slight Bend in the Knee
To allow room for growth, you should purchase a bike with a maximum seat height that is at least 2″ above the child’s current inseam. These extra inches will allow the balance bike to fit your child for at least 2 to 3 years or until they move up to a regular kid’s bike.
Measuring Your Child
The easiest way to measure a child’s inseam is with a hardbound book. With shoes on, have the child stand against a wall, squeeze the book between their legs, and then slowly raise the book up until it hits their crotch. Level the book with the floor, then measure the distance between the top of the book to the ground.
As a general rule, you don’t want a bike to weigh more than 30% of your child’s weight. A 10-pound bike can be difficult for a 25 lb. 2-year-old to maneuver, but much easier for a 35 lb. 3.5-year-old.
The frame and wheels on the bike have the greatest effect on the bike’s overall weight. Air tires are much heavier than foam tires, which is why essentially all balance bikes sub-$150 that market themselves as “lightweight” have foam tires.
High-quality lightweight bikes that come fully loaded (air tires, handbrake, true headset, etc.), require specialty parts to keep the weight down. This quickly raises the cost of a bike. These specialty components are what differentiate the cost, quality, and performance of a $75 bike versus a $200 bike.
Weight of a Bike vs. Child
The geometry of a balance bike makes a huge difference in how the bike performs. A bike with good geometry will work with the child to help them learn to balance and maneuver, while a bike with poor geometry will work against them. Determining whether a bike has “good geometry” is somewhat subjective, but by focusing on a few key elements of the bike you can get a good feel for its geometry.
Highlights of GOOD Geometry on a Balance Bike
So what exactly is geometry? Several factors work together to make up the geometry of a bike. (1) Frame design and wheelbase is paramount, followed by the (2) shape and size of the handlebars. The (3) position of the seat relative to the tires and the (4) angle of the front fork also play a role.
(1) Wheelbase: The wheelbase is the distance between where the two wheels of a bike touch the ground. Bikes with longer wheelbases are generally more stable and easier to balance. Like the Strider above versus the Chicco Red Bullet below, the shorter wheelbase of the Red Bullet makes it look squished end to end compared to the Strider.
(2) Cockpit: The cockpit of a bike is the space between the seat and the handlebars. Having ample space in the cockpit is essential for balance bike riders because they need to have room to lean into the handlebars while running on their bikes. On a bike with a short cockpit, the handlebars will prevent the child from properly leaning forward on the bike while running. Balance bikes with swept back handlebars, like the Red Bullet, have limited space in the cockpit.
(3) Fork Angle: The angle of the front fork plays a huge role in the maneuverability of a bike. A more upright fork decreases the wheelbase of the bike and also forces more of the child’s weight to be over the front wheel. With additional weight over the front wheel, the bike is harder to steer, less stable, and is more likely to get hung up on uneven surfaces.
(4) Seat Position: A well-designed balance bike has only a small gap between the rear tire and the seat when it’s set to its lowest position. Positioning the seat low on the frame helps to lower the overall center-of-gravity of the bike and makes it easier to balance at low speeds. A poorly-designed bike has a large gap between the rear tire and the seat, creating a high center-of-gravity for the rider, making the bike more difficult to balance and control.
Tires play a key role in the performance and comfort level of a bike. There are two primary types of balance bike tires: foam and air.
Foam tires are very common on balance bikes because they’re cheap to manufacture, lightweight, and are made of solid foam which can never go flat. For the average neighborhood rider who plans on sticking mainly to the pavement, foam tires will do the trick, but real air tires are essential for kid riders looking for adventure! Strider bikes have foam tires.
Air tires provide superior traction and cushioning as compared to foam tires. Foam tires have very little give and do not dampen any bumps while riding. If a child goes down a curb on a bike with foam tires, they’re really going to feel it! Air tires, however, will flex when compressed so the child rider feels much less impact. woom 1 and the Yedoo Too Too are two of our favorite bikes with air tires.
Because air tires are rubber, they also provide much more traction than foam. This is evident on all surfaces, but particularly on all-terrain surfaces where foam tires are known to slide. For those riders who want a little more all-terrain traction, many balance bikes are also available with a knobby air tire.
For aggressive riders, air tires are essential because they are able to flex during sharp turns in order to maintain traction. Foam tires cannot flex and do NOT perform well on leaning turns.
Air vs. Foam Tires
Kids will primarily use their feet to stop a balance bike, so hand brakes are optional. But when possible, we always recommend purchasing a bike with a hand brake. Why? Hand brakes can help prevent injury, save kids’ shoes, and better prepare a child to ride a pedal bike.
Usually between 2.5 and 3.5-years-old, most pre-schoolers have enough hand/eye coordination to use a hand brake. Once learned, kids tend to use their hand brake in conjunction with their feet for faster, safer stopping. Once mastered on a balance bike, they don’t need to relearn how to use a brake on a regular bike.
Young toddlers should not be encouraged to use a hand brake, but if you plan on your toddler riding a balance bike for several years, it may be wise to invest in a bike with a hand brake.
Braking with Feet vs. a Handbrake
Keep in mind that not all hand brakes are created equal. Higher-end bikes, such as the woom 1, have short-reach brakes which allow the small hands of pre-schoolers to reach the brake with greater ease. They are also very easy to squeeze with a tiny hand.
Standard reach brake levers on lower-end bikes require kids to stretch their hand out farther to reach the brake lever, which can prevent them from braking properly. These brakes are also usually more difficult to squeeze which can cause a child to refuse to use it all together.
If you have a chance to test out a bike in person, try to activate the brake with your pinky finger, which simulates the strength of a child’s hand. If it’s easy for you to compress with your pinky, it will also be easy for them, and vice versa.
6. Turning Limiters
Turning limiters block the handlebar and front wheel from completing a full revolution, preventing sharp turns and keeping the brake cable from getting twisted. Proponents claim they help keep a child from jackknifing, while detractors claim they prevent kids from learning proper steering while they are young and still riding at slow speeds.
Elastic, Removable Limiter on the WOOM 1
While there are pros and cons to turning limiters, the overall effect most limiters have on riding is minor, and their presence shouldn’t be a determining factor in your purchase. Poorly designed limiters that greatly reduce the turning radius of the bike should be avoided, while the elastic limiter on the woom 1 is fantastic because it provides gentle correction and is removable.
The majority of balance bikes do not have footrests because they are not needed. When gliding on a balance bike, kids instinctively hold their feet up. In fact, in our nine years of testing bikes, we’ve never had a child ask where to put their feet! It’s always the parents that ask that question!
A properly designed footrest usually doesn’t hurt to have around, but for some kids, footrests can be a crutch as they feel they have to use them and spend more time worrying about their feet than balancing and steering.
Unfortunately, poorly designed footrests are common and interfere with a child’s stride, causing them to hit the back of their calf on the footrest while riding. An example of a poorly designed footrest is found on the blue Schwinn below. Typically, a properly designed footrest is tucked back under the seat and out of the way of a child’s stride. A great example of a good footrest is found on red Strider below.
The bearings of a bike determine how fast and how smoothly a tire spins around the axle. Sealed bearings have a rubber seal around them that prevents water, dirt, and dust from entering the bearings. As a result, a bike with sealed bearings experiences less friction when spinning. Less friction means that your child will enjoy a smoother ride while exerting less effort on their balance bike.
Sealed bearings are considered to be a higher-end feature and result in a higher price tag. When choosing the features for your ideal balance bike, sealed bearings are a “nice-to-have,” rather than required.
9. Frame Materials
Balance bike frames are made from aluminum, steel, wood, or composite material, with metal frames being the most common.
Metal bikes come in steel or aluminum alloys which play a contributing factor in the total weight and weight capacity of the bike. Aluminum alloy 6061 is the cream-of-the-crop in bike frames. It’s lightweight, strong, rust-proof, and is used in higher-end bikes, such as WOOM, Prevelo and Scoot.
Steel frames are common on less expensive models, but create a heavier bike and are prone to rust. If bikes don’t specifically state they are made of aluminum, they will be made of steel.
Wood bikes can be more environmentally friendly but are less adjustable than metal bikes. Higher-end wood frames can last for years if properly taken care of, while cheap, lower-end wood bikes tend to fall apart fairly quickly.
Composite frames are a glass fiber reinforced nylon composite found mainly on FirstBIKE. They offer a lightweight frame with a high weight capacity, without the concerns of rust or chipping paint. Composite frames, however, can bend or flex when in use by an older or taller rider, but most kids transition to a pedal bike before the flexing becomes an issue.
While seemingly minor, handlebar grips will most likely be one of the first safety features used on the balance bike. A rubber grip with a knobby end protects kids’ hands when the handlebars run into a wall, trees, etc., and also protects kids’ hands from hitting the ground during falls.
All balance bikes have grips and most have grips with protective bumpers. Because this is an easy and common way to keep your child safe, be cautious before buying any bike without protective bumpers.
WOOM’s Ergonomic and Protective Grips
11. Recessed, Rounded, and Covered Bolts
The front and rear axle bolts on balance bikes come in a wide variety of styles. These bolts can range from large traditional bolts to low profile bolts recessed into the frame of the bike.
With time, larger bolts that protrude out from the bike become scratched and dented. This can, in turn, lead to small legs getting scratched by the bolts. To prevent this, many bikes come with plastic caps to cover the bolts, but many budget bikes do not. Higher-end bikes, like the woom 1, have flat or low profile bolts that are actually recessed in the fork to prevent any possible contact with little legs.