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THE DEAL ON WHEELS

With every pump of the pedals, your little one's knees now thump against her tricycle handlebars. It's time for another childhood rite of passage for her and another major purchase for you. The day to buy a big-kid bike has arrived. But with all the different models to choose from and all the confusing features to sort through, how's a parent supposed to pick a beginner's bike that's safe, affordable and fun? This guide gives a rundown of some of the basic nuts and bolts, and provides answers to the most important nonmechanical questions, as well.

When is my child ready for a big-kid bike? The average age is somewhere around 4 or 5, when most kids have developed the motor skills to climb on and off a bike and to balance on two wheels. The easiest way to know if your child is ready is if she says so, advises Linda Tracy of the Bicycle Federation of America, a nonprofit bike-safety group based in Washington, D.C. "If a child asks to ride a two-wheel bike and can handle a tricycle well, let her try it out. If it's still a little too early, you can bet she'll let you know."How can I tell if a bike fits? Proper bike size is critical to a child's comfort and safety, Tracy says. A young rider should be able to sit comfortably with her legs bent slightly and her feet flat on the ground. Make sure that the handlebars are no higher than her shoulders when she's seated, or steering will be awkward. Never buy a bike "big" and expect your child to grow into it.

Why are some bikes more expensive? Better bikes run as much as $110 to $160, while cheaper models go for $50 to $100. The main difference, according to Gregory Kuhn of the Encina Bicycle Center in Walnut Creek, Calif., is that higher-priced bikes are usually equipped with parts that are more durable, replaceable and adjustable than the parts on cheaper bikes.

If you have just one child, who's not the type to ride aggressively, Kuhn says, a less expensive model might make sense. But if you're planning to pass the wheels down to a second sibling, you'll probably get your money's worth out of a tougher, more expensive bike.

How can I save money buying a bike? You can save a little (maybe $10 to $20) by watching for sales at department, toy and discount stores. But, says Kuhn, don't expect to find many deals at bike shops (although end-of-season close-outs are an exception).

Perhaps a better way to save is by buying a used bike. You should be able to find a reliable secondhand model for $25 to $75 through garage sales, ads in newspapers, signs at bike shops or notices on community bulletin boards. A few juggling basics: Rotate all moving parts to see that they operate smoothly, with no rattling or jiggling; make sure tires still have plenty of tread; and reject any bike with dents, rust or cracks on the frame. If you're not sure that a used bike is in good condition, bring it to a local bike shop. Many stores will inspect bicycles for free.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

Seats: Young backsides are remarkably impervious to the saddle soreness that plagues many adult riders. Either a hard, molded-plastic seat or a softer, padded seat will work fine for children, so long as it is adjusted to the proper height.

Brakes: Kids' bikes are typically equipped with coaster, or foot, brakes - not handlebar-mounted brakes - for simpler stopping. Hand brakes offered as an option are unnecessary; they make stopping too complicated for most beginners.

Training wheels: Whether a bike comes with training wheels or you buy them as an accessory, be sure they are adjustable. Start out with the wheels touching the ground and raise them about a quarter of an inch at a time as a child's riding ability improves.

Handlebars: The steel bracing bar used on many bikes to reinforce the handlebars should be padded in case of a fall. If it's not, buying your own pad ($10 to $15) serves as good insurance against a bloody lip or a broken tooth.

Accessories: Keep streamers, bells and other accessories to a minimum, particularly for beginners. It's best for kids to learn to ride with as few distractions as possible.

Frame: Durability is what you're after here. On better bikes, the joints where the various steel bars connect are welded all the way around for added strength. Cheaper bikes often have spot-welded frames, which don't normally last as long. There's no difference in durability between girls' frames (the ones with a top bar that slopes down) and boys' frames (those with the top bar parallel to the ground).

Spokes: Some bikes are outfitted with a one-piece, plastic spoke unit or "mag wheel"; others come with traditional metal spokes. There's no difference in performance, but individual metal spokes can be replaced inexpensively if they break. When a plastic spoke unit fails, it must be replaced completely.

Tires: The choice here is between narrow tires with a smooth tread and fat tires with a knobby tread. For children who bike primarily on pavement, thin tires work best. Fat, knobby tires are better suited for riding on dirt, grass or gravel.

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Additional Information

Helmets: a high priority

"Absolutely essential" is the phrase bike experts use to describe helmets. About 600 bicyclists under age 14 die each year in the United States, and 75 percent of the deaths involve head trauma. Bicycle helmets are known to reduce the risk of head injury by 85 percent.

Children's helmets cost about $25 to $50 and are made of expanded polystyrene (a stiff, synthetic foam that cushions blows by crumpling in on itself) covered with a thin plastic shell. Look inside the helmet for an ANSI (American National Standards Institute) sticker, indicating that the helmet meets minimum impact-protection standards. An additional green or blue Snell Memorial Foundation sticker means the helmet has been independently tested and meets the most stringent impact standards.

To be sure a helmet fits properly, place the helmet on your child so that it covers the top half of her forehead. Adjust the straps until they're comfortably snug, and then have her try to pull the helmet off backward, forward and sideways. It should remain level on her head, not tilting more than an inch or two in any direction.

To ensure that your child wears her helmet:

- Always wear one yourself.

- Let your child pick her own style of helmet from among those considered safe.

- Praise your child generously for wearing a helmet.

- Make a "No helmet, no riding" rule, and enforce it.