While balance bikes are simple in design, they are certainly not one-size-fits all. A balance bike that properly fits an 18-month old will be problematic for a 4 year-old. On the other hand, a bike that works great for one three-year-old may not be the best choice for another. Finding the best balance bike for your child however can be simplified by educating yourself on the various features of balance bikes. From footrests to seat height and shape, here’s a list of the top 12 features of balance bikes.
Video Review of Features
A quick video summarizing what to look for when buying a balance bike. It’s a couple years old, but for the most part, is still up to date.
1. Saddle (Seat) Height:
The minimum saddle height is the first spec you want to look at in a balance bike. The majority of all negative reviews of balance bikes are attributed to parents purchasing the wrong size bike for their kids. As a result, before you even step foot in a shop or visit Amazon, measure your child’s inseam. The minimum saddle height of a bike should be about an 1″ to 1.5″ less than their inseam. While your child will technically fit a bike in which their inseam is equal to the saddle height, the extra 1″ or so will help your child get on and off the bike as well as lessen injuries from a fall.
Balance bikes also vary widely is frame size. Smaller frames can offer great adjustability in seat post height, but may be too small for older kids. An extra-long seat post, as larger frames can likewise offer more adjustability, but be too large to handle for younger kids.
How the seat adjusts is also worth taking note. Being able to quickly adjust the seat of a bike, whether at the park or in front of your house, without finding the proper tool is extremely convenient. Four types of seat post height clamps are available, FirstBIKE’s unique system is the quickest and easiest, while the two-bolt system found on all wood bikes are the most tedious.
2. Seat Shape, Material and Padding
The seat of the balance bikes come in difference shapes, materials and various thickness of padding. The two basic shapes of the seats are the standard triangular-shaped bike seat and a U-shaped seat. Trianglular-shaped seats are the most common, but does little to help a child stay on the seat. U-shaped seat are never to the market and are are specifically designed to prevent a child from slipping off the seat.
The material of the seats can vary greatly, from hard plastic to leatherette. Hard plastic seats are durable (as found on the Strider ), but offer no padding. The majority of balance bikes have plastic seats, but are also wrapped in a vinyl fabric with various layers of foam padding. High-end bikes, such as the LikeaBike Jumper and the Specialized Hot Walk. provide extra-thick padding on their seats as their bikes are designed for the off-road enthusiast. FirstBIKE is unique in that it offers a gel seat, which provide slight cushioning as well as “grips” a child’s pants to prevent them from slipping off the seat. The gel seat is also unique is that is provides a non-porous form of cushioning, which certainly comes in handy after potty training accidents.
3. Frame and Component Materials
Balance bikes come in wood, metal and composite frames. Metal bikes come in steel or aluminum alloys, which is a contributing factor in the total weight and weight capacity of the bike. Steel frames are heavier and can rust when chipped, but can hold a heavier rider (up to 100 lbs. in some models). Aluminum bikes are lighter, but have a lower weight capacity (maxing out at around 75 lbs.). Wood bikes can be more environmentally friendly, but are less adjustable than metal bikes. Composite frames, found on FirstBIKE shown below, are new to the market and offer a lightweight frame with a high weight capacity, without the concerns of rust or chipping paint.
The components and parts of the bike, i.e. headset, rims, also come in plastic or metal. With exception to the FirstBIKE, the more metal parts on a bike the better. The price difference between two metal bikes is due to the quality of the build and the individual components on a bike.
4. Total Weight:
As a general rule, you don’t want a bike to weight more than 30% of your child’s weight. A 10-pound bike can be difficult for a 25 lb. 2-year-old to maneuver around, but is a piece of cake for a 35 lb. 3.5-year-old. Lighter weight bikes are also beneficial to parents as the indecisive nature of toddlers and preschoolers often results in balance bikes being carried.
There are six different types of tires available on balance bikes, “fat boy” extra-cushioned air, standard air (pneumatic), rubber honeycomb, EVA foam, solid rubber (only of FirstBIKE Basic – not shown below) and hard plastic.
Foam tires are the lightest and are puncture proof, but provide the least traction and no cushioning. Solid rubber tires are also puncture-proof, but provide more traction as compared to foam tires. Foam tires are perfectly acceptable for toddlers riding on paved surfaces, but air or honeycomb tires are recommended for kids aged 3 and up.
“Fat Boy”, Big Apple
“Fat Boy” tires have a wider profile, thereby holding more air than the standard air tires. The extra air provides for increased cushioning and acts as a shock-absorber over minor bumps and rocks and creates a smoother ride overall. “Fat Boy” is the general descriptive term for the tires while Big Apple is a type of tire made my Schwalbe. Found only on high-end bikes, including all Early Rider models, the LikeaBike Jumper and FirstBIKE Limited and Racer/Big Apple edition. While providing extra cushion, “Big Apple” tires do not provide as much traction as a knobby tires, such as those found on the FirstBIKE Cross.
Air is by far the most popular and most universal. With exception to the “Big Apple” tires, they offer the most comfortable ride, but are prone to flat tires. Simply adding tire sealant to both tires however, can greatly reduce, if not eliminate, flat tires and blowouts (See How to Apply Tire Sealant to Bike Tires ). Purchasing an adapter for your bike pump (link to my recommended one), is usually necessary to allow a standard bike pump to fit into a 12 inch rim.
Tread on air tires (standard and Big Apple) are also a point of interest. Just about any tread on air tires will
work on pavement, but tires with a deeper tread will provide increased traction on dirt and other natural surfaces. The best all-terrain tire (aggressive tread) available on balance bikes is the Schwalbe Black Jack, only found on the Ridgeback Premium .
New to the market (not mentioned in the video above), the rubber honeycomb tires combine the best of both worlds. The traction of an air tire with the zero-flat risk of a foam tire. Found only on the Burley MyKick. this new tire technology essentially eliminates any benefits of EVA foam tires.
Foam tires are lightweight, durable and never go flat, but provides the least amount of traction, no cushioning and don’t hold up nearly as well over time. In fact, when owners of Strider bikes (which are only available stock with foam tires), swapped out their foam tires for Strider’s optional air tires (for an extra $40-$50), they immediately saw improvements in their child’s riding. “My 3yo rides his strider like a maniac. After a year of ever-increasing aggressive cornering, the stock, solid tires just weren’t cutting it anymore. These are real pneumatic bicycle tires with excellent traction on hard surfaces. He’s carving turns like a pro now!” Another parent writes, “Better then the original cheap foam tires that come with the bike. The new tires grip better compared to the other ones as well.” Source. So why are foam tires still being used? They are inexpensive and thus, good for margins.
That being said, foam tires are a benefit to day-care centers or parents who do not want to worry about flat tires, but compared to rubber honeycomb tires, the only benefit of EVA foam tires is their light weight, which is minor at best. For toddlers who are riding primarily on the street, foam tires will generally work out just fine, but for older, heavier riders as well as those rider who ride off-road on dirt, the extra traction provided by air tires is essential.
New to the market, the FirstBIKE Basic has a solid rubber tire. While it offers essentially no cushioning, it does provide a lot of traction without the risk of flats. Perfect for daycare centers, school or parents that don’t want to be concerned with chaining a flat tire.
These “Big Wheel” type tires are made for toys, not for bikes. Unless you have a very young child who is riding exclusively indoors and happen to love the ybike design, there is simply no reason to consider the ybike Classic .
The average toddler and preschoolers does not have a large enough hand or the coordination to pull a hand brake lever and generally always use their feet to stop. In fact, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, most children under the age of five generally do not have the hand strength or dexterity to use hand brakes. So while a brake does come in handy for older riders, it is not essential for younger riders as they will rarely use it.
7. Turning Limiters:
Turning limiters prevents the handlebar and front wheel from completing a full revolution. Proponents of the limiter claim that bikes are safer with them as it prevents sharp turns, limits injuries during a fall and prevents the brake cables from becoming twisted. Adversaries claim that the limiters are “training wheels” for handle bars and children should be exposed to the full range of steering from the get-go. While there are pros and cons to turning limiters, the overall effect they have on riding is minor and their presence shouldn’t be a determining factor in your purchase.
Unless their going down a long hill, most kids aren’t going to use a footrest. In fact, kids don’t really need them. Footrests are on balance bikes only because adults thought they might come in handy, not because kids requested them. That being said, as long as a footrest doesn’t get in the way of running, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have one around. Young toddlers however, do better without them as they almost always get in their way while pushing. They can also be a crutch to kids who feel as if they have to use it if it is there and spend more time worrying about their feet than their balance and steering.
Odds are your kids aren’t going to be riding the balance bike for more than two many three years, but an extended warranty is something to consider if you plan on passing the bike down to younger siblings.
10. Handlebar Grips:
While seemingly minor, handlebar grips will most likely be one of the first safety features used on the bike. A rubber grip with a knobby end protect kids hands when the handlebars run into wall, trees, etc. but also protects their hands from hitting the ground during falls.
11. Recessed or Covered Bolts
Exposed bolts were not originally a concern of mine until the first time my son scratched his leg upon one during a fall. To be honest, it has only happened a handful of times, but FirstBIKE, Joovy and Kazam (not shown) have taken steps to eliminate the risk, which I believe is worth taking note.
Besides quality and lack of features, the one major difference between cheap $50 bikes and higher end $150+ that most parents overlook is the geometry of a bike. Most toy companies spend very little time and research on the actually frame design of a bike, but rather throw a seat, a handlebar and two wheels on a metal tube and call it good. How easy a bike is to balance, handle and control can be mostly attributed to the frame design, or geometry of a bike and shouldn’t be overlooked. While poorly designed bikes can and do teach children to balance, they are typically more difficult to ride as the often have a higher center of gravity due to improper placement of the seat.
By having the seat farther back on the frame, kids experience better handling and are generally able to progress faster on the bike. While running, with their seat further back on the bike, kids also have more room to naturally learn forward as they run. Wanting to provide the best experience for their riders, Strider is a great example of the importance of geometry of balance bikes. With plenty of “knock-offs” to use as comparisons, Strider has proven that it makes more than a combination of components to make a good balance bike.