Ask any adult and no doubt they'll be able to tell you about their first bike or the adventures they had on two wheels as a youngster. A bike provides kids freedom, confidence and everlasting memories, not to mention the honing of fine motor skills and muscle development, and so choosing the right one is pretty important! There are no specific rules for buying a particular bike for a child, however, the tips below should point you in the right direction.
Choosing the right size and approximate age guidelines
Selecting the right size bike for a child might seem like a simple equation but there's a lot more information to consider than age alone. As you'll see from the recommendations we've made below, many of the sizes overlap in age and are more dependent upon height, not to mention confidence and ability.
It's important when selecting a bike that you don't choose a size the child will 'grow into'. As the size of a bike increases, so does it's weight, making it more difficult to manoeuvre. An increase in height raises the center of gravity and makes it harder to balance. As a result, if you choose a bike that is too large, your child may have difficulty riding it and not enjoy the experience. Use the age and height recommendations below as a guide and be mindful that the best way to know if the bike is the right size is to see if the child can comfortably stand over the bike with both feet flat on the ground, comfortably reach the pedals from the seat, and comfortably reach the handlebars when sitting.
It's also important to note that unlike adult bikes that are measured via the frame, kids bikes are measured by wheel size, and so the size is not indicative of the frame size or seat height of the bike. As well as looking at the bikes tire size, be aware of the minimum and maximum seat height to make sure the child can fit the bike.
Age 18 months + / Balance bikes
Balance bikes are designed to suit children from as young as 18 months and teach balance, fine motor skills and good habits right from the get go. These bikes have no pedals and rely on the child to push themselves along with their feet. They are a great introduction to cycling and will make the progression to balancing a pedal bike much easier when compared to progressing from using training wheels.
For a comprehensive understanding of these bikes and which ones we recommend, read our Ultimate Guide to Buying a Balance Bike article.
Age 2 - 4 / Wheel size 12in
12in bikes are often a child's first pedal bike and are designed for two to four-year-olds or those between 85cm - 110cm. As this is often the first foray into cycling, you want to look for simplistic designs without things that could complicate their riding experiences like multiple gears, lever-operated rear hand brake or front suspension.
Feeling comfortable and developing confidence is crucial at this point so ensure the fit is correct and the child is happy with the look and feel of the bike. The frame is likely to be made out of either steel or aluminium, the latter being the preferred (but more expensive) option as it will be lighter and resistant to rust.
Expect the bike to come with trainer wheels and a rear coaster brake, potentially a front lever-operated handbrake too. Children of this age often lack the hand strength to operate this type of brake but it can be a key learning consideration as it will get the child used to using the handbrake to slow down. When the child is prepared to do this will vary depending on their physical ability, confidence and strength. Around three-four years is a good guide.
Age 2 - 5 / Wheel size 14in
14in bikes share virtually the same form and features as 12in bikes but with slightly larger tire size. Much of the industry work with wheel sizes of 12in, 16in, 20in and 24in to simplify the progression but some brands, such as Byk, skip the industry's more common 12in size in favour of a larger 14in wheel. Larger wheels provide better stability, a smoother ride and increased speed.
The age and height recommendations are very similar for 12in and 14in bikes, and so the choice is likely to be decided by your budget, brand preferences and availability as 12in bikes are far more common.
Age 4 - 6 / Wheel size 16in
16in bikes are the next progression once children have outgrown their 12in or 14in bike, suitable for those aged between four and six-year-olds or those between 100cm - 120cm.
Frame options again include steel or aluminium, with the latter being the preferred (but more expensive) option as it will be lighter and resistant to rust. Training wheels and coaster rear brakes are likely to feature and you'll find front lever-operated handbrakes are more common as older children start to develop enough grip strength to use them as a stopping mechanism. Before buying a bike with a hand operated brake, ensure it is a ‘short-reach’ lever specifically designed for small hands.
Age 4 - 6 / Wheel size 18in
Much like a 14in bike is to a 12in bike, an 18in bike is an alternative to a 16in bike, as some brands skip the industry's more common 16in size in favour for a larger 18in wheel.
An 18in bike is suitable for those aged four to six-year-olds or those between 100cm - 120cm. Choosing an 18in bike over a 16in bike is likely to come down to budget, brand preference or availability as 16in bikes are far more common.
Age 7 - 9 / Wheel size 20in
20in kids bikes are the most popular size on BikeExchange and it's at this stage that children really start to develop a sense of adventure and freedom through their cycling. 20in bikes are suitable for those aged between seven and nine-year-olds or those 115cm - 135cm.
Bikes from here and up, start to split into specific cycling disciplines like mountain biking, BMX and road riding.
20in mountain bikes typically feature much of the same technology as adult mountain bikes including multiple gears and suspension, albeit abridged versions of both. Gears will likely feature a single cog at the front and multiple gears at the back, operated by a simple shifting mechanism on the handlebars. Suspension will likely feature at the front of the bike providing shock absorption and control if children go off-road. Some bikes may also feature suspension at the rear but this does add significant weight to the bike and decreases durability so perhaps should be saved for larger bikes with more advanced riders.
20in BMX bikes are a popular option as they are highly durable, feature a simple design and are lots of fun. These bikes will typically feature a coaster rear brake, lever-operated front handbrake and a single speed gear. The good news is adult BMX bikes also typically feature 20in wheels, and so these bikes may be a suitable option for a number of years.
20in road bikes to become more specialized with multiple gears, hand operated brakes (front and rear), drop handlebars and lightweight frames designed for speed.
Age 9 - 11 / Wheel size 24in
24in bikes are often the final stepping stone to an adult sized bike and are suitable for those nine to eleven-year-olds or those 130cm - 145cm.
Like 20in bikes there are distinctive categories of mountain, BMX and road, bridging ever closer to the features of a full adult bike. 24in mountain bikes gain more gears and greater movement in the suspension when compared to 20in mountain bikes, they will also feature either disc or rim brakes operated by hand.
24in road bikes increase their gear range up to 21 and 24-speed, feature slick tires for faster speeds and lightweight frames if your child has road racing ambitions.
Age 11+ / Wheel size 26in
26in bikes are suitable for children eleven and up, and those taller than 145cm. Some brands use this size as their largest children sized bike, while they can also be an alternative to a full sized adult mountain bike. 26in wheels were previously the industry standard for adult mountain bikes but the move to larger tires that offer greater rollover ability and comfort has become the norm.
The material used for kids bikes can vary according to price and will affect the durability, weight and look of the bike. Most commonly kids bikes will be made from either steel or aluminium.
Steel bikes are the most cost effective option and highly durable with the ability to withstand plenty of punishment that will no doubt come its way. The downside of steel bikes is they're significantly heavier than aluminium and can rust if left out or ridden in all weather conditions.
Aluminium bikes are light, highly durable and near rust-proof, but come at an additional cost to steel.
Kids bikes will typically begin with a single gear to not over complicate the cycling experience but as the child gets more experienced and skilled, more gears are available.
To begin with, a single speed gear normally features an easy pedaling ratio, so children have no problems turning the pedals over. If there is a still a single speed gear present as the size of the bike increases, this ratio is likely to be larger, making it harder to pedal initially, but capable of faster overall speeds.
When multiple gears become available, it normally involves a single cog on the front, and multiple cogs on the rear with a shifting mechanism on the handlebar to control them. Often children will have access to seven or eight gears to begin with, but some 20in bikes can have 21 or 24 gears with three cogs on the front and seven or eight cogs on the rear.
Kids bikes will often feature a chain guard which covers the chain wheel and the upper run of the chain to protect the child from rubbing their leg against it or getting their clothes or shoelaces snagged. It can easily be removed if you wish but provides some peace of mind during the early riding days.
Tires come in many different forms; solid foam, pneumatic (simply a tire inflated with air), honeycomb rubber, solid rubber and hard plastic. Balance bikes, 12in and 14in kids bikes could possibly come with all of these, but as the size of the bike increases your likely to find the tires are pneumatic.
Pneumatic tires are most common thanks to the all-round benefits they provide including a cushioned ride and good grip. They come in multiple tread patterns, which are typically either knobby tires, similar to mountain bike tires, or a standard tread pattern or 'slick' (no tread pattern), which is similar to road bike tires.
Depending on the area you live in and the type of terrain the child will be riding, the tread pattern can make a big difference. Choose the relevant tread type to your area to provide the best possible platform for the child to enjoy their riding. A more pronounced tread pattern can provide grip on rough terrain and help shed mud when riding on off-road trails. Slick tires are best suited to smooth surfaces providing good levels of grip and less rolling resistance resulting in faster speeds.
The weight of the bike will depend largely on the size, what material it is made out of and the type of tires. Be mindful of the total weight as the more a bike weighs, the harder it is going to be for a child to maneuver and the less likely a child is going to enjoy the riding experience. Steel bikes are heavier than aluminium ones, greater tire size equals more weight, so do more gears and additions like suspension, kickstands, and hand operated lever brakes.
Kids bikes are typically 25-40% of the child's weight but that figure will be highly variable depending upon the bike you choose, the child's weight to height ratio and age. If possible try to limit the weight of the bike to under 50% of the child's weight. To put that in perspective, an adult's mountain bike typically weighs between 15-20% of a 75kg rider.
There are two main types of brakes; coaster and lever-operated.
- Coaster: This type of brake is activated by pedaling backward and is primarily found on smaller bikes as younger children lack the arm and hand strength to operate the hand lever.
- Hand: Lever-operated hand brakes may be present on balance bikes and the smallest of other bikes but often this is a case of learning good habits as opposed to using them for practical purpose. As stated above, children between the ages of two and five often lack the strength to solely rely on this handbrake, so use a coaster brake as well. When the child is prepared to do use a handbrake this will vary depending on their physical ability, confidence and strength. As the size of the bike increases it's more likely the brakes will be operated by hand, both front and rear.
As mentioned, selecting a tire size is not indicative of the seat height of the bike so this is worth checking before making your purchase. Check the bikes minimum and maximum seat height and the standover height.
Seat height of kids bikes will typically begin at 25cm (10in) and can go right up to adult sized bikes in excess of 100cm (40in). The best way to know if a child will fit the bike is to get them to stand over it. Failing that, measure their inseam and allow 3.5-5cm (1.5in - 2in) leeway to the seat.
Note BE: When standing over the bike (not on the seat) there should be an inch or two of clearance. The gap helps prevent injury if the child slips forward off the seat during a fall. Most frame designs feature a slopping top tube for this reason.
There are positives and negatives when it comes to using training wheels or stabilizers. On the plus side, they provide stability, inspire confidence and can be important in the early stages of riding if children lack the strength to turn the pedals and the weight of the bike is too much. And for children that have never used a balance bike or scooter, going straight onto a pedal bike with no support is a bridge too far.
On the negative side, it's said using training wheels teaches children bad habits and can make the progression to riding without support more difficult. They can also influence braking effectiveness when turning as the weight is on the training wheel and not on the rear wheel.
If you do use training wheels, start them level with the ground and gradually raise them as your child becomes more confident, to the point that they can almost do without them. When the child is confident enough, they can then be removed.
Grips: As most kids bikes feature flat bars, the grips will influence how the child handles and controls the bike. As a key touch point, make sure the grips are not too thick for small hands and can easily be held onto. For smaller bikes, look for grips that have large bulges on the outside to provide extra protection in the event of a fall or if they scrape their handlebars against walls, bushes or other sharp objects.
Kickstands: This is a handy addition to all bikes (without training wheels) and will stop kids from dumping the bikes on the ground when they come to a stop. Not all bikes come with kickstands as standard though, so if this is something you're after, be sure to check.
Accessories: The list of possible kids bike accessories is virtually endless; lights, reflectors, pedals, water bottles and cages, bells, baskets, tassels, spokey dokeys. Some bikes come with of these and more while others come with nothing. It pays to check and could mean the child enjoys their riding experience a whole lot more.
Warranty: As with any new purchase, be sure to check the warranty. Check what it covers, for how long and what you have to do to replace it if required. Most bikes will have a lifetime warranty on the frame and manufacturers warranty on parts but check before your purchase as each bike will be different. Depending on how many children will be using the bike, warranty may be very important. The balance bike you buy today could end up going through half a dozen kids and possibly even a couple of generations.
Pedals: To help children feel at one with the bike, pedals should have a grippy or rough surface so that feet don't slip off, and that should be the case on both sides of the pedals.
Prices for a kids bike will vary greatly depending on the size, material and type but below are a few things to consider when deciding on a budget, regardless of the kids bike you're purchasing.
Kids will grow out of their bikes in a short period of time so it's worthwhile thinking a step ahead and deciding whether this bike will get handed down or be sold on. In either case, keep it in good condition and don't throw away training wheels, spares, reflectors, instructions or other items that come with the initial purchase. It might also help to choose neutral colors so it can be sold to girls or boys.
Should you buy from a specialty bike store or a department store? Bike stores have expected knowledge, will assemble the bike safely and be a point of contact if something is not right. Department stores lack the specific knowledge of bikes so you'll likely have to assemble the bike yourself and have limited resources available to you, should something go wrong. Typically speaking, the bikes sold at bike stores are built to higher quality standards than those you find at department stores, like most things, you do get what you pay for.
We've listed many possible accessories above but not all of them come with the bike as standard. As such, you should always check what comes with the bike and any possible accessories you'll need to purchase. Basic items like reflectors, bells and brakes will come with the bike, but training wheels, kickstands and baskets may not.
Thanks to Melbourne Bicycle Centre Prahan for providing samples and insight in creating this article.