Balance Bikes – Are they the best first bike for your child?

First Balance Bike

Thinking about a balance bike and not sure where to start? Most cyclists look forward to the day they can get their child on a bicycle.

When I was growing up, the first bike was often a tricycle, with perhaps graduation to a bike with stabilisers [or training wheels if you prefer]. While generations of cyclists started out this way, balance bikes have become something of a phenomenon in recent times. Seemingly to emerge from nowhere it now seems impossible to avoid them. So why the rapid growth in the balance bike as the child’s first bike? Let’s dig a little deeper.

Balance Bikes – How, Where, When?
A little history lesson on the balance bike. Although you might think they are a relatively new invention, we can actually trace the balance bike all the way back to circa 1817. A German by the name of Karl Drais is attributed with the invention. Known as the velocipede, these early machines came from a time before pedals and gears.

A very early balance bike. Circa 1817

A very early balance bike. Circa 1817

 

Balance bikes as we know them today are firmly aimed at children. Today’s balance bikes are made of lightweight materials with frames often made of composite plastics or wood for a more traditional look. It is not clear which manufacturer first started marketing balance bikes for children in more recent times, but what is clear is that the trend quickly gathered speed, and there are now many 1000s of makes and models. Most balance bikes are essentially the same. The defining criteria being a low saddle that allows the child to straddle the bike with both feet being flat on the ground. They then learn to push the bike along in a running motion before gradually finding a balance point as they grow in confidence. A slight variation, which we think is rather clever, is to offer a dual rear wheel with each wheel angled in slightly towards one another. This no doubt makes it easier to balance. These balance bikes are only offered by a single manufacturer that we’ve come across.

A modern balance bike with a clever dual rear wheel design

A modern balance bike with a clever dual rear wheel design

 

Y Velo also make a clever tricycle style bike for younger children that can convert into a regular balance bike once the child gains confidence.

So what’s the thinking behind the balance bike
Balance bikes are said to be an ideal first bike because they promote and encourage the child to learn how to balance from a very early stage. The problem with first bikes that use training wheels is that the child relies on the extra wheels and takes much longer to gain a sense of balance. It may not take too long to find the balance point when the training wheels come off, but with a balance bike, the child has to develop balancing skills very early on. It is also said that the child benefits from having to learn both balancing and steering skills without having to worry about what to do with pedals.

There is also a safety argument. Tricycles, and bikes with training wheels, can be unstable on angled or uneven ground. With a balance bike, the child is less likely to have unwanted falls, so scrapes and bruises are reduced.

 

A moment of joy when a parent sees their child learning to balance for the first time.

A moment of joy when a parent sees their child learning to balance for the first time.

 

Are there other benefits to the balance bike?
Balance bikes are actually quite a polarizing subject. Some parents think they are a waste of time and much prefer sticking to a traditional pedal cycle, where others swear by the benefits of a balance bike. If the parent is an active cyclist our anecdotal evidence suggests they are more likely to believe in the benefits of a balance bike as the child’s first bike. One of the arguments is that starting on a balance bike will result in the child moving to a pedal bike without training wheels much quicker. Many children can be off and running on a pedal bike by the age of three versus 5 or 6 when they have come from the training wheels route.
What’s not for debate is the fact that the one skill that is needed to effectively learn to ride a two-wheel pedal bike is balance. One study we’ve seen said that children who use a balance bike for 20-30 minutes twice a week showed the following improvements:

-Substantial improvements in both static and dynamic balance.
-Substantial improvements in bilateral coordination.
-Observable improvements in physical self-confidence.

Whatever you believe, and however you get your child on a bicycle, as a parent, it’s quite an exciting time when you pick a child’s first bike. It may be a personal point of view, but balance bikes are actually pretty cool compared with traditional bikes and training wheels. There is no such a variety in styles and materials that you can have quite a lot of fun picking a first balance bike for your child.

Balance bikes like the firstBike have something of a “cool” factor.

Balance bikes like the firstBike have something of a “cool” factor.

 

firstBike also have a video that’s clearly designed to appeal to the fashion-conscious parent keen to get their child on a first balance bike;

 

How to pick a balance bike for your child?
With so many balance bikes on the market, do you just go with something that looks nice or are their other factors to consider? The age and size of your child has to be the first point. Not all balance bikes are the same size. They are sized to fit different age ranges. They can be sized for children as young as 18 months and scale right up to adult size. Typically, a child would use a balance bike from 1 to around 4. To get the right size, we always recommend a trip to your bike shop to sit the child on the bike. The minimum seat height should be 1” to 1.5” below the child’s inseam.

 

Retro look wooden balance bike

Retro look wooden balance bike

 

Balance bikes are available in wheel sizes that can range between 10” and 20” with the most common wheel size being 12”. Frame sizes can vary quite a bit even when the wheel size is 12” so it’s still a good idea to properly measure your child before making a purchase. If the bike is too big the child won’t enjoy the experience and the bike may lie unused for a while!
Tires are also a variable that you might want to consider. The choice basically comes down to two types. Solid or pneumatic. In other words, maintenance free or standard tubular with the subsequent risk of annoying punctures that may need to be fixed. On a 12” wheel, a solid plastic or rubber tyre may be sufficient for most surfaces. However, the standard tubed tire does make for a more comfortable ride and offers the flexibility of being able to alter the tire pressure depending on surface conditions. A standard tire with tubes will add a little to bike weight but it won’t be much. More on the significance of balance bike weight below.

Pneumatic tires will provide for a more comfortable ride but may add slightly to weight

Pneumatic tires will provide for a more comfortable ride but may add slightly to weight

 

Another factor that can vary across models on a balance bike is weight. As a general rule you will want to choose a balance bike that is no more than 30% of the weight of your child. i.e. if your child weighs 12kg you don’t the bike to weight more than 4kg. A reasonable target for such a small bike that may be made mainly of wood or plastic. One of the reasons for wanting a lightweight balance bike is that your child will typically want to be comfortable picking up the bike to move it, turn it around etc. The lighter the bike the better. That’s something that won’t change as they get older! Some balance bikes, especially for older children, will come with at least one brake. Smaller bikes often won’t have, or need any brakes. One argument for having brakes [other than the obvious safety reason] is that it’s a good thing for your child to get used to using brakes from an early an age as possible. Most children from the age of around three will be able to work out how to use a brake.

 

How long will it take my child to learn how to ride a balance bike?
There is no hard and fast rule to this. Like anything in life, some children will take to their balance bike almost immediately and will want to ride it every day. For others, it may take them longer to get used to the idea of riding a balance bike, and it may be a process of encouraging them over a few months. If they practice for 20-30 minutes a day, perhaps 2-3 times a week, you’ll have them zooming around in no time.

Balance bike action once they've mastered the basics

Balance bike action once they’ve mastered the basics

 

When your child just gets it!
Balance bikes are not just for learning to ride. In recent times, children as young as 2 years old have been seen getting up to some advanced moves as soon as they’ve got the hang of the basics. With extreme sports being so accessible to the younger audience across all forms of social media, it’s very likely your youngster will have seen some form of bicycle stunts. Nervous parents may now want to look, but here’s just a taster of what some little ones get up to on their first bike. To be fair, this little chap is the son of freestyle moto x hero Robbie Maddison but this is still pretty impressive, even allowing for the family having extreme genes. Check it out;

 

Summary
That’s it. Our quick review of the balance bike. We think they’re a great idea and you should get your child on 2 wheels as soon as they’re able to walk. Whether you choose a retro wooden balance bike or a modern marvel like the super cool firstBike, your child is likely to remember their first bike for a lifetime. What are you waiting for…

 

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