Choosing a first bike can be daunting, but these tips can help narrow down the options.
At first glance, the wall of children’s bicycles at any area bike shop or big-box retailer can be paralyzing: Spider-Man bikes, Littlest Pet Shop bikes, bikes with streamers, bikes with bells, bikes with training wheels, bikes without training wheels.
“It’s overwhelming when you get there,” says Ashley Greiner, a mother of two from Forest Hill. “There’s a lot to pick from.”
When they arrived at Toys “R” Us about a year and a half ago, Greiner thought she knew what her then-3-year-old daughter, Peyton, wanted for her first bike. But that notion disappeared when Peyton saw the line of possibilities.
“She kept seeing all these new bikes,” Greiner says. “She’d say, ‘I want this one. Now I want this one.’ ”
Greiner is one of many parents who say it’s easy to get caught up in color or decorations, especially when buying a child’s first bike.
But there are ways to make the process easier. Experts say focusing on size, safety and bike assembly can help parents find a bike they are comfortable with — and one their children will like enough to ride.
Get the right size
“The main thing with kids’ bikes is having the right size bike for the rider,” says Jon Posner, store manager at Race Pace Bicycles in Ellicott City.
Children’s bikes are measured by the diameter of the wheel, with sizes ranging from 12 inches to 24 inches. The appropriate size depends on the child’s age and height or leg length. For example, most 2-year-olds start on a 12-inch bike.
To test proper fit, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends children sit on the seat with their hands on the handlebars. They should be able to place the balls of both feet on the ground. To further test fit, the AAP recommends children straddle the center bar. They should be able to stand with both feet flat on the ground with about a 1-inch clearance between the crotch and the bar.
Posner recommends bringing a child into the shop so staff members can make individual adjustments.
Still, even with proper fit, some parents prefer to buy bigger bicycles so their child can have a bike to grow into, Posner says.
This can be difficult, given how quickly children between the ages of 3 and 11 grow, he says. On average, a bicycle for this age group will last only about two years because of a child’s changing height.
The AAP cautions against buying oversized bikes because children often lack the skills and coordination required to handle them.
If cost is a concern, many bike shops like Race Pace sell previously used bicycles at a discounted price. Others, like C’Ville Bikes in Catonsville, offer “buy back” programs. If a child has outgrown a bike bought at the shop, he or she can bring it back to the shop and receive 30 percent of its value to put toward a new bike. So if the average new bike costs $200, returning the old bike could result in a $60 savings.
“My recommendation is buy as much bike as you can for the little ones,” says Scott Westcoat, owner of C’Ville Bikes.
As long as they stay in good shape, bikes can always be passed down to family members, he says.
In addition to finding the correct bicycle size, the best way to ensure safety on the bike is a helmet, Westcoat says.
“We recommend always wearing a safety helmet to start good habits early,” he says.
Maryland law requires all bicyclists under 16 years old to wear a bike safety helmet when riding on public property, which includes roads, trails and sidewalks. Some counties and cities have their own rules. For example, anyone under 17 must wear a helmet in Howard County. In Sykesville, all ages — including adults — must wear a helmet.
Helmets come in all shapes and sizes. They should fit tight on the back of the head, and the front of the helmet should be parallel to the child’s eyes, Westcoat says. Experts recommend helmets sit only one to two finger widths above the eyebrow. Foam pads inside the helmet can ensure a snug fit.
“The technology nowadays allows for infinite adjustments that are quick and safe,” he says.
If a child is ever involved in a crash or fall that damages the helmet, parents should buy a new one, Westcoat says.
Elbow and knee pads are another safety option.
“In my experience, it’s more cumbersome than helpful,” Posner says. “It’s not like skateboarding where you fall all the time.”
But if parents want their children to wear the pads, manufacturers do make smaller children’s sizes, he says.
Bells and horns are another valuable addition, Posner says. “Get kids used to using bells and horns to alert people when they’re riding by.”
Many big-box stores sell children’s bicycles preassembled. These bikes also are more affordable than bicycles found in a bike specialty shop. Big-box store children’s bicycles range in price from $50 to $150, whereas specialty shop bikes can start around $100 and run up to $400.
Keep in mind that you usually get what you pay for, Posner says.
“A department store, big-box bike typically is only built to last a little while,” Posner says. “If you only need a year out of it, the department store bike might be the one.”
Regardless of where parents buy their child’s first bike, they should make sure it is assembled properly, both Westcoat and Posner say.
Most bike shops will check a bike’s brakes, handlebars and hardware for free or a small fee, no matter where the bike is purchased.
Taking the bike on a test ride in the store can also help identify any issues with fit or assembly.
Peyton rode her final choice — a 12-inch purple and white princess-themed bike — around the store before her parents bought it, just to make sure the pedals, brakes and handlebars worked.
“She loved it,” Greiner says.
The bike has held up well for the past year and half, she says. But Peyton has grown taller, and this spring the Greiners will be on the hunt again for a new bike. This time, a 16-inch version.
Balance bikes: The training wheels of the future?
For centuries, children across the United States have learned how to ride bicycles through the use of training wheels.
But some kids learn to ride without them.
Taking their place? Balance bikes, also known as run or scoot bikes.
Balance bikes are bikes with no pedals, chains or sprockets, designed to teach children balance at an early age. Children coast around on the bikes, placing their feet on the ground to stop.
These simple bikes can be found throughout Europe and are gaining popularity in the United States.
Dave Ferraro of Linthicum knew he wanted his children’s first bike to be a balance bike. Both his daughter, who is now 11, and his son, who is now 8, used plastic balance bikes when they were 1 year old.
“They would watch TV on it, ride around the house on it,” he says.
When they turned 3, both moved straight to a two-wheel bike — without training wheels.
“At that point, they were really comfortable on the bike,” he says.
Balance bike supporters say the bikes are easier for children to learn on because riders have more control over their movement. Kids also like the joy of scooting around under their own power, says TJ Bonner, a Catonsville resident. Like Ferraro, Bonner bought a balance bike for his young son.
Kids can quickly become dependent on training wheels, Bonner says.
“I remember personally learning to get rid of the training wheels, and it was pretty hard,” he says.
Still, training wheels are not yet obsolete. They accompany most 12-inch and 16-inch children’s bicycles.
And whether children use balance bikes or training wheels, most eventually learn how to ride a two-wheel bike. Studies show the majority of children learn between the ages of 3 and 7.
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