You’ve probably heard of balance bikes, wildly popular among children these days. It’s similar to a traditional bicycle, but without the drive-train (pedals, cranks, bottom bracket, chain-rings, chain, and cogs are all omitted to simplify operation and reduce weight). The frame geometry is also altered to allow for a lower seat height for the rider to comfortably have both feet flat on the ground with a slight bend in the legs.
The point? To develop the fundamental riding skills of balancing on two wheels, counter-steering, leaning and steering. Without the distraction of pedaling, the rider can propel the bike with a natural skill that requires no thought (walking or running) allowing their full concentration to be on the development of those core riding skills.
About.com caught up with Ryan McFarland, founder/president of Strider Bikes, to discuss sizing, independence, and why parents might choose balance bikes over traditional bikes with training wheels, among other things.
About.com: How does a balance bike work?
McFarland: The rider sits straddling the bike holding the handlebars just like a traditional bicycle. With feet on the ground, beginners have no need for training wheels. Rather than pedaling to propel the bike, the rider simply walks or runs. Once the bike has momentum, the rider can lift their feet and glide, balanced on just two wheels. If the rider starts to fall over, they can instantly return their feet to the ground, right the bike, and continue on. This allows for a natural progression and improvement in skill.
About.com: What should parents consider before buying a balance bike for their child?
McFarland: Proper fit, adjustability and light weight are the key factors when selecting a balance bike. The seat must adjust low enough to accommodate the inseam of the rider and have a large range of adjustment since young riders grow quickly and the fit of the bike must grow with them. Aside from the fit of the bike, the weight of the bike is the next most important consideration. The lighter the bike, the easier it is to control, and better control leads to faster development and more confidence.
About.com: How do you size a child for a balance bike?
McFarland: A rider should be able to comfortably sit on the saddle with both feet flat on the ground and still have a slight bend in the knees, (compare rider inseam to saddle height adjustment range). The rider’s hands should be at a height about mid-torso on the seated rider (not too high, not too low).
About.com: How does a balance bike help develop a child’s independence?
McFarland: A balance bike offers a major increase in mobility for a child, often allowing them to travel 2-3 times their walking speed and sustain that speed for several miles. This means a child can match an adult walking pace and distance and can now ride a bike (active and engaged) instead of being strapped into a stroller (passive and inactive).
About.com: What different materials can balance bikes be made of?
McFarland: Balance bikes are made of many different materials but the preferred material for modern balance bikes is the same material use in bicycle production, primarily steel and aluminum.
About.com: Why would parents choose a balance bike over a bike with training wheels?
McFarland: For a child to learn balance and the behaviors of a two-wheeled bike, a child must be exposed to a two-wheeled bike. A balance bike allows this exposure to happen safely and naturally. Training wheels actually restrain children from experiencing the feel of the very skill they are trying to learn. It is like telling a child they should walk but not allowing them to stand up from a crawling position.
About.com: What ages are balance bikes appropriate for?
McFarland: Children have the ability to start on balance bikes as soon as they are competently walking, provided that the bike is small enough and light enough. Typically, the age range is 18 months to 4 or 5 years of age. If a child starts on a balance bike at 18 months of age, they typically can transition onto a pedal bike without training wheels by the time they are 4 years old. Many kids will continue to ride both bikes for a year or more before fully moving onto the heavier, more complicated pedal bike. There are balance bikes for older kids and adults, as well as people with special needs. All beginning riders of all ages and abilities can benefit from the safe, and natural process of learning to ride on a balance bike and can enjoy the simple fun of riding.
About.com: Are they adjustable to a growing child’s height/weight?
McFarland: As with any bicycle, fit is critical. With children growing rapidly during their early years, adjustability is of utmost importance in bike selection. An ill-fitting bike or a bike that is too heavy will set a child up for failure and possibly create a dislike of what can be a wonder, healthy, active lifetime skill.