If you have a kid and you’ve looked into buying that kid a bike then at some point you’ve encountered the kid bike conundrum. For the purpose of this discussion, kids are defined as age 6 to age 13 or so. Or more generically: from the time they can comfortably ride a bike a mile or two to the time they stop the weed-growth stages.
If your goal is just to get a bike that is only ridden around the neighborhood or for flat stages of the Centennial Trail, then the conundrum isn’t as complex. But if you want a bike that offers some level of performance, then the options shrink dramatically and the cost goes up. Meanwhile, your kid is still growing. This is the conundrum: how do you hit that sweet spot of quality and price for a bike that the kid doesn’t out grow in two years’ time?
Don’t expect to find a good answer to this question here, but what you will find is the problem laid out. From here, you can weigh the various criteria and go kid bike shopping armed with a bit of perspective.
Quality is an elusive term. But in bikes, it almost always leads back to weight. You can go seriously overboard in this area, but weight on a kid bike may be more important than it is on an adult bike.
Some basic math makes sense of this.
Say you are a 165-pound person and you ride an 18-pound bike. When you ride up a hill, you’re hauling 183 pounds of bike and person. The bike represents about 10% of that overall weight. Now put a 50-pound kid on an 18-pound bike. That percentage jumps to 26%! But the reality is, most kids’ bikes start at about 25 pounds. Which puts the bike-to-load percentage at a whopping 33%. If the 165-pound person was riding a relatively weighted bike, their bike would weigh 51 pounds!
With more space, we could also get into the disadvantage kids have in the power-to-weight ratio when compared to most adults, but the point here should be clear. For kid bikes: weight matters a lot.
The bike cost alone is not the killer. It’s the cost for a good, quality bike that your kid is going to outgrow in a year or two that hurts. Pile onto that pain, the fact that used bikes rarely sell for half their original retail cost a year later.
The best solution to get the bang for your buck is to have a bunch of kids that can use the bike year after year. Of course, the difference in raising another kid compared to the difference in buying a new bike every year doesn’t really pencil out. So if you plan on buying new, plan on dropping at least $400 on a new kid bike. Later on, we’ll get into other creative solutions, but the point here is that unless you get lucky, a new quality kid bike isn’t going to be a $100 thing.
As noted, quality usually goes back to weight, so easy weight-loss items to look for on good quality bikes are alloy (bike-speak for “aluminum”) three-piece crank sets, rims and handlebars.
An important design element for kids’ bikes is the sloping top tube. This is the bar that connects the seat tube to the handlebar area. In the old days, it was horizontal. But in the last decade or so, bike manufacturers have “sloped” it, so it’s at an angle. The official reason for this sloping top tube is “stiffness.” The unofficial reason is “profit.”
By sloping this top tube, manufactures can make about half the number of sizes that they used to make for a particular model of bike. For kids’ bikes, the sloping top tube is great. Find a bike with a nice sloping tube and have a short stem put on the handlebars. As the child grows, raise the saddle and put longer handlebar stems on the bike. You can even put drop (handlebars) bars on the bike to get another year out of it. By finding a high-quality bike with a sloping top tube, you may get up to four years out of it.
Unless your kid is serious about mountain biking and trail riding, stay away form suspension bikes and forks. They add tons of weight and for most kids they’re overkill. This is easier said than done, since most kids will want suspension.
Most local bike shops have kid bikes. Kona, REI, and Redline make interesting road bikes for kids. All the big bike manufacturers have mountain bikes for kids. If you really want to go for the quality, local builder, Elephant Bikes, has experience building light-weight bikes for kids.
Craigslist, as always, is a crap shoot. If you know what you are looking for, you can get great deals. One style of bike to watch for are “Terry” style bikes from the 1990s. These bikes use a 700c wheel on the rear and a smaller, 26” wheel on the front. They’re goofy looking, so they tend to sell cheap, but some of these bike are great quality and much lighter than contemporary kid bikes.
Another idea is to create a co-op between parents where bikes are bought or traded between families.
John Speare grew up and lives in Spokane. He rides his bike everywhere. Check out his blog at http://cyclingspokane.blogspot.com.