What is a balance bike?
A balance bike is a kids' bike with no cranks or pedals. It takes pedals out of the equation so that children can learn to balance before they move on to full pedal cycling.
The concept is around two hundred years old, but balance bikes have only gained in popularity in the last decade as an avenue for helping children learn how to cycle.
What age is a balance bike for?
Children can start using balance bikes when they’re as young as 18 months old and they tend to last up to the age of three or four, sometimes even five.
How do you use a balance bike?
Toddlers and preschoolers use the skills they’ve already acquired when walking and running to propel the balance bike forward and lift their feet up to glide when they’re ready, freeing up mental space to develop new skills involved in balance and steering without overthinking their movements.
Some toddlers become so proficient in riding that their parents find they can even ditch the lightweight buggy.
Why use a balance bike?
Many parents discover that confident balance bikers get the hang of pedalling far quicker than they might have done otherwise.
Balance bikes take all the pain out of the process of learning to ride a bike and set children up to stick with cycling long-term. Even older children struggling to make the transition can use balance bikes to gain the final push they need.
Balance bikes versus stabilisers
Most of us didn’t learn to ride a bike this way. The argument goes that stabilisers, which most of us started on, provide artificial balance that doesn't allow children to learn the manoeuvres instinctive to cycling.
In other words, they learn to steer by turning the handlebars, not by leaning. This may actually make learning to ride on two wheels far more challenging when the time comes.
You can, however, find 2-in-1 balance bikes, which come with detachable stability wheels, if you think your child may occasionally need a little helping hand.
What to consider when buying a balance bike
1. Balance bike safety
Before you get going, be sure to pump up the wheels, check that the saddle is firm and that the handbrake works as it should. You'll also need a helmet which should cover your child's forehead properly. The strap should also be tight.
For ideas on how to help your child get started, visit Cycling UK, the charity that aims to help people of all ages get cycling. We spoke to Cycling UK's Victoria Hazael in the research phase of our balance bike testing.
Yes, you guessed it – lightweight is key. A bike weighing more than four kilograms could represent a significant proportion of your toddler’s body weight, which could make it very tricky for them to get moving (let alone turn the thing).
The wrong size bike could become the birthday present immediately destined for the garden shed – a good idea in theory but, quite literally, never going anywhere.
It's an obstacle only the most determined of children are likely to overcome and it could very well determine their first impression of cycling.
Hefty balance bikes that are difficult to operate also negate the point of starting with a balance bike in the first place. You want a bike that doesn’t force your child to work too hard or overthink what they’re doing so that their cycling skills become second nature.
With this in mind, you want to make sure your balance bike doesn’t weigh more than 30 percent of your child’s bodyweight. A bike weighing around the 3kg mark tends to be a good guide.
Also bear in mind that you’ll probably have to lift your child’s balance bike in and out of the car boot or, at the very least, carry it should they get tired, so you’ll thank yourself later for going that little bit lighter.
3. How big should a balance bike be?
Choosing the right-sized balance bike for your child allows them to ride in a position that enables them to push off the ground without too much effort.
Bike manufacturers agree that the saddle should measure one inch lower than your child’s inside leg measurement and that your child should be able to sit comfortably on the balance bike, knees slightly bent and feet flat on the floor. This gives them good control of the bike and take effective strides without any strain once they’re in motion.
This means that not all balance bikes are created equal. You’ll want to check the size of the bike to ensure that the one you'd like to get for your 18-month-old isn’t better suited to a four-year-old.
Tyres are one factor to consider and most start at 12 inches and stop at 16 – although you can find bigger or smaller models if needed. 12 and 14-inch tyres should cover children between the ages of two and six.
You may also want to go for a balance bike with decent adjustability so it can grow with your child. Depending on when you invest in one, it may need to cover the growth spurts of a good few years, ideally two or three. Some bikes allow both the seat and the handlebars to be fitted to size so you’ll want to check how easy it is to adjust them.
A lower seat offers a lower centre of gravity to help with balancing so it’s important to factor in the height of the seat as well as the size of the wheels. Some seatposts will offer personalised adjustment whereas others will only have a few fixing points.
Here you want to think about the terrain you’re likely to be covering. Will your child mainly be hitting the pavement, taking on trails or blazing through the woods?
EVA polymer wheels are lighter and less likely to need servicing than pneumatic tyres. The latter are more prone to punctures, but have better traction, are comfier to ride and are more suited to adventurous riders who are likely to be tackling bumpy ground.
For either, you’re looking for wheels that claim some puncture resistance. Some models even allow you to move from one type to another which is worth exploring if you envision going off road with your child when they’re riding more confidently. But make sure you have a pump that fits.
You want to be sure that the handlebar is responsive. To help with this, look for ball bearings in the hubs of the balance bike’s wheels.
Steering locks are often recommended to stop the handles from spinning around, but they can affect how well the bike turns if they’re poorly designed.
Other than that, the handlebars should be narrow enough for your child’s hands to comfortably grip them, with bulbs on the ends to protect their hands or, at least, the ends covered.
You may need to buy new grips if the originals have worn away with heavy use or if you buy a second-hand balance bike that was produced before handlebar grips became industry standard.
A handbrake is optional as your child will instinctively use their feet to stop, at least at first, and you may want to keep it simple for very young riders.
However, many balance bikes do offer brakes, which could be helpful as kids develop some speed later on in their balance bike experience. This could also go a long way to protecting their shoes as repeated strikes to the ground can be hard on soles.
Having a brake could also prepare your child for using brakes when it’s time to transition to a pedal bike.
If you do go for one, make sure it isn’t big or stiff for little hands to operate so that they actually learn to use it if it’s there.
7. Quality of build
With so many balance bikes on the market, covering a wide spectrum of prices, it’s important to make sure that the bike you end up with is sturdy and finished to a high standard. This could indicate how well it’s built, how durable it is and how much maintenance it will need down the line.
You’ll want to make sure that any bolts are rounded and that there’s nothing sticking out that could cause injury. Where there are bolts, a long wheelbase will keep them out of the way.
It’s also worth considering sealed bearings. The seal keeps water and dirt out of the bearings so that the wheels continue to run smoothly.
When it comes to the saddle, it should, ideally, be in a ‘scoop’ shape.
8. How much do balance bikes cost?
Balance bikes start at around £20 and go into the hundreds. The oft-repeated rule is that you should buy the best bike you can afford. More expensive bikes tend to be lighter, easier to use and relatively maintenance-free.
Your money is more likely to be wasted if the bike is a frustrating ride. But that doesn’t mean you have to go big or go home.
There’s a fairly decent balance bike for most budgets, especially if you aim for one with a mid-range price point. They also tend to hold their resale value well so you may well get back a sizeable chunk of what you originally shell out.
You could also pass your balance bike on to another child, perhaps a sibling, which will increase the value it offers.
Read to take the leap? Read our balance bike reviews.
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