Wheeling and dealing

What to look for when you buy a kids' bike

First, take a deep breath. Your kid is almost certain to wipe out. Next, as soon after your child's birth as may be reasonable, get a bike and helmet of your own. Strap on your lid, get on your bike and ride.

Once you've paved the path, David Supple advises letting your kid take the lead. Supple is a member of Cronometro's Brazen Dropouts bike-racing team and a UW-Madison kinesiology lecturer. His physical-education background leads him to observe that while many children get starter bikes when they're 5 or 6 years old, some kids are precocious while others lag. His own son, now 11, started out on "a good old hand-me-down Huffy" when he was about 4.

Contemporary bike-buying considerations have multiplied since today's parents were learning to ride their own first kids' bikes. Makes, models, colors, components, gender-specific features and other options have proliferated. So has debate regarding almost every aspect of kids' bikes.

Advocates for helping kids ease into cycling, for example, favor traditional features like coaster brakes that stop a bike when its rider tries to backpedal. Many parents view them as well-suited to younger kids whose hands may not be big or strong enough to work handlebar-mounted brake levers, and also favor training wheels for providing stability as kids learn to sit in a saddle, pedal, steer and stop.

Proponents of learning to bike all at once counter that such features encourage habits and skills that must be unlearned when training wheels are removed and coaster brakes yield to hand brakes.

Unlike adult bikes sized by frame measurements, children's bicycles go by wheel size. Starting from 12-inch wheels for younger kids with shorter inseams, sizes climb by four-inch increments to 24-inch wheels - the final stop before moving up to adult bikes.

Good fit is essential to all bikes, but most critical for a child's first bicycle. "Make sure the seat is good and low," says Supple, reflecting the conventional wisdom that Junior should be able to straddle the saddle with feet flat on the ground and knees slightly bent. This allows beginners to start using the bike as a kind of velocipede-style scooter, knowing they can put a foot down as needed while they get the hang of moving ahead, pedaling, steering and stopping.

A competent bike retailer will make sure your kid's bike is adjusted to optimize comfort, fit, performance and safety. They'll also help you and your child pick out a helmet of proper size, adjust it for optimal protection.

Depending on the shop, make and model, prices for kids' bikes here start in the neighborhood of $100 for a low-end 12-inch model with basic features, but climb toward the middle three figures as wheel sizes grow and more advanced features are introduced, including multi-speed drive trains and front shock absorbers.

A few 16-inch kids' bikes pair a front handbrake with the rear coaster brake to facilitate the transition to hand-controlled stops. The hybrid arrangement continues on some 20-inch models. The jump from 16- to 20-inch wheels also brings the disappearance of training wheels and, at mid-range and higher price points, the introduction of multi-speed gearing and shock-absorbing front forks. Some models in this size also do away with coaster brakes in favor of complete reliance on fore and aft hand-controlled brakes.

Trek kids' bikes are all but ubiquitous here. Other brands vary from shop to shop. Budget Bicycle Center stocks new kids' bikes from Diamondback, Fuji, Gary Fisher, Giant, Raleigh and Trek, along with used models by other manufacturers. Erik's Madison stores focus on Raleigh and Specialized kids' lines. Machinery Row and Village Pedaler both sell Treks for kids. Madison's Trek stores offer kids' models by their Waterloo-based namesake and its Gary Fisher brand. Williamson Bicycle Works stocks 12-inch Schwinns and Treks, adding brands like Electra, GT and Scott at larger sizes.

Budget-conscious parents can find savings by looking for closeouts on kids' bikes from recent model years, or scouting the selection of used kids' bikes at shops that accept trade-ins for credit toward a newer or larger bike.

Local housing consultant Steve Silverberg, another Brazen Dropouts veteran, notes that parents need to continue drawing on their patience once they've brought their kid's bike home. When his son was 3 years old, Silverberg let him set his own learning pace on a nondescript used bike with coaster brakes and training wheels. The family lives near a park on Madison's near east side. Within a year, the training wheels were off. His son was biking along the sidewalk, Silverberg running alongside as a spotter. There was an Aha Moment when his son, by then 4, asked if he could ride on the park's grass.

"Kids are so smart," Silverberg marvels. "They're like nascent little BMXers," intuiting solutions to a calculus that involves speed, direction, obstacles and self-preservation. "The grass worked really well," he adds. "He'd ride for a while and fall over, ride for a while and fall over."

Silverberg suggests parents who are in the market for a children's bike consider attending the 23rd annual Wheels on Willy Criterium, scheduled for May 16. While the day's race schedule is dominated by high-speed competition for pro, masters and junior cyclists, the hotshots yield the course to ages 10 and under for about 30 minutes of low-key races starting at 12:30 p.m. - an ideal opportunity to scout the market and talk to parents about why their kids prefer the makes and models they ride.

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