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.

comments powered by Disqus

More to read

Loading More Articles
No More Articles

Mama Madison: Parental dice rolls?

Last week, in response to the county-wide Sleep Safe, Sleep Well public health campaign that encourages parents to "share the room, not the bed" with their sleeping infants, Isthmus contributor Ruth Conniff penned a lovely opinion piece in defense of bed sharing entitled "Confessions of a Co-Sleeper."

Mama Madison: What constitutes a keepsake?

As much as I'd like to believe there is latent genius in my daughter's early finger paintings, I'm pretty sure her works are not distinguishable from those created by the pointer fingers and pinkies of thousands of other children from across the world.

Mama Madison: Young love

Seeing Romeo and Juliet this past weekend was a definite reminder that I need to prepare for something that might resemble a (Near) West Side Story around our place pretty soon.

Mama Madison: What a mother fears most

All during childhood, we calmly tell our kids they don't need to be afraid of the dark, thunder or the monster under the bed. But it's pretty hard to keep your parental cool when your kid is about to embark on the one thing that terrifies you. I knew the problem wasn't really with him. It was with me.

Operation Fresh Start's Youth Conservation Corps helps kids, and kids help parks

Last January, when temperatures dipped below minus 30 and most people between the ages of 16 and 24 did anything to stay inside, a small yet sturdy group of at-risk teenage boys and young men stacked wood and managed controlled burns at Festge County Park near Cross Plains. Five months later, following a temperature swing of more than 100 degrees, Isthmus found some of those same guys removing invasive honeysuckle and buckthorn at Lake View Hill County Park on Madison's north side.

Mama Madison: Summer stress solved by yoga

The first week of summer break at our place usually comes and goes without incident. At times, one could argue, it even verges on pleasant. I have no school lunches to pack and the kids have no 7 a.m. buses to catch.

Mama Madison: The greatest fans of road repair

Have you tried getting anywhere on either Verona Road or East Johnson lately? I'm pretty sure a six-month old could crawl to Fitchburg, or across the isthmus, in less time that it takes me to drive there these days.

Mama Madison: The alarm sounds

As soon as the door closed behind him, I poured myself a cup of the coffee he had made and took a moment to let the enormity of what just happened sink in. My son was ready that morning despite my inability to properly set an alarm clock. My kid was ready that morning without nudging, cajoling, or reminding. He was ready, even when I wasn't.

Mama Madison: My summer book list

For the past 17 years or so (i.e., since I've had kids), I haven't made books the priority in my life I know they should be. It's not that I don't try. Just this past weekend I had the best of intentions of picking up, and even finishing, I am Malala, this year's UW-Madison's Go Big Read pick. But the copy still sits untouched on my nightstand.

Make Music Madison gives young artists a chance to perform

The longest day of the year is upon us. For those of you keeping track, the sun will rise at 5:18 a.m. and set at 8:41 p.m. on Saturday, June 21. All that daylight, courtesy of the annual summer solstice, will provide the perfect backdrop for Make Music Madison, a daylong event featuring hours and hours of free performances in nearly every corner of the city.

Mama Madison: Watching talent grow

Last week, for the first time, I made my way up to one of the open gallery nights during Madison West's Fine Arts Week, the school's annual showcase for all things creative. The scope of the event is huge, with nearly 1,600 students participating, and the quality of the presented works is phenomenal. It's almost as if the school had been lifted off its perch on Regent Street and traveled back in time to Belle Époque Paris.

Mama Madison: Writing time at Olbrich

If you have aspiring authors in your house, this summer offers a fabulous opportunity for them refine their writing skills. For its second summer, the Greater Madison Writing Project, in partnership with Olbrich Botanical Gardens, is sponsoring two week-long camps in August for young writers entering grades 3-8.

Mama Madison: When UW-Madison's semester is over, the kids want out too

There are lots of benefits to living in a college town. First and foremost, there is always something going on -- a lecture, a film series. Maybe even a protest, if you're lucky. And since becoming a Madisonian, I, for the first time in my life, find myself interested in college football.

Mama Madison: Another amazing talent show

My passion for the talent show clearly runs deep, but I'm more than just a fangirl. This year marked my second as one of the "Ziegfelds" of the Follies, Hamilton's annual showcase for singers, musicians, dancers and other varied forms of entertainment. Trust me, when you are part of the spectacle's "producing/directing" team you get a new-found appreciation for how hard the kids worked to get up on stage.

Mama Madison: Preserving children's stories

My daughter, who turned twelve just this past week, is not legally "of age" when it comes to social media. But I guess, in many respects, especially in those that involve screens, I am a permissive pushover. I've allowed her join some networks.

Tenting tonight? Not so fast -- take the time to prepare for the first family camping trip

What adults love about camping -- sleeping under the stars, getting away from it all, the sounds of nature -- can be scary for children. It's dark in a tent. Nothing is familiar. Of course, camping with kids is more work for adults, too. Stay cool, live in the moment. Forget about that lost fork. Making s'mores, spotting wildlife, that's what kids will remember.

Mama Madison: It's time for the college tour

I have just returned from a whirlwind, five-day, four-city college tour with my son. You know those "101 Things to Know Before Visiting Disney World" guidebooks that experienced theme park travelers have written to help the uninitiated? I think I am now officially seasoned enough in information sessions and campus tours to give some serious thought to penning a similar "insiders guide" for the junior-year parent.

Mama Madison: When mom gets a new roomie

This past week, against both my will and better judgement, I accompanied 50 or so middle school kids to the Future Problem Solvers Wisconsin State Bowl, a popular academic and skit-writing competition.

Mama Madison: Earth Day awareness

It may be a bigger waste of breath than electricity to ask my kids to turn off the lights when they leave a room. If I've nagged them once, I've nagged them a thousand times. No, I've never noticed anything amiss with their fingers. But it appears they are physically incapable of flipping a switch to the "off" position.

Mama Madison: Parents should know and understand school codes of conduct

I want to say thank you to the Board of Education for allowing Maia to return to class, unquestionably the place she belongs, as well as to thank them for adopting the new policies. But just as importantly, I also want to thank Maia and her family for their willingness to come forward with their story.


Emails from Isthmus Parents feature event highlights, story links, site updates, and occasional special offers from trusted sources. Name and email address are required. Thanks!