We’ve now been to six bike retailers, and have seen the kids offerings from many bike brands: Trek, Giant, Cannondale, Novara, Specialized and Norco. We also tried a kid-specific brand, Cleary Bikes (and on that test ride, I got to ride a Brompton! so fun).
First, what’s wrong with most kids bikes? And here I am only talking about bike-shop kids bikes, not big-box-store bikes, which are another layer of bad.
- They are toys. Most kids don’t actually get to ride anywhere, so the parents don’t really need to look for good bikes, and the manufacturers don’t need to make them.
- They are heavy. A 20 lb bike is over 40% of our 6-year-old daughter’s body weight. A pound makes a big difference for her, much more so than for your typical MAMIL on a road bike.
- They have coaster brakes. Coaster brakes are hard to use. How on earth are you supposed to explain “pedal backwards” to a kid who doesn’t know how to pedal? They are hard to feather, and they make it impossible to set up the pedals of the bike for a smooth start.
- They don’t have hand brakes. There’s nothing to hold the bike still if you are starting on a hill. This is terrifying to a new rider. And worst of all, a kid coming off a balance bike is used to putting her feet down to stop. If you take your feet off the pedals, without hand brakes you have no brakes!
- They are not sized for kids. Some things can be adjusted – handlebars can be narrowed. The reach on hand brakes can be limited. Some things cannot.
- They have front suspension forks. Putting aside the fact that most kids aren’t big enough to compress a suspension, this is just another example of how kids bikes (and most adult bikes, really) are toys, not tools. All of the brands that we’ve actually looked into do offer a bike without a suspension, but all that are in stock in our local bike shops have suspensions. This is more commentary on the parents than the shops – they will stock what we demand.
- They are excessively gendered. Others have ranted about this effectively. This is a practical matter in our household: our daughter’s next bike will be handed down to at least one of her three younger brothers.
Most bikes we were able to eliminate just by picking up the bike. If it’s as heavy as her current bike, it’s too heavy.
We had heard that grip shifters can be hard for kids to use, and considered putting a trigger shifter on whatever bike we ended up with. In bringing up our concerns with one of our local bike shops, they told us that there are better and worse grip shifters, and if one is too hard to use, we can switch it for another one. That was a relief! They also told us that in their experience, some kids don’t like to let go of the handlebars, even to brake (+1 for the coaster brake, I suppose), and with grip shifters they can just keep on squeezing.
The next consideration was the gearing. The Cleary does not have gears, although the shop that carries them said they’d be able to put a 3-speed hub in the back (for a price, of course). It is definitely the lightest bike of all that we tried, so the question is, will a lighter bike make enough of a difference? I don’t want to ride a three-speed bike, let alone a single speed bike on our hills, but kids are strong for their body weight, so the claim is that’s enough. Cleary is based in the Bay Area, and I hear they have hills there too, so they should know. Our daughter had no problem on the hills we did try, but they were not as steep or as long as what we have in our neighborhood.
There was not a 16″ Cleary in stock when we went to try, but it was clear from trying the 12″ that the 16″ would be too big for our 4-year-old. As bad as the geometry is on his current bike, the Cleary wasn’t that much better. With those short little legs, there’s just not much you can do. So we’d be buying a new bike simply for the hand brakes at this point. I’m glad we got a chance to try it, and we’ll likely be back for the 16″ when he gets a little bigger.
The other bike still in the running is the Specialized Hot Rock. This bike has six speeds and grip shifters, and she had no problem shifting through the range of gears. It is heavier than the Cleary, but lighter than anything else we found. We took her out twice on this bike – once on the flat Redmond Connector trail, and once up Education Hill where she found a range of grades. She made it up all of them, but did like stopping for breaks. The bike she tried was purple and white, with nothing particularly gendered about it. We’d have to special order one without a suspension fork, cut the handlebars narrower, and adjust the reach of the brake levers, but all of that is doable.
So what will it be? The Cleary Owl or the Specialized Hot Rock Street?
A few other bikes of note: we did not try an Isla bike, even though, by all reports, the bikes work very well. There are enough of them in the area that we could probably track down the right sizes to try, but given that there are other options, that was too much work. We wanted to go to a shop to try a bike.
We also saw a Soma Bart built up as a beautiful little road bike, but the diamond frame is still much too big for our six-year-old. Too bad, or maybe not, as it’s much more expensive. But that would have been a really nice bike.