Nothing says summer vacation like coasting down the road on a bike, chasing butterflies on the way to a friend's house. Or taking off to find the pot of gold at the end of a poststorm rainbow, racing to get there before the colors fade. For a kid, a bike means freedom. But choosing a bike can be overwhelming for parents. What size? Knobby or street tires? Hand or coaster brakes? An inexpensive bike from a big-box merchant or a more expensive model from a specialty store? Here are some suggestions from experts on bicycles and safety, to simplify the process and get your child riding this summer.
Think about where your child will be riding. It can be tough to choose between a bike with gears and hand brakes and one with just one speed and coaster brakes. Some bikes are equipped with both. Jim Strang, owner of Spokes Etc., a bike store in northern Virginia, said parents are often concerned that if a child stops suddenly with hand brakes, he will flip over the handlebars. Kids learn quickly, though, and Strang said parents shouldn't be afraid of hand brakes.
"If the goal is to ride on a bike path with the family, with a little practice, gears are going to be helpful," he said. "But if it's just for riding around the neighborhood, the better option might be to not get gears, because it makes (riding) simpler." The same goes for style of tires. If your child will be on hiking trails or other dirt paths, a knobby tire will give better traction. But if it's mostly neighborhood riding, the standard street tire is fine, Strang said.
Find the right fit. Choose the bike based on your child's size, not age. To check the fit, have her get on the bike. Her knee should be extended about 75 percent of the way when her foot is at the bottom of the pedal stroke, Strang said. "Typically when you have that, the child can't put their feet on the ground," he added. If your child is skittish, you can lower the seat until she becomes more comfortable and then gradually raise it to give her the proper pedal stroke.
Go lightweight. Whether shopping at a specialty store or a big-box merchant, get the lightest bike you can afford, Strang said. Avoid bikes with dual suspension, which can make them heavier. Inexpensive bikes that are not well-made can make riding more difficult and less enjoyable, and turn young riders off from the sport, Strang said. A high-quality used bike is a good alternative if cost is a concern.
Consider bypassing the training wheels. Bikes with training wheels teach children to pedal first, then how to balance. But balance bikes, which have become popular in the last three to five years, teach children to balance first and eliminate the reliance on training wheels. A balance bike has no pedals, so children push their feet on the ground to make the bike go, then use a footrest when coasting. Once a child has the balancing down, he can graduate to a bike with pedals. A balance bike at Spokes Etc. costs about $170.
Maintenance, operating tips
Check the tires weekly. Flat tires caused by under-inflation are the leading problem with bikes, according to Strang. Check the pressure weekly to make sure the air matches the pressure rating on the side of the tire. It's a good idea to have your own tire gauge and pump so you can check the tires at home.
Take your bike for a checkup. When you pull the bike out of storage in the spring, consider having a professional check all of the parts and oil the chain, Strang said. Most bike stores will inflate the tires and check your bike for free, he said, and that can determine if you need to pay for a more in-depth tuneup.