Bikes for kids are optimized for younger riders
You may never forget how to ride a bike, but learning how to do it in the first place can be quite a process for young kids. Kids' bikes aim to make this rite of passage as fun and stress-free as possible, with added learning and safety features that help smaller riders control their nerves and focus on the mechanics of riding.
Bikes for older kids introduce more sophisticated controls
Kids' pedal bikes are typically categorized by wheel size, and two of the most common are 16- and 20-inch models. It's best to have your child try a bike before you buy it to check for proper fit, but, in general, 16-inch bikes are best for 3- to 6-year-olds; 20-inch models are typically a better bet for 6- to 10-year-olds. While they're sometimes harder to find, 14- and 18-inch models are out there, too.
Other than wheel size, the biggest difference between 16- and 20-inch bikes is features. Most 16-inch kids' bikes still come with training wheels and easy-to-use pedal-controlled coaster brakes; they may also have extras such as bells, horns, streamers or baskets. Once your child is old enough for a 20-inch bike, you'll have more "serious" features to choose from, including hand brakes and bikes with suspension systems and multiple gears that can take on more varied terrain. Training wheels are less common on this size bike, however.
Tricycles and balance bikes let young kids get a taste of riding
Parents with very young children often start their children on a tricycle. On tricycles, children can learn to steer and pedal without fear. Trikes are generally low to the ground, and the third wheel adds stability compared to two-wheeled bikes. While classic trikes with metal frames and shiny chrome accents are still out there, others are made of heavy-duty plastic. Unsurprisingly, the former is usually more durable, but also more expensive.
Traditional tricycles can help teach your child confidence, pedaling and control, but they will not help develop balance. That's where balance bikes come in. These lightweight bikes look much like a regular pedal bike -- except there are no pedals. Children scoot along using their feet to start and stop, learning how to balance during the brief time that both feet are off the ground. Some balance bikes have metal frames, while others are made of wood. Metal balance bikes are a bit more durable for outside play, while wooden models have equal appeal as an indoor toy.
If a trike or a balance bike doesn't seem quite right, there's a third option. Twelve-inch bikes with training wheels are also available for smaller riders (roughly ages 2 to 4). These steel-framed small bikes, often plastered with cartoon characters, are a common sight at big-box stores. But parents should note that they're often extremely heavy, making it hard for children to pedal and steer independently. Higher-quality 12-inch bikes with lighter aluminum frames are available through specialty bike shops, but they're much pricier -- up to $300 compared to $70 or $80 for a typical big-box store bike.
Expert reviews of kids' bikes are relatively scarce. One exception is TwoWheelingTots.com, a site run by avid cyclists with several comparative reviews of balance bikes and pedal bikes. Most helpful are parents' reviews at sites including Amazon.com, Target.com, REI.com and ToysRUs.com. We considered reviewers' perspectives on bike performance and durability while evaluating our sources to help you find the best kids' bikes.
The best bikes for older kids
Parents looking for a 16-inch bike that strikes a good balance between price and quality will want to investigate the Diamondback Mini Viper (Est. $120), reviewers say. Recommended for kids ages 3 to 6 and riders 34 to 45 inches tall, this BMX bike comes with removable training wheels. Seat height is adjustable and ranges from 20 to 24 inches. The bike comes only in blue.
At just shy of 21 pounds, the Mini Viper is fairly heavy -- a common issue with kids' bikes. Despite its heft, reviewers say it's easy for their kids to maneuver and even carry as they get a bit bigger. Experts with TwoWheelingTots.com say the Mini Viper has a relatively upright handlebar height that "could be challenging for a new rider," but it doesn't draw complaints from parent reviewers. The bike has an easy-to-use rear coaster brake. It lacks the quick-release seat post that some comparable bikes boast; adjusting seat height requires an Allen wrench. Reviewers say the bike comes mostly assembled and it's easy to finish the job in about 15 minutes.
Reviewers say the Mini Viper really shines when it comes to quality and durability, especially compared to other bikes at a similar price point. "This bike will outlast any of those toy store bikes as far as quality and durability, plus your child won't be embarrassed to ride it after the Ninja Turtle or whatever phase is over," notes one reviewer. Parents say the steel frame feels sturdy, though a few complain the plastic training wheels are flimsy. A handful of reviewers also say their bikes came with a flat tire. The bike frame comes with a lifetime warranty; other parts have a one-year warranty.
Parents who want a slightly lower-cost 16-inch bike with more color choices will want to look at the RoyalBaby BMX Freestyle (Est. $100). The manufacturer does not list a suggested age range, but the seat height is adjustable from 21 to 24 inches. Most reviewers recommend the bike starting around age 4, but there are two smaller versions (12- and 14-inch) for younger riders. The Freestyle comes with removable training wheels, a water bottle and bell. It's available in blue, green, orange, red or white.
At almost 22 pounds, the Freestyle is "a veritable tank," experts with Two-Wheeling Tots say. Still, they say the bike is fairly well engineered for young riders, with easy-to-maneuver handlebars and a lower center bar that's easier for kids to step over. Parents mostly echo that opinion, but there are more complaints about weight than there are with the slightly lighter Diamondback Mini Viper. The bike comes with both a coaster brake and a hand brake, rare for a young kid's model. Though some say the hand brake is a bit stiff, most reviewers appreciate the option. The seat also has a quick-release post that allows parents to quickly adjust seat height without tools. Like the Mini Viper, the bike comes mostly assembled and the process is easy to finish, parents say.
The Freestyle's air-filled tires are wider than the norm, providing a bit of extra traction for young riders who may be just ditching their training wheels. Parents also say the steel frame feels sturdy, but durability and quality control seem to be more of an issue here. Some reviewers say they received bikes with rusty or missing parts, while others say the bike chain or pedals fell off. The bike frame comes with a lifetime warranty; other parts have a one-year warranty.
If you're looking for a 20-inch bike for an older, taller child, reviewers say the Diamondback Cobra (Est. $170) (or Tess, the girls' version) will provide a quality ride without breaking the bank. Diamondback recommends this six-speed mountain bike for kids ages 6 to 10 and 47 to 56 inches tall. Reviewers echo that range, with most saying their 6-year-olds were comfortable with the seat adjusted all the way down. The Cobra is orange with white and black trim, and the Tess is pink with white and black trim. The bike does not come with training wheels or a kickstand.
Reviewers say the Cobra is a tad heavy, especially compared to pricier mountain bikes with aluminum frames. Despite that, they say their kids have little trouble maneuvering the bike. Parents say this is a good bike for kids to first learn about riding in different gears, but note that smaller kids may have trouble shifting through all of them. Unlike bikes for younger kids, the Cobra comes with hand brakes instead of coaster brakes; reviewers say they're reliable and easy to use. While most say seat height is easy to adjust, initial assembly receives mixed reviews. Bike enthusiasts and mechanically inclined reviewers say it was easy, but several parents say the instructions lacked specifics and recommend having a professional help out.
The Cobra seems more durable than a lot of big-box store bikes, reviewers say. It has front suspension to absorb bumps and allow for a bit of beginning off-roading. "This bike is very sturdy, my son rides it like it is a mountain bike through fields, over branches and roots and rocks," one reviewer notes. There are few complaints about flat tires or rust. Parents who want to upgrade from steel to an aluminum frame can do that with the Diamondback Octane (Est. $260) or Diamondback Lustre (Est. $200). The bike frame comes with a lifetime warranty; other parts have a one-year warranty.
Elsewhere in this report:
Best Tricycles and Balance Bikes | Buying Guide | Our Sources