What grownup doesn’t remember the sheer joy of riding a bike as a kid? “It was all about freedom,” says Susan Stewart, 37, recalling her carefree childhood days spent pedaling a pink Barbie bike around the lake where she grew up. “Connie, Wendy, Robbie… We didn’t have to count on our parents to drive us places,” she adds, reciting the names of neighborhood friends who regularly joined her.
Stewart is harking back to those fun-filled adventures as she surveys the array of kids’ bikes at Zane’s Cycles in Branford, trying to choose the perfect one for her 5-year-old son Finn, who’s been bugging her for weeks to buy him his first set of wheels. “A couple of his friends in kindergarten just got bikes, and Finn’s ready to join them,” she says.
While there are indeed dozens of different kids’ bikes to consider, whether shopping at a specialty shop like Zane’s or at a big-box retailer, there are a few basics that will make your decision easy—and your little rider happy.
First, is your son or daughter truly ready to ride a two-wheeler? Graduating from a tricycle is a big deal, and not just physically. “Finn is big for his age,” Stewart says, “and he’s a pretty careful kid.” Finding the correct size bike for your child is relatively simple, but deciding if he’s mature enough to understand and obey safety rules is a tougher call. You know your kid best, but most children are ready for their first bike at age 5 or 6. “That’s about right,” concurs Zane’s manager Tom Girard, “although we’ve seen plenty of two- and three-year-olds pedal out the door on their own power, too.”
Regardless of when the time comes, it’s essential that the bicycle fits your child. Zane’s uses a formula that matches one of four standard kids’ bike sizes, measured by wheel diameter, to a child’s age: 12-inch models for 2 to 4 year olds; 16-inch for 3 to 6 year olds; 20-inch for 5 to 8 year olds; and 24-inch for 7 year olds and up. A recommended gauge is to have the child straddle the bike’s center bar. He should be able to stand with both feet flat on the ground with about a 1-inch clearance between the crotch and the bar.
“After determining the correct size, we then adjust the seat and handlebars to make the bike fit just right,” Girard says. Those adjustments are made with the child sitting on the bike and gripping the handlebars. From that riding position, she should be able to place the balls of her feet on the ground.
If your child is just learning to ride a two-wheeler, consider starting out with training wheels. “Confidence is the key for beginners, and training wheels can be great for building that,” Girard explains. “When it’s time to take them off, the child feels a special sense of accomplishment.” Training wheels or not, however, he interjects, an absolute must is a proper-fitting helmet, along with strict instructions that it’s to be worn whenever riding.
He and Stewart agree that a 20-inch bike is best for Finn, whose eagerness is amplified by the fact that his best friend, Mike, let him learn to ride on his new bike. Finn even knows how to apply the coaster brakes with a slight backward pedal.
After a few adjustments, and picking out a shiny new helmet, Finn takes a few test spins around the parking lot, keeping steady and smiling all the way. His mom’s beaming, as well, even as a few tears run down her cheeks.
“I know exactly how much fun he’s having,” she says, channeling her bygone bike-riding memories, “but it still breaks my heart that our little boy is growing up so fast.”