Like most of you reading this, I learned to ride a pedal bike using stabilisers (a.k.a training wheels). I remember getting my first bike for my 5th birthday and the joy of taking it out on the path while I pedalled along.
I also remember the day when my parents took the stabilisers off and I wobbled down the road with my dad running behind me, frantically trying to keep me upright.
Like trying to rub my tummy and pat my head at the same time, I hadn’t quite developed the coordination needed to cycle independently. Suddenly taking my stabilisers off was pretty scary but I eventually got there and have loved cycling ever since!
Thankfully, there is now a simpler way that allows kids to get started as young as 2 years old – balance bikes. But exactly what is a Balance Bike and what are the main differences between balance bikes and kids pedal bikes with stabilisers?
Balance Bike Basics
A balance bike has no pedals. To move forwards, the child pushes off the ground with their feet. They usually start by walking while sitting on the saddle, followed by running then gliding with their feet off the ground. Once they can cruise along with their feet up, they have learned to balance and are ready to begin pedalling.
With a balance bike, the child learns to balance and steer first, then can progress to pedalling in their own time. Learning to pedal is much simpler than learning to balance, and since the child will be able to coast along comfortably, there is no urgency.
Kids Pedal Bike with Stabilizers
The classic “old school” kids bike with cranks, pedals, chain, front and rear brakes. The child learns to pedal first while being supported by the stabilisers which help keep the bike upright. Once the stabilisers are removed kids have to learn how to balance (the more complex skill) while pedalling at the same time.
Kids riding a pedal bike with stabilisers won’t develop their balance as the stabilisers keep the bike upright, like a crutch. Once the stabilisers are removed the child will immediately need to (try to!) balance and undo many of the bad habits that stabilisers can cause (see below).
I’ve been there many times when kids started using their pedals and have been amazed at how quickly the child cycles off into the distance. Having learned to on a balance bike first, they don’t have the same fear of falling over. Usually 15 minutes or less is all it takes to get used to the pedalling motion.
A new pedal bike will be needed at this stage, which is the main drawback of normal balance bikes. Unless it’s convertible that is!
It seems the majority of brands that still use stabilisers also have bad gearing on their pedal bikes. If the gearing is too hard, i.e. big front cog and small rear cog, it will be difficult to turn the pedals and get the bike to move forwards (imagine trying to start your car in 4th gear).
When you add increased weight into the mix, it’s no wonder that kids often need a parent’s helping hand to get going.
A bike steers by leaning, and since stabilisers keep the bike upright, they can make it difficult to turn. Even worse, a bike with stabilisers will lean away from the corner onto their outside wheel so the rider will learn to lean the wrong way.
The small stabiliser wheels are difficult to use on inclined slopes (they topple over sideways), will get stuck on rough surfaces and will dig into soft ground, which may lead to the bike toppling unexpectedly.
Balance bikes are typically made of aluminium, wood, steel and plastic though some super fancy carbon models are available. Aluminium provides the best balance of weight, strength and durability. A balance bike’s simplicity makes them lighter than their stabiliser clad counterparts. As well as making them easier to ride, it’s also handy for parents to carry if their little one has done enough biking.
Wheels and Tyres
Some smaller balance bikes come with plastic wheels and EVA foam tyres, while most of the better ones come with spoked wheels with rubber tyres.
EVA foam tyres are lightweight and puncture proof, but they provide very little grip and once worn out the entire wheel needs to be replaced.
Air tyres will provide plenty of cushioning for the rider and more grip too. If the wheel has cartridge bearings it will spin freely and smoothly. The wheels or tyres can easily be serviced or replaced at any decent bike shop.
Pedal bikes will almost always come with rubber tyres to provide grip to the rear wheel for pedalling. The little stabiliser wheels are hard plastic which may make a rattling noise.
The mounting brackets often bend too which can make the bike lean on one side more than the other.
The saddle will be higher than on a balance bike as there needs to be enough clearance so the pedals don’t hit the ground. When sitting in the saddle, the child should be able to reach the ground with their tip-toes.
In order to pedal easily, the saddle should be high enough so the child’s leg is almost straight at the bottom of the pedal stroke.
Some balance bikes are brake-less (at the expense of the kid’s shoes!). Many have a rear brake only, while the LittleBig has both front and rear brakes. In order to be able to stop quickly and safely, at least one brake is preferable.
With both balance bikes and bikes with stabilisers, quality is important and the more expensive bikes will have been carefully considered. Key safety considerations for balance bikes are whether it has a brake, lack of protruding/ sharp edges, choosing an appropriate spot to ride and bike maintenance. Not to mention always wearing a helmet!
In addition to the safety considerations for a balance bike (though brakes are compulsory on pedal bikes), it’s important to choose the riding surface more carefully. Bikes with stabilisers can topple easily while on uneven or soft surfaces as the supporting wheel may dig into the ground.
Ease of setup
Balance bikes are the essence of a bicycle, all you need and nothing more. This makes them simple to setup and maintain.
Pedal bikes have more moving parts to maintain such as the pedals, chain, bottom bracket. The stabiliser wheels need to be checked as they often bend which leads to an unbalanced ride.
How To Get Started
To get your child started on a balance bike, adjust the saddle height so their feet are flat on the floor while sitting in the saddle. Some kids will just ride off once given the bike, but others may need a little nudge to get them going.
Set the saddle so your child can reach the ground with his/her tip toes, so they can get on and off the bike easily. Depending on the bike’s gearing (see above), your child may need little push to get started. Also make sure that they pedal full circles, rather than ratcheting back and forth in part rotations
Can you make a balance bike by taking the pedals off a pedal bike?
Yes, you can convert a normal pedal bike to a balance bike by taking off the cranks, pedals and chain. However pedal bikes are normally taller than their balance bike counterparts as they need enough ground clearance so the pedals don’t hit the ground while riding. As the saddle is higher than on a balance bike, it will likely be unusable for younger kids.
Many kids pedal bikes are made of steel and will likely be too heavy for kids to push along. Not to mention, you need the required skills and special tools to take off and re-assemble the cranks, chain, bottom bracket etc. which can be a bit fiddly.
What about geometry?
Handlebar reach on both balance bikes and kids bikes with stabilisers can vary dramatically. On either bike, it’s best to have a longer reach so the body is leaning forwards in an open arched position with the arms slightly stretched. If the bars are too close to the saddle it makes the cockpit cramped and will make the bike feel twitchy.
Wide bars are also preferable to keep the steering stable, a must for when your child is reaching warp speed! On our LittleBig bike, the geometry changes as it converts from a little balance bike to a big pedal bike so adapts with your growing child.
Is there any evidence on the benefits of balance bikes?
Until recently there was only anecdotal evidence on the benefits of the balance bike compared to stabilisers though I had seen how great they are with my own eyes (which is why I came up with the LittleBig bike!).
However, a recent Dutch Study surveyed a the cycling history of a large group of kids and found balance bike riders progressed to pedalling more quickly than with stabilisers.
If you’d like to read more about this study, we’ve delved into it in our post Are Balance Bikes The Best Way To Learn To Cycle?
We’re always delighted to see kids outdoors on bikes of any kind, whether on a child seat, balance bike, or bike with stabilisers. But it’s even better to see kids zooming along independently with their parent often lagging behind.
It’s not just us, even classic brands like Raleigh are moving away from bikes with stabilisers to balance bikes. There has been anectotal evidence of the benefits for years, but until recenrly So if you’re looking for a new bike for your toddler, don’t forget there’s no need for stabilisers, buy a balance bike instead and give them the best start on two wheels
Round the world cyclist, mountain bike racer, engineer and all round bike geek, Simon Evans clearly loves all things BIKE.
Simon worked as a Structural Engineer in Cambridge for a number of years before setting off on an 18 month, 30,000km cycle around the world, testing his bike, body and mind to the limit and giving a wealth of wonderful experiences.
Coming home in 2010, he wanted to combine his engineering with his love of bikes to create a better and more sustainable bike for kids. In 2015 he launched LittleBig bikes which have now been sold to 77 countries around the world giving thousands of kids the best start on two wheels.