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.
I hadn’t yet developed the coordination required to cycle independently so suddenly taking my stabilisers off was pretty scary. Needless to say, there were many crashes that day but I eventually got there!
Thankfully, there is now a better 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?
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. Once the stabilisers are removed they have to try and learn the more complex skill (balancing), while pedalling, which is much harder.
If kids learn to ride using a pedal bike with stabilisers they 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 un-learn many of the bad habits that stabilisers can cause (see below).
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.
Wheels and Tyres
Some smaller balance bikes come with plastic wheels and EVA foam tyres, while most of the better ones come with a spoke wheel with rubber tyres.
The positive of EVA foam tyres is that they are lightweight and puncture proof, but they provide very little grip and once they wear 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 makes a horrible rattling noise.
The mounting brackets often bend too which can make the bike lean on one side more than the other.
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. 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.
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.
But can’t 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 added ground clearance so the pedals don’t hit the ground while riding. This means the saddle will be quite high, so even with the pedals removed they will likely be too tall 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.
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. 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!