Balance Bike VS Stabilisers (Training Wheels). Which is Best?

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?

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. 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).

Pedalling

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 for this stage, unless it’s convertible.
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.

Cornering

A balance bike’s low weight, low center of gravity, simplicity and lack of stabilisers means it will corner like it’s on rails and be lots of fun for the little rider.

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.

ids pedal bike with stabilisers training wheels

Terrain

Balance bikes can be used on most surfaces (within reason!) and can be used on sloping surfaces no problem. If it has brakes it will be much easier to control on an incline than if it’s brake-less. Since balance bikes can pretty much go anywhere, they help develop your child’s sense of adventure!
The small stabiliser wheels are difficult to use on inclined slopes (they topple over sideways), can’t roll over rough surfaces and dig into soft ground making progress slow and frustrating.

Weight

Balance bikes are typically made of aluminium, wood, steel and plastic. Aluminium typically provides the best balance of weight, strength and durability. 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.
The majority of kids pedal bikes are made of heavy steel though some brands use aluminium. If a bike is heavy it makes the bike difficult to manoeuvre and pedal along. The stabilisers add extra unnecessary weight to an already heavy frame.

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.


Saddle Height

The saddle on a balance bike is usually quite low so the child can have their feet flat on the ground and be able to walk and run easily.

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.

Brakes

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.

Kids pedal bikes should have both front and rear brakes. In the USA the rear brake needs to be a coaster (back pedal) brake while elsewhere V-brakes or side-pull brakes are normal.

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.

Conclusion

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!

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 to 77 countries around the world giving thousands of kids the best start on two wheels.

7 comments

  1. Michael Donnelly

    Is there any research-based ‘evidence’ that has ever been published in a learned peer-reviewed journal that supports the assertions made about the effectiveness of using balance bikes to teach kids how to ride?
    It intuitively feels right but so did the idea that the sun revolved around the earth!

    1. Hi Michael

      There have been limited studies but it’s not a topic that’s been covered in detail with hard evidence. Most of the feedback I’ve seen (and experienced personally) is that having used a balance bike, kids will progress to pedalling within 15mins (or even less) and at a younger age than when using stabilisers. Most of our customers fit pedals to their LittleBig bike when their child is 3-4 years old. I’m still shocked when I see older kids of 6 and 7 trundling along on traditional bikes with their stabilisers attached.

  2. My 4.5 year old has been on a balance bike only, since he was about 2. He really does shred on the balance bike and even goes off really small jumps. He is now so good at it he doesn’t even want to be on a pedal bike. It’s great to go on bike rides with him now! I do have a question though: after a mile or so, he starts to complain about a sore butt and tired legs. I tell him with a pedal bike he wouldn’t have to work as hard and could go faster and longer, but the pedal bike is “harder” for him and he doesn’t like it at all. I’m sure eventually he will want to make the change on his own, but he is so ready and just doesn’t know it. Do you have any tips on how to transition to pedals? Or should I just wait it out until it’s his choice?

    1. Hi Helen, that’s great your son is shredding on his balance bike. It may be worth looking at the handlebar position, you can roll the bars backwards to shorten the reach. You can also raise the handlebars by up to 30mm, just follow the instructions below:

      1 – Loosen the two black 6mm allen bolts on the side of the stem (as seen in this photo).

      2 – Remove the silver 5mm allen bolt from the top of the stem then remove the top cap, the stem and the 15mm spacer.

      3 – Fit the spacer over the fork tube then place the stem on top of the spacer.

      4 – Fit the top cap then tighten the silver 5mm allen bolt until snug so there is no forward/backward play in the headset bearings (best to pull the front brake while doing this).

      5 – Align the handlebars with the front wheel and tighten the two 6mm allen bolts securely.

      6 – Check the handlebars are secure by holding the front wheel between your legs and ensure the handlebars cannot move independently of the wheel.

      You can get an additional 15mm of handlebar height by flipping the stem during the process above. It wasn’t designed aesthetically to work upside down but it will function perfectly.

      Finally, it’s worth trying different saddle heights and see which position works best for him. If the saddle is too low his legs will get tired more easily.

      Hope that helps, Simon

  3. Yes, Balance BIKES are more comfortable than BIKE WITH TRAINING WHEELS. especially in cornering point balance bikes are more helpful, These bikes can balance easily because of less weight.

  4. Patricia Lucia

    I’m a senior citizen and alway rode my bike everywhere. Recently I had a fall and now I have small problem with my balance. I’ve been thinking of getting a balance bike. Do you think it might help

    1. Hi Patricia
      A balance bike could work for you but unfortunately ours would be too small for you, it’s only designed for kids. I believe there are some bigger ones available such as the Strider Adult. Hope that helps!

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