If you’ve been shopping around for balance bikes you’ll no doubt be dazzled by the array of shapes and sizes out there. Some balance bikes have no brakes, others just a rear brake and in the case of the LittleBig, both front and rear brakes. So, which is best?
|Brakes or no brakes on a balance bike?|
|No Brakes||Kids normally stop the bike by dragging their feet off the ground. This is a good option for younger kids (age 1-2). It makes the bike simpler, cheaper and lighter, but not as safe when going downhill. It also wears through shoes much faster!|
|Rear Brake only||Rear brake only means that kids can slow the bike on gentle downhills and is simple for kids to understand. This is a good option for kids age 2-3, but older kids will need both brakes to stop safely.|
|Front and rear brakes||Having front and rear brakes is the safest option for older kids, or for riding on rough or steep hills. The steeper the hill, the more the front brake is needed as the rear will begin to skid. It’s beneficial for kids to learn to brake with the comfort of having their feet near the ground before progressing to pedals.|
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Is it better to have brakes or no brakes on a balance bike?
It partly depends on the size and age of your child. If your little one is starting really early (around 18 months old) then it’s probably best to go for a balance bike with no brakes to keep the weight low. This means they can focus on learning to balance and steer. At that age a child doesn’t typically have the co-ordination to use the brakes and will intuitively stop by dragging their feet off the ground (you can use old shoes or a cheap pair of wellies to avoid wearing out their trainers).
When can kids start to use hand brakes?
At around two to three years old, kids should have the strength and coordination to use a balance bike with hand brakes. As their confidence increases, kids will get up to higher speeds and will start going down inclines. Dragging their feet probably won’t slow them down sufficiently if going down hills. Having a balance bike with brakes will help to control their speed.
If brakes are fitted the balance bike, they can start by slowing down using their feet, and gradually they will learn to use the hand brakes, or a combination of both.
Do I need both front and rear brakes, or just a rear brake?
As your child gets faster on their bike, a rear brake will slow them down but having both brakes will help them stop more quickly. As balance bikes have a low saddle and lower centre of gravity than a pedal bike, it should prevent them from going over the handlebars (but always wear a helmet, just in case!).
If your little one loves going downhill fast (who doesn’t?) then a front brake is certainly beneficial as the steeper the hill, the more the front brake will be required to stop safely without skidding.
Learning to use balance bike brakes means kids don’t need to relearn this skill when transitioning to pedals. All pedal bikes have brakes so if kids already know how to use them, they can focus on pedalling making the process easier and safer.
What about coaster brakes?
Coaster brakes are not usually used in Europe but are common on kids bikes in the USA. The child can pedal forward as normal, but when they back pedal the rear hub is slowed or stopped, depending on how hard they push on the pedals.
Coaster brakes are generally much heavier than the equivalent hand brake but are simple and cheap. They may also be activated inadvertently for example when levelling your pedals before cornering, leading to a jerky ride.
They are not generally serviceable, so when they wear out the entire wheel needs to be replaced which is not a sustainable solution. Finally, if the chain comes off or snaps, the brake will not work, enough said.
When progressing to a bigger bike, kids will need to use front and rear hand brakes, so best to start this process as early as possible.
Can I add brakes to a balance bike?
If your balance bike doesn’t already have brakes fitted, it likely won’t have the appropriate frame mounts or cable guides for fitting the brake calipers. As well as this, many brakeless balance bikes have plastic wheels which won’t have the required braking surface for the pads to grip.
If you think your little one might want brakes on future, for example if you live on a hill, you can always get a bike with brakes and loosen the brake cable to reduce the brakes power.
What to look for when choosing hand brakes
As with all bike components, the shape and quality changes depending on cost and the intended age range.
Some basic kids bikes come with plastic brakes and though these are cheap, light and rust proof, they flex considerably when the lever is pulled, reducing the overall braking efficiency. They can also snap more easily and thus it’s best to avoid plastic brakes.
Aluminium is the material of choice as it’s strong, light and doesn’t flex leading to consistent and reliable braking.
Brake lever shape is super important, especially for such small hands. Sometimes bike manufacturers use an adult brake lever adjusted to the short reach, but this isn’t ideal. Most good brands now have kids specific brake levers with a special shape that are comfortable and usable for younger riders. These have levers that come close to the handlebar grip, and a lot of brake cable pull which makes them easy to use.
Caliper Style – V Brake or Sidepull?
While sidepull brakes are used on some older kids bikes and on road bikes, V brakes are much more common nowadays. These feature 2 straight arms that pivot just below the rim, and joined at the top by the brake cable. These are the most powerful rim brakes available and are very reliable. They can sometimes require balancing left to right in order to prevent rubbing on the rim but this is an easy adjustment using the tension screws. As with brake levers, stay away from plastic V brakes and go for alloy instead.
If you have any questions on this article please get in touch, or leave a comment below.
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.