Balance Bikes Explained: Everything You Need To Know

LittleBig balance bike at the Emerald Enduro in Wicklow, Ireland

Do you remember how you learnt to ride a bike? Maybe your parents guided you, or perhaps you just copied your friends or other kids in the area? Whatever way, there’s a good chance you learnt on a traditional pedal bike, possibly with the addition of stabilisers (aka training wheels). But many experts now believe that Balance Bikes are better than stabilisers for developing good balance and coordination in young children.

So exactly what is a Balance Bike and what do you need to consider if you’re thinking of buying one?

In this post, we’ll answer the questions we get asked most frequently, so you can decide if a balance bike is the right choice for your child.

What is a balance bike?

picture of a balance bikeA balance bike is a bike without pedals. While it has a frame, fork, handlebars, wheels etc, it has no drivetrain. To move forwards, kids push off the ground with their feet, like Fred Flintstone.
Balance bikes don’t have stabilisers (A.K.A. training wheels). Since kids have their feet on the ground, they can develop their balance and coordination as they are not supported by stabilisers. This allows kids to develop their balance first, before progressing to pedals.

What age are balance bikes for?

Balance bikes are normally for kids from 18 months to 7 years old. If your child can walk, chances are they can use a balance bike.

As balance bikes don’t have a drivetrain (pedals, cranks etc.) they are much lower to the ground and are much lighter than traditional kids bikes. This makes it easier for small kids to propel and steer the bike.

Do balance bikes really work?

Balance bikes typically give kids independence much earlier than traditional pedal bikes with stabilisers/ training wheels. Their inherent simplicity makes means they weigh less than normal bikes and are easier for young kids to understand.

Balance bikes are very intuitive for kids and usually they just grab the bike and go, no instructions needed! By taking the task of pedalling out of the mix, kids are able to concentrate on the more tricky and nuanced skill of balancing the bike.

How does a balance bike work?

As balance bikes are low to the ground, kids reach the ground with their feet. To move forwards, they push off the ground and begin by walking the bike, then progress to running, striding and gliding. Once they are gliding along independently, they are mastering their balance and are ready to begin pedalling. But there’s no rush, kids can keep going on the balance bike for as long as they wish.

Balance bikes also teach kids how to steer properly by leaning the bike towards the corner, with the assurance of having their feet on the ground.

How to ride a balance bike?

Balance bikes are really simple for kids to ride and often they won’t even need any guidance on how to use it. To ride the balance bike, kids sit on the low saddle while holding the handlebars. Then to move forward they can walk, run, stride or glide, depending on their confidence and experience.

Even smaller more timid kids can start on a balance bike by standing over the frame, in front of the saddle, and just walk normally. By holding the handlebars and getting used to the weight and feel of the bike, their coordination will improve and they can progress to riding while seated.

How to teach your child to ride a balance bike?

Balance bikes don’t require much instruction. Kids usually hop on and ride without much fuss. But there’s a few things to check before you start:

  • Find an open space free from obstacles and rough surfaces.
  • Fit a decent helmet to ensure a gentle fall doesn’t knock your child’s confidence.
  • Set the saddle height so your child’s feet are flat on the ground with their legs straight.
  • If your bike has brakes, instruct your child how to use them.
  • If needed, give your child a gentle push to get started.
  • Watch your child ride…

Are balance bikes better than normal bikes?

The saddle on a balance bike is much lower than a normal bike, giving kids a more secure feeling as they’re closer to the ground. As normal bikes have a drivetrain, the saddle needs to be much higher off the ground to give the pedals adequate ground clearance. This results in the child being perched high up on the bike which can feel unsettling.

Are balance bikes better than stabilisers / training wheels?

A bike with stabilisers is being held upright by the two small outrigger wheels. These stabilisers are usually set up a little higher than the rear wheel. This results in a bike that tips from side to side unpredictably as the child’s weight transfers from one stabiliser to the other. Bikes with stabilisers cannot be used on sloped or rough surfaces as they will tip over.

Even worse, as the child reaches a corner, their weight is supported by the outside stabiliser wheel. This means the bike leans away from the corner and the rider will learn to lean the wrong way. With a balance bike, the child is free to lean the bike towards the inside of the corner, in the correct way. If you see moto GP, you can see the crazy angles of lean that riders can achieve when they lean inwards.

Using stabilisers is like teaching a child to walk with crutches, then taking them away. A balance bike on the other hand, equates to their natural progression of crawling, walking and running.

It seems that most kids’ bike brands that still use stabilisers also have bad gearing on their bikes. Gearing the bike too high can make it difficult to start pedalling, like trying to start a car in 5th gear.

Given that normal bikes need a drivetrain, they are heavier, more costly and more difficult to maintain than a simple balance bike.

Are balance bikes good for toddlers?

Balance bikes are great for toddlers as it will help develop their coordination and motor skills and give them independence and the freedom to explore. Balance bikes are really natural for toddlers to use and as they progress it will give them extra confidence.

Are balance bikes safe?

Balance bikes are very safe for your child. They are intuitive for kids to use giving them confidence in the bike. The more we understand something, the less we are scared of it. Balance bikes are also very simple to maintain, so there is less to go wrong. That said, we would always recommend wearing a helmet!

Do balance bikes have brakes?

Balance bikes can come with no brakes, rear hand brake only, or both front and rear hand brakes. Balance bikes with no brakes assume the child can slow the bike by dragging their feet off the ground. This is okay at slower speeds, but not when the speed increases. You can read more on our article Balance bike with brakes? Do you need them? 

Do balance bikes need brakes?

For starter balance bikes for kids 18 months or so, no brakes is fine as it keeps the weight low. However once they pick up confidence and speed, at least a rear brake is preferable to ensure they can stop safely. Brakes are particularly important on inclines or rough surfaces where dragging your feet won’t slow the bike much. Having brakes on the bike also saves kids wearing out the soles of their shoes!

Do balance bikes have pedals?

Balance bikes are designed specifically for children to “glide” rather than ride, so pedals would just get in the way.

However, our unique design means the Little Big transforms seamlessly into a balance bike with pedals with very little adjustment needed.

The specially designed pedals are easy to attach, so when your child is ready to cycle independently, you can convert LittleBig from a balance bike to a standard pedal bike without having to spend more.

How high should a balance bike seat be?

The saddle on a balance bike should be set so that the child can have their feet flat on the ground. Most decent balance bikes have a quick release seat clamp for easy adjustments. They should be able to reach the handlebars comfortably, with their torso angled slightly forwards. Imagine pushing a broken down car, you naturally lean forward so you can brace against the ground.

If the torso is too upright, it can be difficult to push forwards.

How to choose the right balance bike for your child?

There are a number of decisions to make when choosing a balance bike for your child:

1. Size

Unlike normal kids bikes, balance bikes are sized based on inseam rather than wheel or frame size. Your child should be able to have their feet flat on the ground while sitting in the saddle. To check if the bike is a good size, measure your child’s inseam, with shoes on. This should be the same or slightly longer than the minimum saddle of the bike. If your little one’s inseam is longer than the maximum saddle height of the bike, you need to choose a bigger bike! Your child should be able to reach the handlebars comfortably with their torso leaning slightly forwards. Balance bikes with a longer arm reach will allow your child to go faster and maintain a more aggressive, forward leaning stance on the bike. If the bike is more upright (like a Dutch Bike), it will be okay for shorter distances but more difficult to propel the bike forward. The geometry you choose depends on the type of terrain you envisage your child riding on.

2. Weight

In order for your child to push the bike easily, the bike should be as light as possible. The frames on kids balance bikes are usually made from aluminium alloy, steel, wood or plastic. The best material for balance bikes is aluminium alloy as it’s rust proof, and is much lighter than steel.

Wood balance bikes can look cute, but don’t come with brakes. Look out for those using marine plywood as this will not warp and delaminate when wet, unlike the cheaper bikes made of standard plywood.

3. Cost

Cost is obviously a big factor for many parents and really what you choose depends on the bike’s intended use.

A more expensive bike will usually be lighter and longer lasting, use better components, have better customer service, and will often have a better re-sale value. Most quality kids bikes will use genuine bike parts that can be serviced and replaced by a bike shop so can keep the bike running perfectly for longer.

Cheaper bikes can often look like their more expensive counterparts – there are numerous copycat brands out there – but they fall down on attention to detail and build quality. They are usually missing some important features such as brakes, air tyres, ball bearings as described below.

4. Wheels

It’s best to look go for wheels with air (pneumatic) tyres, alloy rims and hubs with steel spokes. Air tyres will provide more cushioning and grip for your child, giving them more confidence. Tyres with a wide knobbly tread will give better grip on rough surfaces, while those with a narrower smooth tread will roll faster.

Some brands out there use EVA foam tyres which are puncture proof, but do not provide much grip. Once they wear out they cannot be replaced, so you need to buy a whole new wheel. Make sure your bike has ball bearings or cartridge bearings rather than nylon (plastic) bushings which can rattle and wear out easily.

5. Brakes

Some balance bikes have no brakes, others have a rear brake only, and a few have both front and rear brakes. Look out for V brakes rather than sidepull brakes. V brakes are much more powerful than sidepull brakes, so your little one will be able to stop safely. Kids specific short reach brake levers are a must, to ensure they can be used by little hands. (perhaps add brake info from above into this?)

6. Contact Points

Look out for a padded saddle rather than hard plastic. Check the material is tough so it doesn’t rip easily. Wood balance bikes usually have wood “saddles” with foam padding on top, which don’t seem as comfortable as a fully padded saddle.

Similarly with grips, look for soft rubber rather than plastic. Rubber grips are more comfortable and grippy than plastic one. The only reason brands use plastic is to keep the cost down.

The best balance bikes come with a ball bearing or cartridge bearing headset, this allows the handlebars to rotate & steer freely. Some cheaper balance bikes come with plastic bushings which are rattly and cannot be serviced.

7. Serviceability

Most decent balance bikes are built like a real adult’s bike with genuine bike parts that can be serviced and replaced as parts wear, ensuring that the bike keeps running for many years. Other cheaper balance bikes are more like toys, with parts like plastic bushings and moulded proprietary parts (handlebars, wheels etc) that cannot be sourced locally.

How much does a balance bike cost to buy?

Balance bikes vary in price from €30 to over €1,000, but most decent ones are between €100 to €200. LittleBig balance bikes are unique in that they’re convertible and can adapt as your child grows, giving long term value for money.

How to buy a balance bike for your child?

Once you’ve considered the info above, there are a few ways to find out which best suits your child. Talk to friends, read reviews, watch some Youtube videos, or visit your local bike shop which has knowledgeable staff (not toy shop).

Check for impartial reviews from 3rd parties, as some bloggers only recommend bikes from stores with affiliate links like Amazon which skews things slightly.

Here are a couple of independent reviews of the LittleBig balance bike:

Look for reviews that test the quality and function of the balance bike itself rather than just the concept of the balance bike. I’ve read many reviews over the years that say “this balance bike is better than a normal bike” but they overlook whether it’s actually a good example of a balance bike.

Consider the long term value of the bike. Having a growing convertible bike like the LittleBig means you won’t need to worry about buying a new one for a few years, giving peace of mind.

The LittleBig balance bike comes in different colours too, just in case your child has a preference:

What is the best balance bike to buy?

The best balance bike to buy is the one that finds the best compromise between cost, size, weight, function, customer support and sustainability. Some bikes are more suited to city riding and others for off-roading. Some are great for confident adventurous kids, but not so good for timid kids.

It’s up to you to weigh up the different considerations and determine which is best for your child. We feel the longevity, function, aesthetics, sustainability, personal service and cost of the LittleBig bike makes it great value for money overall.

Conclusion

Hopefully this guide will help you decide if a Balance Bike is the right option for your child as he or she sets out on their exciting journey to two-wheel independence. I can’t reiterate enough that the key to learning to ride a bike is building confidence through developing good balance and coordination – this is exactly what Balance Bikes were designed for. Before you know it, your child will be pedalling confidently on their own and reaping all the health benefits that cycling offers.

Lastly, just to blow our own trumpet for a second, the big bonus of the LittleBig Balance Bike is that you can convert it into a “normal” bike by adding pedals & brakes and adjusting the specially designed frame. So, once your child is ready for pedals, they won’t have to get used to a new bike and you won’t have the expense of having to buy one!  Check out all the bike colour options and accessories here.

Safe & happy cycling :)

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Customers in England, Scotland and Wales will not be charged VAT through our shop, but you will need to pay UK VAT at 20% once the your order arrives in the UK.

 

The LittleBig balance bike is duty free and the pedals attract 4% duty. Taxes are paid directly to UK Revenue and are handled by the courier DPD who charge a £5 admin fee.  Example: for the classic bike and separate pedal attachment, the taxes and charges equate to approximately £49 GBP.

Northern Ireland customers will be charged VAT of 23% on our website, but you will not be liable for any additional taxes or charges.

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