A balance bike is an amazing way to introduce your little one to cycling — we explain why they're different to pedal bikes with stabilisers and how to choose one.
What is a balance bike?
Imagine a small children’s bike, with no cranks or pedals – and you’ve pretty much got a balance bike. Before you ask if you can scrimp on buying one, and just take the pedals of a sibling’s machine – balance bikes are smaller, making them more suited to little legs, and generally lighter than small wheeled children’s bikes.
Children push the bike along with their feet. Once they feel more confident, the next step is to teach your child to push and then glide – lifting their legs up to make the most of the momentum gained.
Balance bikes are also called…
- Glider bikes
- Strider bikes (actually the name of a brand specialising in balance bikes)
- Run bikes
- Runner bikes
- Pedal less bikes
Balance bike age ranges
Children can start riding balance bikes when they’re around 18-months to two years old, and little ones up to around the age of five enjoy them. In most cases, children will move on to a bike with pedals at around the age of four. There isn’t a top end restriction on age, though, and you can even get balance bikes for adults.
It’s important to remember that balance bikes need to be the correct size for their rider: bike fit is just as important for kids as it is for adults. Of course, children grow quickly between the ages of two and five, so ideally you’ll want to select a bike that is adjustable.
Balance bike benefits
Experts in children’s cycling suggest that toddlers who are introduced to two wheels early via a balance bike usually find the progression to independent riding much easier than those who start out with a pedal bike and stabilisers.
A balance bike teaches your child a very crucial skill: balance. Learned early, this can have a notable impact upon their confidence when it comes to cycling unsupported. Not only this, a balance bike will teach your child to control the movement of the bike with their body weight and steering.
Whilst a child learning to pedal using stabilisers might find the transition to balancing, steering, and pedalling all at once a little overwhelming, a child who has graduated from a balance bike will mainly just be adding pedalling to their existing skill set.
What’s wrong with stabilisers?
Stabilisers have been used for decades – and they worked for most of us in our early years (as far as we can remember…).
However, they’ve got their shortcomings. When we caught up with Isla Rowntree, founder of Islabikes, she summed it up pretty nicely: “[Stabilisers] are not actually a great way to learn to ride. A bicycle steers by leaning, you lean it to the right and the handlebars fall to the right, you lean it to the left and they fall to the left. Stabilisers hold the bike in a rigid, upright position – so when a child learns to steer with stabilisers on the bike, they’re actually learning to steer a tricycle.”
She went on to say: “Instead of learning to steer by leaning, they learn to steer by turning the handlebars, and pushing their bodyweight away from the bike, to stop it toppling over. When they come to ride without the stabilisers, they’ve then got to un-learn what they’ve been doing and learn something different.”
Balance bikes: 7 of the best
Islabikes Rothan balance bike
Read more: Islabikes Rothan balance bike review
No children’s bike list would be complete without a nod to Islabikes. The Rothan features small diameter handlebars, a micro reach brake lever, a scoop saddle for comfort in the balance position, and it comes in at just 3.2kg. We gave this bike a ‘perfect 10’ when we reviewed it and called it a ‘marker of how to build a kid’s first bike’ – can’t say fairer than that!
Frog Bikes Tadpole and Tadpole Plus balance bikes
Available in a range of colours, including special Team Sky and Union Jack paint jobs, the Frog Bikes Tadpole also comes in two sizes. The 12 inch wheel Tadpole is ideal for those around two to three years, whilst its 14 inch wheel big brother is more suited to three to four year olds. Of course, suitability will vary, but size guides are provided. Both bikes weigh just over 4kg, have an easy-grip Tektro rear brake with an adjustable leaver, and a quick release seat-post adjustment.
HOY Bikes Napier balance bike
Named after the school yard that provided Sir Chris Hoy‘s first training ground (ok, where he first learned to ride), the brand took influence from the BMX bikes of his early racing days. Constructed from aluminium, this option comes in at 3.9kg. Multi-surface-friendly Kenda tyres have been used, there’s no brake, and this model comes in blue, red, green or yellow – all options include the track stripes with a side order of Olympic dreams.
Early Rider Road Runner 14 inch balance bike
Admittedly, it’s about twice the price of other options on this list – but with that you’re getting a bike that will have heads turning all the way to the park. This bike has an aluminium frame, fork and steerer. And – the pièce de résistance – an actual carbon seat post! The total weight is 3.6kg. It’s not just about the cool faux leather seat and featherweight, either – Early Rider say that the drop bars provide greater stability thanks to the lower centre of gravity created. You’ll notice an incline from saddle to bars, too – and they say this helps children to push off and drive the balance bike more freely.
Verenti Smoothy Runner balance bike
The lightest on our list, and the cheapest – the Verenti Smoothly runner bike has a claimed weight of 2.65kg. The frame and fork are made from hi-ten steel, fitted around 10 inch wheels. The handlebar and saddle height are adjustable, to suit a growing child. It’s worth noting that the tyres used are airless – solving issues with punctures, but likely to offer a very different ride quality when compared with a traditional set-up.
Strider Bikes Sport 12 inch balance bike
Strider Bikes manufacture balance bikes for everyone: from children aged 18 months to adults. They also host balance bike races for children, and create bikes for people with special needs. The brand’s top selling model is the Strider Bikes Sport. With 12 inch wheels, it’s designed to fit children aged up to five years, and comes in seven colours. The tyres are made from EVA polymer – that means they’re light and puncture proof, but won’t maintain traction quite like rubber. This said, Strider provide the option to move on to pneumatic tyres as your child develops. Quick release clamps adjust the seat post and handlebars, and no tools are required in assembly.
Bobbin Gingersnap balance bike
Adults choose their bikes based on frame, specification, and aesthetics – and children have every right to be just as picky. The Bobbin Gingersnap is designed for children aged between one and five, and follows the conventions of the iconic brand – basket and all. Twelve inch wheels are fitted with study tyres and both saddle height and the handlebars are adjustable. With the extra accessories it comes in at 5kg (according to customer service replies on Evans Cycles’ Q+A section).
How much should I spend on a balance bike?
Just like adult bikes, children’s balance bikes vary dramatically in cost. The good news is we’re talking hundreds, and not thousands. The cheapest balance bikes will be around £20, but you can spend up to £200.
The temptation to spend less rather than more is understandable if you’re worried about splashing out on an item that could end up gathering dust. However, it’s really worth remembering that the likelihood of this happening is slashed if the bike is fun to ride.
At the pricier end of the scale, bikes will be lighter, more durable, and will have components (grips and saddles, for example) that are better designed for little bodies. We’re not suggesting that you have to buy a model with all the bells and whistles, but spending around £100 is a good idea.
What should you look for in a balance bike?
There are some amazing looking balance bikes out there – some come with plastic add-ons that turn them into everything from motorbikes to shopper bikes (no prizes for guessing the gender suggestions coming up on shopping filters, there).
Colours and graphics that your child likes are undeniably important, but there are other features to consider first:
Weight of a balance bike
When it comes to children’s bikes, weight is incredibly important. Heavier models might come in at around 5kg, whilst those designed with an eye on the scales sit closer to 3kg. Though that might not sound like a huge difference to an adult, it’s a huge percentage of a child’s weight.
The lighter the bike, the easier it will be for your learning toddler to get it moving, and to handle it around the twists and turns in the park – especially if there’s the odd little incline.
Fit on a balance bike
Above all else, the bike needs to fit to be comfortable. Balance bikes at the smallest end of the scale can have 10 inch wheels, and at the largest end you’re usually looking at 20 inch wheels.
At its lowest point, the saddle should measure one inch lower than your child’s inseam measurement. When sat on the saddle, your child should be able to put both feet flat on the ground, with a slight bend at the knee. The bend in the knee might look odd at first, but it means that when they get going and extend their legs in front of them, they’ll still be able to comfortably reach the ground and take big, swooping and effective strides.
Adjustability of a balance bike
It’s understandable that you want your child’s balance bike to last as long as they want to enjoy it – typically two to three years. Look for a bike with an adjustable saddle height that offers a good range. Some versions also have adjustable handlebar heights, offering an even more tailored fit.
Do you want a brake on your balance bike?
A balance bike doesn’t have to have a brake – little feet will suffice. However, having one (usually at the rear) can add confidence. Not only that, it also gives your child one more skill which they can apply when they start to pedal. A quality balance bike will have a brake lever that’s easy for a small hand to operate.
The tyres on a balance bike
There are two common options here: EVA foam or rubber tyres with an inner tube, just like those on adult bikes. EVA foam tyres are usually lighter and puncture proof – but they don’t provide quite the same traction as a rubber tyre which will feel nicer and allow for use on different surfaces such as grass. It’s generally considered that EVA foam tyres will suit smaller riders who will stick to paved surfaces, but they’ll eventually grow out of them.
Saddle comfort on balance bikes
It’s ok: we’re not going to start advocating chamois shorts for five year olds. But it’s worth knowing that the ideal balance bike saddle isn’t necessarily the same as a pedal bike saddle. The body resting on it will be putting quite a lot of weight through the centre of the saddle, so these are ideally shaped in a ‘scoop’ shape – a bit like the one fitted to the Isla Rothan. However, your child probably won’t be out for three hour jaunts like many parents – so don’t panic too much about this.
Check if you’re going to need to build the balance bike!
Not all balance bikes are created equal when it comes to build quality. Ideally, you want one that is easy to assemble and comes with clear instructions. Some might require specific tools, so enquire if it’s not obvious or stated that they’re provided.