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 off a sibling’s machine – the best balance bikes are generally lighter than small-wheeled children’s bikes, and carefully adapted to suit very small hands and bodies.
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 bikesare also called:
- Glider bikes
- Strider bikes (actually the name of a brand specialising in balance bikes)
- Run bikes
- Runner bikes
- Pedal-less bikes
Balance bikes and 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.
Benefits of balance bikes
As the name suggests, a balance bike teaches your child a very crucial skill: balance. Learned early, this can have a notable impact on their confidence when it comes to cycling unsupported. Not only this, but a balance bike will also teach your child to control the movement of the bike with their body weight and steering.
While a child learning to pedal using training wheels 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 skillset.
What’s wrong with training wheels?
Training wheels 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: “[Training wheels] 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.
"Training wheels hold the bike in a rigid, upright position – so when a child learns to steer with training wheels on the bike, they’re actually learning to steer a tricycle.
“Instead of learning to steer by leaning, they learn to steer by turning the handlebars, and pushing their body weight away from the bike, to stop it toppling over. When they come to ride without the training wheels, they’ve then got to un-learn what they’ve been doing and learn something different.”
Balance bikes: eight of the best
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
Strider Bikes manufactures balance bikes for everyone: from children aged 18 months to adults. They also host balance bike races for children and create bikes forpeople 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, so you're getting them light and puncture-proof, although they won’t maintain traction quite like rubber. This said, Strider provides 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.
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
At 2.95kg, our tester found this bike easy to get to grips with, and their guardian was impressed with the light steering, as well as the saddle and thick tyres which made for a comfortable early ride experience. Our tester wanted to ride it straight away, so it won that early battle - and being easy to get on with, it quickly became a cherished you.
The Airo was easy to assemble, though adjustments do need an Allen key, and we did find that the paint scratched quite easily. Otherwise, it was perfect.
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
Available in a range of colours, Union Jack and the USA stars and stripes paint jobs, the Frog Bikes Tadpole also comes in three sizes. The 24cm Tadpole Mini is ideal for those aged one to three, 32cm Tadpole suits riders from two to three and the 38cm Tadpole Blue for those three to four.
Of course, suitability will vary, but size guides are provided. The bikes weigh from 3.46kg to 4.18kg, have an easy-grip Tektro rear brake with an adjustable lever, and a quick release seat-post adjustment.
Co-op CyclesREV 12 Kids' Balance Bike
Co-op Cycles is the house bicycle brand of outdoor equipment retailer REI. The REV 12 kids' balance bike has a lightweight aluminium frame pneumatic 12-inch tires and has a claimed weight of 9lbs. Available in pink and green colourways, it comes with a pack of stickers so your little rider can customise it.
Vitus Smoothy Balance Bike
Known for its value for money, the Wiggle house brand Vitus now reaches to the youngest bike riders in the household. Made from cast magnesium frameset incorporates integrated footrest for when the balance glide is cracked by the rider, as well as a useful handle for the adult.
The Smoothy comes in six colours, rolls on 12-inch wheels and a claimed weight of just 7lbs, adjustable height handlebars and saddle make this a really great option.
Earlyrider Charger 12 balance bike
Having had a bit of a rethink, the original and rather pricey Earlyrider doesn't make the 2020 line up, but the Charger 12 does, and we think it's a much better option all round. The brand still keeps its lightweight focus with the aluminium frame, fork, steerer, seat post and hubs as well as clincher tires.
The total weight isn't listed, but it will certainly be one of the lighter options. The custom Ritchey riser bars are designed specifically to fit mini V short-reach brake levers, and the low slung frame with a minimum seat height of just 31cm allows even the littlest of legs the earliest starts to bike riding.
Cannondale Trail Balance Bike
Cannondale's Trail lets kids keep up with their parents with a lightweight frame and single-sided fork that mimics Cannondale's own Lefty suspension forks. The ultra-short seat tube lets riders lower (and possibly cut down) the seat post to suit very young (and very small) riders.
Kiddimoto Kurve Balance bike
An environmental and artistic option for young riders, Kiddimoto's Kurve balance bikes are made from Birch Plywood sourced from managed forests.
The brand has used pneumatic tyres with inner tubes and grips with stoppers provide an ergonomic fit for little hands. Designed to suit toddlers from 3 to 5 years old, there's a wide range of colour and design options - from butterflies and dots to police cars and fire engines. They tip the scales at 4.5kg and have three available saddle heights.
STRIDER12 Sport Baby Bundle Balance Bike with Rocker
Maybe your child isn't quite ready to hit the sidewalk just yet. In that case, you can still help them feel like a big kid and start them on the right track with this setup.
Strider offers its Sport model in a "Baby Bundle" with a rocker that lets them get a feel for riding from the comfort of their nursery. The ABS plastic rocker holds the bike firmly in place and is easy to remove when they're ready to start striding.
How to teach your child to ride a bike in just 45 minutes (video)
Balance bikes for 2-year-olds and up
If you're worried about what size bike to get, don't worry as many companies will offer bikes based on age, giving a rough range of ages that the bike will fit. Brands like Kiddimoto offer balance bikes for 0-2 years, 2-3 years, 3-5 years, and finally 5+ years ensuring there should be something available for every age.
How much do people spend on balance bikes?
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 £30/$50, but you can spend up to £170/$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 £80/$100 is a good idea.
What should you look for in the best balance bikes?
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 balance bikes
You may snigger that we're talking about weight on a children's product, but when it comes to bikes for little ones, the number that the scales record is incredibly important. Heavier models might come in at around 11lbs/5kg, whilst those designed with an eye on the scales sit closer to 6.8lbs/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 balance bikes
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 balance bikes
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.
Should balance bikes have brakes?
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 balance bikes
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. 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.
Cycling Weekly's Tech Editor Michelle Arthurs-Brennan is a traditional journalist by trade, having begun her career working for a local newspaper before spending a few years at Evans Cycles, then combining the two with a career in cycling journalism.
When not typing or testing, Michelle is a road racer who also enjoys track riding and the occasional time trial, though dabbles in off-road riding too (either on a mountain bike, or a 'gravel bike'). She is passionate about supporting grassroots women's racing and founded the women's road race team 1904rt.
Favourite bikes include a custom carbon Werking road bike as well as the Specialized Tarmac SL6.
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