How to Choose Kid's Bikes for Your Children

A kid's bike is more than just a way to get around. For parents and kids alike, it's a sign that the child is growing up, an invitation to explore and a possession to treasure and care for. A kid's bike is also a great way to get exercise, but parents need to choose the bike carefully to be sure that fun and fitness, not injury, result from riding.

Start with Size
Measure your child before shopping for a kid's bike, and resist the temptation to buy a bike that the child can grow into. A bike that's too big is difficult to control, which can make it harder for your child to learn how to ride a bike.

Your child should be able to get on the bike's seat without struggling. While sitting on the bike, the tips of your child's feet should touch the ground. Make sure your child can easily reach the bike's handlebars, and that knees aren't bouncing off the handlebars when your child pedals.

Though the sizes of adult bikes are based on frame measurements, kids' bikes are categorized by their wheel size. A 12-inch kid's bike will have 12-inch wheels and is a good size for kids between the ages of 2 and 4. Kids between the ages of 8 and 10 will do best with a 24-inch bike, depending on their height.

The height of seats and handlebars is adjustable. The length of handlebars is not adjustable, and the distance between the handlebars and the seat may only be slightly adjustable. A child should be able to sit on a kid's bike in an upright position with the elbows bent slightly. Children with shorter arms may need to grow a bit more before they're ready for a bike.

It's tempting to take your child shopping to get the best fit, but be wary. Children are more likely to be swayed by the characters that appear on some bikes than by safety and quality construction. It's best to avoid character bikes, as the child who loves Spongebob Squarepants today might hate him tomorrow or find the bike too juvenile to ride in a year or two.

Kid's Bike Parts
Every kid's bike has the same basic parts. Additional fenders and fairings might improve appearance, but they can sometimes have a negative impact on performance.

Wheels: The wheels of any kid's bike should be made of metal alloy or aluminum. Though steel or chrome rims may seem attractive, but you should avoid these materials because brake pads tend to slip when they're wet. The wheels should spin freely without touching any other part of the bike. When you're testing out a kids' bike, make sure that you can't feel any give or movement if you try to move the wheel side-to-side. The front wheels on kids' bikes are required by U.S. law to remain attached even after the nuts have been removed. In short, it should never be able to fall off.

Training wheels come with most 12- and 16-inch kids' bikes. If they don't, consider investing in them for new riders. Make sure that the training wheels on a kids' bike are removable. Once your child masters bike riding, you-and your child-will want to remove them immediately.

Brakes: Most kids' bikes have coaster brakes that stop the rear wheel when the pedal is pushed backwards. To test a bike's brakes, flip it upside down, spin the rear wheel and engage the brake. Make sure they're strong enough to handle the weight of a rider at any possible speed. Coaster brakes are easier to operate for young children.

Hand brakes are for older children who have stronger hands and more dexterity. These brakes use pads placed on either side of the front and rear wheels. Depending on the brake design, children may need to learn to apply more pressure to the rear brakes so that they don't get flipped over the handlebars. Brake pads should be checked often and replaced at the first sign of uneven wear.

Frame: The frame of a kids' bike needs to be strong enough to not only handle the user's weight, but also to handle everyday use and abuse, including drops, potholes and adventurous jumps. You should not be able to bend any part of a bike's frame by hand. Look for corrosion-free metal frames, as paint can chip off a kids' bike very quickly, leaving the metal beneath vulnerable to rain.

The bike's frame should be in straight alignment with the brakes and wheels. Make sure that the handlebars are centered and at right angles to the front wheel.

The seat and handlebar posts on a bike need to be bolted tight, and you should not be able to twist, move or jiggle them. The handlebar post on a kids' bike needs to be firm because this is the base that controls steering. Be sure to grease the seat post and handlebar stem before assembly so that they do not freeze in the rain. If the handlebar stem freezes, your child will not be able to steer the bike, which could cause an accident.

Fairings and fenders: Decorative elements rarely serve a functional purpose, with the exception of rear fenders that keep water from splashing onto the rider. As a general rule, it's best to avoid all decorative elements on a kid's bike. Front fairings can make the bike hard to control on windy days, and decorative parts may break in a crash, potentially causing injuries or making the bike impossible to ride.

Safety Features
The US Government requires all bikes without derailleurs to have a chain guard. This metal or plastic shield sits on the pedal side of the chain on kids' bikes with a single gear. Chain guards keep shoe laces, pant legs and backpack straps out of the chain ring's teeth, which reduces the chance of accidents and injuries. Make sure that the bike's chain doesn't rub against the guard.

Helmets are a must for children and most states require them for young riders. Reflectors are also required; there should be one on the front and rear wheels, one mounted on or below the handlebars and one mounted below the seat. Some communities also require lights for nighttime riding, typically a white light mounted on the handlebars and a red light mounted on the rear of the bike. Battery-operated lights can be found at cycling stores and Web sites.

If the bike is small, consider adding a reflective flag to the rear of the frame. This makes it easier for drivers to spot the bike. Extra foam padding on the handlebars and the top of the frame is recommended for beginners and is a good idea for young riders attempting tricks or riding on dirt trails.

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