How to Choose the Best Kids Bike

Written by Jared Eborn, on February 28, 2022

New bike day, as wonderful as it is for an adult, is even more glorious for a youngster as the bike represents freedom to roam the neighborhood and be somewhat independent in regards to transportation.

Looking for the right kids bike can be difficult. However the best indication of whether a child is on the right bike is whether or not they are comfortable on the bike. There are a number of other things to consider, from gearing to features and even suspension, but if a kid isn’t comfortable riding their new bike, they likely won’t ride it. Worse yet, they may not want to ride bikes into the future.

how to choose kids bike buyers guide out riding

Our guide will break down how to find the right size kids bike, what features to look for, and why we carry the kids bikes we do. See our helmet guide to see how to size a kids helmet.

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What Size Bike Does My Kid Need?

Here is a simple guide to use as a starting point to decide which size bike is best for your kid.

Bike Wheel

Child Height (in.)

Inseam (in.)

Approx. Age (yrs.)

12-inch

30-39

12-18 in.

2-4

16-inch

39-48

17-23 in.

5-8

20-inch

42-52

22-25 in.

6-10

24-inch

50-58

24-27 in

8-12

26-inch/27.5”

56+

27 in. +

10+


Unlike bicycles for adults, kids bikes aren’t really sized by frame length. Rather they are sized by wheel size. This makes it a bit easier to decide what size bike to look for as a kid grows. Once your kid is above about 4’10” or 58” a full-size adult bike is definitively the direction to take.

how to buy a kids bike buyers guide three side by side

Once you have an idea of what size of bike to look for, there are a few other things to consider when deciding if the bike is right.

  • Standover height: inseam length plays a role in figuring out what size bike a kid should ride specifically for standover height, or the distance between the top tube of the bike and the ground. The child should be able to stand on top of the toptube of the bike with their feet flat on the ground and without the bike needing to be leaned over. 
  • Reach: This one is obvious. Being able to reach the handlebars makes a ton of sense, of course. A kid riding comfortably will have a slight bend to their elbows. More importantly though, a kid should be able to reach the brake levers and use them effectively. Hand brakes tend to become a thing with 20” wheel bikes and up. Many of them are adjustable for reach to bring them closer to the handlebars. Make sure that those brakes aren’t only easy to reach but easy to control too.
  • Growing into the bike: We naturally want to maximize a bike so that a kid can ride it as long as possible before outgrowing it. That often means riding a bike that is initially too big. Not the end of the world, but having a bike that is too big could mean that either standover height is too high or the brakes are hard to reach. 

Choosing the Right Bike

Kids are small. They don’t have the same power teenagers or small adults have. That means a heavy big box store bike is going to feel clunky and difficult to manage. Admit it, you’ve seen plenty of kids walking their bikes up the tiny hill on their way to school. At Contender Bicycles, we want kids to enjoy riding bikes and that is much more likely to happen when the bike is light enough to ride while maintaining quality and simplicity.

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Kids ages 2 to 4 are likely just learning how to ride a bike and they’ll likely be most comfortable on a 12 inch bike. There are basically two options for bikes with 12 inch wheels: a balance bike and a pedal bike. 

Balance bikes like a Strider or others do not come come with pedals, brakes, or a chain. Rather it is up to the kid to scoot along and slow down with their feet. These bikes are typically lighter and easier to handle, making it easier to learn to balance, steer, and control speed. 12 inch pedal bikes add removable training wheels and a rear coaster brake that slows the bike down as they pedal backward. Training wheels are a great way to get a kid excited about riding bikes but a balance bike will help them learn the fundamentals of bike riding a bit more easily.

Tricycles are also a popular option here. However, unlike a bicycle, trikes are hard to maneuver as kids go faster and do not make it easier for kids to ride bikes in the future. We do not typically stock any kids trikes. 

16 inch bikes are great for kids ages 4 to 8. They are generally pedal-only, come with removable training wheels, and typically only come with one gear. If there is a brake it is to control the rear wheel, which is usually redundant to the pedal-operated coaster brake it will come with.

how to choose kids bike - cannondale cujo 24 green

Then there are the 20 and 24 inch bikes, which start to look more and more like adult bikes. There are tons of things to choose from here, from a range of gears, the addition of suspension, tire choice, and even disc brakes! However, we typically only carry one specific kind of kids bike which we’ve come to after lots of first-hand experience and feedback from parents.

How to Choose a Kid's Bike: Our Philosophy

To keep this philosophy rolling, most of our kids bikes look like the BMC Twostroke AL, or the Cannondale Cujo. These bikes eschew lots of gears and a suspension fork for a wider tire, disc brakes, and a whole lot of smiles. We believe that these bikes are the best bikes for kids, regardless of cost.

Here’s the thing: taking out a suspension fork and adding wider tires makes more sense for lightweight kids. This makes for a lighter bicycle with fewer bike parts waiting to break down. And let’s face it, kids know how to break a bike. Instead of suspension, the bikes we sell typically feature wider tires that have more grip for cornering and braking, are easier to maneuver, and provide a decent amount of trail forgiveness with the beefy tires.

And, if we’re being honest, most suspension forks you’ll find on kids bikes aren’t exactly high quality. In most cases, the low-quality forks and lower body weight of young riders means a kids bike with a suspension system will hardly make a difference in how controllable a bike is, much less how comfortable it is. In short, those bikes become heavier than they need to be.

Another thing we look for at Contender Bicycles is components that fit young riders. Brake levers need to fit shorter fingers. Shifting gears can’t require massive hand strength and dexterity. Like we said, keep it simple and a cyclist or any age is more likely to enjoy the ride and look forward to the next one. Our bikes typically have only one chainring up front because they’re more durable and there’s one less thing to adjust or fix.

kids bike buyers guide how to buy - cannondale scott bmc

Conclusion

Finding the right bike for a kid is a great way to introduce them to a new sport full of endless adventure and opportunities. Whether your child is just able to start walking and ready to balance on their first bike or they are looking to explore the trails or their local neighborhood, our tips for how to buy the right kids bike will get you started.

It can be daunting to find the right kids bike, which is where we come in. Contender Bicycles has an array of kids bikes curated to fit exactly how a kid will use their bike without breaking the bank. Come find us!

SHOP KIDS BIKES IN STOCK

Words by Jared Eborn and Alvin Holbrook. Images by Ezra Jefferies and Alison Littlefield.


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