Getting kids biking can be immensely time consuming and frustrating. Sure, I could have just waited until they were older, but this investment has already led to some very rewarding experiences and, even better, more time with my kids. This article represents one way it can be done, reviewing some of the techniques and devices that made my wife’s and my life easier while trying to teach our young kids how to bike. We do not have any affiliation with any of the brands listed in this article. A quick primer for those who are just getting started, kids bikes are sized by wheel size. The smallest (that I know of) start at 12″ wheels, and 14″, 16″, and 20″ bikes are commonly seen sizes.
We have two kids, currently 5 and 4 years old. It all started for us when my son was just over 2 years old, seen here on his first bike. Balance bikes are the way to go, and these days can be found in many bike shops. I personally liked the Giant Pre, a 12″ bike with tubed rubber tires, an aluminum frame, and an adjustable stem and seat. The 2019 version comes with platforms for kids to place their feet on and can be upgraded with a drivetrain. Prices are around 130$.
Why strider bikes? They teach balance, well before kids need to worry about pedaling, braking, or shifting. Kids can safely push themselves around, and then slowly graduate to picking their feet up off the ground and coasting as they feel comfortable. This makes the transition to a pedal bike much much easier, and eliminates the need for training wheels. Also, I need to mention color. While we all like a shiny bike, this was a HUGE deal for my kids. Hence the custom painted pink Strider brand balance bike that my daughter got at age 2. The Strider brand is also good, and also has an adjustable stem height and seat height, but lacks pneumatic wheels. Prices are around 120$
At pretty much the same time, a friend gave us a WeeRide Co-Pilot trailer bike. This was great, and allowed us to take our kids biking on regular MTB trail. The trailer attaches to your bike’s seatpost, and allows them to get the feel for real biking. They could hold on securely at a surprisingly young age, and were biking with us on mountain bike trails at late age 2 / early age 3. The tires can be deflated to a few PSI and give a small amount of cushion for them. We did find that the mudflap or the tube that holds the handlebar on the trailer bike would rub the parent’s back tire in some certain circumstances such as going over a rather large bump (like a waterbar) or if the rear suspension bottomed out, but you can learn to avoid it. These bikes can be found for around 100$ on Amazon, and while there are much more expensive options, we found that these were more than sufficient for our needs and held together surprisingly well even over rough terrain.
For you fatbikers out there, they also work rather well in decently packed snow. I had some amazing experiences with my son in the snow, and he loved dressing up in his ski gear and going for a ride. If you already have ski stuff for them, just put them in their pants, jacket, gloves, helmet, and goggles and they are good to go. They are not going to generate much heat so make sure they are bundled!
Moving on, once our eldest hit age 4, we moved on to a 16″ bike with pedals, a freehub, and hand brakes. You may also consider a 14″ bike, there are several options out there for 14″ with freehubs and handbrakes. Personally, I’d skip the coaster brake, as we’ve seen both our kids and several other friend’s kids master handbrakes quickly. Also, skip the training wheels. It requires a little hands on up front, but most kids can quickly take balance bike skills and apply it to a real bike very quickly. We found that holding the back of the seat with one hand gave our kids a feeling of safety while requiring them to do most of the work, and you can quickly grab the handlebars if more control is needed.
My daughter on her 16″ Spawn Yoji. There are many options out there once you get to 16″ bikes. We personally decided to go with Spawn, after several friends recommended them. They are not the cheapest option out there, but I’d argue that they are the best kids specific mountain bikes around. They sport modern components, aggressive geometry, and real mountain bike tires. They are mail ordered from Canada, and come partially assembled. I have zero regrets about investing in these bikes.
Once you get your kid on a bike with handbrakes, if you have any lift access downhill with green trail, I’d recommend taking your kid once they are demonstrating good brake control and navigating basic rocks and roots. We have found that most young kids struggle with the uphill, and love the downhill. Make sure you go midweek and are somewhat familiar with the trails, as kids are often several times slower than normal traffic. Teach them to pull over on command to allow faster riders to pass. Fox makes a set of pads called the Peewee Titan that work great for protection, and several companies make full face helmets in kids sizes. We found the Peewee Titan worked well at age 4, and then moved up to the Titan Sport Youth Jacket for our 5 year old. If you pick appropriate trails, keep them on safe features, and avoid congested areas, they will have a great time downhilling.
No discussion of kids and mountain biking would be complete without talking about the emotional component. We’ve always felt like the burden is on us as the parents to make mountain biking fun. But sometimes, our kids have struggled. Wipeouts are always difficult, but amazingly, over time this has taught our kids to learn to brush themselves off and keep on trying. This is a lesson that has extended to their life beyond mountain biking. Sometimes, they just don’t want to bike, or give up midway. We’ve found that often, simply giving them something to drink, a snack, letting them rest, or offering a fun activity afterwards will often be enough motivation to keep them going. We have also found that encouraging them to realize that biking is a privilege, an experience not everyone gets to enjoy, and takes you to beautiful areas has made their appreciation of the sport grow significantly. On the other side of the coin, you get to see the positive emotions too: above was my five year old beaming after making it to the top of an overlook under his own power for the first time.
Moving up to 20″ bikes, which is my 5 year old’s current bike, we chose to go with a hardtail. We again went with a Spawn, this time the 20″ Yama Jama, which is essentially the same quality as a nice adult hardtail. It comes with hydraulic disc brakes, an air sprung front fork with 80mm of travel, a 1×10 SRAM drivetrain, tubeless ready 2.2″ wide tires, and internal routing for a dropper post. It’s pricey, but I do not regret the purchase one bit. It’s quality all over. We’ve found that with the jump from 16″ to 20″, he was immediately able to handle more terrain, is able to climb well, and descend even better. The hardtail even excels in black level downhill terrain. It has taken him some time to adjust to gears, but after 6 months of slowly practicing, he has now grasped the concepts well and regularly shifts on his own.
The most recent evolution in our equipment for kids has come from the TowWhee bungee. Available online for around 40$, the bungee goes from 56″ to 180″ long and allows you to pull your kid up steeper ascents rather than having to push them. It requires your child to have some braking skills and being able to start pedaling on their own. It’s great because it doesn’t really seem to add much towards the adult’s pedaling effort, but give the kid plenty of boost for harder uphill punches. Also you can learn to feel roughly how far behind you they are by how much resistance you are getting from the band.
We hope this inspires you to get your kids out and on a bike. We recognize there are many other kids bikes and devices out there, however we had decent success with these bikes and methods and hope that this is helpful out there for parents who are looking to get their young kids into the sport. Mainly, get them out there, and make it fun!
Great article! My daughter has a 20” Yama jama as well. She weighs 42 lb. What PSI would you recommend running the air fork and tires at? Thanks!
Hey! I used pretty low pressures, if I recall ~10-12PSI. Make sure you watch your child’s tires at that low PSI, and check every ride that it hasn’t gone down a few PSI. I didn’t have any trouble with flats but it’s a risk if you keep it low. The tradeoff is more contact area of the tire on the ground. If they are doing rocky terrain or getting in the air, you need to bump up the pressure a bit.
For the fork I don’t recall what the PSI was. I remember that when it was low enough to compress (well below the recommended PSI) it wouldn’t rebound very well. I kept it low until they gained more weight.
Hope this helps