Bicycle buying guide: How to choose the right one for your child

( Trek/ ) - Trek Mountain Track 200 has seven speeds, hand brakes and knobby tires.

( Trek/ ) - Trek Mountain Track 200 has seven speeds, hand brakes and knobby tires.

Bikes were once a Christmas-morning staple, but in recent years more parents have been buying them for their children in the warmer months, said Jim Strang, owner of Spokes Etc., a bicycle store with five locations in Northern Virginia.

It makes sense. Nothing says summer vacation like coasting down a hill on a bike, chasing butterflies on the way to a friend’s house. Or taking off to find the pot of gold at the end of a post-storm rainbow, racing to get there before the colors fade. For a kid, a bike means freedom.

But choosing a bike can be overwhelming for parents. What size? Knobby or street tires? Hand or coaster brakes? An inexpensive bike from a big-box merchant, or a more expensive model from a specialty store?

Here are some suggestions from experts on bicycles and safety, to simplify the process and get your child riding this summer.

Maintenance and operating tips

Check the tires weekly. Flat tires caused by under-inflation are the leading problem with bikes, according to Strang. Check the pressure weekly to make sure the air matches the pressure rating on the side of the tire. It’s a good idea to have your own tire gauge and pump so you can check the tires at home.

Take your bike for a check-up. When you pull the bike out of storage in the spring, consider having a professional check all of the parts and oil the chain, Strang said. Most bike stores will inflate the tires and check your bike for free, he said, and that can determine if you need to pay for a more in-depth tune-up.

Choosing and using a helmet

Know the law. Children 15 and under are required by law to use a helmet in the District and Maryland. There is no statewide law governing helmet use on bicycles in Virginia, but several counties and cities in Northern Virginia require them for children 14 and younger, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation. Safe Kids Worldwide recommends that children use helmets because studies have shown that they can reduce severe brain injury by up to 88 percent.

Fit matters. Helmets should be level on top of a child’s head and shouldn’t move forward, backward, or side to side, according to Safe Kids. Straps should always be buckled, but not too tight. The rim should be one to two finger-widths above the eyebrows, and the straps should form a “V” under your child’s ears when buckled. If your child’s mouth is open wide, she should feel like the helmet is hugging her head.

More expensive doesn’t mean safer. Children’s helmets at Spokes Etc. range from $34.99 to $70, Strang said. All helmets sold in the United States meet standards set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. More expensive models are often lighter and have better ventilation, he said.

Low, Medium, High

We asked Strang of Spokes Etc. to recommend three bikes at different price points. Here are his suggestions in the 24-inch size, which would fit a child from age 7 to about 11, Strang said. Prices are for an assembled bicycle.

Trek Mountain Track 200. This seven-speed bike with a steel frame and aluminum wheels has hand brakes and knobby tires for handling rough terrain. The bike comes in pink or black, $309.99.

Trek Mountain Track 220. A 21-speed bike that has an aluminum frame and wheels. The 220 also has hand brakes and knobby tires. The bike comes in purple, orange, black and blue, $389.99.

Trek Mountain Track 240. This 24-speed bike has a lightweight aluminum frame and wheels, hand brake and knobby tires for off-road riding. The bike comes in blue or white, $439.99.

Shop Smart

1 Think about where your child will be riding. It can be tough to choose between a bike with gears and hand brakes and one with just one speed and coaster brakes. Some bikes are equipped with both. Strang said parents are often concerned that if a child stops suddenly with hand brakes, he will flip over the handle bars. Kids learn quickly, though, and Strang said parents shouldn’t be afraid of hand brakes. “If the goal is to ride on a bike path with the family, with a little practice, gears are going to be helpful,” he said. “But if it’s just for riding around the neighborhood, the better option might be to not get gears, because it makes [riding] simpler.” The same goes for style of tires. If your child will be on hiking trails or other dirt paths, a knobby tire will give better traction. But if it’s mostly neighborhood riding, the standard street tire is fine, Strang said.

2 Find the right fit. Choose the bike based on your child’s size, not age. To check the fit, have her get on the bike. Her knee should be extended about 75 percent of the way when her foot is at the bottom of the pedal stroke, Strang said. “Typically when you have that, the child can’t put their feet on the ground,” he added. If your child is skittish, you can lower the seat until she becomes more comfortable and then gradually raise it to give her the proper pedal stroke.

3 Go lightweight. Whether shopping at a specialty store or a big-box merchant, get the lightest bike you can afford, Strang said. Avoid bikes with dual suspension, which can make them heavier. Inexpensive bikes that are not well made can make riding more difficult and less enjoyable, and turn young riders off from the sport, Strang said. A high-quality used bike is a good alternative if cost is a concern.

4 Consider bypassing the training wheels. Bikes with training wheels teach children to pedal first, then how to balance. But balance bikes, which have become popular in the last three to five years, teach children to balance first and eliminate the reliance on training wheels. A balance bike has no pedals, so children push their feet on the ground to make the bike go, then use a footrest when coasting. Once a child has the balancing down, he can graduate to a bike with pedals. A balance bike at Spokes Etc. costs about $170.

45

percent of children always wear a helmet.

3

out of four children in the United States ride a bike each month.

112

children age 19 and under were killed while riding a bike in 2010, a 56 percent decrease from 1999.

Safe Kids Worldwide

 
Read what others are saying