Bikes for New, Young Cyclists
It is common to see youngsters on two-wheeled bikes with training wheels as their first step (pedal?) towards learning to ride a bicycle. However, in fact, training wheels can slow the development of their cycling skills because the most difficult thing to learn is balance and for that reason, after a trike (or perhaps instead of one, depending on the child’s age), I believe that their first bike should be a balance bike.
A balance bike forces the young cyclist to develop their balance because there are no training wheels to catch them should they lose their balance. However, because these bikes don’t have pedals, their feet are already on or near the ground so the rider can easily catch themselves before they fall over. After a while, these young cyclists will be zooming along as fast as their feet can push them with no balance problems whatsoever.
Of the cons against balance bikes, all of these ones listed deal with minor issues (in my opinion) outside of their benefit for the development of balance in new cyclists. In my city, the Sudbury Cyclists Union works with other grass-roots organizations to run bike exchanges so that youngsters, who have outgrown their bikes, may trade them in for a better fitting bikes and although I don’t recall seeing any balance bikes, I’m sure that there have been some in bike exchange events beforehand and since my single visit.
Once a child has developed their balance and perhaps physically outgrown their balance bike, I would recommend that training wheels not be installed on their next bike as a dependence on them could reverse the progress the child has made with their balance. Also, their next bike should not be too large; they should be able to sit on their seat and reach the ground with their feet at the same time. As the child grows, the seat may be raised as long as they can always reach the ground from a seated position.
As the child (or youth) develops their bike handling skills and confidence in cycling, they will not need to reach the ground from a seated position. At that point, whether it be by increasing the seat height or purchasing a larger bike, the measurement from the top of the seat to the top of the pedal (in the bottom position) should be 80–90% of the leg length (crotch to floor while wearing their shoes).
This seat-to-pedal distance creates a more efficient pedal stroke because the greatest power from leg muscles is achieved from the longer half of the extension of the leg: a low seat height will force the knee up close to the chest when the pedal is at its top position which is in the weakest range of the leg’s power and, most certainly in adults, pushing hard with a bent knee can cause issues with the cartilage that wraps over the top of the knee. Without realizing that they are avoiding knee problems but, at the same time, realizing that the seated pedaling position is awkward or even uncomfortable, BMX riders tend to stand to pedal (but sit to coast) because BMX bikes are built small for tricks (pedal, pedal, pedal, do trick, repeat), not really for continuous cycling.
Another consideration, when moving up a bike size is to do it incrementally because big jumps in size can lead to other problems. It might be possible to adjust the seat height of many sizes of bikes so that the seat-to-pedal measurement is within the 80–90% leg length measurement. However, if the bike is too large, the young cyclists’ body position will be stretched out too far to reach the handlebars potentially causing back, neck, shoulder, elbow and wrist problems. The reverse also is true: a bike that is too small forces the hands too close to the body and may cause the cyclist to hunch while cycling and may risk the cyclists’ knees getting hit by the handlebars or worse, prevent the handlebars from turning sufficiently at a critical moment. Additionally, a bike that is too large may have a stand-over height (the measurement from the horizontal top tube to the ground) too high for the cyclist to be able to stand over it comfortably and possibly very uncomfortably landing on it if the cyclist came to a sudden stop, slid forward off the seat and landed on the top tube.
Bike exchanges are run by people who know how to properly size a bike and can find a bike that is the proper size for the child and, given that these bikes are at little to no cost to the new owner or parents, it doesn’t matter if the bike only fits for a year, just trade it in next year for a larger sized bike and allow a younger, smaller cyclist to use your old one.
Our local bike exchange also helps provide new young cyclists with helmets (required by law in Ontario for individuals under the age of 18), help them adjust the helmet straps for proper fit and, where none are available, with the assistance from the Brain Injury Association, a coupon is provided for a discount on the purchase of a new helmet from one of many participating stores.
Bikes for New, Not-So-Young Cyclists
Once a person has reached their late-teens or early 20s, they would be considered adult size and likely, would not be expected to grow any taller (or, at least, not significantly taller) for the rest of their life and not shrink for at least 30 years. Therefore, it is important that adults get bikes that are properly sized for them, both for the same reasons as children should have properly sized bikes, and also, because, unless the adult’s needs change, their bike could be with them for 10–20 or more years. For example, although I’ve only had my racing bike for slightly less than 2 years, I bought it 13-years-old used. Furthermore, the 3 previous owners were racers and had put lots of kilometers on the bike before I bought it. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense for an adult to spend the time and effort to get a bike that has been properly sized for them (I’m not talking about spending more money, just more time and effort) so that they can get years of enjoyment from them, not pain and frustration from a poorly fit bicycle that they end up trading in for another or worse, not replacing it at all and never riding again.
Most adults, with the possible exception of my future daughter-in-law who is 147cm/4’10” in height, can find an adult-sized bike to fit them, anywhere from small to extra-large. In her case, some bike manufacturers make extra-small sizes of some of their bikes and other manufacturer make youth sizes. Some bikes are sized in centimeters or inches which used to be the way all bikes were measured/sized because the top tube, from the handlebar (head tube) to the seat tube, was horizontal: these days, it is almost uncommon to find a bike with a horizontal top tube, most are sloped, certainly on mountain bikes but even on road bikes. However, if a bike is described as having sizes from 15″, 17″ 19″ and 21″, you wouldn’t be wrong to assume that those are measurements for small to extra-large versions of the bike.
As stated above, with regard to youth’s bikes, bike fit is not just about seat height but also about the length of the bike and how upright or leaned forward the cyclist is expected to be to ride the bike. No matter what body position is expected by the design of the bike, you can still buy a bike too large and makes you reach too far. When an adult is getting a bike, they should decide what they intend to do with it—pavement or trails, long distance or short—and that determines some basic characteristics about the bike. Then the adult should try the bike under the supervision of someone who understands how to properly fit the bike to them. Some aspects of bike fitting cost nothing such as raising or lowering the seat height, sliding the seat forward or back, changing the handlebar height or rotating the handlebars so the bend is up or down more. Additional items may need to be purchased to achieve a proper fit: a different saddle (women’s vs men’s, also sit bone width are different for everyone), a different handlebar (wider or narrower or more or less bend), a different handlebar stem (longer or shorter or angled up more or less) and maybe other items need to be considered. At some point, you might decide that it is cheaper to look at a completely different bike style, a different manufacturer or a different bike store to acquire a bike that is properly fit for you. Most reputable bike stores that are willing to put in the effort to find and fit a bike to you are going to have some form of guarantee for your happiness: after a couple of weeks, are you still happy with the bike? do we need to make further refinements to its fit?
My wife thought she had the right bike but in the end, the body position was too far forward for her and she was suffering from wrist, neck and shoulder pains and wasn’t enjoying cycling at all. However, with the purchase of a different handlebar that moved her hands up and closer to her, she’s very happy again: the rest of the bike was great, just the handlebar needed changing.
Getting a properly fit bike makes a huge amount of difference in the enjoyment you’ll get from your bike. Not to discount the value of a properly fitting bike for a youngster, it is very important, perhaps more so, that an adult gets a bike that has been properly fit for them because it could be their bike for decades.