Over the last two decades balance bikes made an appearance on the markets in Europe and slowly took over the global market. Based on many customers’ comments, balance bikes are still an unknown territory for many parents in Australia.
We get asked often why the bikes have no pedals and what the purpose of a no-pedal bike is. Often we also need to advise that training wheels on balance bikes are not a necessity at all, as the legs are the stabilisers.
I spotted the first balance bike in London about ten years ago and I could not believe what I saw. A tiny two year old boy was flying through Marylebone on the footpath and he had both his legs in the air, scooting at a high speed in front of his mother. This child was in full control and had so much fun, and from that moment I was committed to get my future children onto a balance bike as well. Little did I know that I will actually have a business and import and distribute them in Australia :-).
Since this moment in London I have witnessed children in our network and my own as well on balance bikes and with no exception, I have been convinced of its benefits.
In this particular post I want to go into detail about the visible and obvious benefits that all consumers can observe and experience. In a future post I would also like to elaborate on the “hidden” not so obvious benefits, especially from a health perspective.
First and foremost, as its name suggest, the children learn to balance on a balance bike. The most common question we get asked, where the pedals would be as many perceive pedalling the most challenging part of cycling. Pedalling is the easy part out of all skills required to cycle. The biggest challenge is balance.
As the children stand on the ground with both their feet, they feel a sense of safety. They intuitively start walking when sitting on the balance bike and start leaning in when they want to change direction. When seeing children on a balance bike the first time it is hard to believe that they will learn to balance by themselves in a very short time. But as they keep going back on and develop more confidence and familiarity with the bike, they also start walking faster, running and eventually scooting. They do this at their own pace, just like they learn standing, walking and running and they do not need our help. Once they reach the scooting phase they automatically balance and master stirring the bike. At this stage they might be ready to transition to a traditional pedal bike, without training wheels.
The other advantage of learning to balance first as opposed to pedalling is that children also learn to deal with unexpected loss of balance. With both feet close to the ground their reflexes kick in immediately to correct the imbalance and they are less likely to fall or injure themselves in a challenging situation.
Most children who start riding on a balance bike also transition to a traditional pedal bike at a much younger age than those who start to ride with training wheels (in general 3-4 years versus 5-6 years, respectively). As balance and stirring skills have been fully developed, they only need to familiarise themselves with pedalling. My son moved onto a 16” pedal bike shortly after his third birthday. He initially had to get his head around pedalling, which took him about 45 minutes to an hour. As soon as he mastered the pedals he was off and rode the bike by himself with no stabilisers. His friend who transitioned a year later, at the age of 4, mastered his 18” bike within ten minutes (note, a balance bike has 12″ wheels). I have also met children on our trial tracks, who started riding immediately and surprised their astound parents who wanted to get them bikes with training wheels.
A more economical and ecological advantage of a balance bike is that it replaces a trike and a 12” pedal bike. As some balance bikes (see here) are suitable from about 18months or a height of 80cm, children can start to ride as soon as they are steady on their feet. With an adjustable seat, the balance bike can be used up until 4 years, the age when most children easily can fit a 16” pedal bike.
I also find that the balance bike is still a solid companion in our everyday life. Both my children use them every day and ride them everywhere. Even though my son can ride 24” bikes, he regularly sits on his balance bike as it gives him a different type of freedom and mobility than a traditional bike. He can jump and ride up and down on obstacles, it is easy to carry, because it’s light and he can master challenges where his legs would fail him with the other bikes at this stage. When we ride distances, he definitely rides our 20” troX elite or 20” raX flat, but on an everyday outing in our neighbourhood or to the skate park, I find him always choosing the balance bike, even though his knees are nearly touching the ground. We certainly got our money’s worth, but most importantly, he has a lot of fun and that is probably the most important benefit of all! Life is too short to not have fun and if you look through the images at the Melrose Fat Tyre Festival below from this year, the big kids could not agree more
Before wrapping up, I would like to add my personal reasons as to why I as a parent love the idea of a balance bike. Personally, I never liked having a pram. They are big, heavy and bulky and too much hassle to manoeuvre and store. As soon as my daughter mastered her balance bike, I could retire the pram. I could feel free and more mobile again and my daughter loved her independence and always got a good workout in the great outdoors. I call that a win-win
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The latest trending development in the bike industry is the rapid emergence of fat bikes. Throughout our journey of marketing and showing our kids’ bike range, many people have not been sure what a bike with 4 inch fat tyres would be good for. Surprisingly, even hard-core riders in the mountain bike community have been questioning both its purpose and existence.
Surely, the same scepticism was present in the late 70s and early 80s when the first mountain bikes appeared in the cycling community. The scepticism did not last long though, as riders soon realised that riding a mountain bike with wider tyres, lighter frames and technical components opened doors to great new riding experiences away from the traditional paved road. This emergence allowed for more and more areas to be explored, such as gravelled and rocky roads, tracks in forest and fields. But mountain bikes also have their limits. As soon as the bikes approach softer surfaces and untouched terrain, carrying or walking with them is inevitable.
Two different parties in Alaska and New Mexico were facing this problem as well when they attempted to ride through softer terrain during the late 80s.
The first Iditabike Event in Alaska in 1987 put riders to their limits when they had to cross a 200km snow covered area. While riding on harder surfaces during colder times of the day was possible, it became challenging as soon as the sun thawed the snow into a slushy mass. Many riders ended up walking long distances with their bikes to reach the finish line. In the following years, the riders adjusted their bikes to the difficult conditions to reduce walking/carrying to a minimum. Some built custom forks and frames adding two or three tyres next to each other at the front and the rear of the bike in order to give them more grip.At around the same time Ray Molina faced similar challenges in New Mexico and Mexico when exploring new sandy terrain in the area. In order to enable riding in the sand without sinking in or getting stuck, he build a 3.5” tyre and rim and adjusted the frame to fit the tyre which eased the ride over the sand dunes significantly.
As a result of his successes in navigating sandy terrain by bike, Ray Molina exhibited his Remolino rim at the Interbike show in 1999. Impressed with the idea, Mark Groneweld from Alaska took these with him to build a bike that made riding through tough snowy conditions possible. The result was the first fat bike which enabled riders a smoother ride at the Iditabike event with less walking.
As with many new products, access to these fat bikes were initially very difficult. Most of the bikes were custom made and very expensive. Consequently, only hard-core riders embraced them.
In 2005, Surly Pugsley made the change by building a more affordable model and distributing them in high-end bike shops all over the US. Through the easier access to these bikes and its success many other big bike companies joined in over the years and extended their bike range with fat bikes.
Today, nearly every major bike brand stocks fat bikes in their range, enabling the everyday rider to have access to some cheaper models as well. Since 2014, many brands have also added fat bikes to their kids’ bike range after On-One (UK) and S’COOL (Germany) took the lead in building the first 24” and 20” kids’ fat bikes, respectively. The cycling community was so impressed with this development that S’COOL received a Eurobike Award in the Mountain Bike Category for the first production 20” fat bike in the world.
Children now also have the opportunity to ride on more challenging and softer terrain as well.
Seven or eight years ago, when I lived in London, I became first aware of balance bikes. I spotted one in Marylebone on New Cavendish Street. A little boy was riding it and he was so fast and so confident, I could not believe my eyes. What fascinated me the most, was that he was not older than two and he could balance and steer a bike without training wheels. I had to stop and watch. What I saw there was not only such a simple concept, but also such an effective one. This bike had no pedals, instead this kid used his feet to run. This put the bike into motion and off he went.
Soon these bikes also appeared in our network. Friends who had kids bought them and the same phenomenon happened. But most importantly, what I saw again, the kids had so much fun. They embraced their independence, they felt free and they loved it so much, it was impossible to leave somewhere without the balance bike.
A year ago we got my son a balance bike for his second birthday. I have never regretted the purchase and cannot recommend it enough. It took no longer than a week for him to figure out the concept by himself. Once he felt safe, he became more courageous and daring and this helped him improve even more. This was also motivating for him to keep on going. Wherever we went, shopping, playground, park, bushwalking, etc., the bike had to be with us.
On his third birthday we got him a 16 inch push bike. It took about an hour for him to figure out the pedalling and then he rode it. No training wheels and no broken backs.
I cannot recommend a balance bike enough based on this experience and having seen kids in our network doing the same, it just proves they are effective learning tools. Honestly, when we were kids, I didn’t know a three year old who could ride a normal push bike without training wheels. I was six when my Dad moved the training wheels higher so I would not fall in case the bike tipped. And most of my friends were the same age. And it took ages until they were off. Now I know plenty of kids who started on a balance bike and then moved onto a normal bike with ease at the age of three. Those who skipped the balance bike are still on trainers. I think that just shows that it’s worth getting one.
Despite of my son having moved on to a push-bike, the balance bike is not dusting in a corner. My husband loves skateboarding and they go to skate parks together where he works on his BMX and mountain biking skills 😉 Recently, I took him to bushlands where he explored the off-road tracks. He had so much fun, it was impossible to get him and the bike into the car. Based on that, I can positively say, the balance bike has not retired yet. He might have to share it soon, though as our 17 month-old daughter is ready to hit challenging terrain as well.