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Bikes for Tykes

What you need to know before buying a child-size bike.

By Dan Oko

When it comes to children's bikes, even serious cyclists with quads the size of oak trees can find themselves in unfamiliar territory. And for parents with no notion of ever riding in the next Tour de Anything, the whole notion of buying a bike for little Bobby or Betty Sue can provoke paroxysms of doubt. But there are plenty of good reasons to start your kids pedaling as soon as they show an interest in cycling: Riding a bike is flat out fun, a healthful mode of transportation and a wonderful way to explore the outdoors.

So, if you are a consumer about to enter this thicket – with a young one's birthday or holiday cheer on the line – the best thing to do is look to the experts. For most of us that means taking a trip to the nearest professional bike shop, where the salespeople can help with proper sizing, and the bikes have been manufactured according to higher standards. Plus most pros offer free maintenance and are happy to offer ongoing advice, which can be hard to come by in the so-called big box stores. Since 1983, Buck's Bikes in Austin has been outfitting cyclists, selling about 4,000 bikes a year with as many as 40 percent going to the short set, making owner Pete Buck something of an expert in these matters.

The best bet for finding the right size bike – and a paint job your child will prefer – is to shop together. "We really like to see the child," Buck says, noting that many parents tend to be a little haphazard when it comes to bike sizes – either buying bikes too large for their tykes, or choosing bikes that are too small or likely to be outgrown within just a few months. As opposed to adult bikes, which are measured by frame size, children's bikes are measured according to wheel diameter, which starts at 10 or 12 inches, increasing in four-inch increments, until they reach 24 inches on BMX-style dirt bikes. After that, wheels come in diameters of 26 or 29 inches (700 cm), and you're looking at full, adult-size frames. Smaller kids' bikes cost less than $150. If you hope to make the bike a surprise gift, you'll need to measure the length of the child's inseam, Buck says. Any first-time rider should be able to rest the balls of both feet on the ground while seated on the bike.

Keep in mind that bikes are more than toys. They are complex machines. As they go up in size (and price) the mechanics get more complicated, raising safety concerns. For more than two decades, Dave Mozer has led the International Bicycle Fund, an advocacy group in Seattle. Mozer has a 12-year-old daughter and says the safest brakes for pre-teens to learn how to use are "coaster" brakes, which are integrated into the rear wheel and require a back-pedal motion for stopping. Not every beginning cyclist is going to be a toddler, of course. Knowing the development level of the rider, he adds, and where the bike will primarily be ridden – whether around the neighborhood, for instance, or on longer family outings, such as a trip to the 64-mile rail-to-trail path at Caprock Canyons State Park – can help determine whether to spend more money on suspension and gears.

"There's a ton of physics to be learned," adds Mozer. It takes practice not only to balance on a bike, but also to learn braking and handling skills on steep hills. "It's important to remember that the level of supervision must be correlated to the child's age," he says.

With safety in mind, Pete Buck also suggests that anybody who buys a bike, whether young, old or in between, also purchase a helmet, a pair of gloves and a water bottle or hydration pack. "Dehydration can be a real problem," he says, "especially in Texas."

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