Push-along bikes make learning to ride easier
Prices range from about £25 for basic balance bikes to £350 for convertibles that grow into pedal bikes
Key features: adjustable saddle height, comfortable saddle and grips, brakes on models for older kids
Models with footrests let kids learn to coast
In the last decade or so, balance bikes have revolutionised the way kids learn to ride. Steerable toy bikes with no pedals, the design of balance bikes harks back to the original boneshakers of the early 19th century; it makes sense for kids to learn to ride the way the first adult cyclists did, pushing a bike along the floor in the era before pedals. By allowing a child to learn to balance and steer a bike without the complication of pedalling, balance bikes make a child's first experiences with bikes simple and fun.
Want to jump straight to our recommended balance bikes? They're here:
Balance bikes are available at a wide range of prices. Some basic models — usually for the very youngest kids — don't have brakes but these days most have a rear wheel brake so junior's trainers don't get worn out stopping.
Balance bikes don't have many features but the important thing to look for is adjustable saddle height. You've got to be able to adjust the position as your youngster grows, until he or she is ready to move on to a bike with pedals. Most balance bikes have adjustable seats, but there are one or two where the designer hasn't quite thought things through. Manufacturers usually give the range of saddle height adjustment so you can get the right bike for your child.
A correctly fitted balance bike allows the child to stand with his or her feet flat on the floor, and the youngster has to be able to get on and off easily. That means the saddle height should be a couple of centimetres less than the kid's inside leg measurement.
Beyond that, there's the usual price/quality trade-off you see with adult bikes. More expensive balance bikes are lighter, with aluminium frames instead of steel, and have better bearings in the hubs and headset. That probably won't make much difference over the year or two your child will have the bike, but helps keep up the resale value, and improves longevity if you're planning to pass it down to kids #2 and #3.
Balance bikes aren't the only way kids can learn two-wheeled balance. We've spoken to parents whose kids have gone straight from scooting to pedalling because their time on micro-scooters has equipped them with the right reflexes. Some kids just prefer scooters, and it's better to indulge any interest in being active than to try and indoctrinate them into cycling by forcing them to watch A Sunday In Hell over and over. If your kids love all sorts of wheeled toys there's no reason they can't have both, aside from your bank balance.
For very young toddlers who need a bit of help starting out, this balance bike from Micro Scooters can have a pair of skateboard-style wheels at the back or a single bike wheel. It's claimed to weigh just 2.45kg (5.4 lb) and with adjustable handlebars it's suitable for children from two years old.
This option from Halfords is recommended for tots aged 2 to 4. The Indi has a sturdy steel frame to withstand bumps and 10" wheels with solid tyres. The saddle height has a minimum of 35cm and max of 42cm, with 19mm handlebars that are perfect for diddy hands. The lack of a brake means it's for flat terrain only and there's no footrest for coasting, but it's very keenly priced.
German outfit Puky's range of balance bikes starts from as little as £59.99 with their LRM balance bike and they offer a whole range including models with pneumatic tyres, kickstands and brakes. All of them are light and extremely durable - they really are built to last with a tough powder coat finish, but that functionality isn't at the expense of fun.
The kids we know who've had them have really enjoyed using them and we'd go so far as to say they're a bit of a classic. Certainly if you want to give your child a fun start to a life of cycling £60 spent on the LRM is likely to be prove a very sound investment.
Puky's website has a very useful guide to help you choose the right balance bike for your sprog. Like most other kids' bikes it really comes down to size.
Another bike shop own brand, this time from Evans Cycles. The Napier is styled to look like the BMX bikes that multiple Olympic medallist Chris Hoy started his career on. It has a lightweight aluminium frame and 12-inch wheels.
Another great little balance bike. We love the simple lines of this balance bike from the Ridgeback range. The frame is 6061 aluminium which keeps the weight down and there's a proper sealed-bearing headset, unlike the bushings you find in very cheap balance bikes.
There's a V-brake at the back to slow things down and the cable is even routed internally. Who doesn't appreciate clean lines on their bike?
For very young kids there's a version with 12-inch wheels too, currently £80.
At a claimed weight of just 3.5kg, the Rothan is a featherweight even among balance bikes. It's not cheap, but you're getting Islabikes' renowned attention to detail, with thoughtful touches like the micro reach aluminium brake lever that gives light action braking for tiny hands; small diameter handlebars; and dedicated low slung 'scoop' saddle.
The minimum inside leg is 30cm, so it should fit riders from about two years old.
The LittleBig bike is a brilliant concept that will see your child travel from the early stages of balance through to learning how to pedal and beyond. It's light, well made and above all so exciting to ride that you'll struggle to get them off it.
A LittleBig starts life as a very small balance bike. As Junior grows you can flip the rear half of the frame and turn it into a larger balance bike, and then, when your kid is ready to fly solo, you attach the pedals and chain and it's a small pedal bike.
A lot of kids bikes use heavy steel frames which makes them cumbersome to control.The LittleBig's main frame is made in two sections of 6061 grade aluminium which, when fully built up with the steel fork, wheels and other bits and bobs, weighs in at just 5.8kg (12.78lb).
This means that even a little kid can confidently get out of the saddle to ride on a hill or lean it over in the bends without the bike becoming difficult for them to hold in position. It's massively confidence inspiring and saw tester Charlie become an impressive bike handler in a matter of weeks.
The Black Mountain Pinto starts life as a balance bike and when your youngster is ready to pedal can be converted into a pedal bike by adding the included cranks, pedals and drive belt. As the child grows it can be further adapted to become a larger bike with a higher gear, so your initial investment sees junior through the first couple or three years of their cycling life.
Spending a lot of money on a kid's bike is always a daunting prospect especially with the speed at which they can grow but the Black Mountain Pinto will see your child through the earliest stages of balancing to the heady heights of pedalling. It's a well-built package with some clever design ideas that'll give plenty of confidence to those who are about to start their cycling journey.
In particular, the Pinto has a shallow head angle for very stable handling, and we found that really helped tester Isla to graduate from balance biking to pedalling.
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Acknowledged by the Telegraph as a leading cycling journalist, John Stevenson has been writing about bikes and cycling for over 30 years since discovering that people were mug enough to pay him for it rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work.
He was heavily involved in the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s as a racer, team manager and race promoter, and that led to writing for Mountain Biking UK magazine shortly after its inception. He got the gig by phoning up the editor and telling him the magazine was rubbish and he could do better. Rather than telling him to get lost, MBUK editor Tym Manley called John’s bluff and the rest is history.
Since then he has worked on MTB Pro magazine and was editor of Maximum Mountain Bike and Australian Mountain Bike magazines, before switching to the web in 2000 to work for CyclingNews.com. Along with road.cc editor Tony Farelly, John was on the launch team for BikeRadar.com and subsequently became editor in chief of Future Publishing’s group of cycling magazines and websites, including Cycling Plus, MBUK, What Mountain Bike and Procycling.
John has also written for Cyclist magazine, edited the BikeMagic website and was founding editor of TotalWomensCycling.com before handing over to someone far more representative of the site's main audience.
He joined road.cc in 2013 and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.