2013 Kids Bike Buyers GuidePosted by Steve the Bike Guy on Mar 29, 2013 in Bikes, Buying, News & Advice, Uncategorized | 27 comments
My Kids Bike Buyers Guide has been updated for 2013!
I will likely be making small updates and changes to this page throughout the Spring.
This 2013 kids bike buyers guide focuses on geared kids bikes with 20” and 24” wheels which generally fit kids between 6-9 and 9-12 years old respectively. Many of my general recommendations also apply to the smaller bikes. This guide provides information on what to look for in a kids bike and I’ve assembled a model comparison chart that will help you pick the bikes that meet your needs and criteria. If you’re confused on the sizing, kids bikes are sized by the wheels and come with a single sized frame. Meanwhile adult bikes use a set wheel diameter based on the style bike and size the frame around it. To make it even more confusing adult mountain bike frames are sized in inches and road bikes in centimeters. One thing to keep in mind with an older, taller, and fast growing older child is that he/she may be a candidate for a small “adult” bike. This usually means a 14-16″ frame in mountain bikes and 45-48cm frames in road bikes. For instance a 10 year old who is already 5′ tall should look at the small adult bikes which surprisingly cost only a little more than many 24″ bikes. At the other end, some kids bikes may be appropriate for shorter adults usually usually under 5′ tall.
The specific components on the listed kids bikes will all work about the same, so for instance don’t worry about if brand of the rear derailleur is Shimano or SRAM or even between their levels. However, there are types of parts to look for that I describe below. My guide is intended to really help the buyer decide which bike is best for their children and family.
I have listed the MSRP in the comparison chart. Keep in mind some bike shops sell directly at MSRP because they will sell out at that price. Other bike shops are willing to discount a little. You are more likely to find actual sales at retailers such as REI or Performance. These stores however might not carry what you need or may not have the very best kids bikes.
Please know there are NO safety standards for bike parts! Companies have and will use parts that copy the look of real parts, but have basically no functionality at all. Lawsuits are likely the only thing that has improved the ability of parts on the very cheapest bikes. All the bikes listed in my chart are real bikes without these “fake” parts.
In the past the frames of kids bikes were a mix of steel and aluminum. The aluminum frames cost more but were significantly lighter and didn’t rust easily when you accidentally leave the bike out overnight in the wet grass. Aluminum still remains an inexpensive material for manufacturers to work with, and as more companies switched to aluminum the others had to keep up. You will see there are only a few steel bikes left on my chart including the Trek MT200 and Schwinn Frontier. At $310 and $300 respectively there are so many other better choices so I do not recommend these specific models.
Kids bikes either use a steel seatpost that uses hex nuts to crimp the saddle, or an alloy post similar to those found on adult bikes. See the pictures below for help identifying the difference. The cheaper and inferior steel posts use a whole separate clamp head tightened onto a tapered steel shaft with two normal hexagonal nuts. These posts are harder to adjust, more prone to loosening, and are much heavier and can rust. Nevertheless, you do not need to avoid steel posts but just be aware of their drawbacks.
One side note, bike seats are called “saddles” and yet the post that hold them is still called a seatpost.
The stem is the part that holds the handlebars while the headset is the part with bearings that allows the handlebars to turn smoothly and without any wobble. These two parts work together and the better choice in a stem and headset is a “threadless” design. This is indicated by the stem using recessed hex head bolts to secure it, as displayed in the photos below. Some kids bikes still use threaded forks and quill stems and while they will work just fine they have some drawbacks. A quill stem is prone to seizing in the fork and is usually heavier especially if steel (which can rust). Meanwhile an alloy threadless stem can be very quickly and cheaply changed out for another size to adapt the bike to different siblings before having to move up a bike size. Headset quality is usually better with threadless stems as well. If two bikes are nearly equal otherwise I’d always chose the one with the threadless stem setup. That being said a quill stem is not a reason to avoid a bike and should serve you just fine.
Wheel Quick Releases
Almost all kids bikes in the 20” size range have bolt on wheels as well as some bikes in the 24” size range. If you plan to put the bike inside the car often requiring wheel(s) removal, or on a roof rack that requires the front wheel removed, then getting at least a front quick release is a must. The comparison chart will help you narrow down the bikes with this feature.
Water Bottle braze-ons
A few kids bikes have integrated frame mounts, called braze-ons, for a water bottle cages. A braze-on is the term for a part of a bicycle frame which has been permanently attached. It’s a shame most companies don’t include these but this is a cost saving measure for companies who realize consumers won’t think to look for them. In some cases small frame designs simply don’t allow room for a water bottle. In 2013 almost all the 24″ bikes have bottle mounts but because of the space issue kids bikes will have just one set while adult bikes have two. You will also find that boys models may have braze-ons while the corresponding girls model doesn’t due to a tighter frame design. A bottle cage can be added via clamps to many bikes, but they usually scratch up the frame and can rust. There are some better made cage adapters for handebars or behind the saddle.
A few bikes place the braze-on mounts underneath the downtube. Unfortunately this is directly where puddle water and dirt (along with bacteria) will spray up from the tire and directly onto the bottle nozzle you child will suck on. They are also impossible to use unless stopped. For this reason I don’t recommend using mounts underneath the downtube and to use one of the handlebar/saddle mounting systems. In tight fit frames with braze-ons, a side entry cage can make inserting a bottle easier.
One final note on hydration – an alternative to a water bottle is a kids sized hydration backpack, such as Camelbak. Kids tend to really like these but from experience they have drawbacks. First they are harder to clean and can grow mold and bacteria inside unbelievable fast and easy. Second, kids tend to over drink leading to many stops on the ride to find a bush for a potty break. If you already own and take of of your hydration pack, then a kids version can be a great way to go.
Most kids bikes are basically downsized mountain bikes and have knobby tires to match. These tires are fine for all around riding, but if your child will be riding on pavement most of the time then you may want to look for thinner and smoother tire treads. For example, the Specialized Hotrock comes in two versions – one with knobby tires and a suspension fork and the other labeled “Street”, with smoother tires and a rigid fork. You child will be able to keep up easier and expend less energy (meaning go further) on a paved rail trail with the Street version. In general, the knobbier the tire is, the more energy it will take to propel it forward. For general paved trail and light gravel use, the Specialized Hotrock Street and the new Cannondale Street models are some of the best kids bikes available. They do carry a high price but also high resale value.
Gearing / Crankset
7-speed rear cassettes (the gears) can now be found at the same price points as 6-speed. The bike companies want to entice a potential buyer who will think 7-speeds is better than 6, but your kids won’t know or miss the difference so don’t use this as a decision maker for any bike. Look for Shimano or SRAM derailleurs but I don’t be too concerned with the specific model on any of the bikes listed here since they are all very close in ability and quality. On the other hand, the shifters are something to examine closely. Kids bikes usually have twist style shifters. I have found the Shimano Revo shifters to be incredibly easy and smooth shifters, but SRAM also can work almost just as well. SRAM makes great adult bike twist shifters but the Revo is the smoothest kids shifter I’ve found. Any bike that uses a Sunrace twist shifters like the Diamondback Cobra and Tess should not be purchased. These shifters are not designed with sufficient cable leverage and are extremely hard to shift. I have replaced many Sunrace shifters with Shimano Revo. I hope to specify the shifter system in future charts.
For a 20” bike and the intended use by the age kids who will ride them, I recommend a single chainring crank which is protected by a chainring guard. Smaller kids on 20” bikes are just learning to use gearing and really don’t need the added complexity of a front derailleur and multiple front chainrings for most situations. The 6 or 7 gears provided by the cassette is usually more than enough for your local hills if the front chainring is appropriately sized. A chainring guard protects those sharp chainrings which catches pants, can cause puncture wounds when they fall, and also prevents grease from getting on legs and clothes.
Of course, if you live in a mountain town and have an active family, your children may need those lower gears that a multiple chainring bike has. Some 20″ and many 24” bikes have a multiple chainring crankset offering a larger gearing range.
The kids bikes listed in my chart have basically always come with better brakes, but now even the cheap department store bikes have learned their lesson and supply linear pull brakes. But watch out because in some cases they have just copied the style with a very cheaply made part. A good indicator of a cheap brakeset is to look for the brake cable attachment. If it is crimped with a hex key bolt it is likely a good alloy brake, but if it is an acorn style nut the brake is most likely stamped steel. The alloy brakes are significantly stiffer and brake much better with less chance of squealing noises too. For the brake levers, absolutely look for metal levers and not plastic which can and do snap.
Put it this way, this $119 Magna bike at Target has stamped steel brakes that almost certainly cost pennies to make. Do you really want to send your child down a hill with brakes that cost less than a quarter, plus with flimsy plastic brake levers they will be squeezing hard on for dear life? This particular 20″ bike also violates all of my recommendations with dual suspension, oversized crank, generic derailleurs, oversized saddle, steel brakes, plastic brake levers, and steel frame. It is also very likely this bike weighs double that of the Specialized Hotrock. I have seen first hand kids walking bikes like this Magna up a hill on a local bike path while kids on real bikes happily ride past.
Honestly, a suspension fork at the 20” bike level is pointless in most cases, and the same goes for 24” bikes as well but with more exceptions. Suspension forks at these price points have limited ability, add weight, and add a complex but cheaply made part that can break. Suspension forks are added in many cases as a selling feature because kids think they are cool, so companies throw on the cheapest thing that appears to bounce up and down.
Many of us can still remember thrashing through the woods on BMX and banana seat bikes with no suspension. I’m a firm believer the kids need to develop riding habits without suspension forks, and the result is good bike handling skills. That being said, a quick look at the comparison chart shows that it’s hard to get away from suspension forks. All things considered if the bike you like at your price point has one, don’t let it be a deterrence.
For 24” bikes where the kids are a little older and you want them to follow you on mountain bike rides, then a suspension fork can be beneficial. In fact there are a few 24” kids bikes meant for more serious mountain biking and some 24” bikes at higher price points (not shown on chart) that offer better forks and components for more aggressive mountain biking. Scott, Kona, and Specialized are brands that make higher level 24″ bikes.
Kid proportioned parts
Many companies make claims that they size the parts appropriately for smaller bodies. These parts would include smaller saddle, thinner hand grips, smaller pedals, and shorter cranks. In some cases companies do an excellent job with this, and in other cases companies claim they use size-specific parts when they don’t. A 20” bike model should have a smaller correctly proportioned saddle, cranks of appropriate length (no longer than 146mm), crank chainrings that aren’t too large to obtain the appropriate gearing range (38 teeth or less), and brake levers that kids can easily reach. The Trek MT 60 is an example of a well proportioned model with a small saddle, adjustable crank length of 120 and 140mm, and a 32 tooth crank. In comparison, the Jamis X.20 bike uses a too large saddle, a too long 152mm crank arm length, although it does have an appropriately sized 36 tooth crank.
For 24” bikes kids body sizes can have a wider range and be more adaptive so some items aren’t as critical. Just be aware of the differences in part sizes when looking at the 24” bikes for your older children.
Unfortunately I was not able to include on the comparison chart if a bike met all the necessary kid sized parts due to a lack of information on the websites. It was clear to my trained eye on photographs of certain issues but I did not want to speculate or have an incomplete chart.
Aesthetics matters to almost everyone including kids and the colors and graphic designs on a bike are important. It is also important to consider what sibling and genders may be receiving a handed-down bike. In all but a few cases, boys models could be suitable for a girl but only rarely the other way around. Obviously everyone should make the aesthetic decision themselves after choosing certain models for closer inspection based on features.
Gendered Frame Design
This one gets a little tricky. First of all, lets be clear that all “boys” designs are perfectly good for girls. In many cases bikes only differentiate the boys and girls models by the paint color and graphics. In other cases, the frame designs are radically different and definitely gender specific. Case in point is the Jamis X.20 and Capri. The X.20 could easily suit both genders although the paint colors are on the boyish side. Girls who are Tom Boys will likely have no issue with colors intended for boys. The Capri bike however has a very swooping frame design with a lavender color and is clearly intended for girls.
There is also a bike like the Performance Starling and Burnout, which are the girls and boys models respectively of the same bike. However, the Starling has a slightly curved top tube while the Burnout’s is straight. Specialized formerly used a curving top tube on both boys and girls models which was an excellent design that facilitated stand-over clearance. I see they have removed this feature in 2013 going with a straight top tube which is offset downward on the girls models.
I recommend a kickstand for kids bikes; and to get them in the habit of using it. This prevents the bike from being thrown to the ground (hopefully) which will keep it looking better longer, keep it off wet grass, and live a longer life. Kickstands can be added to bikes very easily and cheaply so consider this a bonus if your model has it. Greenfield makes the best kickstands.
I have also added a column in the chart for a derailleur guard. Bikes with this have a small U shaped piece of metal overhanging the rear derailleur to fend off knocks against rocks, trees, and the ground. This simple item isn’t a necessity until the day your child really whacks the derailleur. My suggestion is don’t buy a bike just on this but consider it a nice bonus if the model you pick has it.
All the bikes in the comparison chart have linear pull brakes, as they should, but keep in mind not all brakes are equal in quality, ease of adjustment, or ability. Refer to my blog post on kids brake types for further information on this critical topic. Almost all of the bikes have aluminum frames when in recent years past it was a mix of materials. Aluminum frames don’t rust from paint scratches and are lighter than their steel counterparts without any loss of durability. I do consider this a major feature to look for.
The Department Store Bike
I’m a big advocate of buying kids bikes at bike shops or well equipped recreation stores with bike shop-like departments such as REI. These stores are more expensive but you get superior quality, durability, better operation, significant weight savings, a better fit, (hopefully) better help, and a bike your child will immensely love to ride more to create a life-long love of cycling. These bikes will be in better condition to hand down to siblings and hold good resale value. For instance, a $330 kids bike could easily service two or more children over 4 or more years and easily be worth $100 when you are done with it 5 years later.
That being said, the department store bike has its place especially in sizes below 20” and under the age of 6. For instance, my daughter one rode a simple un-branded 16-inch bike with training wheels from a big box store. This bike was intended to be ridden in the driveway and around the cul-de-sac and served that purpose well. Otherwise for any other family ride she used a trail-a-bike attached to one of mine.
Of course budgets just don’t allow everyone to afford a $200-$400 kids bike which I perfectly understand. As with my last guide, I hope to return to the discount department stores to see what I can find for 2013 and update this guide.
I plan on listing my top five bikes this year but know that specific family needs and budgets will determine the best bike for your children. If you must place the bike on a roof rack with the front wheel off (or inside a car needing the same), then you’ll choose from the models with a wheel quick release. If your child’s primary use will be to ride on paved bike paths then a rigid fork and smoother tires are better. On the other hand if you plan to ride mostly on paved bike paths but know your child will be jumping every stump and rock along the way, then fatter knobby tires are the better choice and a suspension fork is not a detriment.
In terms of resale value, know that the biggest name brands carry more weight in a craigslist ad. Therefore a well equipped Novara might not fetch the same price as a Specialized or Trek. Cannondale is new on this years list and just started making kids bikes. They have some great products I consider equivalent to Specialized but the prices to match. They also have a very unique 24″ street bike that uses disc brakes and a lefty style rigid front fork. It would be an exceptional bike if it just had quick release wheels (the front may be but is not listed or shown).
Finally, a bike is a sum of all its parts. One part difference here or there won’t make much of a difference. The right sized bike with durable parts and with appropriate gearing and tires will have your child riding faster, further, and with more enjoyment.
Here are my recommend bikes in each size in no particular order; accounting for features, price, and design. I tried to include bikes from a range of price points if I thought they were a value for the money. There are some excellent higher level bikes not included in the chart or this list.
Cannondale 20″ Street
Specialized Hotrock 20″ Street
GT Aggressor/Laguna 20″
GT Aggressor/Laguna 24
Specialized Hotrock 24 (all models based on need)
Marin Bayview Trail 24
If you have specific requests for more information or opinions, let me know.