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How to Buy a Kids Bike

How to Buy a Kids Bike

Here's a how-to guide to buying the right bike for your kid.

As with so many rites of passage remembered through the veil of nostalgia, you might find that much has changed when you go to buy your child a bicycle. These days parents have an array of options, from where to buy to what size to get to what qualifies as a bicycle. Luckily, we’re here to help you figure out how to get your kid up and riding. Here's how to buy the best bike possible for your kid.

RELATED: The 10 Best Bike Trails for Kids in New York

Types of Bikes

Today’s kids and their grown-ups have a huge number of wheeled apparatuses from which to choose: balance bikes, scooters, single-gear, fixed-gear, bikes with hand brakes, bikes with back brakes.

Balance Bike

Imagine a bike, then take away everything but the wheels and the frame, and you’ll have a balance bike. Kids can sit or stand, then walk or scoot; they use their feet to brake. There are no pedals.

child on a balance bike

Bike with Pedals

12” bikes (and bigger) have pedals. Some pedal bikes have removable training wheels, some have traditional rear coaster brakes (push backward to stop), some have hand brakes. You know your child best, but be realistic: kids have varying levels of dexterity and athleticism, and thus might be ready for a hand brake as opposed to coaster brakes.

child riding a bike with pedals

Single-Speed Bike

Depending on your age, you might have had a single-speed bike as a child, perhaps one with streamers, horn, and/or a basket. Also known as a gearless bike, this kind of bike tends to be cheaper, easier to maintain, and easier to ride than geared-bikes. A single-speed bike may have pedal brakes, or it may have hand brakes.

gearless bike single speed

Geared Bike

A geared-bike has—you guessed it—gears that allow a rider to increase or decrease the speed and resistance, depending on terrain or conditions. They require more coordination and experience, which is why geared bikes tend to be better for slightly older kids and stronger riders. A geared bike has hand brakes.

geared bike

How to Measure for a Kids Bike

Kids’ bikes are measured by the size of the wheel—not, as in adult bikes, by the size of the frame. Generally kids’ bikes go from 12” to 24” wheels. (Adult bikes start at 26” wheels.)

At Bicycle Habitat, which has sold bikes for children and adults in multiple NYC locations since 1978, the sales staff generally uses the following guidelines:

Wheel Size

Child’s Size (height)

12” wheel bike

2’11" - 3’4”

16” wheel bike

3’3” - 3'10"

20” wheel bike

3’9” - 4’4”

24” wheel bike

4’3” - 4’11”

Bicycle Habitat’s co-founder and current owner Charlie McCorkell cautions against trying to use age as a guide, since “kids come in all sizes at most ages.” In addition, he urges parents not to “buy a bike that is too big unless your intent is to make the child hate cycling.” Not only can riding the wrong size bike be uncomfortable and physically challenging, it can also be dangerous. Far better to buy a bike that fits your child now, rather than purchasing one that the child can grow into.

Here's a helpful video for how to find the right size bike for your child:

Budgeting for the Bike

Probably the biggest advantage of shopping in-store versus online is the ability to physically put your kid on the bike and see how it feels. You might even be able to have your kid ride out of the store, as opposed to having to put together some or all of a bike ordered online.

It’s worth calling ahead to see whether a store has a bike trade-up program. Bicycle Habitat’s program, for example, lets you trade in a bike purchased from the store for up to 50-percent of the price of your next bike purchase, subject to various terms and conditions.

Online shopping offers a wider selection, including retailers and manufacturers who specialize in kids’ bikes. Should you decide to buy online, follow the website’s specifications closely. A relative newcomer with an incredibly loyal following, Guardian Bikes recommends measuring a child’s inseam, rather than height. The key words here are “measuring” and “inseam,” so don’t rely on your child’s pant size or try to guesstimate.

Buying Secondhand Bikes

First a word of caution: Many secondhand bikes are stolen, so do your research and only purchase from reputable sellers. We recommend checking the bike out in person, insofar as you are able, which will allow you to kick the tires (literally). Pay attention to rust spots, excessive wear, chipped paint, loose wheels, weak brakes, and the (mis)alignment of wheels, chains, pedals, and handlebars. There’s a big difference between a beloved, gently used bike and a lemon (or whatever the bike equivalent would be called... Maybe a kumquat). Trust your instincts.

If you’re not buying directly from a bike shop, it’s a good idea to take the secondhand bike for a professional safety check and tune-up.

RELATED: Where to Donate Old and Used Items in New York

Protect Your Head

Don’t forget the helmet! Not only does a helmet keep your kid’s noggin safe, but not wearing one is against the law. In New York State, children under the age of 14 are required by law to wear a helmet. Kids caught without one can be reprimanded and adults fined. So go ahead and buy a helmet alongside the bike—you might even consider color-coordinating them.

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Jessica Allen


Jessica Allen writes about food, culture, travel, and New York City, where she lives.

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