Bike buying made easy


The right size bike is key to safety and fun for kids


Helmets reduce a child's rick of head injury as much as 88 percent.

It’s the first sunny Saturday of spring and, you decide, time to buy your child a bike. But the question is: Are you prepared to make the wisest purchase that will mean years of enjoyment and safety for your youngster?

With the array of choices, it’s easy to see how parents can become befuddled when they step into a local bicycle shop to make a purchase that promises to put a huge smile on their child’s face.

Bikes come in a variety of sizes and models for kids, from your basic one-speed, coaster-brake, sidewalk version with training wheels to a mountain bike with multiple speeds and hand brakes.

Bike shop operators say the single biggest mistake parents make is to buy too large.

“They think they will end up buying one fewer bike for a kid over the years,” says Greg Anderson, co-owner of Dr. Spin Cyclewerks in Bartlett. “Parents don’t buy shoes size 8 when the kid wears size 4, hoping the shoes will last longer.”

“Size is an issue of safety and control,” Anderson says. “On a properly sized bike, the child will learn how to ride it more safely and more quickly. If a kid can’t control a bike, he may give up in frustration and not have the confidence that builds up when he rides a lot. The kid becomes too scared to ride a large bike.”

The typical sidewalk bike offers small frames and wheels that are either 12 or 16 inches in diameter and usually comes with training wheels. Expect to pay between $90 and $120. The 12-inch bikes are generally good for children 2- to 4-year-olds; the 16-inchers are good for 4- to 6-year-olds.

“These bikes are sturdy and have durable parts that will last,” says George Garner Jr., of Garner Cyclery of Northbrook, Lake Zurich and Libertyville. “These bikes stand up to use and abuse and can be passed from kid one to kid two to kid three.” He says a bike with training wheels can be a bit larger and still not be risky to the child because the rider is supported by the trainers when he stops.

Eventually the trainers will come off, and the kid is ready to pedal on his own. At that point, the child should be able to stand over the bike with both feet on the ground with an inch or so of clearance between him and the bike’s top bar. While seated, the rider should be able to touch the ground with at least the tips of her shoes.

20-inch bikes By the time, a child reaches 6 to 8 years old, she may be ready for a 20-inch bike, which can cost between $130 to $160.

“The 20-inch bikes have both pedal brake and hand brakes to help the rider use the more familiar brake while learning to be more comfortable with the hand brake,” Garner says.

The next step up in bicycling is the 24-inch mountain bike with gear shifters and hand brakes. Gone is the coaster or pedal brake. These bikes generally run $190 to $230.

“Some bike manufacturers, like Specialized, make a unisex bike for boys and girls,” Garner says. “The only difference is the paint and design. Another manufacturer, Trek, makes a boy’s and girl’s version.”

The difference between the two is the crossbar or top tube is slightly lower on the girl’s style than the boy’s. Gone from these designs are the long, downward sloping tubes without a crossbar that were once popular as girls’ bikes.

Anderson and Garner say the same rules for fitting a bike apply to the 20- and 24-inch bikes. Anderson says, “The handlebars on these bikes also can be adjusted so the kid doesn’t have to reach too far. The handle bars, though, should not be so close as to make it difficult to turn.”

Most handlebar stems and seat posts have marks indicating how high they can be raised safely, he says. He cautions parents not to raise the handlebars and seat too far. That may make the bike unsafe because both could become loose and fall out.

The 24-inch mountain bike is the right bike for the youngster who likes to take longer rides around the neighborhood or on a trail with his parents.

BMX bikes Another group of bikes to consider are BMX, free-style and dirt-jumping bikes, which can run from $150 to a pricey $1,000. Kids shouldn’t be on these before about 8 years old, says Garner. “One size fits all. They have 20-inch wheels. They have large crank arms that give the rider more power to the pedal stroke.

“BMX bikes are lighter and faster than the free-style or dirt-jumping bikes, which are built like tanks to stand up to the punishment kids can dish out,” Garner says. “Because these bikes get knocked around, they come with stronger wheels, axles and brakes.”

Anderson says the BMX, free-style and dirt-jumping bikes have one speed and are designed for doing tricks and riding short distances. “It’s hard for kids on these bikes to stay with their parents on longer rides because the kids will tire out faster than on a mountain bike.”

Regardless of the type and style bike a parent buys for his youngster, doctors, safety experts and bike shop operators say helmets are a necessity. Wearing a helmet reduces a child’s risk of head injury by as much as 88 percent and can prevent three-quarters of all bicycle related deaths.

Anderson says, “I’m surprised by how many parents take the approach that ‘I never wore a helmet, and I never got hurt.’ But there were kids who did not wear helmets and who did get hurt.”

He says, “Today’s helmets are easier to wear, cooler and have better retention systems that keep the helmet in place. Helmets should be worn properly, not tilted back on the head. If someone falls forward, the head would not be protected. The front of the helmet should be level with the eyes.”

Garner says helmets should be replaced if they’ve been dropped on a hard surface, like the garage floor, or strike the ground in a crash. The impacts weaken the protective padding inside the helmet. Helmets also should be replaced every three years because they can wear out from exposure to rain and sun.


-- Dean W. Schott is a freelance writer, cyclist and father of three who lives in Glenview

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