Small bikes

Yesterday proved to be a momentous one; Little Bear pedaled his 20″ wheeled Commencal Ramones unassisted, for the first time.  Over 20 minutes he went from tentatively agreeing to try it, in the extended flat grass near the bike park, to pedaling circles with me assisting, to gleefully upshifting for sprints along the paved path, downshifting to grind through the volleyball sand, and plowing through ditches once he realized how much stability the larger wheels and knobby, 2.6″ tires gave him, compared to the 12″ singlespeed he’s been riding all year.  He easily transitioned to the pump track, and then the larger bump line amongst the dirt jumps.  From a distance, I saw him intentionally swerve off line descending the start hill, plowing through the weeds on a steep and loose roller.  For all the joy and freedom the previous two bikes had brought him, it seemed like this one was matching technology with his capability and imagination in ways which put it into the next realm, big kid bikes, with adult possibility on the horizon.img_0408

We started the bear with since discontinued Yuba run bike (green, top), for his first birthday.  He pushed it around and then walked around astride it for close to six months, when his legs got long enough and something clicked, and he wanted to ride it everywhere.  For his second birthday he got a Cleary Gecko, a 12″ wheeled singlespeed with v brakes.   The Gecko proved invaluable, but the contrast between the two mostly served to highlight the virtues of the Yuba.  It’s light, with an aluminum frame and solid foam tires.  The hubs and headset are built of the most rudimentary bushings, the seat drops low, and the head angle is notably slacker than most.  It is less than half the weight of the steel Gecko.  Until he was past 3 pedaling seemed quite beyond the bear, and watching him foot brake the Yuba down the steeps hills around our house was scary enough that I pulled the cranks off the Gecko, and the bear happily ran it as a strider for over a year, getting very good at braking points very quickly, and consistently getting close to 20 mph zipping downtown.  Happily that was, until he had to get it back up those hills.  If I had a bike half my weight, I’d whine about climbing, too.61003435180__4b2ea8f7-f913-423b-b730-11283a3bb6c3

At the end of last summer, a bit beyond his fourth birthday, I put the cranks back on, and he easily pedaled down the slanting walk in front of what is now his elementary school, but it wasn’t until this spring that everything came together, and suddenly he was starting, stopping, and generally navigating the complexities of the pedaled world all on his own.  He and I could ride to the bike park from home, detour downtown to get a cookie, and take the scenic route home at a less than glacial pace.  Not too long after the Commencal went up for preorder, which we fortunately did, as they sold out in a matter of hours after coming into stock.  I messed up the first ride, as even after aggressively trimming the seatpost he could only just get toes on the ground.  I didn’t stay close enough, and his first ride in the alley resulted in a crash, and the Ramones being on a hook in the garage for 5 months.

It’s a tough balance, being a parent and seeing kids physical capability be so far ahead of their mind.  The complete ease with which the bear has transitioned up with both pedal bikes is the best reminder I could imagine for me to not be impatient in the future.


For his part, Little Cloud has reminded us that every kid is different when it comes to bikes, often drastically so, for reasons not always well accounted.  He is a good bit shorter than his older brother was, at 2.5, though probably stronger and more coordinated, but in spite of (or because of?) the modeling and involvement in outings has been radically slower in adopting the run bike.  His proclivities here are 12 months behind, certainly a lesson in patience, and obviously at a least a good bit due to his character and preference.

Were we to do it over again, we’d buy something like the Yuba as early in a kids life as we did.  It can’t hurt to have it available, as a gesture of your belief in their possibilities.  A few companies make one with a rear v brake, which could be first taken off and then added back as speeds increase.  For anyone who lives in a hilly place I’d say that is mandatory.

I don’t think we’d buy the Gecko again.  Singlespeed is a good way to go for the first pedal bike, but I think 12″ is too small for most kids by the time they have the muscle and bravery to pedal.  On the other hand, a small bike (or at least one with massive standover) is a huge advantage for a first pedal bike.  I’m also quite convinced that training wheels and coaster brakes are evil inventions which have held countless kids back from biking confidence.  It would also be nice to find something at least a little lighter than the steel Clearys.

Kid sized components are fantastic, things like pedals that don’t stick out a mile, and brake levers with reach short enough for 4 year old hands.  A bike like the Ramones is a screaming value, too.  I can’t imagine Commencal has much margin on it.  A few items have been a bummer in this regard.  The 1″ threadless steerer on the Gecko prevented us from using adult stems to adjust the fit, and the tires which can stock are heavy enough in the sidewall that ~40 pound Little Bear can run low single digit pressures on 1.75″ wide tires.  They have been quite flatproof though.

More than anything, I wish there were an intuitive equivalent to a run bike for things like skiing.  Aside from shifting, and to a lesser extent braking technique, there’s been almost no didactic instruction in the Bear’s biking journey.  He just grabs the tool and goes and learns by doing, which I’ve always though is the most enduring way to learn anything.

One response to “Small bikes”

  1. Dave,
    Having taught 4 kids to ride, I completely agree that training wheels are the worst way to learn. My best success was starting with a balance bike ride around the house and challenging them with a game of “I bet you can’t pick up both feet.” Once they can turn with feet up, they are ready for a pedal bike. We had the best luck with the Woom 2, which is a 14″ bike with a hand brake. What the Woom 2 had over the other little kids bikes that we tried is a low center of gravity, a low seat, and narrow pedals. It sounds similar to the Gecko. For the next step up we have used a Specialized 20″ single speed with hand brakes that gets handed down from kid to kid, but this had its limitations as we live in a neighborhood with steep hills. I have also found that most kids make the jump to the next size up easily and we have had success moving up in size as soon as possible. Getting them to a 24″ bike really opens things up and rides of 10+ miles become possible.

    One last thing I have learned is the need to constantly adjust the seat as they grow. Sometimes I raise the seat every month. Too many kids ride with a low seat and therefore lack leverage to get up hills and go fast.

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