What is a Balance Bike? – Balance Bikes Explained

A balance bike is not a new invention, but it was only recently became popular in the United States. So, what is a balance bike? To answer your question, we’ve compiled this handy introduction to balance bikes.

Since 2007, there has been a growing trend of using a balance bike instead of a regular bike with training wheels. People use this bike to teach children to balance and steer, without the help of training wheels or pedals. Although usually made for toddlers and older children, it’s not unusual for adults to use it.

There’s obviously more to know about a balance bike. In this article, we’ll touch on the following topics:

  • An introduction to the balance bike
  • Balance bikes for adults
  • How it differs from a regular bike with training wheels
  • How to choose a balance bike

An Introduction to the Balance Bike

Brief History

It has been 204 years since Baron Karl von Drais invented the first balance bike in 1817. His invention is known by many names: Draisine (or Draisienne in French), dandy horse, hobby horse, and velocipede.

Karl didn’t invent the Draisine for children, but for adults. He came up with this device because he was looking for a good alternative to the horses that died of starvation as a result of the Mount Tambora eruption in 1815.

The Draisine has two same-size, in-line wheels (with a steerable front wheel) that are attached to a wooden frame. It didn’t have brakes or pedals. It works similarly to the modern balance bike—just straddle the bike, and then propel yourself forward by pushing your feet on the ground.

It was only in 1997 that Rolf Mertens released the first commercially produced balance bike for kids. Mertens, a German woodworker, called his balance bike the LIKEaBIKE. People widely consider the wooden LIKEaBIKE as the predecessor of the modern versions of the balance bike.

After it faded from the scene for a couple of years, the balance bike experienced a resurgence in popularity in 2007. This was the year Ryan McFarland released the first Strider Bike in the United States.

Basic Features

A balance bike is typically made for toddlers and older children (18 months to 7 years old). In some cases, there would be one-year-olds who are physically mature enough to ride it.

What’s the point of a balance bike? The main purpose of this bike is to teach your children to balance and steer a bike, without worrying about pedaling or taking their feet off the ground all at once.

It’s a very basic bike. As what we’ve mentioned, it doesn’t have a drivetrain (cassette, cranks, chain, chainrings, pedals, etc.) and training wheels. As for the brakes, some balance bikes have them, while others have a back and/or front brakes.

The first balance bike was made of wood. But throughout the years, manufacturers have used a variety of materials for the frames on kids balance bikes, including aluminum alloy, plastic, and steel.

Are There Balance Bikes for Adults?

Older children (over 7 years old), teenagers, and adults don’t need to lose hope of ever learning how to ride a bike. There are some balance bikes developed for teenagers and adults. It’s still a growing market, so there’s limited options compared to those for children.

An adult balance bike is very useful for people with special needs, who are usually expected to never ride again. Some rehabilitation and wellness centers have added it to their health and wellness program for senior citizens. This gives their residents the opportunity to experience the freedom and joy of riding, without the fear of hurting themselves.

Depending on the model, most balance bikes can accommodate riders who weigh 198 to 220 pounds and stand at 5 to 6 feet plus tall. The handlebar and seat are adjustable to fit different heights and riding styles. Seat heights could range from 63 to 83 centimeters—high enough for most adults.

The frame is made of a variety of materials, including aluminum, high-strength carbon steel, and steel. In some models, they feature a footrest to allow you to comfortably cruise on paved roads at a fast speed. The footrest also provides a good opportunity for you to perform some amazing tricks on a balance bike.

So far, the Strider 20 Sport is the largest balance bike. Launched in 2014 at the U.S. Special Olympics in New Jersey, it works well for riders belonging to different age groups—from 10-year-olds to active elderly people.

Training Wheels Versus Balance Bike

Right now, you might be thinking this: “Should I ditch the training wheels and go for a balance bike? Is it really worth my money?”

You’re not alone. A lot of people are torn between buying a balance bike and a regular bike with training wheels.

Just to be clear, there’s no solid research that proves that a balance bike is more efficient than training wheels (or stabilisers in British English), and vice versa. So, there’s no right or wrong choice here. Regardless of which of the two you end up buying, it’s still better than your child sitting around playing video games all day.

But since our focus in this article is balance bikes, we’ll go through several reasons why they’re better than training wheels.

Fits Younger Children Better

The size of children’s bikes is usually based on the measurement of the wheels. And the smallest pedal bikes with training wheels start with 12-inch wheels, which are ideal for children who around 4 to 5 years old.

Balance bikes are lighter, narrower, and smaller, with enough room for growth. Plus, the seat on these bikes is positioned quite low to the ground to let children easily thrust themselves forward with their feet. As a result, children can start using them as young as 18 months (1.5 years).

Suitable for Varying Terrains

The wheels of the bike and one of the training wheels are supposed to be on the ground at the same time. Because of this, the bike tends to rock side to side, which helps children start learning to balance.

The downside of the bike tilting to the sides is it makes it difficult to navigate uneven roads. It’s also easy to get caught in cracks on the road, causing the bike to tip over or spin.

A balance bike is more fun because your child can wander off just about anywhere (with supervision, of course), from your front sidewalk to dirt trails. Since it can pretty much go anywhere, it helps your child become more adventurous and confident.

Lighter and Easier to Ride

Weight is probably the second most important factor to consider when buying any bike. Ideally, you want to choose a lighter bike because your child can ride it farther and faster.

Many types of bikes with training wheels for kids are made of heavy materials, like steel. Balance bikes are typically made of lighter materials, like aluminum and plastic. One of the lightest balance bikes on the market is the Ace of Play Balance Bike, which weighs only 4.1 pounds.

Easier to Transition to a Pedal Bike

Many of us may have learned to ride a regular, two-wheeled bike by starting out with training wheels first. So, we guess it’s safe to say that they do work.

However, many parents believe that they’re an outdated technology and balance bikes are more effective. Some argue that children who started out on a balance bike learned to ride a pedal bike faster compared to those who started with training wheels.

One possible reason why a balance bike makes it easier to graduate to a pedal bike is because the only necessary skills a child is left to master are braking and pedaling. These skills would probably take them only a few hours or a day to learn.

Better Cornering

Aside from balancing, your child’s next major mission is to master cornering. That would require him or her to know how to distribute his or her weight properly on the bike.

The problem with bikes equipped with training wheels is they don’t teach your child how to use his or her weight properly. Since the bike tends to tilt on one side, the natural reaction of your child is to lean the opposite way. This can develop into a bad habit that needs to be fixed as your child transitions to a regular bike.

A balance bike doesn’t have the same issue. The lack of training wheels, lower center of gravity, and lower weight allow it to corner like it’s on a rail and help your little one to develop the correct cornering techniques.

More Control

Balance bikes offer younger children more control because their feet are planted on the ground. In this way, they learn to easily control their speed, shift their weight for cornering, and master one bike-related skill at their own pace before they transition to a pedal bike.

Components and Cost

When it comes to components, the difference between the two training bikes couldn’t be more different. Balance bikes lack majority of the components that you’ll find on regular bikes, including a drivetrain and brakes (highly preferable to keep your child safe).

Another notable difference between the two is the type of tire they use. Balance bikes usually use two types of tires: air and foam (which never goes flat). Meanwhile, most training wheels are made of heavy-duty plastic, rubber, or both combined.

Balance bikes will obviously cost less than regular bikes because of their limited components. However, the great thing about training wheels is you can install them on just about any bike, as long as a bike has a rear axle that’s long enough to support the arm of the training wheels. This makes them relatively cheaper than most balance bikes.

Balance Bike Buying Guide

Balance bikes may have the same function, but they’re not a one-size-fits-all type of bike. With so many choices and considerations, it’s easy for you to get overwhelmed. So, we’ve compiled a few things you need to consider to avoid wasting your money on the wrong one.

Bike Readiness

You’re the best person to judge if your child is ready to start learning to ride a balance bike or a “big kid” bike. Take time to think about these: “Is your child already showing interest?” “Do you think your child is physically and mentally ready for this milestone?”

Here are three skills your child needs to have to start riding a balance bike:

  1. Follow Directions

Is your child able to respond to directions? If not, you might want to postpone your plans of teaching your child to ride a balance bike.

Children are expected to learn to follow simple directions at the age of two. They might be able to understand two- or three-step directions at that age. For instance: “Sam, please get your helmet then wear it.”

Reality check: Don’t expect very young children to follow your instructions to the T. In most cases, they’ll respond to your requests only half of the time.

  1. Physical Strength

Even if your child doesn’t need to pedal yet, he still has to push a balance bike forward with his tiptoes. And that requires sufficient muscle strength and reflex.

Suggestion: If your child is still young (three years old or younger), check if he has the leg muscle strength to propel a balance bike forward while you hold it up.

  1. Hand-Eye Coordination

Children younger than four years old might not have a fully developed hand-eye coordination yet. Balance and coordination usually start to develop between ages four and eight. And these skills will continue to develop through the years with practice.

Suggestion: Playing catch with your child is a good way to develop good hand-eye coordination.

Finding the Right Size

When buying a bike, you need to determine if:

  • You can adjust the seat height as your child grows.
  • There’s a right distance between the seat and handlebar.
  • Your child is able to stand over the bike and walk while standing over it.

The problem with balance bikes is they don’t have uniform sizes. And unlike regular bikes, you can’t use the size of their wheels to determine if they’re a good fit for your child’s height. For instance, a balance bike with 12-inch wheels could be appropriate for a two-year-old or a 4-year-old.

So, if not the wheel size, what should you check to buy the right size for your child?

The answer: seat height.

Determining the right seat height for your child starts with getting his or her inseam measurement. If you don’t know how to do it, read the instructions below.

Materials you’ll need:

  • Thin, hardbound book
  • Measuring tape
  • Pencil

Steps:

  1. Make sure your child has his or her shoes on.
  2. Have your child stand a few inches from a wall, with feet slightly apart.
  3. Place the hardbound book between your child’s legs.
  4. Slowly raise the book up until its spine hits his or her crotch.
  5. Put a small mark with your pencil on the wall.

Now that you have the inseam measurement, you’re now ready to determine the correct seat height. A balance bike should have a minimum seat height of 0.5-inch to 1-inch less than your child’s inseam, while the maximum seat height should be at least 2 inches above his or her inseam.

Example 1:

  • Inseam: 14 inches
  • Minimum seat height: 13.5 inches
  • Maximum seat height: 16 inches

Example 2:

  • Inseam: 15.5 inches
  • Minimum seat height: 15 inches
  • Maximum seat height: 17 inches

Bike and Rider Weight

To narrow down your list further, consider the weight of your child and the bike you plan to buy. A heavy bike will make it difficult for your child to maneuver and travel far because it’s going to drain all his or her energy.

As much as possible, choose the lightest balance bike possible for your child’s height and weight. Two of the major contributing factors to a balance bike’s overall weight are the frame and wheels.

There are different suggestions for calculating the correct weight for a bike. One of these suggestions is to choose a balance bike that doesn’t weigh three times more than your child’s weight. So, if your 4-year-old is 40 pounds, then a balance bike should have a maximum weight of approximately 13 pounds.

You could also multiply your child’s weight by 30% to get the maximum bike weight in pounds. If your child weighs 27 pounds, multiply it by 0.3. So, a balance bike that’s right for your child shouldn’t weigh more than 8.1 pounds.

Air Tires Versus Foam Tires

We think it’s pretty obvious why tires are an important part of any bike. They’re the only things that come between your child and the road, so choosing the right one will make a big difference on how much speed and traction your child will have while riding.

Balance bikes use two types of tires: air tires and foam tires. You’ll typically find foam tires in budget balance bikes, while air tires are common in more expensive models.

The advantages of foam tires:

  • They’re cheap. That’s why they’re so common in low-end balance bikes.
  • They’re made of solid foam, so it’s virtually impossible for them to go flat.
  • They’re more suitable for riding on paved surfaces.
  • They’re lighter than rubber tires.
  • They wear much better, so they’ll typically last longer than rubber tires.

Who will benefit the most from foam tires?

  • Those who are mostly riding on smooth and hard surfaces
  • Those who don’t want to spend a lot of time and money on maintenance

The advantages of air tires:

  • They have more knobs on the tread, so your child can go off-road a bit.
  • They provide more traction and shock absorption.
  • The air allows the tires to flex, which helps a balance bike to remain grippy during sharp turns.

Who will benefit the most from air tires?

  • These tires are for you if most of your bike training sessions with your child are going to be on bumpy, unpaved roads.
  • You don’t mind doing a bit of maintenance, like regularly pumping air into the tires.
  • You want your child to experience a smooth ride.
  • They’re perfect for children who are aggressive or adventurous riders.

Frame Material

The materials manufacturers use to make the frame will have a significant impact on its feel and ride quality. Balance bike frames are made from aluminum alloy, composite material, steel, and wood. Let’s take a look at the features of each material below.

Aluminum

An aluminum frame is light and low maintenance. It doesn’t rust easily, so it’s okay if your child rides it in wet conditions.

It’s not a perfect frame material, though. Aluminum frames are prone to fatigue and damage because they’re usually more brittle than other materials. If they get even a single dent in the wrong spot, they’d make a bike unsafe to ride.

Steel

Heavy riders should use a balance bike with a steel frame. It’s strong enough to accommodate heavier riders and can last through years of hard use. Compared to a wooden balance bike, it looks more similar to a regular pedal bike.

But since it’s very heavy, younger children may have a tougher time handling a steel balance bike. In addition, if it gets chipped, it could eventually rust and lead to structural failure.

Wood

Like aluminum frames, wooden frames tend to weigh less. Imagine this: One of the lightest wooden balance bikes on the market weighs only 5.13 pounds.

But don’t let its low weight fool you. A wooden frame is capable of carrying heavy loads of up to 75 pounds.

Most of these balance bikes are made of birch, which has a natural resistance to water and fungus. That means it doesn’t easily rot when exposed to the elements. If you’re really worried about leaving a wooden balance bike outside or use it in the rain, buy a balance bike made of marine-grade wood.

Suggestion: Buy a wooden balance bike with an FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification. This certification tells you that the manufacturer used wood that was harvested through eco-friendly methods.

Carbon Fiber

Most composite balance bikes are made of nylon composite-reinforced carbon fiber. Due to its lower density, a carbon fiber frame transfers less road vibrations. Thus, every ride is smoother and more comfortable. Carbon fiber also makes the frame incredibly strong, especially in the critical spots.

Like other materials, carbon fiber frames have flaws. Two of their major weaknesses are excessive rigidity and poor fatigue life. This means it’s not very resistant to punctures and prone to cracks and fissures.

Ride Brake or Brakeless?

If you’re on the “no brakes” team, that’s okay. Children who are two years old or younger still don’t have a fully developed coordination and reflex, so they wouldn’t be able to use the brakes effectively even if they’re there. Besides, in most cases, they can use their little feet to stop a balance bike.

You do have to pay more for a balance bike with brakes, but they can be worth the money. Most toddlers and preschoolers—that’s between 2.5 and 5 years old—have already developed enough hand-eye coordination to use hand brakes.

Reasons that might convince you to fit your child’s balance bike with brakes:

  • A good set of brakes will put a balance bike to a complete stop and prevent injury.
  • They’re useful when going downhill.
  • They’ll help your child become more confident.
  • They’ll better prepare your child once he or she transitions to a pedal bike.

Hand brakes are great, but having front and/or rear brakes is preferable for higher speeds. It’s also important to consider the brake lever reach. The brake levers shouldn’t be too far that your child has to stretch his or her hand out to reach them. The brakes should also be easy to squeeze by tiny hands.

Note: If ever you decide to buy a balance bike without brakes, add the cost of a new pair of shoes; because your child’s old ones are bound to wear out gradually.

Other factors that you need to decide on when buying a balance bike are:

  • Good geometry
  • Hand grips
  • Steering or turning limiters
  • Fork angle
  • Footrests
  • Wheelbase
  • Wheel bearings

Conclusion

Should you buy a balance bike? The right answer is really up to you and your child.

Assess your child’s current physical and mental capabilities. Can your child already respond to simple instructions? Does he have the leg strength to keep the bike moving forward or stop it if necessary? How about his hand-eye coordination?

We all know training wheels can work for some people, but balance bikes seem to offer more benefits. Before you make up your mind, remember this: For anyone trying to learn a bike, they need to be good at balancing and steering. These are skills that your child will quickly master if you start him or her on a balance bike.