Dec. 7, 2011 at 12:24 PM ET
By Kara Reinhardt, Cheapism.com
A bike may be tricky to wrap and seem positively archaic next to the gizmos on many holiday wish lists, but it’s still a classic gift. In online reviews of kids bikes, parents often note how excited a child was to receive a new bike. High-end models made of strong, lightweight aluminum usually cost $200 or more and often come from specialty stores, which relieves buyers of the potentially difficult tasks of assembly and maintenance. But like all kids bikes, they wind up too small within a couple of years. You can nicely equip a growing teen for less than $100 and let younger children tool around the neighborhood for less than $70.
The first thing a child is likely to note about a new bike is the design — Iron Man, Spider-Man, Dora the Explorer. One of the first things a parent is likely to note are the brakes. Small fingers may have a tough time squeezing hand brakes, so bikes for younger kids typically feature rear coaster brakes that stop the bike when the child pushes the pedals backward. Manufacturers equip some bikes with both types of brakes so older children can get the hang of hand brakes without relying on them exclusively. A few budget kids bikes come with only hand brakes (which may be referred to as side-pull, center-pull, caliper, cantilever, u-brakes, or v-brakes).
Size, as measured by the diameter of the wheels, is also crucial to safety. Here are some rough guidelines: 12-inch wheels fit 2- to 5-year-olds; 16-inch wheels accommodate 4- to 8-year-olds; 20-inch wheels fit 6- to 11-year-olds; and 24-inch wheels work for ages 10 and up. For a more accurate fit, measure the inseam on a pair of pants that fits your child well and match it up to the corresponding wheel diameter on this chart from the International Bicycle Fund. It may be tempting to choose a bike that’s a bit too big, so the child can grow into it and get more use out of it, but experts warn against doing that.
Size also contributes to the weight of the bike, which usually falls somewhere between 15 and 40 pounds. The best models balance maneuverability with strength and durability. Watch out for extra features that may be overkill for beginning riders and only add extra pounds.
Below are Cheapism’s top picks for affordable kids bikes.
More from Cheapism: