Buying your child a new bike this Christmas? Finding the process a little tricksy? Be at ease – we've put together a complete guide to help you choose wisely…
The first thing to keep in mind is that their needs vary wildly depending on their age and ability. Balance bikes are where it's at for the preschool crowd, then by the time they progress to 16in wheels they'll (hopefully) be pedalling away without stabilisers.
Move up a notch to 20in wheels and gears start to make an appearance, then by the time they're nine and riding 24in wheels, they'll basically be riding smaller versions of adult bikes – disc brakes, suspension and all.
In order to make sure Santa knows the right model for your child, let's look more closely at the different age groups you might be buying for, what wheel sizes to expect, and check out examples of the best bikes we've seen…
They're up and running – okay, toddling – so you're keen to buy them a set of wheels. Great! You've basically got two options – a balance bike (AKA strider, push-along) or a trike.
We know trikes seem like the attractive option, as they let your child propel themselves happily along from the word go, but here's why you should buy them a balance bike instead: they'll help your child develop the skills needed to balance by steering first. This means that they'll quickly master the transition to two-wheeled pedal-powered bike without ever needing stabilisers.
The RidgeBack Scoot (pictured above) is a widely available balance bike that delivers a lightweight aluminium frame, rear V-brakes for strong stopping, adjustable seat height and a decent sealed bearing headset.
- UK: Buy now from Tweeks Cycles for £100
- USA: Buy now from WeeBikeShop for $179
- AUS: Buy now from Evans Cycles for AU$148
Your other options include the Strider 12, which is a bit cheaper than the Ridgeback Scoot but misses out on a rear brake. You'll probably find your little rider wears down the soles of their shoes faster than expected, so you can buy a brake kit separately for around £10 / $20. The Strider 12 still packs a lightweight alloy frame, adjustable seat and footrest, and comes in blue, pink, green and red.
- UK: Buy now from Sourcebmx for £79
- USA: Buy now from Jenson USA for $119
- AUS: Buy from Strider Sports for AU$129
One more option we'd recommend is the FirstBike Street, which packs a distinctive-looking composite plastic frame, special "horse saddle" shape for comfort and stability, and a rear drum brake. Impressively, it also sports front and rear mudguards (fenders, if you're not reading this in the UK), sealed wheel bearings and high-quality Schwalbe tyres.
- UK: Buy now from Amazon for £94
- USA: Buy now from WeeBikeShop for $159
- AUS: Buy now from FirstBike for AU$199
Ages four to six
At this age your child can move up to 16in wheels, with a singlespeed gear. If the bike came with stabilisers, bin them (see above for an explanation why). Low weight is key to keeping interest strong, and easy-action brakes are also crucial.
Islabikes Cnoc 16
The best bike we've seen in this category is, without doubt, the Islabikes Cnoc 16. In return for the steepish outlay your child get a lightweight alloy frame, front and rear V-brakes with brake levers specially made for small hands that include adjustable reach, and light alloy wheels with Presta tubes. They'll love it, trust us on this one.
Giant’s Animator 16 is billed as an “express ticket to freedom” for younger riders, and features a lightweight and durable alloy frame together with a coaster brake for trouble-free stopping. An integrated chainguard keeps the muck off, and training wheels are included, along with a bell.
- UK: Buy now from Rutland Cycling for £134
- USA: Buy now from Giant Bicycles for $185
- AUS: Find an Australia dealer and expect to pay AU$229
Another small UK company called Frog Bikes makes a very decent alternative to Islabikes, called the Frog 48. It similarly features front and rear V-brakes, lightweight alloy frame, quality wheels and well-sorted position for young riders. Plus it comes in a bigger range of colours than the Cnoc 16, including purple, red, orange, pink and Team Sky livery.
- UK: Buy now from Rutland Cycling for £189
- USA: Ship internationally for $290 plus $115 shipping
- AUS: For Australia, consider the Byk E-350 instead
Ages six to nine
Gears are the big extra at this age – yay! A three-speed hub gear is ideal, as it's easy to understand and hard to break. Wheel sizes move up to 20in, and suspension starts to feature – but it's unlikely to be more than adequate. Kids love the look of suspension forks though.
Islabikes Beinn 20
Yup, Islabikes still rules the roost here, this time with its Beinn 20. We called it a "major breakthrough in kids' bikes" when we reviewed it, and it's still one of the very best going. It retains the lightweight credentials found elsewhere in the line, and adds seven-speed gripshift gears and versatility in spades – the Beinn 20 can be kitted out as a stylish mountain, road or hybrid bike, depending on your child's preference.
Specialized Hotrock 20
With a low standover height, tough yet light alloy frame and dual V-brakes, this is a great bike for budding riders. Throw in six-speed gears and flat-resistant, grippy tyres and it’s a winning package for both boys and girls.
- UK: Buy from Hargroves Cycles for £249
- USA: Buy from Specialized for $360
- AUS: Buy from Specialized for AU$399
Ages nine to 12
We're now getting within range of 24in wheeled bikes – they can feature drop handlebars for the roadie look, or suspension forks and disc brakes for budding MTBers. Quality models will be made from light alloy frames, and spec should compare to an adult's bike at the same price point.
Scott Voltage JR
This one's a popular choice for lots of kids, thanks no doubt to its dirt jump styling, 50mm front suspension fork and disc brakes. Yes, the Suntour fork can feel a little underwhelming to adults, and the disc brakes are cable not hydraulic, and they both add more than a little weight to this bike. But many young riders love it anyway.
- UK: Buy now from Tweeks Cycles for £339
- USA: Buy now from Scott Sports for $520
- AUS: Buy now in Australia for AU$629
Frog Road 67
If they're more into road cycling then the Frog Road 67 from Frog Bikes could do the trick. An all-alloy road/cyclocross bike that includes short-drop child-specific handlebars, it offers Microshift short-reach brake levers, plus auxiliary ones on the top of the bars for extra ease-of-use.
- UK: Buy now from Frog Bikes for £425
- USA: Ship internationally for $654 plus $115 shipping
- AUS: For Australia, consider the Byk E540R
Big kids' bikes (12+)
From the age of 13 onwards, kids can probably get away with small-framed adult bikes on full-size wheels. Be aware though, that the colourway and model name will be important to your offspring – perhaps more so than pure practicality. So 'MX 59' in beige is unlikely to make it a Christmas to remember.
Giant TCR Espoir 24
With Giant’s TCR Espoir, the clue’s in the name – this is aimed at the next young hopes on the road. Dubbed the perfect road bike for young riders, it features drop bars and a low standover height ideal for riders up to 5ft tall. Short-reach handlebars are made to fit smaller hands, and wide-range 2x8-speed gearing helps get them up steep climbs.
- UK: Buy now from Cyclestore for £475
- USA: Buy now from Jenson USA for $525
- AUS: Find an Australian dealer and expect to pay AU$829
We couldn't miss out…
We've tried above to explain the main differences between bikes at different sizes and ages, and give some examples of the best bikes we know of in each. They're not so cheap that they'll put your child off cycling for life, but neither are they at the top end of the market.
But – some bike makers are going for that upper echelon. They're taking all the top-flight tech we see on adult bikes and cramming it into a smaller package. Behold the Carbon XS Cycles 'Mad 6', which promises to be the lightest kids' full-suspension mountain bike on the planet.
Full carbon 20in wheels? Check. Wide-ranging SRAM 1x9 gearing? Check. Custom full suspension with 65mm of travel up front and 55mm at rear? Check and check.
Price? Better sit down first. The Australian makers have priced it at – gulp – AU$3,950 / US$2,775. Available from www.carbonxscycles.com, should you ever win the lottery.