Kids’ Bikes: They suck and what you can do about it

Since the spring, our kids have really embraced riding under their own power. Anne has blogged about this a number of times. It’s been a great time for them. Meanwhile, as the resident gearhead, I’ve been growing increasingly frustrated by the absolute crap that passes as acceptable kid transportation in the US.

Maybe if I didn’t know better, I’d be OK with the mountain bike wannabes, but I’m ruined. I’m used to riding and working on decent bikes. I’ve been to the Netherlands and seen entire families on high quality, fully-fendered transportation devices of all shapes and sizes;  I know it’s possible.

And I’m not the only one who feels this way: the folks over at BikePortland are actively discussing this topic (57 comments at last count!)  right now.

I had been searching for a suitable ride since April or so. At one point I thought I scored when I stumbled across a German-made, 24″ wheel, step-through frame bike with rack, fenders AND a generator on Craigslist. It was a $120 and worth every penny. But someone had called about it right before me and the seller was being ethical (!), completely unwilling to cave to my offer to come “right now” bearing an extra $20. (Buyer, if you are out there, your kid better be riding!)

Crushed, I watched CL every five minutes for about three months.


So I decided to build my own from a stock kids “mountain” bike, adding fenders, good tires, upright bars and more. It would have been great to purchase the bike this way, but my version turned out pretty well, if you ask me (or my daughter).

Some of you may want to do the same thing, so I’ll detail the process over the course of a few blog posts in the next couple days. If you find this is too much information, then by all means swing over to Flickr and let the pictures do the explaining.


Stay tuned for  a discussion about suitable frames / platforms.

19 responses to “Kids’ Bikes: They suck and what you can do about it

  1. A small gripe on an otherwise interesting post. I don’t see this as being a “kids bikes suck” issue as much of an issue of there not being utility/city riding bikes for kids available in the US. Since there is still a limited market for these kinds of off-the-shelf bikes for adults I’m not surprised. Even more that adult bikes, kids’ bikes are considered toys, not tools. Hopefully some of the companies that are starting to build up street ready bikes for adults will move into the kids market as well. Although, with some of the idiocy (like cities where kids are forbidden to bike to school) common today that may be a long way off. Retrofitting (like you did, and nicely too) is probably going to be the only option for most for a while.

  2. Why not just buy a decent mountain bike, put some high pressure street tires on it, fenders, lights, and a rack? There’s your city bike!

  3. Andy in Germany

    I remember what a revalation local bikes were for me when I first came here from the UK: Metal fenders and luggage carriers, even bags. I think part of it is that children are able to ride independently so their bikes are a form of transport for them, not a toy. They even have driving tests at school: you can only ride to school after you pass. My Eldest son is really excited about getting his ‘proper’ bike for transport next year.

    Perhaps ironically, I’m planning to do a similar thing to you with an adult mountainbike for my wife, as we will need the gear options on local hills, and it means we can swap standard parts with my bike, and get the same sized Xtracycle for her.

  4. Great article. I’m reminded of my firs bike which was a Schwinn with a bannana seat and curved bars. Anyway, I don’t remember when I started riding to school but do remember going eveywhere with it. Fenders and bells were looked as “sissy” As a kid, I didn’t look for practical. I was looking for cool. Kids, boys, look for the cool or they don’t want it.

  5. Hi Joel — thanks for the comment. For what it’s worth, I was employing a little hyperbole in the post title. I sometimes do that. Sorry.

    Other than that, I think we’re in total agreement here. When I say they suck, what I means is they suck for the kinds of use we advocate here at Car Free Days.

    I truly hope that as more companies build sensible adult commuter machines that they’ll add kid versions as well. However I think the toy aspect will continue and if the kids bikes do show up, it will be due to a trickle down from adult bike “fashion” rather than any grand plan. We saw this during the 70s bike boom when small “10 speeds” were common for kids and are seeing this with the way “mountain bike” styled bikes dominate now.

  6. Just wanted to add, my first kid’s bike came from a Schwinn bike shop and was made in the USA at the time. Today, I see cheapo bikes at kMart. WalMart, Target, Toy’s R Us… I wouldn’t touch them with a 10 foot pole. A lower price kid’s bike at your LBS is leaps and bounds to be better than one from a big box store.

  7. Hey Skidmark — that’s just what I’m doing. Just drawing it out a bit for dramatic pause. Seriously, finding quality kids parts (and finding them for reasonably affordable prices) is harder than you’d expect. Since bikes are so essential to our family we can justify it. But a lot of people just want to buy a bike their kid can ride to school and don’t want to spend $150 on extra parts (and another $50-100 on labor if they don’t have the skills).

    Ideally the manufacturers can do this for us, employing the same economy of scale they use to put 2″ travel shocks on $200 bikes.

  8. Andy in Germany

    I remembered something else: a bike in Germany legally has to have full mudguards (fenders), dynamo (generator) lights and reflectors to use the road.

  9. Thanks for the comment, Andy. Anne is already plotting how you can be our source for used German kids city bikes 😉

  10. Hi Guy — I had one of those too. Schwinn quality from the Schwinn store. I later had a faux motocross bike from a department store. The frame broke in half!

    As for being cool — you have me nailed. Off went the fenders and I wouldn’t have been caught dead with a basket.

    On the other hand, I had a different role model. All the adults I knew drove cars _everywhere_. The only grown-up I knew on two wheels was Evel Knievel and he didn’t exactly have a utility style going for him.

    Surprisingly (not) my son is a different child than me. He asked to get rid of the knobbies in place of narrow tires on his 20″ mountain bike; now he’s asking for fenders.

    I think that unlike most kids, he sees what we ride on, and rides enough himself (and in bad enough weather) to know what he’s missing.

  11. Don’t know if Islabikes are available in the US, but for a price, they might be the answer to your prayers:
    Having said that, for most of us, the route you’ve gone – small mtb hardtail with slick tyres, mudguards (sorry… fenders) and a carrier is the most practical one.

  12. Pingback: Building a kid’s bike that doesn’t suck: The Mt. bike frame « Car Free Days

  13. The trickle down from adult bike fashion was a definite factor in my daughter’s choice of bike. She insisted that her new bike have fenders and a chainguard after seeing all the photos from Amsterdam and Copenhagen that I was viewing online. She also decided to wear a skirt while riding as often as possible. These are fashion trends I am happy to help her follow!

  14. Great post series – you sprung for the reflective Marathons … nice. Love the new bar too, and you wound up with a nice civilized riding position! I’m a bit persnickety about fender stays, though – I’d clip ’em closer to the fender.

    As for ready-made “US” bikes. Electra’s lineup lacks a kid bike with fenders AND gears/non-coaster brakes. But this one’s a looker, just needs fenders and a maybe a better chainguard:
    Not sure if the Townie position would be a net plus or minus at this age.

    If not, this Jamis (mentioned on looks nice, but the fenders seem more decorative than functional:

    Both of these off-the-shelf at $350, though, and needing some additional work. You should come in under that with the craigslist MTB, even with the Schwalbes. Great project!

  15. Pingback: Pt. 3 Building a kid’s bike that doesn’t suck: Tires « Car Free Days

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  17. Great post! Not something I’ve got to deal with yet (still having little ones) but I hope the options are better when my two are old enough for a good bike.

    It’s always amazing how much retrofitting bicyclists have to do in order to get a decent commuter bike (especially away from Portland or Seattle).

    Like reflective tape. Wouldn’t you be embarrassed if you worked for a manufacturer of bicycles or bike accessories and saw your customers sticking reflective tape on your products because you didn’t bother helping them be visible. Why do the bike companies think we all want to be Navy SEALs or bike ninjas?

  18. Pingback: Transitions: from kids as cargo to kids as riders (a new series) « Car Free Days

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