Building a kid’s bike that doesn’t suck: The Mt. bike frame

Continued from yesterday’s post: Kids’ Bikes: They suck and what you can do about it. It’s possible you may find this a bit too detailed. If that’s the case, visit the flickr stream for quick some ideas and examples.

Reaching for the brakes

Pre-upgrade: Reaching for the brakes

For the non-sucky kid’s bike project foundation, I started with Craigslist’s finest: a $65, 21-spd,  24″-wheel Trek MT 220. I like this style of bike because it has a semi-step through frame. I originally tried for a slightly older version, complete with lighter frame and a closer to a true step-through design. Unfortunately, all the samples I ran across were pretty hammered, having been through two or three kids.

The newest frames have their tradeoffs, too. First of all, they are massively overbuilt. They are heavy. And almost all of them are saddled with suspension forks (see how these trends go together: sourcing a suspension fork means the rest of the bike must be up to being ridden high-speed directly into curbs. Again and again.

Suspension is a bad trend for us folks who want to build city-worthy rides. Even if you can find a rigid-fork version of a newer bike, chances are the the bike has been designed as “suspension ready,” which is code for a jacked-up front end.  This extra height makes it impossible to maximize standover clearance and can result in a bike kids find uncomfortable to mount, dismount, and straddle in traffic.

These many requirements guided me toward bikes three to five years old. Newer bikes drew the shock penalty; older bikes were usually trashed or  burdened with paint schemes too dang ugly to pass the daughter test (though I have seen a number of nicely preserved specimens since).

This Trek was in the right place at the right time. The daughter was thrilled with the color, the seller, a first time Craigslister, was thrilled that someone would actually purchase a used bike; I was thrilled to only spend $65.

We got the bike home and immediately changed things. First, a tune up, complete with bearing repacking. Then the trusty bell went on. And the 2.5 lb pot-metal kickstand  (come on Trek, why?) was replaced with a 1lb aluminum Greenfield we had leftover from her old bike.

I’m not a weight weenie, but why make this harder for the kids than necessary? Why bolt on extra weight, like the stupid derailleur protectors. I think the logic goes like this:  manufacturers sell the bike as a disposable toy, so the kids treat it as such and drop the bike on the drivetrain side. A simple 1lb derailleur protector solves the abuse problem and keeps Shimano’s flawless shifting reputation intact.

the dreaded derailleur protector

the dreaded derailleur protector

Since our daughter treats her bike as a bike I elected to just explain how it’s important to use the kickstand and keep the derailleur side of the bike up. I painted the thing pink and said if she could go a couple weeks without losing the paint, I’d remove the offending hunk of steel and lighten up her bike a bit. Two weeks later I removed it, paint intact, (In fact, the only scratches are because I knocked the bike over in the garage) and the bike is 400 grams lighter (no, I’m not exaggerating. It really weighs that much).

All this made bike  better, but still not perfect. Longer rides hurt her hands, wrists and back, she didn’t like the “buzzing” of the knobby tires, and the season’s increasingly wet weather forced her back on the Xtracycle (at least if she wanted to avoid a mud stripe up her back).

Luckily we can solve all of this in future posts (Tires, if you are curious, are next).


7 responses to “Building a kid’s bike that doesn’t suck: The Mt. bike frame

  1. Great project, and great writing about it.

  2. Excellent writeup. I’ll have to look for the derraleur guards locally, as I haven’t seen that many. A lot of children’s bikes use hub gears so don’t use them…

  3. Saw this link on the Xtracycle Twitter Feed: Great article. My boy is 4 and still learning to use his training wheel bike and riding on the back of the xtracycle, but I did pick up a trek kids bike from the dump last year… I was planning on fixing it up for him. Thanks for sharing the process!

  4. We’re down here in Portland and fenders have been a necessity on the kids’ bikes, just as they are on the adult bikes. It can be hard to fit traditional fenders on smaller kids’ bikes, but a LBS can usually help steer you in the right direction.

    I don’t think this applies to Tim’s kids, but my advice to other parents is to get their kids on bikes with gears ASAP. If you live someplace with hills, it makes riding much more enjoyable for kids to be able to downshift and pedal up the hill. Those BMX-style kids bikes are hard to cope with if your family is doing more than the occasional ride for fun.

  5. We went through much the same process when we lived in the UK. Children’s bike there are the same – derailleur gears, no fenders, no chain guard, stretched out position, too long reach for the brake levers etc.

    Not so here. Dutch children have a wide range of bikes to choose from that fit properly, are reliable, and are built for everyday use.

    They really do some distance on them too. Not only riding to school every day – school trips are also by bike. My daughter’s primary school class went on a 150 km (90 mile) school trip earlier this year.

  6. Pingback: Kids’ Bikes: They suck and what you can do about it « Car Free Days

  7. Pingback: Xtracycle Reader (the video) | Car Free Days

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