South Coast Bikes Logo

Advice On Buying a Childs Bike

The full text of an article I wrote for the November 2006 isssue of the London Cycling magazine.

When I was a lad (did I really just write that?) we didn’t have expensive new bikes. Actually, once I did get a new bike for my birthday, but I grew out of it far too quickly, much to my parents chagrin. No, we had a succession of bought, begged and borrowed second-hand steeds. If one of us had a puncture and we wanted to get back on the road, we had to fix it. Maintenance was done at home, self-taught with a bit of parental help. My local bike shop was a place of mystery and awe, where we kids were regarded with an element of benevolent suspicion.

This wasn’t some smog and soot-laden industrial town in the 1950s, rather the Home Counties circa 1985. I came from a comfortable middle class family. But new bikes weren’t showered upon us and we had to make the best of what we had.

So when I was asked to write an article for this fine publication, giving some advice on buying a child’s bike it made me wonder: What has changed in the twenty years since my nostalgic musings above? Today I am the bike mechanic and if I went by what I see come through the workshop (we don’t sell bikes, just service and repair them) I’d have to say that most kids are far more concerned with how their bike looks than the quality of its build and set-up. We spend a lot of time trying to persuade people to buy reasonable quality bikes and not cheap and nasty BSOs (bicycle-shaped objects). The same should be true of kids’ bikes, but quite understandably many families cannot afford or are unwilling to spend a substantial amount of money on a child’s bike when they’ll grow out of it in such a short time.

Questions were floating around in my mind: Can you buy a reasonable quality kids’ bike without spending the earth? Is there a second-hand market for decent kids bikes? Have things really changed that much since I was young? Do kids still fix their own punctures?

It was time to get out there. With an imaginary wedge of cash burning a hole in my pocket, I hit the streets of my fair city, Brighton and Hove. I visited local bike shops, big retail stores, supermarkets and market stalls and I checked out the local classifieds. It was a fascinating day.

Now I’m sure far more valid and well-researched guides to buying a child’s bike exist, so rather than recommend this or that brand, model or retailer, I’ve summarised my thoughts in the following list:

In no particular order…

  • With new bikes, YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR. The retail park megastores were full of gaudy, shiny bikes advertised as being reduced. £79.99 Reduced from £119.99!!! Whatever. If the bike was worth the higher amount it would be sold for the higher amount.
  • If you want a new bike, find a local bike shop with a good reputation. They will take the time to find you the right bike and they are far less likely to sell you anything cheap and nasty as their reputation is far more localised and not based on discounting.
  • For real quality, in either the 20 or 24 inched wheeled varieties, spend at least £150 on a new kids’ bike.
  • If you want to spend around £70-£100 and it must be new, please don’t be seduced by the rubbish in the megastores. And believe me, it is rubbish; I spent hours looking at them with mounting depression. Find the local, family-run, budget bike shop; they too will have bikes in this price range, but the difference is that they will be properly set up. You’ll pay a little bit more but you’ll get better service, both when you buy and if you have any problems after.
  • Go second-hand! Look through your local free ads paper, or check out your local second-hand bike shop. My local paper is full of kids’ bikes in the £10-£50 range. It would be much better to make a mistake with one of these than to buy one of the rubbish £89.99 new ones. Pick up a reasonable second-hand bike and have a good mechanic service it.
  • Avoid the fads. I found that the megastores were full of bikes for which the image was far more important than the substance: bikes pretending to be motorbikes or where the pink colour scheme and matching bag and dolly seat distracted from the terrible build quality underneath. Buy a bike, not a toy.
  • Avoid suspension if you can; they don’t need it and there’s just much more to go wrong. Definitely avoid full suspension. If your child wants a bike to ride off road, to do jumps etc. on then you really need to spend some serious money if it’s to last.
  • THE SET-UP IS OF EQUAL IMPORTANCE AS THE PRODUCT. If you buy a bike from ‘shinyuselessbikes-r-us’ then it will probably come in a box or will have been set up by an unskilled, unmotivated employee. I regularly see kids’ bikes that have been bought in boxes and set up at home. They are often complete death traps. It amazes me, in an age when parents are worried sick (well according to the Daily Mail at least) about all the dangers facing their children out there in the big bad world (actually I think it’s a pretty lovely world), that these parents will buy these cheap, rubbish bikes, attempt to set them up and then send little Johnnie off down the road without working brakes! I’m not making this up. If you must buy a bike in a box, get it set up by someone who really knows what he or she is doing.
  • It’s great if you can take someone with you who (really) knows about bikes when you go looking, but don’t worry if you can’t. Go with your gut feeling; if it looks cheap and tacky then it is. If it looks like the colour and accessories were more important to the manufacturers than the frame quality, then they were. Good staff help is what you need.

So what did I learn from my day of perusing and assessing the children’s bike market? Well, if I’m honest, in the main it depressed me (and it generally takes a lot to do that). The children’s bike market seems to be very polarised. The majority of children’s bikes on sale were cheap, nasty rubbish. With the sort of robust use children can give their bikes or exposure to the elements, they wouldn’t last very long at all, let alone years. There are quality children’s bikes for sale out there, but you have to look around and be prepared to spend a fairly substantial sum of money. The casual, uninformed buyer is most likely to be faced with a rack of cheap, gaudy, poorly-made and badly-set up children’s bikes. What’s worse is that they won’t even know this. They’ll just see lots of shiny metal and plastic with reduced stickers on and gimmicky features.

So what has happened since my nostalgic musings of yesteryear? On the bike side, a lot has changed. Indexed gear shifting, suspension, cantilever and VBrakes amongst other innovations have all added to the complexity of the modern bike. It is paradoxical that when I was a kid, although we may have ridden our bikes off road, up and down kerbs etc. we knew they weren’t designed for that. These days, a lot of the kids’ bikes look like they are designed for off-roading, yet this demands a higher build quality that just isn’t there. Twenty years ago, it was far easier for the average competent individual to set up and maintain the kind of bikes I was riding around as a kid.

However, I think the biggest changes are those caused by globalisation and its effects. Bikes on the whole are built in Asia, part assembled, boxed and shipped over here. Then they are either sold still boxed or they’re built, inspected and sold. The quality of the bike and subsequent build depend on the quality control, firstly at the factory and secondly with the retailer, and this varies massively. You can buy excellent quality children’s bikes - for a cost - but the majority of new children’s bikes appear to be cheap, mass-produced, tacky rubbish being sold through big retailers. The second-hand children’s bike market does exist, but you have to look for it, unlike the cheap new tat, which looks for you. Buying some groceries? Why not buy a bike at the same time? I think not.

One thing I’m still wondering about though: Do kids still fix their own punctures?

Feedback on this article.

Andy Morrison - April 7, 2012

SO TRUE! Years ago I worked for Halfords and some of the bikes they sold then were so bad they should have gone straight to scrap. When the time came for me to buy my children their bikes I bought the best I could afford and took time to find good quality bikes ( often ' like new' second hand). We had three boys in a little over five years and As my boys grew out of each bike it was overhauled and passed onto the next in line! My nephew now rides the bike that we passed on to his older brother five years ago having seen all my older boys onto full size bikes of their own. The bike has needed very little attention other than routine servicing over the TWENTY TWO YEARS the family has owned it! My other brother in law bought his son a full suspension disk brake BSO last year that has already had to have a new bottom bracket and rear dérailleur and weighs nearly DOUBLE the weight of the bike I bought all those years ago. Even allowing for inflation, I paid about the same for my boys bike as my BIL did but he has already started looking for a replacement. !! What have I learnt? Buy smart, think about what you will truly use the bike for and remember - " the bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweet taste of low prices is forgotten "

lisa - June 20, 2011

I enjoyed reading this article and found it interesting. I know nothing about bikes and I am in the process of purchasing a bike for my son, from the second hand market area. Unfortunately Im not sure if I will be able to identify the 'rubbish' from the well made. I feel this will be a learning curve.

Bruce Wright - October 15, 2010

I totally agree. I bought one shopped soiled cheap new' bike. Absolutely lethal. Since then I have bought quality (specialised, trek, carrera, etc) bikes second hand off ebay. My eldest daughters 24" Carrera even had the moulding stubs on the tyres, it had been ridden that little (and less than 25% of it’s new price). The aspect which startles me the most is the weight of these BSOs. My daughters 18" wheel BSO weighted more than my 26" wheel 23" full suspension Giant mountain bike. Weight is the killer of biking enthusiasm in kids, and makes learning to balance very tricky as well. A quality kids bike will last for years, just not with the same owner. Our friends passed their daughter’s falcon onto us, we gave it to a friend a year later, this year we got it back. A full strip down, respray (he doesn’t particularly like pink – gloss black is much better), free stickers from a bike mag and a rebuild later and it’s onto it latest owner (or should that be keeper?). In answer to your question “do kids still repair punctures themselves”, I don’t know, we haven’t had any (well pumped up tyres ). But my 5 and 7 year old did strip and setup a headset and bottom bracket – does that count? get website

sarah cleal - June 15, 2010

theres no such thing as punctures anymore with the gel you can squirt in your tyres so the answer is no they don't!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Warren Moore - June 5, 2010

Nice article

Do you have any feedback? Please let us know your thoughts.