Posted by: tview29 | December 2, 2008

Balance Trainers (aka balance/run bikes)

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a parent looking at the vast variety of balance bikes on the market and trying to determine which is best for your child. I’m hopeful that after reading through the reviews you’ll walk away with a better sense of what to look for in a balance bike.

Why Me?

As an avid cyclist, I know a few things about bicycles. I’m also an extremely concerned parent. So, why balance bikes? Well, because of my two girls, now 3 and 5. I initially bought a trainer for my oldest that was a complete piece of junk. The second one I bought, while nice, was way too heavy for her. By the time I shelled out another Franklin for bike #3, I realized that I probably wasn’t the only parent going through this. With no centralized place for information on all the bikes out there, I decided to create one. To date, I’ve reviewed over fifteen models and learned just about everything there is to know about balance bikes. In particular, those worth a second look and those to be avoided!

A couple of quick notes: I have only reviewed metal bikes so far, since they seem to be the most popular. There are also a few wooden bikes that I will review shortly. After balance bikes, I will delve into some other popular category of kid’s toys and would love suggestions on just what that should be.

Where possible, I have contacted the individual manufacturers to verify information. I also asked what each felt differentiated their product from others on the market. As you can probably guess, many of the responses were contrary to my own findings.

If anyone has experience with the products I’ve reviewed, or even those I’ve missed, feel free to comment (make sure you read the posting guidelines first, since I won’t post anything that is defamatory, hateful or otherwise inappropriate – be fair and honest, but not spiteful please)

Thanks for reading!

Power Rankings

BEST OF THE BEST

bmw

(1) BMW – At the top spot, the BMW is the Crème de la Crème of balance trainers. Sweet aesthetics and design make this a must have for spoiled toddlers from Greenwich to Beverly Hills. If keeping up with the Jones’ is your bag, this should boost your status a bit. From the way the sleek saddle meshes with the top bar pad to the cool zippered pocket hiding it’s down tube, this trainer screams “Beemer”. But its most unique feature is that this trainer actually converts into a regular bike via an included drive train. So, when little Johnny has nailed the balance part, dad need only attach the drive train for a fully functional bike. Very cool. Obviously, the $300 plus price tag will repel most parents. There are two drawbacks to this trainer; in the trainer mode (without drive train), this bike is a weighty 15 lbs! That’s probably much too heavy for almost any 2-year old and a fair share of 3-year olds. For that reason, this bike is probably more appropriate for older learners. Also, BMW chose to include a handbrake. That’s good. However, they also attached the brake to the front wheel. That’s not good. When the child brakes in this manner, the momentum is such that a child is apt to go over the handlebars. This is why the CPSC bans such braking arrangements on bicycles. Not quite sure how they get around this regulation. If you do purchase this bicycle, you will want to take it to your local bike shop and have them move the brake to the rear (if possible). Also, while the handbrake was easily usable by my 4-year old, my 2-year old didn’t have nearly the dexterity required to use it. (This limitation is indicative of any bicycle brake, not specifically the BMW brake – see note above). Beyond these disparities, the BMW is an extremely nice product and worthy of top billing.

Website: www.bmwusa.com

Cost: $300

Pros: great design, good construction, well engineered, converts into real bike

Cons: heavy, expensive, brake attached to front wheel only; better for older riders

Weight: 15 lbs (without drivetrain)

Seat Adjust: 15″-18″

Reviews:

likeabike

(2) LikeaBike Jumper – Like its wooden cousins, the Jumper doesn’t skimp on durability or price (in fact, the Jumper is one of the most expensive balance trainers on the market). An interesting and unique design, the Jumper is well made and boasts an aluminum frame and handlebar. The packaging and saddle cover are also well designed. Beyond that, I’m not sure why you would buy this trainer. The rear “shock spring” is supposed to provide for a more comfortable ride for the young learner. Frankly, I’m not sure if it does this or not. Regardless, that feature alone wouldn’t justify the inflated price tag. At $270, I’d expect a bike with much more substance. Bottom line: If you want an expensive bike more worthy of it’s price tag, get the BMW for only a few dollars more. Better yet, pickup one of several good bikes available for under $100 and pocket the extra $180.

Website: www.likeabikeusa.com

Cost: $269.00

Pros: durable aluminum construction, lightweight, well packaged, nice aesthetics

Cons: expensive, no brake

Weight: 7.5 lbs

Seat Adjust: 13.4” – 18.5”

Reviews:

KinderBike

(3) KinderBike – At an anemic $75, this well-designed balance trainer is a steal. Made from a combination of aluminum and steel, the trainer is a nice departure from many of the cheap component knockoffs now saturating the market. The aluminum stem handlebars allow for adjustment up and down/forward and back. They also rotate within a proper headset on twin bearings. The aluminum rim wheels are a nice enhancement above the industry standard plastic and the saddle is quite sturdy, thanks to the structure of the underlying support (weight is evenly distributed over four contact points versus one found on most of the trainers I tested). It also comes standard with a quick release and rear handbrake. Here again, while the handbrake was quite usable by my 4-year old, my 2-year old didn’t have nearly the dexterity required to use it. Notwithstanding the braking limitation for younger riders, it’s a great buy. Considering the components, I’m not sure how they pull off the low price. There appears to be a plethora of KinderBike reviews on the net, so perhaps sheer volume allows them to keep the price low. The combination of good design, quality components and low price make this trainer a no-brainer as the Best Buy.

Website: www.mykinderbike.com

Cost: $74.99

Pros: nice components, low price, light-weight, good reviews, 3-year warranty, handbrake (for younger riders)

Cons: limited color choices (red, blue, pink)

Weight: 8.5 lbs

Seat Adjust: 13.5” – 18.5”

Reviews:

HONORABLE MENTION

porsche

(4) Porsche Every since I learned to drive, I’ve daydreamed of getting behind the wheel of a Porsche. So, when Porsche unveiled their balance bike, I was quite excited to have my kids try it out. Sure enough, the swept aluminum frame and overall sleek aesthetics are exactly what you’d expect from Porsche. The trainer is lightweight at 8 lbs and includes a durable saddle with four-point support that adjusts easily via a quick-release collar. The Porsche trainer also has a proper metal headset (though with turning limiter that I quickly disengaged). Although the handlebar is the preferred expander/wedge type, I don’t particularly care for it. The handlebar itself is welded and has a pointy “tit” sticking up that might present a safety hazard, were it not for a protective pad. There are two other issues: The first involves the sleek top bar. Sure, it’s stylish, but children of this age group really benefit from the low-step through design prevalent on most balance bikes. Secondly, Porsche went with plastic wheels. This is certainly something I wouldn’t have expected from Porsche and, to be honest – truly disappointed me. Change the wheels to aluminum (a la BMW, LikeaBike, KinderBike) and this trainer jettisons to #2.

Website: http://shop2.porsche.com/usa/

Cost: $199

Pros: sleek design, nice components, light weight

Cons: a tad expensive, high crossbar, plastic wheels

Weight:

Seat Adjust:

Reviews:

(5) Specialized HotwalkFinalizing Review

MIDDLE OF THE PACK

kettler

(6) Kettler SprintWhen my oldest was 18 months, we started her on a Kettler tricycle. It was well-built with quality components and we loved it. That was then. How times have changed. I happened upon their latest version at Interbike in Las Vegas a week ago. It’s called the Sprint. Though they do have some very unique paint schemes/themes (frog, flame, etc), the bikes themselves are built much like the very knockoffs they’re trying to distance themselves from. Here again, plastic rims, plastic headset, welded handlebar, etc. Plus, at 16 lbs, the trainer is probably too heavy for 2 and 3 year olds. Kettler is also beginning this line called “GoGreen” and it’s made from partially recycled materials. I definitely like the concept. I just don’t think it should come at the expense of quality. I did order one too take it for a test drive, but was unable to get it fully assembled due to a problem I experienced installing the handlebar. I’m not sure if it was due to a product defect or a design flaw. It has this “tit” that allows the handlebar to lock into place inside the fork stem. This is what is supposed to keep the handlebar in place. I wasn’t able to align it properly to finish the assembly. On a positive note, it does have a handbrake – again more suited to older learners (4-5 years). It also comes with a respectable warranty – something most manufacturers have conspicuously left out.

Website: www.kettlerusa.com

Cost: $119

Pros: Kettler name, handbrake (for younger riders), kid-friendly themes

Cons: too many plastic components (headset, wheels, etc), welded handlebar, no quick-release for saddle adjust

Weight: 16 lbs

Seat Adjust:

gliderrider

(7) GliderRiderI was really excited about this bike when I first came across it online, primarily because of its unique design. Aesthetically, it is considerably different from most any other trainer, except the one put out by Puky (which I think it copied). Aside from design, I like that it has a foot rest, brake and kickstand. Unfortunately, many of the components are of the “less desirable” variety and outweigh the bike’s better attributes. For example, the welded handlebars secure via a clamp around the bike’s fork stem (the type where the clamp digs into the metal in order to prevent the handlebar from moving). Also, the wheels are plastic, the seat adjusts via a bolt (instead of the preferred quick-release collar) and the saddle is at best iffy. Lastly, the trainer is quite heavy at 15 lbs. The handbrake was easily usable by my 4-year old but not my 2-year old. Still, it’s my top choice of trainers that include a foot rest. If they put some better components on it and reduce the weight, it would make my top five.

Website: www.gliderrider.com

Cost: $97

Pros: foot rest, unique design, handbrake (for younger riders), kickstand

Cons: too many plastic components (wheels, saddle, etc), welded/clamped handlebar, no quick-release for saddle adjust, etc…

Weight: 16 lbs

Seat Adjust:

Reviews:

BOTTOM OF THE BARRELL

adams

(8) Norco/Adams/Haro – Quick: When can you summarize three diffferent brands in a single review? Easy: When those three brands put out an almost identical product. My first thought was that all three companies must be using the same Chinese factory. Close. Apparently Norco brands their namesake trainer for the Canadian market, but brands it under Adams for the U.S. (according to a rep). As for Haro, they have apparently outsourced to Norco for their bike (according to a rep). The only differences seem to be the branding and that Haro is a 10” bike. While I like the frame design, I think the price is a tad high and I am not happy with many of the components: plastic seat, plastic rims, etc. Plus, there’s no handbrake. In truth, I’ve always had a healthy respect for Haro and wish they would branch off and design their own trainer. If you’re going to copy a design three times over, I think you should at least make sure it’s something worth copying.

bootscoot

(9) BootScoot – BootScoot’s greatest attribute may be it’s remarkable likeness (aesthetics) to the KinderBike. Unfortunately, that’s where the comparison ends. While there are a couple decent components, I have isssues with the vast majority of them. For example, the trainer comes with a quick release collar for adjustment of the saddle. However, it took a tremendous amount of force (not to mention a few heavy duty tools of my own) to get it to a point where the seat would not move. The seat is not the exactly the most durable and this only added to the difficulty. The handlebar, while being the preferred expander/wedge type, has a rather pointy “tit” protruding from the top (figure X). If you buy this model, I would highly recommend purchasing a thick handlebar pad to prevent possibly injury to your child. On a positive note, this trainer has a proper headset (metal, not plastic) and a handbrake and I like that. While the handbrake was quite usable by my 4-year old, my 2-year old didn’t have nearly the dexterity required to use it. Regarding the wheels, I experienced difficulty with trying to get the hardware tightened properly. When I tightened too much, it prevented the wheel from spinning. But under tightening caused the wheel to be loose and wobble. I couldn’t seem to find a happy medium and eventually gave up. Like Strider, BootScoot too uses solid tires instead of real wheels. Hardened wheels on one of my nephew’s toy trucks is fine, but it’s not suitable for his bike tire. While customer service did offer to refund my money, I opted instead to toss it in the heap in the back yard.

Website: www.bootscootbikes.com

Cost: $75.00

Pros: low cost, lightweight, handbrake (for younger riders), quick-release

Cons: just about everything else – component quality, several operational difficulties

Weight: 7 lbs

Seat Adjust: 14”-17”

strider

(10) StriderIf I had a “fluff” category, I think Strider would get top billing with it’s well designed website and effective marketing (a home based business with every bike! – well, not really). With a unique design and wide array of colors to choose from, I might be tempted to rate it slightly higher were it not for the quality of the components. With plastic wheels and foam (yes, FOAM!) tires, I can’t imagine this bike holding up on a street surface (perhaps that’s why they highlight it’s use on dirt trails). As such, it may be more suited for riding in the grass, dirt or indoor surfaces. While it is quite light at 6 lbs, the method used to accomplish this has me very worried. The Strider trainer uses extremely thin steel for it’s tubing. So thin, that the certified weight limit of a rider is only 50 lbs. This is by far the weakest of the bikes I tested. Strider also uses a clamped, welded handlebar, which I personally despise (see “handlebar adjust” comments). Needless to say, the headset is plastic, not the preferred metal. At $99, I would also expect a decent saddle, quick-release saddle adjust and maybe even a handbrake for older riders. In my opinion, a better buy at $30.

Website: www.stridersports.com

Cost: $98.00

Pros: six colors, lightweight, low seat height, nice website

Cons: plastic wheels, foam tires, weak saddle, low weight limit, thin steel tubing, clamped handlebar, no quick-release or handbrake, etc.

Weight: 7 lbs

Seat Adjust: 11”-16”

Reviews: “Great fun; so-so quality”   read full review

pvglider

(11) PV Glider: – Let me be blunt: I hate this product. Notwithstanding that this trainer (in my opinion) is the least attractive of the trainers I tested, it also didn’t win high marks for design. As with many of the models tested, it uses too many undesirable components for my taste – plastic wheels, clamped handlebar, FOAM tires, etc. It does have a handbrake, though, which I like. While the handbrake was quite usable by my 4-year old, my 2-year old didn’t have nearly the dexterity required to use it. Beyond even those deficiencies, this trainer has foot rest pegs jutting out either side of the frame for the young rider to rest their feet on. I like the foot rest concept, but I hate the implementation used here. If the child falls, one of those pegs is going to be sticking straight up in the air at the spot where your child is most likely to land. Ouch! If you’re a parent looking for a model with a foot rest, I would suggest the Puky model mentioned earlier

Website: www.pvglider.com

Cost: $99.00

Pros: lightweight, handbrake (for younger riders), quick-release saddle adjust

Cons: aesthetics, plastic wheels, foam tires, weak saddle, foot pegs jut out side of trainer,

etc., etc.

Weight: 8 lbs

Seat Adjust: 13.5-18.5”

Reviews:

kazam

(12) Kazaam – A newcomer that I stumbled across at Interbike. A unique design…so unique that it’s founders spent the better part of 2 years getting it patented before bringing it to market! Perhaps they should have spent a few more years. While I like the aesthetics and foot rest concept, it was immediately obvious that the foot rest is much too small for a child’s foot to rest comfortably. In fact, it requires that a child angle their feet in, thereby putting their ankles in an unnatural position. Also, the trainer has more than it’s share of component deficiencies. In testing the models at Interbike, I experienced considerable difficulty with adjusting the seat up or down, even with the collar fully loose. Plus, I found the handlebars quite difficult to maneuver, possibly the result of poor design, improper sizing or the plastic headset. These issues, along with the clamped welded handlebars, plastic saddle, plastic wheels, etc…and it’s position at the bottom of my rankings is a no-brainer.

Website: www.kazambikes.com

Cost: $98
Pros: lightweight, unique design

Cons: everything else – plastic wheels and headset, difficulty turning handlebar or adjusting saddle, clamped-welded handlbar, etc, etc.

Weight: 10 lbs

Seat Adjust:

Reviews:

Components

Handlebars

Handlebars are generally made of steel, aluminum, titanium, carbon fiber or a combination thereof. Most balance bike manufacturers use all steel. If at all possible, parents should opt for all or partial aluminum, since it won’t rust and tends to be the more aesthetically pleasing. Aluminum is also a desirable handlebar material because it flexes, thereby absorbing some of the road shocks. Carbon fiber and titanium handlebars are nice, but are cost prohibitive. As for construction, there are several types. The most commonly used type I found is a welded handlebar, where the handlebar is welded to the stem. This is obviously the least desirable, since the handlebars are not adjustable forward and back. Additionally, there is less “give” (shock absorption) for the rider. The other type is a proper bicycle handlebar. Here, the handlebar is adjustable within the stem (forward/back) and within the head tube (up/down).

Handlebar Adjustment

There are two primary methods used by manufacturers for handlebar adjustment. Unfortunately, the one most commonly used happens to be the least desirable.

Most balance bike manufacturers use a clamp above the head tube to secure the front handlebar inside the fork stem. The downside here is enormous, since securing in this manner requires that the “teeth” of the clamp dig into the metal of the fork stem, thereby enclosing around the handlebar. This not only scratches the paint, but also cuts into the metal. In doing so, the clamp exposes the underlying metal to moisture and rust, not to mention potential catastrophic failure. Obviously, this is extremely undesirable. Also, in order to adjust the handlebar up or down, the parent must loosen the clamp via a simple bolt. Eventually, the bolt may strip and the handlebar will be stuck in one spot permanently.

The second method used by manufacturers, and the most desirable, is a standard expander/wedge type. Incidentally, this is the method used by most true bicycle manufactures (not balance bike manufacturers). In this method, the handlebar is tightened via a top hex or Allen bolt as it expands inside the fork/headtube. Not only does this method prevent damage to the frame, but it also allows for ease of adjustment later should the parent need to adjust the handlebar up/down.

I’ve also found that many balance bikes are made with plastic headsets, instead of metal – the standard in the bicycle industry. You don’t want plastic headsets (I can’t stress this enough) as they will wear and break much more easily than metal headsets. Also, handlebars turn with more fluidity on metal headsets because of enclosed bearings. The handlebar models that use proper metal headsets with bearings are typically the standard bike handlebar expander/wedge styles noted above. Also, some manufacturers use “turning limiters”, which govern or limit a child’s ability to steer. I’ve ready many pros and cons on this issue and tend to agree that steering limiters prevent children from learning how to steer properly. You will likely want your child to learn to steer properly before they get to bigger bicycles. As such, you might want to ensure you can disengage the limiter if the model you’ve chosen has this feature.

Saddle and Saddle Adjustment

Ah, the saddle. It is the most influential factor that determines if your child will have a comfortable ride or one that leaves him yearning for that old tricycle in the garage. Here again, many manufacturers opted for the cheapest and most poorly designed. Since comfort and aesthetics are subjective, I will hone in on those more concrete aspects of design: saddle construction and method of adjustment.

Saddle Types

Firstly, there is the cheapo saddle, with a single point of attachment between the saddle post and the saddle framework. Why is this important? Well, a single point of attachment may be apt to become overstressed as a child shifts his/her weight. This is especially true if the child is towards the middle or upper end of the spectrum for the bike’s recommended weight. An easily broken saddle may pose an injury risk to the child.

The next type of saddle is designed so that weight is evenly distributed over the entire seat since the saddle support is attached to the saddle at four separate points. With this construction, no single point of attachment absorbs all of the riders weight and, thus, is much less apt to break.

Lastly, most saddles are only adjustable up and down, via the collar. There are some manufacturers that use saddles that are angle adjustable. Incidentally, angle adjustable saddles are most typically found on standard bicycles. These types of saddles are obviously more expensive, hence the reason they are so rarely used. Still, if you can get it, you’ll have a wider adjustment range – both for comfort and usability. If you need to buy any after-market version, it’s likely going to run you $15-$25 for the cheapest option.

Saddle Adjustment

The two biggest factors here are how the seat adjusts and to what height range. To gage if a specific product is adequate for your child’s height, simply measure your child’s inseam and compare that to the seat adjust range. As far as method of adjustment, I’ll make this simple: You’ll want a saddle with a quick-release collar.

Using a quick-release affords quick and efficient adjustment of the saddle as a child grows or when other neighborhood children want a turn (and they will). Since quick-release collars are both readily accessible and affordable, I can’t image why some manufacturers don’t include them. But, if a bike doesn’t have it, it’s generally a good first indicator that the rest of the bike’s components are on the low end of the desirability scale.

For those manufacturers that don’t use quick-release collars, they instead use a standard tightening collar (generally tightened via a set screw, hex nut, allen nut or nut and bolt) to tighten and loosen the saddle. This is the least desirable, as it requires the use of tools to loosen each time you want to move the saddle up or down. Eventually, the tightening mechanism might wear or strip and prevent further adjustment.

Wheels

When was the last time you saw a Schwinn with plastic wheels? Yeah, right. Bicycles aren’t sold with plastic wheels. But many balance bikes are. Herein lies one of the big differences between a real bike and a toy bike. If you can, opt for steel, aluminum or composite rims. I’m skeptical that plastic rims can withstand the test of time or use. For plastic rim models I tested, I also was unable to find a pump that would fit in between the thick, plastic spokes. If you’re considering a model with plastic rims, make sure they have a suitable pump available for purchase as well or your child will be riding on flats. There were a few other undesirable affects with the plastic rims that I touch on in the individual bike reviews. One final note on wheels: most manufacturers use rubber/nylon tires with inflatable tubes. That’s good, since you can pick up a replacement tube at any Walmart or Target for $2-$3. But beware: There are a couple of manufacturers using foam or solid wheels. Foam and pavement don’t agree with each other. If the street or sidewalk your child is learning on takes a chunk out of his/her foam tire, it’s going to become quite unstable (and dangerous) before your child has a chance to react. Instead of just replacing a $2 tube, you’re going to have to find a complete replacement wheel – and quite likely a new helmet as well.

Weight

Opt for a bike that is lightweight – between 8 and 12 pounds. The heavier the bike, the more difficult it will be for your young child to push and maneuver. However, a bike that is too light might be structurally unsound and weak. For example, one of the bikes I tested weighed just under 7 lbs and seemed structurally deficient (the steel frame was scary thin). It didn’t take me long to figure out why it was only rated for children under 50 lbs. On the flip side, a 15 lb bike is equally undesirable, since it will be too heavy for a toddler to maneuver.

Warranty

If the warranty on the bike you are considering is short, be very wary. Most bikes that come with a warranty generally say so on the web site or accompanying literature. The standard seems to be 1 year, though there are a few high-end manufacturers offering up to 3 years. Anything under a year might should tell you something.

Posted by: tview29 | November 27, 2008

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