Balance Bike v Training Wheels
Juniors
Bike Guide

Balance Bike vs. Training Wheels

By: Jim Rutberg  March 30, 2022

What's the best way to get your kid started on a bike?

Many lifelong cyclists recall their early experiences on bicycles as their first taste of freedom and independence. With a bicycle, they could explore and go farther and faster under their own power. But there was also a learning curve, and it typically included some bruises and Band-Aids. One of the biggest questions parents have centers on whether to start kids out on balance bikes vs. pedal bikes with training wheels.

Before going any further, let’s lay some ground rules. Both balance bikes and training wheels are effective and safe ways to teach a child how to ride a bicycle. There is no right or wrong choice, just the best choice for you and your child. There is also no perfect age for a child to start riding; kids develop motor skills, cognitive skills, and interests on their timeline, not ours. And finally, although you may have survived your childhood without helmets, we know more about concussions now than we used to. Parents and children should wear helmets during every ride.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about balance bikes vs. pedal bikes with training wheels.

Balance Bikes and Pedal Bikes

Balance bikes, sometimes referred to as strider bikes (generically, or as the Strider brand of balance bikes), feature handlebars, a seat, and two wheels, but no drivetrain. There are no pedals, no cogs, no chain – and typically no brakes. To move, kids start by walking the bike while sitting on the seat, then taking longer strides and gliding between steps, and finally picking up both feet and coasting a long way. To slow down and stop, they simply drag or press their feet on the ground.

Pedal bikes feature all the parts of a balance bike, plus the addition of a drivetrain: pedals attached to a crank that turns a chainring which is connected by a chain to a cog on the rear wheel. Using your feet to turn the pedals drives the rear wheel. Children sit higher on pedal bikes, compared to balance bikes, because the cranks need room to go around with hitting the ground – even during turns. As a result, pedal bikes for young children need either hand brakes, coaster brakes, or both, because kids may not be able to sit on the seat and press both feet to the ground to slow down.

Why You Might Choose a Balance Bike

If you are considering a balance bike, here are some of the potential benefits.

Lower to the ground: Because the child must be able to push with either foot while sitting on the seat, the frame and seat of a balance bike are lower than on a pedal bike. This makes balance bikes more accessible to younger children and toddlers.

Lightweight: Removing the drivetrain and training wheels dramatically reduces the weight of a child’s bike. Balance bikes are typically 6-9 pounds, compared to 12-15 pounds for a pedal bike with the same wheels size (12”). For a 25-pound child, the balance bike is about 24-36% of the child’s weight, whereas the pedal bike is 48-60% of the child’s weight. To make that more relatable, consider pushing a bike that’s half your weight vs. pushing a bike that’s one quarter of your weight. Why does bike weight matter for this age group? Because the lighter bike is easier to get moving and easier to stride uphill, which means kids can go farther before getting tired.

Teaches natural turns: When steering through a turn on a pedal bike with training wheels, the bike stays mostly upright. Any amount of leaning is determined by the height of the training wheels. At high speeds, this can lead kids to topple over if they turn too sharply. Balance bikes allow and encourage kids to lean into turns the same way older kids and adults do.

Adaptable to rough terrain: Because they are light and kids can adjust their stride length as needed, balance bikes are easier for young kids to maneuver through dirt, grass, and gravel. Pedal bikes with 12-inch wheels have short crank arms and young kids often lack the leverage to keep the bike moving over a soft or rough surface. In addition, the training wheels often sink into soft surfaces like dirt, gravel, and sand, making it harder for kids to maintain their momentum.

Simplicity: Kids develop body awareness and balance quickly as they learn to walk, run, climb, and jump. Balancing on two wheels with their feet on the ground continues that progression, and once they master the balance part, learning the mechanical aspect of pedaling may come easily. Some children may even progress from balance bikes to pedal bikes without ever using training wheels.

One potential disadvantage to balance bikes is that few can be adapted into pedal bikes when a child wants to start pedaling. This limits how long the balance bike may be used before parents need to purchase another bicycle. Fortunately, balance bikes – and pedal bikes - in good condition can be passed down to younger siblings, the neighbor’s kids, or donated to non-profits that have programs to recondition and distribute kids bikes.

Why You Might Choose Training Wheels

Millions of people have successfully learned to ride a bicycle by starting out with training wheels, and it’s still a perfectly good choice. Here’s why you might want to go with training wheels.

Versatility: Training wheels can be installed on almost any kids bike (and some adult bikes as well). If you already have a pedal bicycle in the appropriate size, adding training wheels may be an inexpensive option. And because training wheels can be removed at any time, the child may be able to ride the bike for a much longer period.

Brakes: If you live in a hilly area and are concerned a child may pick up too much speed on a balance bike with no brakes, a pedal bike with training wheels will come equipped with either hand brakes or a coaster brake, or both.

If you choose a pedal bicycle with hand brakes, keep in mind that the child needs to be able to reach the brake lever and have sufficient hand strength to brake effectively. Hand brakes also require occasional maintenance, including brake pad alignment and/or replacement, cable tension, and cable housing.

Older, bigger kids: Although some kids may take to balance bikes soon after they learn to walk, other kids may have no interest in bicycles until they are older. There are also kids who may not have access to bicycles or places to ride them when they are very young. Although some balance bikes can accommodate a wide range of saddle heights, some parents may struggle to find a balance bike that fits an older or taller child.

In the grand scheme of things, balance bikes and training wheels are used for a very short portion of a person’s life. Regardless of which method you choose, your child is extremely likely to achieve the same endpoint: pedaling a bicycle with no training wheels. So, keep it fun. Be encouraging. And never underestimate the healing power of a hug, a kiss, and a Band-Aid.