Balance bikes have radically changed how kids start riding. Bypassing the training-wheel stage altogether, many are getting started early. Turns out, learning to pedal is easier when balance and turning have already been mastered. Now, with the advent of balance bike racing, kids can experience the fun of competition in family-friendly events that are growing in popularity.
When it comes to balance bikes, Ryan McFarland, inventor, founder, president, and “chief enthusiast” of Strider Bikes, looks at balance bike design the same way any bicycle designer would.
“A balance bike is a bike stripped down to its essence, where the sole focus becomes balancing on two wheels and leaning through turns,” he says. “These really are the fundamental skills needed to ride and the very definition of riding.”
McFarland notes that, while propelling a bike forward can happen in many ways—by walking (striding), running, or pedaling—the foundational skills are balancing and leaning (steering and counter-steering). The pared-down functionality of balance bikes leads to success for young children, he argues. And success fuels fun, which fuels sales. Strider Bikes sells more than 300,000 bikes annually.
Jim Holst, QBP product manager, shares his personal take on balance bikes. “Coming from the bike industry, I pushed my kids into riding at a pretty young age in the ’80s,” he says. “I’d learned to ride with no training wheels on a 20-inch bike at age 7. My boys were riding 16-inch bikes with training wheels by age 5. As I recall, it was one to two years on training wheels before they graduated to riding without them.”
Holst saw a pretty drastic difference in the learning curve with a balance bike. “I had a balance bike at my house for my grandkids, which they both started sitting on and trying to ride at 18 months to 2 years, he says.”
But because Holst’s son had started with training wheels when he was young, he put Holst’s older grandson on training wheels at age 4. The child rode fairly slowly and tentatively until Holst convinced his son to take the training wheels off.
“That led to my grandson’s riding more confidently and much faster,” says Holst. That grandson is now 7 and racing BMX and some mountain bikes. The younger grandson decided when he was 3 that he needed to move on to pedal bikes, and has been riding on a 16-inch bike for two summers. “He is 4,” Holst boasts. “He is most likely going to start BMX racing this winter. All that balance bike history really helps.”
A Day At The Races
Strider Bikes is a company comprised of riding and racing enthusiasts, so it was inevitable that this love of competition would lead the company to develop a racing side of the category.
“Kids love to play and socialize with other kids,” says McFarland, “and at this age, racing is exactly that. It is the biggest, best play date ever! It has grown from chalk lines on the sidewalk to a nationally sanctioned race series with USA BMX and other race organizations around the world. Now we have the Strider World Championship, an international competition between the youngest of athletes.”
McFarland feels that this is the ultimate feeder to cycling sports. He believes that getting kids out of the stands and onto the track while the intimidation factor is still very low is key to having them participate for years to come. It is also important to have an entry age so young that participation begins prior to other sports that compete for kids’ attention, such as soccer, swimming, and gymnastics.
Balance bike races make for a pretty festive and family-friendly atmosphere. The Strider World Championship is weekend of activities including riding, racing, live music, carnival games, good food, sightseeing, charity fundraising, and more. “The races themselves are the anchors to the event, but the event is much more than just the race,” McFarland says. Families with young children are naturally attracted to Strider events because there are activities for kids as young as 18 months of age. Strider Adventure Zones are free ride and play areas that allow the toddlers to learn at their own pace in a safe but fun environment.
As a result of the growing popularity of the races, McFarland notes, the Strider World Championship draws families from as far away as Japan, Ecuador, and Australia. “It brings these families to the U.S. and encourages American children to play and ride alongside other riders from all over the world,” he says. “We will see over 200 toddler riders competing. Japan does this very well. They hold Strider races that draw over 2,000 entries. Due to the overwhelming interest, they have had to use a lottery system to limit the number of toddler Strider racers to 1,000!”
The novelty of the events, the feel-good cuteness factor, the economic impact, and the demographic of active young families are now drawing the attention of sponsors, such as FedEx, Sony Japan, and Scheels.
“We have been going to a number of BMX tracks this summer and we have yet to see fewer than two motos (qualifying rounds) of balance bike racing,” says Holst. “Even a couple races with only ten motos of adults still have two or three motos of the little guys. I’ve seen 2-, 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old classes.”
The Future Is Now
McFarland believes that the industry’s embrace of balance bikes can contribute to a secure future for cycling, and not just in a self- or industry-serving way. Balance bikes could help prevent a future health crisis for kids.
“With a 21 percent drop in the number of kids riding bikes in the last decade, anything that can be done to get more kids riding should be a top priority for dealers,” he says. For decades, children learned to ride bikes “because the bike represented something fun to do once mastered. And frankly, they didn’t have that many other options. Today’s kids have a hundred other options—and most are more fun than ‘soldiering through the process’ of learning to ride a bike.”
A myriad of organized sports now actively recruit 4-year-olds, McFarland says, and TV, video games, and iPhones are commonplace with children as young as 3 years of age. “Cycling has simply been beaten by competition in the race to entry age.”
Strider Bikes is a strong contender in this competition for attention. “Riding is now the first activity that a child can become involved with—as young as 18 months of age, the earliest entry age possible. Riding can be again the number-one activity in a child’s life,” he says. “Learning to ride and loving to ride is the gateway to a lifetime of riding—and buying bikes, gear, and accessories.”
“Getting kids on balance bikes early cements their relationship to the bike and means they will stay with it for life,” adds Holst. “They may float away at times in their lives but they will come back. We need to grow those young riders or we won’t have a bike industry like we’re used to down the road. When I was young, I felt like every kid rode a bike, now it seems like maybe half.”