With Christmas right around the corner, a new mountain bike can be a great gift for the grom in your life. Several manufacturers have models in this market segment, and it is possible to get a “real” mountain bike for riders as young as 5 years old. Here’s a run-down on where to shop and what to look for.
First, let’s address the department store issue. Those bikes have a place in the world, but it is not underneath your budding trail partner. If you aspire to have your son or daughter safely hit the trails with you, then you need to invest in a real bike for them. ’nuff said.
For a 5-7 year old, you will want a bike with 20″ wheels. These typically have a 6 or 7-speed rear derailleur with a single front chainring. Front and rear V-brakes and grip shifters are the norm, and overall it will resemble a miniature version of your average MTB hardtail. The better models will have a 1 1/8″ steerer with a standard stem, standard handlebars that will accept off the shelf grips, and a common-sized seatpost. This age group is probably too young for clipless, but those will fit if you want to try it. (I have seen a 5 year old on SPD’s.)
For a 7-10 year old, you can move up to a bike with 24″ wheels, and the major brands will carry the same model in both sizes. This model will likely have a 3-speed crankset, but otherwise it will be a part for part match with the 20″ version… other than the frame and wheels, of course. Tire selection is better for the 24″ models, and with the extra gears, kids in this range can start doing longer and more technical rides. If they have been off the training wheels for a while, this can also be a good time to start exploring clipless pedals. My 10-year-old loves hers, and has already ridden them enough to know that she prefers SPDs over Eggbeaters.
Both the 20″ and 24″ bikes will be hardtails with some variation of an elastomer fork with no preload or rebound settings. Most kids aren’t heavy enough to compress the fork anyway, so don’t sweat that feature too much. At this point it’s just about building up their stamina, balance, and overall trail awareness and these bikes will do that. Another weird thing I have noticed is that these bikes, though small, are heavy! We have a Specialized Hotrock with 24″ wheels and it weighs 32 pounds! When my 10 year old graduated from that bike to my 27 lb Giant Trance she was loving life!
Kids all grow at different rates, but somewhere between 10 and 12, they should be ready move into a bike with 26″ wheels. Most of the major brands have models with an extra-small size, and at this point you can also explore options like full suspension, disc brakes, etc.
My 10 year old on a small (16″) Giant Trance with 4″ of travel, hydraulic disc brakes, and 26″ wheels. She weighs 75 pounds and the Fox fork and shock perform perfectly with the air pressure set accordingly.
Now that we have covered the basics, here are some actual bikes in the above-mentioned sizes.
This bike comes as a 20″ 7-speed or a 24″ 21 speed. The prices range from $330 to $370.
This bike comes in a number of configurations for boys and girls in 20″ and 24″. Priced from $350 to $480, the top model (pictured) has tabs for mounting disc brakes.
The Hidden Canyon is 20″ and the Bayview Trail is 24″ and there is a boy’s and girl’s model of each. Chili Pepper Bike Shop in Moab rents these, so I assume they are well built.
This $430 bike is a 24″ only. Trek doesn’t offer a matching 20″ model.
Scott carries a full line of kids’ off road bikes, including 20″ and 24″ hardtail, dirt jumpers, and even full suspension bikes! They tend to cost more, but they are excellent quality and they are the lightest of the bunch. Like Specialized, Scott also offers disc brake mounts on their top-of-the-line model (pictured). If the kid you are buying for is into racing or just puts on a lot of trail miles in a given year, then definitely check out the Scott line.
With prices ranging from $300 – $600 in this category, and with kids growing like they do, these bikes can be more of a financial commitment than some buyers are ready for. When shopping, ask your LBS if they do a trade in program where you can trade up as your child grows, Also, if you have several kids, with basic maintenance these bikes will last for years and can easily be handed down numerous times. And finally, if you know the model you want, hit up Craigslist and eBay. We got the Specialized Hotrock 20″ in the first pic for $100 on Craigslist. It went through both of our daughters and three years later when they both had outgrown it, we put it back on Craigslist and sold it… for $90!
In the spirit of Christmas, kids and mountain bikes, don’t forget the Singletracks kids’ bike fundraiser going on right now. With your help, one of the cool bikes pictured above can end up under the tree of a kid who otherwise could never afford it.