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The Benefits and Drawbacks of Run Bikes
1329 Hits  Issue date:7/24/2013

You may have done a double-take when you first saw this: a child scooting around the park on a pint-sized bike without any pedals. These mini machines, called balance bikes or run bikes, have seen a big surge in popularity over the last few years. Let¡¯s take a closer look and see what the fuss is all about.

The idea behind run bikes is simple: the rider sits on the seat and pushes along with their feet. At first this may be a slow walk while the child figures out how to keep straight and upright, but as they figure it out they will be able to progress to running speed. Finally, the child will be able to push off and glide while holding their feet up off the ground (raising the seat slightly when they get to this point will make it easier for them). Should they start to tip over they can easily use a foot to catch themselves. On balance bikes kids can learn how to balance through their own trial and error, progressing to longer and longer glides before having to put their feet down.

 -Size-

A key feature for small children is that a run bike can be made smaller and lower than a regular bike. There are fundamental limits to how small and low a conventional bike can be made, even if small wheels are used. Most significantly there must be a minimum distance between the pedals and the ground to prevent them from striking the ground if pedaling while turning, and there must be a minimum height between the pedals and the seat to allow the child to pedal. A run bike doesn¡¯t have these constraints and therefore the seat can be made much lower. Two and three year olds that aren¡¯t tall enough to ride a regular bike can usually find a run bike to suit them. Another benefit is the reduced weight of these bikes, which comes from their smaller size but also from lacking not only the pedals but also the cranks, sprockets, and chain of a regular bike. Less weight makes the bikes easier for small kids to handle. Of course, there are always two sides to a coin and along with these advantages come disadvantages too.

 -Brakes-

One of the most obvious drawbacks to run bikes is that most of them don¡¯t have any brakes. Therefore the only way for the child to stop, besides gradually slowing down by coasting, is to drag their feet. As anyone who has tried it knows, dragging your feet is a not a very efficient way to stop and for this reason kids on run bikes should stay away from hills and places with too many potential hazards for them to run into. In addition, they should always wear sturdy closed toe shoes to protect their toes ¨C never sandals or flip-flops. Finally the child will have to unlearn this foot drag braking when they learn to ride a regular bike, which can be a persistent habit, even for kids who have never ridden a run bike.

You may notice that some of the fancier models may be equipped with one or two hand brakes. Unfortunately though, these are largely for show. Most children under 5 lack the finger size, strength, and dexterity to use hand brakes effectively. There is a reason that virtually all small children¡¯s bikes feature coaster or ¡°pedal¡± brakes (even if they are also equipped with hand brakes): they are far easier for children to use, both for hard stops and for gradually slowing down. So even with hand brakes run bikes are really best suited to flat, open areas with a minimum of obstacles.

 -Pedalling-

Another limitation to run bikes, which seems stunningly obvious when you state it, is that they don¡¯t teach kids how to pedal. For most kids, learning to balance is more difficult than learning to pedal, but learning to pedal is just as important and can often be tricky too. Knowing which foot to push on and when sounds simple, but it actually requires a fair degree of a young child¡¯s coordination, especially when it comes to starting and stopping.

The sooner a child can start building this muscle memory the better and a bike with training wheels is a good platform for practicing the big starting push, continuous pedaling, and braking. Tricycles are also a good tool for teaching kids how to properly move their muscles because the pedals are directly connected to the front wheel and this helps to pull the child¡¯s feet through the spots where they normally get stuck when learning.

The notion behind run bikes is that a child will transition directly from one of them to a two wheeler. This doesn¡¯t always pan out though if the child has never practiced pedaling before and as they are developing their pedaling they may revert to scooting along with their feet to get started and/or dragging their feet to stop if they are having a hard time doing either of those things with their pedals.

So what conclusions should a parent draw from this? Balance bikes are a great tool for teaching balance to young kids who are too small, or not ready for a regular bike. For safety¡¯s sake, riders on these bikes should stick to flat, clear areas and always wear shoes that will protect their feet (and of course a bike helmet!). Finally, parents should make sure their child gets plenty of practice pedaling on training wheels or on a tricycle to give them the greatest prospect for success on their two-wheeler.  As a general guideline, run bikes are best suited for children aged two and three, and kids will be ready to start riding a regular bike when they are four or close to it.

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