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Make Your Own Balance Bike

I know.  I say it every time, but…making connections is what I love best about kidHaven – my pet project, turned part-time job, turned connection machine.  Connected with Chicargobike recently and am thrilled to have them guest blogging here today, and again next month.  Chicargobike is a blog about family biking around Chicago, a city I loved living in if only for a short stint.  While their blog centers around Chi-town, they’ve written some nice pieces about biking with kids in general.  Today’s piece is about something I’ve wondered before – is their an alternative to those fancy-shmancy balance bikes I’ve drooled over at Jesse’s Toy Store?  Well my friends, the answer is yes.  Read on!

Written by Chicargobike

the blue one is the homemade balance bike ~ photo courtesy of Chicargobike

There’s no better way to learn how to ride a bike than a balance bike (or toddler bike). That’s one of those little bikes with no pedals, no training wheels, and no brakes that you see more and more lately. They are good for early practice learning to stop, go and make good turns in a park or playground, way before your kid ever tries out intersections and stops on a sidewalk ride.

photo courtesy of Chicargobike

Our now-10-year-old played around with one for a few months back when he was 3, then suddenly hopped on an older friend’s Batman bike and roared off on his own around the park. Other kids we know have done the same. Our 6-year-old liked the balance bike so much he wouldn’t get off it, and he refused to take a pedal bike long after he was able to ride up and down our sidewalk on his own. The 2-year-old isn’t quite big enough to fit on it yet but he calls it his bike already.

You can get them as adaptive bikes for grownups, old-fashioned velocipedes, or for kids, made out of hardwood plywood in fancy toy and stroller stores. Even Target has them. There are a few metal ones for kids now becoming available. The wooden ones that are common are light enough to pop under one arm and carry back from the park if your small person gets tired of riding, and many have a limitation built into the steering to prevent the wheel from turning so far to the side that it causes a fall. None that I have seen have any brakes, so they are only for use in flat or slightly sloping places that are safe for kids to be running around. Playgrounds are good, parking lots and sidewalks downhill to big streets are not. Kids this age can’t (in my opinion) really use brakes that well anyway yet. The bikes are toys and teaching tools, not real transportation. Yet.

The original wooden balance bike for kids that we know about, the Like-A-Bike, was made by Kokua, a wooden toy company in Germany, and was probably priced to provide its manufacturing workers a living wage, health care and a safe working environment. In other words, it was way too expensive, but it was the only one for a long time. It was made better than most others are now. You can still get one.

I guess that many clever penny pinchers in the bike or toy industry realized that by copying the design and getting it built elsewhere by people without those protections, the bike would be a lot cheaper, and the manufacturer could get a great big nice profit and the consumer could save $50.  I can’t think of another reason why these things cost as much as they do considering where they are made now.

But you aren’t limited to those choices. How about a recycled one? It is really easy to make your own if you have friends with old bikes, access to a used bike store that carries children’s bikes, or a cheap 5&10 nearby that has tiny pink and blue kids’ bikes with roughly 10 inch wheels (though that isn’t recycling really). You need only a wrench or two, a chain tool, and pliers or something to bend wires, on most bikes, or unscrew the thing that holds the cranks on (the bottom bracket) on others. Eyes glazing over? You can just take your chosen bike to your favorite neighborhood bike shop and ask them to take off the cranks and chain for you. But let’s say you have your tools ready:

  • This is a cheap lightweight baby bike with 10 in wheels and solid foam tires bought new for $10 at the Maxwell St Market and adulterated as described in this post. Look how his R foot is flat on the ground (low seat!) and he can step comfortably with the other foot. ~ photo courtesy of Chicargobike

    First, make sure you are wearing stainable old clothes, then go to the store or junkyard or thrift shop or Working Bikes and pick out the bones of a little metal kid’s bike that takes your fancy. You just need the frame, wheels, seat and steering to work – it doesn’t need pedals, cranks, chain or brakes. I suggest getting a really little one that’s lightweight enough to want to carry it home from the park, maybe with 10 inch or 12 1/2 inch tires.

  • Make sure it’s small enough for your child to fit on it (bring the child with you?) and put his or her feet down at a comfortable angle to the ground.  Remember, your small person will be walking with big, long steps like Groucho Marx while resting weight on the bike, so the seat has to be a lot lower than he or she would need it if actually bicycling. It takes them a few tries to get comfortable enough to actually rest their weight. Note that homemade balance bikes don’t have the built in limit on the steering, but that hasn’t been a problem for our guys so far.
  • If the bike is covered with stickers and brand names you don’t like, check that they are removable before you buy – most in this class of bikes are easily peeled off. Or, with a little reflective tape you can make a nicer design than what it came with anyway. Black bikes look good with yellow stripes – a bumblebee bike! Multicolor – a rainbow bike! And so on. You can put a big piece of reflector tape over the picture of Tinkerbell or whoever if you think she’s not a good role model for your child. Make the bike look appealing and cool for your kid.
  • Take off any training wheels. Next, remove the non-drive side pedal. It should have a 15 mm wrench size, and it’s threaded backwards - with the wrench pointing up turn it toward the back of the bike like tightening a regular bolt- and use penetrating oil if needed. This is a good time to use a real wrench, not an adjustable one. Then break the chain with a chain tool. Or a chain saw. Just kidding. Remove the chain and set it aside. You won’t likely need it again, but who knows?
  • Most of these little kids’ bikes, if not all of them, have a one piece crank shaped like a Z with the chainwheel stamped on, like the old Schwinn “Ashtabula” cranks. You can usually find out how to remove the cranks by looking at the non-drive side – there is a bent wire retainer or a screw-on nut that holds the crank bottom bracket, such as it is, to the frame. Remove it and loosen the other side as much as you can, then remove whatever you can of the bottom bracket. Often this is just a piece of plastic on each side with a hole in its center. Greasy metal ball bearings might jump out at you if someone built it a little better than that. Now, hold the drive side pedal arm, the one with the chainwheel, and move the zigzag crank out of the bottom bracket opening of the bike until it’s free of the frame. Clean up the grease, if any.
  • Remove any brakes too, if desired. You may need to reattach the bottom bracket covers or put some duct tape over the holes or glue in corks or something so nobody gets scraped. Adjust the seat to be low and comfortable, pump up the tires and you are done.

It might not be birch plywood, but it’s not bad either, and it’s waterproof enough to be left outside. If your kid ever needs it, you can reverse the above steps and reinstall everything. Set the pieces aside now.

Get a helmet that fits your kid, grab your new balance bike, and head to the park!

We are two parents who ride everywhere in Chicago with our three children ages 10, 7 and 3. We’ve kept riding as our kids grow and our lives get more complicated. Our lives biking before kids color our ideas about staying on the road. Before our ten years here in Chicago, D. lived in Munich for eleven years. I spent a year and a half in Munich. I led unsupported bike tours for kids, and I helped run an after school off-road bike and racing program for at risk kids in a small town in Massachusetts, fit around my day job as a baker. Our posts are written by one or the other of us and our opinions reflect who is behind the keyboard.

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  1. We only caught on to the balance bike with kid #3 and what a difference it made. He never used training wheels and moved on to riding his own two-wheeler at a younger age and with more confidence than his older brothers. I loved watching him zoom around on his balance bike– very Fred Flinstone!

    Love that Chicargobike came and visited kidHaven. Look forward to further posts.

    September 1, 2011

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