How to buy the best mountain bike for your child - whatever their age
[Updated February 15, 2021]
Choosing a new bike for yourself can be a complex decision, but picking the best one for your kids can be almost as daunting. The amount of money available to spend on a bike that will be outgrown in a few short years is usually the main influence on most parental buying choices. However, given that you’re reading this article, you’re likely to be making a decision not solely dictated by your wallet.
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‘Keep it simple’ is a good maxim to keep in the front of your mind when considering kids’ bikes – even more so with the youngest riders. While it’s tempting to arm your little ripper with a suspension equipped and geared bike as soon as possible, this adds unnecessary complication and - crucially - weight. This can result in bikes aimed at 6 and 7-year-olds weighing well in excess of 12kg – more than half a child's average weight and the equivalent of you riding a full-sus eMTB with the motor permanently switched off!
The other key consideration to get a bike that fits correctly. Given the outlay for a new bike, it’s easy to go for a bigger size so your kid will grow into it. However, a bike that’s too big will feel unwieldy and make it difficult to ride – affecting confidence, stunting progress and possibly putting them off cycling altogether. Wheel-size usually dictates the frame size, with wheels ranging from 12 to 26 inches.
What's best for kids from 2 to 4 years old?
Once your child can safely get themselves around on two legs, you can think about introducing them to doing the same on two wheels and a balance bike is the best place to start.
Stripped of pedals and (usually) brakes, these pint-sized incarnations of the velocipede (a pedal-free bicycle forerunner) enable kids to teach themselves the rudiments of bike balance and handling while having a great time as they scoot about. Once ready to move up a pedalled bike, they can usually make the transition to riding one pretty quickly without the need for stabilisers or much adult assistance.
Almost all balance bikes come with spoked 12in wheels and pneumatic tyres. Frames are usually aluminium (though wood and even carbon versions are available), some models come with a rear V-brake, while others have proper bars, stem and headset set-ups. Weights range from 3 to 6kg.
Best on a budget for 2-4 years old
Carrera Coast — £70
Just £70 gets you this basic but sound aluminium-framed balance bike from Halfords, with 12-inch wheels, thin grips for small hands, fat tyres and a rear brake.
Best money no object for 2-4 years old
Frog Tadpole — £190
A straightforward balance bike, with lots of attention to detail, and a brake so your future downhill world champion has a chance of slowing down a bit when she has to.
For our purposes, the Tadpole's 1.75in tyres mean it edges out the otherwise similarly excellent Islabikes Rothan with its 1.25in rubber. That bike is well worth a look if you think Junior can do without the Tadpole's fat tyres.
What's best for kids 4 years and up?
Your child’s first proper pedal bike should have an upright riding position to help give them confidence, a low centre of gravity for better stability and components (e.g. brake levers) designed to fit the intended rider. Fortunately, with the likes of Islabikes, Frog and Early Rider, there are many bike brands around that tick all of these boxes. The main benefit of spending more cash is that you’ll get a lighter and therefore more user-friendly bike.
Look for single-speed bikes with BMX-style bars with slimmer tubing, short cranks with a narrow Q-factor (the width between the pedals), a low bottom bracket and short reach brake levers. Light wheels are highly desirable too and while it’s tempting to go for chunkier off-road tyres, at this stage a low rolling resistance helps keep speeds and stoke levels up.
Wheel sizes come in at 12, 14 and 16in - with the most suitable depending on the age and height of the rider. Steel framed bikes are typically cheaper and heavier, while aluminium frames are a fair bit lighter. Higher specced models come equipped with a proper bar, stem and headset set-up and have enclosed chains or are belt-driven to protect inquisitive fingers. V-brakes are standard, while bike weights range from 5 to 10kg.
Best on a budget for ages 4 and up
Frog 44 — £300
A well appointed and proportioned 16in-wheel bike that weighs in at a reasonable 6.6kg. These are pretty popular and hold their value very well, with many dealers offering a buy back or trade in scheme when you want to upgrade to the next size in the range.
Best money no object for ages 4 and up
Canyon Offspring AL16 — £449
A fantastic little bike that is made for confident riding. Comes with disc brakes too. Sadly not currently available, but if it comes back, the link above will take you there.
What's best for kids from 5 years and up
Once your child has outgrown their single-speed steed and has become adept at pedalling and braking, they are likely to be in the realm of the 20-inch wheeled bike which is time to step it up a gear (or, erm, seven).
As you may have guessed from the feeble pun, most bikes of this size have multiple gears – usually seven. Being intuitive and easier to operate, SRAM Gripshift is a popular option, but you’ll also find thumb shifters equipped bikes too. In my experience, younger riders can struggle with either option as they lack the wrist or finger strength to change down through the gears – changing up is much easier though. My 6 and 3/4-year-old has only just properly got the hang of operating his 7-speed Gripshift, though still needs some help with his gear selection.
Most 20-inch wheeled bikes are basically scaled-down versions of adult MTBs. The riding position is very similar, they come with off-road tyres and you’ll find disc brakes on certain models such as Canyon’s Offspring AL20.
If you’re after a bike with a suspension fork, there’s plenty of models that offer coil-sprung versions and a few, such as the Norco Charger 20, that have a lighter and more tuneable air suspension fork. Despite the benefits they provide, suspension forks do add a fairly hefty penalty of around 1.5kg or more to the total bike weight, so my advice is to go for a rigid bike – to begin with at least.
Best on a budget for 5 years and up
Dawes Lightning 20" — £220
The Dawes Lightning replaces the older Dawes Academy bike, it looks like a sturdy kids bike that gets a low standover, small levers for small hands and short cranks too for little legs and its only £220.
Best money no object for 5 years and up
Isla Creig 20 — £799.99
Islabikes mini-mountain bike comes in a range of wheel sizes from 20-inch to 27-inch and boasts wide-range gearing, hydraulic brakes and tubeless-ready wheels and tyres. It's a proper modern mountain bike, scaled down for youngsters.
What's best for 8 years and up?
When the time comes to move up from a 20-inch to a 24 or 26-inch wheeled bike, you’re basically looking at slightly miniaturised versions of fully equipped adult machines, though there are many more hardtails available than full-suspension bikes.
Better specced models come with 10 or 11-speed drivetrains, air-sprung forks with 65mm (or more) of travel, hydraulic discs and everything else you’d expect to find on a full-size bike. Budget bikes are weightier and tend to have coil-sprung forks, V-brakes and 8-speed gearing.
Expect to pay between £250 and £1200 for a hardtail (the Frog MTB 62 is a great bike for £590). Full-suspension bikes aren’t cheap, starting at £1225 for the Norco Fluid FS 24 or 26 and heading northwards from there.
Best on a budget for 8 years and up
Decathlon Rockrider ST 500 — £199.99
The adult Rockrider range from sports megastore chain Decathlon gives you plenty of bang for a minimal amount of bucks and this bargain 24in version does exactly the same.
Best money no object for ages 8 and up
Commencal Clash 24 — €2,899
With a 145mm Manitou Machete fork, RockShox Deluxe Select shock, SRAM NX 1x11 gearing and Shimano MT 501 disc brakes, this is one seriously tricked out 24-inch bike for the young daredevil who wants a riot of their own.
What's best for 12 years and up?
Now that your little ripper is no longer so little, the world of fully fledged adult bikes awaits and we reckon some of our bike reviews of bikes under £600 might fit the bill, have a look at our 'best of guide here.
Obviously look for models that come in small or extra small and, unless your child is particularly tall for their age, avoid 29ers as the bigger wheels are harder to turn with shorter legs - and frames will be bigger too.
What, 2 suggestions for my 8 year old: 200 quid or nearly 3000?! Nothing in between?!
How to fit helmets:
Just to point out that the child on the left in the picture has his helmet so far back on his head that if he fell forwards his face and forehead would be as exposed to damage as if her weren't wearing a helmet at all. Please make sure that children know how to wear helmets properly. Also applies to some adults.
Article in need of an update!
Whyte and Nukeproof have some great new kids bikes, and there's a new junior specific Neuron from Canyon.
Islabikes discontinued the Pro range a long time ago, but they have a slacker new Creig.