Kids Bikes are getting more advanced, but is spending that amount of money actually necessary?
If you take a trip to a local mountain at a time when a young Kids Mountain Bike club meets up, you’ll likely see parents pulling small $2000 full suspension kids mountain bike from the trunks of their vehicles.
Full suspension bikes were not a thing for kids when I was a youngster, and whilst, I often say, “I wish I had one of these when I was a kid!” I’m not sure I really mean it. Yes, of course, these bikes, look sweet, and they are sweet; jam packed full of cool technology and pretty colours, but are they really necessary?
Pulling up alongside the vehicle with the $2000 bike on the back; is young Johnny with his parents. He arrives for his first ever mountain bike lesson and pulls out a $200 beater hard tail bike (for those new to biking a hard tail is one with no suspension in the rear). He shyly walks his bike over to the main group, head hanging down, worried he won’t keep up with all these ‘cool kids’.
The instructor checks the bike for safety and it’s good to go. The brakes are solid, the bolts are tight and the gears are working just great! Off they go to start the ride.
Johnny is the first one to the top of the climb; his bike is lighter than everyone else’s. His confidence is boosted and he feels that he’s a legitimate member of the group. This doesn’t stop him from admiring everyone else’s bike. He does well during the rest of the lesson and has a ton of fun. There was a few features he decided to skip because he’s worried his bike is not capable. But he learns a ton and enjoys his experience. He goes home stoked, but there’s the constant thought in the back of his mind that he might be a better rider on a full suspension bike. He continually asks his parents for a better bike.
This scenario is made up, but it’s most definitely the experience of many kids these days. It happens amongst adults too. We go through life wanting the ‘better’ car, the ‘better’ house, and the ‘better’ bike as well.
Hard Tail Vs. Full Suspension
Hard tail bikes are extremely capable. It’s all there used to be back in the day. Technology has undoubtedly improved our lives. It’s allowed us to ride crazier things, go faster over those crazy things and to improve the experience of mountain biking. Suspension makes the ride smoother. It’s softer, it’s more plush, the bumps are soaked up and it makes riding rougher downhill terrain a little easier and gentler on the body.
Despite this, in recent years, there seems to be a resurgence of hard tail bikes. Why might that be? There’s likely a number of reasons.
Depending on the material, hard tail bikes can be lighter in weight, which is a huge bonus for young kids. To put the weight ratio of a kids bike into perspective, double the weight of your own bike and see if you like riding that uphill? Riding a heavy bike for an hour or two can be pretty tiring. Manoeuvring a heavy bike through technical terrain and corners can be quite demanding on the upper body, something that has not yet developed in younger riders.
Learning to mountain bike on a hard tail can be hugely beneficial to the skill development and riding technique. When riding a hard tail, the rider is going to get bumped and knocked about quite a lot whilst going over rocks and roots. In order to smooth out their ride, they will be forced to learn all about ‘pressure control‘.
Pressure control is the ability to release (or create) pressure on the bike to account for the bumps in the terrain. It creates a smoother rider, which will help a lot with safety and traction on the bike over time and could even accelerate the learning process a little, becoming a more refined rider earlier on. It might also lead to less punctures and bent rims down the line. It’s possible that riders who smash rims and dent wheels a lot may not have had much experience on a hard tail and therefore simply smash through the terrain with heavy feet and do not absorb the terrain as much with their legs.
Taking care of a full suspension Mountain bike requires a little more time and energy. Checking shock pressures, setting it up for best feel and also a yearly service. This all mounts up and a yearly service for both front and rear suspension could cost you approximately $300 – $400 a year. Now most people don’t even service their suspension, but it’s something that should definitely be done, not only to maintain a great feel, but also for safety and to maintain a decent price when you come to sell a bike.
Let’s say you want to go on a camping trip, it’s not likely that you’ll want to leave your expensive full suspension mountain bike at the camp site. Also, your child doesn’t really want to ride it because it’s a little cumbersome a slow on the bike paths. With a hard tail, you can easily take it on your camping trips and not be as worried about anything happening to it whilst you’re at the beach. Riding to school is also more likely when you’re not taking a $2000 bike.
When to Consider a Full Suspension Mountain Bike
Now, I’m not trying to put you off a full suspension mountain bike entirely, there’s definitely a time and a place for these amazing bikes. All I’m saying is that you might want to consider the things I mentioned above before heading out and buying one.
So when is it the right time to get a full suspension bike?
I’d say when the child has been riding for a couple of years and you know they are developing their skills and looking to up their game. Perhaps you’re child is thinking about racing enduro. Or you’re starting to visit bike parks like Mount Washington or even Whistler. Not that a hard tail isn’t going to work at those places, but as the terrain starts to get rougher and faster, then a smoother ride on full suspension might be a welcome break from the intense jarring on the body. Having the wheels hug the ground more due to the suspension, also means more traction, giving the rider a safer experience and at this point in their riding, more confidence.
Bear in mind, more confidence might mean they want to do bigger and crazier things, so parents be warned. Your child might start to scare you with their courageous jumps and death defying stunts.
Considerations for a Hard Tail Mountain Bike
So, the example I used in the imaginary scenario at the beginning, needs some additional information, because technically, a “beater” bike, is not always going to cut it. There are some very important things to consider when selecting the right mountain bike for a child.
Safety is the number one concern for kids riding mountain bikes. The following list will address the things you should be looking for in a bike.
Brakes – Rim brakes are fine to start out for possibly the first several rides or so, but after a few lessons your child is going to start going faster in no time at all. This is where the ability to stop quickly and safely is very important. Disc brakes will be a very important consideration when choosing a bike. Also because of the limited strength and smaller hands, hydraulic disc brakes will be even better cable disc brakes, because they’re easier to pull and have a much higher responsiveness.
Front Suspension – Back in the 90’s it wasn’t long before I upgraded my rigid front fork to a suspension fork. The terrain is so unpredictable that having a little softness in the front when hitting small drops or roots on the trail is a huge safety improvement and will give your child much more traction in the front.
Tire Choice – Depending on the terrain, tire choice will make a big difference. A lot of bikes don’t come with good enough tires for actual mountain biking. Great for riding in the local park or occasional forest trail, but when it comes to mountain biking, some good deep knobbly tread is going to help your child succeed and have a better and safer time on the bike.
Bolts/Hubs/Bottom Bracket – Things that rattle on a bike are not good. If you’re buying a used bike, make sure all the bolts are tight and that the wheels and cranks (the things the pedals attach to) don’t have any lateral movement in them. Things could come loose and we definitely don’t want that.
Make your choices and Get on the Trails
Hopefully that’s given you enough information to help you with your decisions? There’s so much to think about and I certainly have not covered it all here, but at least it will give you the foundational points to consider in this complex world of mountain biking.
Safety is the one thing at the forefront of any decision when it comes to a mountain bike and comfort is the next. We want to make sure your child is set up for success and sticks with their desired sport. We don’t want to give them any reasons to stop enjoying what they love, especially when it involves healthy activity.
Whatever you decide to do, once the safety concerns are addressed, simply get out there on whatever you have and enjoy the trails. Ride within your limits and have fun.
If you have a child that wants to improve their mountain biking or even to try out the sport, drop us a line and we can arrange a trial ride to see if they like it?