The clocks went forward here this weekend, a sure sign that winter is behind us and summer is on its way. With longer evenings, and (hopefully) drier days, it’s time to think about restarting family cycle trips. With my youngest son coming up on three, this means dusting off one of our most treasured family items: our Early Rider balance bike.
Until you’ve had children, you don’t really appreciate quite how much stuff you are going to need to buy, or, more accurately, how much stuff you’re going to be tempted to buy. Unsure, insecure, first-time parents are fair game for advertisers; the baby-dollar is desperate to be spent. Nobody wants to miss out on the “must-have” item and risk looking like a terrible parent. It’s only once you’ve been around the block the first time that you realize that a fair amount of what you buy is redundant. A great deal of what we bought for boy-1 (not his real name), was barely used, but then, mercifully, there are a few things that are used over and over again. These items are worth their weight in gold. The Early Rider balance bike is one such item.
Now being brought out for a third time, our bike has been used for countless hours, and ridden for miles and miles around the local countryside. It’s even been to London, where it’s whooshed up and down the pathways that run alongside the River Thames, cutting off tourists and office workers alike.
We were originally recommended balance bikes by our neighbors, who are very keen cyclists (and active members of the local tandem club). They waxed lyrical about them, in particular how easy they make the conversion to a full pedal bike; no training wheels, no running along behind your child, hand outstretched, and, best of all, minimal risk of scraped knees. My neighbors were right. When the time came, the boys had found their sense of balance through extensive use of the bike, and the transition to pedal power was comparatively simple. They just got on and rode off!
In terms of style, the Early Riders have it all; they’re also called “Early Rider,” which is reason alone to justify purchase. When we bought ours, only two bikes were available: one for toddlers and one for those slightly bigger (3-5). As our son was coming up on three, that’s what we bought. There are now a number of different bikes on offer, not only wooden ones, but metal too. I can’t comment on the later models, but our experience with the wooden bike has been wholly positive.
The most obvious thing about it is how good it looks. I have been stopped countless times and asked where we got the bike from. It looks cool enough when static, but when my little geek is flying along it looks amazing.
Less obvious is how easy they turn out to be to ride. At first, it’s a case of the child simply walking, legs astride the saddle, but, before long, the gaps between steps widen, until suddenly they’re striding along, and you’re running to keep up. Before you know it, they’re riding feet up, coasting downhill and gracefully swinging around corners.
Being wooden, the bikes are comparatively light. We live up a hill, but the boys have all been able to make it home at the end of the day. It also seems the two-footed action makes Early Rider bikes less arduous to ride than scooters. I guess one leg doing all the action quickly becomes tiring. Because the bikes are light, if your child does decide they don’t want to ride (or you need to enter an inside space such as a shopping mall), they are fairly easy to carry. I’ve often balanced ours on a lightweight stroller without too much trouble or extra-weight inconvenience.
It’s not all quite as rosy as I paint the picture. If you’re looking for that quintessential parent-child bonding moment, where they cycle away from your outstretched arms, you don’t really get it, because they just cycle off without any fear. One of our sons had a small problem adjusting to the need to pedal. Once he stepped up to a real bike, he kept just pushing off with his feet, and expected to keep going.
The biggest issue, though, is the lack of brakes. Not whilst the balance bike was in use (unless you count continual wearing out of shoe soles a problem), but, again, when stepping up to a full bike. The boys just weren’t used to applying the brakes. It took them a while to stop putting their feet down, resulting in the occasional heart-in-mouth moment for their parents and the odd whacked shin from a spinning pedal. These issues are slight, though, and, bruised shins aside, the transition from balance to pedal bike is nice and easy.
Maintenance is easy too; there are very few moving parts. The bolts all tighten with hex keys, so repairing punctures and raising the seat is simple. Replacement parts are easy to obtain. I’ve had to replace the forks on ours, due to wear and tear, and the back wheel, due to reversing over it with the car! The (UK-based) Early Rider spares team are very helpful and efficient. We’ve also purchased an extra tall seat to increase the life-span of the bike, particularly since my oldest son is very tall.
This will be the third and final outing for our Early Rider (though we will save it for the possibility of geek grandchildren). I’m not sure who was more excited when I pulled it out of the garage, me or my two-year (and nine months) old. The Early Rider bike is probably the best thing we have bought since becoming parents. The initial outlay was fairly high, but we have had value for money several times over. We’ve only been out a few times with my youngest, but already he’s riding with confidence. The open road* beckons.
*By “open road” I mean carefully monitored and entirely safe wide open spaces.