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Specialty bikes guide part 2: Kids' road bikes

In Part 1 of our kid's specialty-bike series, we considered the ins and outs of youth mountain biking. MTBing is a passion for a lot of people, but that doesn't mean it's for everyone.

Maybe you'd prefer to dodge potholes rather than boulders. Yes? Well, then road biking's for you! Roadies are the folks we share the streets with, and the renewed emphasis on clean energy and well-being has led to more and more bike-only lanes on your route to work. It's rare to see younger kids on our highways, but it's not out of the question for youths to pull century rides before they hit double digits.

Let's take a look at what pounding the pavement really means for budding cyclists.

Road biking overview

Like mountain bikes, road bikes are multi-speeders. Unlike mountain bikes, which can ride just fine over concrete and even perform certain BMX-style tricks, they're limited in where they can go. Their frames, braking systems, and tires are built specifically for hard, smooth surfaces. We highly recommend not taking one of these on your next off-road adventure.

Because of their ultra-specialized nature, road bikes are more common among older kids who show interest in this side of the sport once they've mastered other skills and begin taking cycling more seriously. However, children whose parents are dedicated road warriors are more likely to begin earlier, especially if mom and dad pull them into family rides at a young age.

Then you have parents who wouldn't dream of green-lighting road riding so soon. What should be considered here is your comfort level with your little one's bicycle competence and situational awareness. There's of course a degree of risk involved anytime you share the road with motorized vehicles. This can be minimized by making sure they demonstrate a strong understanding of the basics and then tag along with you until they're comfortable in traffic. Nobody's advocating a Sunday stroll down the interstate, but at some point they'll be on their own one way or the other. The sooner they learn good decision-making, the better off they'll be and the longer you'll have before that gray hair sets in.

What makes a kid's road bike a kid's road bike

Road bikes are pretty specific to purpose and are usually lighter and faster than their all-terrain counterparts. This helps with the endurance required for long-distance riding, which means different things to kids of different age, experience, and fitness levels. "Lighter and faster" aren't exactly instantly-recognizable traits in a bicycle, but road bikes do have some giveaway features that make them easy to spot.

First, those weird handlebars. Unlike other bikes that have flat bars all the way across, many roadsters feature "drop bars" on either side. These curved, vertical handles make it easier for serious road bikers to bend forward for better body positioning (particularly during races). Just keep in mind that such positions can be tough on your kid's back if he or she is carrying a heavy backpack. Because the brake handles are also vertical, make sure your little one's got regular hand brakes down well before attempting these guys. Some models help with this transition by also offering a second set of brakes on the top of the handlebars like mountain bikes. Others feature micro-drop bars that are more child-friendly than adult-sized versions.

Thin tires are another tip-off when it comes to road bikes. The need for better balance on these tires combined with the dexterity required for drop-bar brakes means most beginners go with flat-handlebar, wide-tire models. To ease the transition into full-on roadies, some brands such as Diamondback offer hybrid bikes with wider tires that can handle both roads and gravelly paths. Other brands also produce models with easier-to-reach gear shifters for pint-sized hands and shorter cranks (those things that connect the pedals to the gear axle) to lighten the load on younger legs. All stuff to keep in mind as you meander through the aisles looking for the perfect road wheels for your rascal.

How to know when your child is ready for a road bike

We've said it before and we'll say it again: kids develop coordination and size at different rates. To predict Johnny and Jenny will be ready for their first yellow jersey by a certain age is simply boloney. That said, most kids aren't ready for road-bike setups and speeds until they're eight or so. In turn, most manufacturers know this and don't offer drop-bar, narrow-tire road bikes below the 24" wheel size. So, not to sound like a broken record, but make sure you properly measure your child, both in terms of size and motor skills.

Not only are road bikes more complex to operate than your average two-wheeler, they're also designed specifically to share space with automobiles. That means junior should display strong riding skills and a boatload of street sense before sailing off into any sort of trafficked area. He or she should know things like traffic signals, right-of-way, how to anticipate driver and pedestrian actions, and so on. This should also include bike safety. For instance, what do you need to do if you pop a tire? What should you wear on your body and place on your bike if you're riding at dawn or dusk? Lessons like these as they're riding along with you in the early years pay off once they're old enough to cut the cord.

It's not always a physical thing. It can also be an interest-slash-investment thing. Simply put, good road bikes aren't very cheap and cheap road bikes aren't very good. For adults who've been riding for years, it makes sense to plop down several hundred bucks or more on a quality item that will possibly last decades. Unless your kiddo's dying to join the local road race, it may make sense to hold off on something that he or she outgrows quickly or decides isn't all it was cracked up to be.

Tips for developing kids' road-biking skills

If you walk away from this with nothing else, it should be that road biking is a serious venture. It requires more than just the ability to ride and chew gum. That doesn't mean you shouldn't let your kids in on the fun, it just means it takes a little more time and teaching to make sure they're ready for the autobahn. Here are some tips to get you started.

  • It should go without saying, but start safe and start slow. Short trips around the neighborhood or through the park are a great way to introduce your tykes to road bikes. It also offers you a chance to simulate things like traffic signals and scenarios before they actually enter that environment.
  • For avid roadies who bring their kids along before they even have bikes of their own, use this to your advantage. They'll get used to the sights and sounds when riding in a bike seat or bike trailer. If you opt for a trailer cycle, this is a great opportunity to begin teaching them the basic rules of the road and testing them by asking how they'd handle certain situations.
  • With road bikes, you're not just transitioning from single speed to gears. You're also having to learn drop bars, position your body in a new way, and balance on noticeably-thinner tires. If you're going to invest in a road bike at an early age, keep in mind some of the features that will make their (and your) lives easier. Auxiliary handlebars and micro-drop bars, youth-friendly gear shifters, shorter cranks, and hybrid tires all smooth the step up in their own ways.
  • Some parents out there have noticed that kids who are interested in a distance sport early on are more likely to test the waters in other endurance activities. Road cycling can lend itself more easily to multi-sport events like triathlons than other biking styles. While this is great for all kinds of reasons, it's up to you to add another layer of lessons on top of what you already need to teach them when it comes to road bikes. Understanding how to read your body is important for distance riding, particularly if time is also spent doing things like running and swimming for extended periods. Helping your little ones recognize when they need to slow down, stop, or otherwise take it easy to recover is critical. Tired riders alongside moving cars is not a great combo.

Fold these insights into your game plan and your kids will be ready for the peloton in no time. Join us in Part 3 of our kid's specialty-bike series where we jump into the wacky world of BMX.


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