The best balance bikes for 2022: seven bikes reviewed
With the assistance of a three-year-old, we put a bunch of bikes to the test.
With the assistance of a three-year-old, we put a bunch of bikes to the test.
We recently took a deep dive into the factors you should be aware of when buying a balance bike for your little one. Today, we share our findings after reviewing a bunch of different balance bike models.
We put seven balance bikes of varying styles to a longer-term review to see how each bike’s various features and pros and cons work in the real world. We kept the bikes for several months and had one test subject – aka my daughter – unwittingly conduct the reviews for us.
Test Subject A had one clear favourite bike – more on that in a moment – but she also helped us understand what is important to a growing child. We measured all bike weight and saddle height ranges on test for the most accurate results.
Without further ado, here are the bikes.
The Hornit Airo looks damn cool, with its flowing lines, split, two-tone down tube, 12-spoke wheels, and big tyres. It also ticks many of the features boxes with pneumatic tyres, cartridge bearing headset and hubs, all in a well-made package. The Airo also has neatly integrated footrests and plenty of room for growth.
On a safety note, the Airo was the only bike with recessed axle bolts and a stem protector, although it did feel a bit thin to offer much cushioning. We measured the Airo at 3.01 kg, making it one of the lightest pneumatic tyre bikes on test. However, at £139 it sits in the mid-upper pricing bracket for most balance bikes.
On paper the Hornit Airo is my pick of the bikes on test. It’s lightweight, features serviceable parts, and it seems, so far, quite durable. The Airo is not the cheapest but when considering its feature list and relatively low weight, it is one of the best bikes on test.
My daughter was less than impressed though. Despite being above average height for her age, she found the reach to the handlebars a stretch and as such never quite warmed to the Airo. I am confident had the Airo been the only balance bike in the house, she would have been much happier with the bike and with time she will grow into the reach. However, given the choice, at least for now, the Hornit is not her go-to bike.
Similar options: Vitus Smoothy
The LittleBig Balance Bike takes a different approach to a child’s first bike. The LittleBig features an adjustable frame offering two sizes for a balance bike that grows with the child. LittleBig also offers a pedal and sprocket attachment to convert the balance bike into a pedal bike when the child is ready, however, this is sold separately. Add in the pedals and this could offer a much longer-term one-bike solution.
The LittleBig bike is one of the highest spec bikes on test. With pneumatic tyres, cartridge bearing hubs and headset, short-reach easy pull brakes, and quick-release seat post clamp, the LittleBig has almost every box ticked. Two bolts make for quick and easy adaptation from the small to large balance bike size settings. The frame splits and rotates on the top tube, increasing the height of the bike and extending the reach to the handlebars. The LittleBig bike also feels quite robust, and combined with serviceable parts, this is another tick in the long-term and hand-me-down bike boxes.
That adaptability and spec do come at a price. The LittleBig is the second-priciest bike on test. However, factor in the bike’s adaptability and this higher price is somewhat negated considering the alternative cost of buying separate balance and pedal bikes. Moreover, the more significant question here is the increased weight all that adaptability and spec brings. At 5.56 kg in its basic spec, the LittleBig is by far the heaviest bike on test, making it undoubtedly challenging for younger children. I would also have liked to see axle bolt covers on what is clearly an otherwise carefully considered bike.
On the flip side, though, add on those cranks, pedals, chain and sprocket, and the resulting pedal bike is lighter than most kid’s bikes I have seen in schools. The aluminium frame does a great job of keeping the overall weight of the fully assembled pedal bike down. The LittleBig is best suited to kids on the upper age limit of balance bikes who might quickly progress to a pedal bike.
The Specialized Hotwalk is a well-built bike that would seemingly stand the test of time. Built with a durable aluminium frame and fork, spoked wheels, bearing headset and hubs, and a stem protector upfront for added safety, the Hotwalk is also well equipped. The solid foam tyres feel among the closest I’ve experienced to a pneumatic tyre’s grip and cushioning. However, what could be a great bike is let down by its hefty 4.22 kg weight and oversized footrests, which could obstruct some kids’ natural stride.
This bike was too heavy for my daughter throughout the months of testing and, as such, has seen little use. Perhaps for an older child the weight and size wouldn’t be such an issue, but as mentioned earlier, at that point, the child could be ready for a larger bike anyway.
OK, in some seriously bad news for my bank account, this totally extravagant £999 carbon fibre balance bike was by far my daughter’s favourite of all bikes on test. Despite being what I would consider a very bland colour for a child’s bike and not having any pink – my daughter’s favourite colour – she lifted this bike time and time again. My daughter had no idea this bike was made from fancy carbon fibre or that it was the same brand as Daddy’s bike, nor clearly, does she have any idea of value for money. Yet time and time again, she chose the Hotwalk Carbon (HWC).
Why did she prefer the HWC? My daughter cannot yet communicate the exact properties of the bike she likes or dislikes. If she could, she would be writing this feature, not me.
I believe a combination of factors meant she preferred this bike. Weight was certainly one factor. The HWC is not the lightest bike on test – that honour goes to the Vitus Nippy – but it is the lightest with pneumatic tyres and a proper (by bike riders’ standards) headset and hubs. These features mean the bike is light, nimble, and easy to push. The HWC weighs in at nearly a kilogram lighter than the Hornit Airo, the next lightest bike with those features and has a few other tricks up its sleeve.
Specialized has made the bar grips narrower on the HWC to match smaller hands. The HWC grips measured in at 19.6 mm in circumference, compared to the 25-30 mm found on most other bikes on test. The reach to the handlebars is also much better, allowing my daughter to take a more natural position without reaching for the bars as on other bikes. The bike also has those pneumatic tyres for a more cushioned ride and what looked to me like a comfy saddle without the deep arch shape many of the other bikes’ saddles featured.
The HWC inspired this shoot out. It is cool as hell for a cycling fanatic father like myself, especially if said father owns a Specialized also. I expected the HWC to be a bit gimmicky, as my light-hearted article on Specialized’s lightest ever bike last year suggested. The HWC could have been a lousy balance bike with little design consideration but a cool carbon frame. However, the carbon frame is just one aspect of this bike, and all that attention to detail makes for a damn good balance bike. If only it wasn’t a thousand pounds and had a little colour.
Similar options: Strider ST-R
The Vitus Nippy is the lightest bike on test. Weighing in at 1.99 kg it is the only bike to dip under the two-kilogram mark. This low weight and a similarly low minimum saddle height make it great for younger children. The Nippy is also light on the wallet and was the cheapest bike on test.
It’s not all good, though. The Nippy’s plastic tyres and bushing headset undoubtedly help keep the weight and price down but are not as free moving as higher-spec alternatives. The headset makes for a rather sticky and heavy steering feel, and the plastic tyres, although not the worst I’ve seen, do little for the ride quality.
The Vitus Nippy is unavailable in the USA, but the same bike is readily available under different brand names. Type Cruzee into your search engine of choice and hit enter. Both the Cruzee and the Vitus Nippy bikes are almost identical to the popular Strider 12 Classic.
Alternatively, Vitus also offers its higher-spec Smoothy balance bike featuring pneumatic tyres, upgraded headset, and spoked wheels almost identical to those on the Hornit Airo. Weighing in at a claimed 3.2 kg (7 lbs) and priced at £89.99 it is both well spec’d and competitively priced, ticking all the boxes for what I would look for in a balance bike.
The Chillafish Fixie is a drop-bar balance bike. This is (mostly) a road bike website. Need I say more about why this made the test? The Fixie looks great. Those drop bars are a nice addition and look just like Daddy’s bike – a very important feature in a three-year-old’s style guide. Furthermore, there’s a down tube, top tube, seatstays and chainstays. This is almost as close to a drop-bar road bike you can get for a three-year-old.
However, that appearance is as good as it gets for the Fixie. The bike is heavy, the handlebar reach is enormous, and although my daughter really liked how similar this was to “Daddy’s bike”, she found it too heavy and awkward. She did want to ride it quite often and always rode in the drops (that’a girl!), but that always involved having me lift it into the open and helping her onto it, which was not the case for lighter bikes.
The saddle is also very hard and the footrest with a built-in foot brake seems an odd pairing. It seems unlikely a child will use a foot brake and the integrated brake means it cannot be used as a footrest. Even if older children do have the coordination to use a foot brake, moving the brake away from the hands, where it undoubtedly will be on their next bike, to the feet, will do little more than cause extra confusion when adapting to pedalling on a standard bike.
Other drop-bar balance bikes are available. There is the Early Rider Road Runner. At 3.6 kg and with pneumatic tyres, the Road Runner seemingly makes for a much better bike. It also looks much better, has a proper headset, classic-looking saddle, wrapped bar tape, and a turning limiter (should you want one). However, it is more than twice the price of the Fixie and discontinued.
While the Road Runner is still in stock with some online retailers, Early Rider’s decision to discontinue what is now seemingly the only well-spec’d and lightweight drop-bar balance bike speaks volumes about how practical drop bars are for toddlers.
The dual rear wheels on the Y Velo are said to offer two-stage balance, coordination, and motor skill development for children from 18 months. The dual side-by-side rear wheels are claimed to offer a stepping stone of sorts, getting the child on a bike and working towards removing one of the rear wheels.
I can see how it might work, and my daughter was initially a fan of the bike, but I question how much the added stability detracts from balance development. The dual rear wheels significantly increase the bike’s stability (the bike can stand upright unaided) and as such requires much less balance. Certainly, as a first step, I can see the merits. But for our daughter who was long past those complicated first steps, the Y Velo’s dual wheels perhaps offered a lazier option.
The next step is to remove one of the rear wheels and convert the bike to a more traditional two-wheel balance bike. With just the single rear, the Y Velo weighs in at a respectable sub-3 kg weight and is then a true balance bike. Unfortunately, that is not enough to bump this bike onto my recommended list.
The headset on the Y Velo is particularly stiff and makes for very heavy steering. Furthermore, the seat post clamp on the Y Velo restricts saddle height to just three preset heights: 35 cm, 32 cm and 28 cm. Far from the range of adjustability available on all the other bikes.
In better news, the Y Velo does offer narrower grips for those smaller hands. Measuring in with a circumference of 22 mm the grips are not quite as small as the 20 mm on the HWC but still much smaller than the 25-30 mm grips typically found on other bikes.
One issue I didn’t foresee was my daughter’s insistence the Y-Velo was broken when we removed the extra rear wheel. Having seen the bike with two rear wheels, and then finding the spare wheel, she refused to ride the bike with just one rear wheel.