Family Matters

Bye-Bye, Training Wheels. Hello, Balance Bikes

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Forget moving to a big-boy bed. The tougher childhood transition is going from four wheels to two.

That’s why balance bikes — low-to-the-ground kiddie bicycles that don’t have pedals (or training wheels) and teach, well, balance — are taking off. The nuance of learning to ride a bicycle, after all, is in the balancing; master that and you can skip straight to a big-kid bike.

Balance bikes are out to make the training wheel, that unwieldy icon of childhood, obsolete. Along the way, they’re also making learning to bike a whole lot less stressful for children — and less back-breaking for their parents.

Bode McFarland was 2 when his dad cobbled together a makeshift pedal-free frame, lowering the seat and handlebars on a regular bike, so his toddler’s toes could touch the ground. By 3, Bode was a blur on a standard two-wheeler. “He went nuts on it,” says his father, Ryan McFarland, who used his jury-rigged balance bike as the prototype to found Strider, now the top-selling children’s bike on Amazon.

Sales of Striders grew 123% from January to May of this year, compared with the same time period last year. Meanwhile, sales of tricycles and small bikes that use training wheels dropped 10% at independent bike dealers.

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I had never heard of balance bikes before I moved to bike-crazy Seattle last year, but they own the sidewalks here and in other cities around the globe (the Japanese are apparently big Strider fans). Perhaps the ultimate testament to the growing popularity of the balance bike is the ease with which YouTube taught my husband how to make a knock-off. In the spirit of thriftiness, we decided to cannibalize one of our existing bicycles for our 6-year-old daughter, who was long overdue to learn how to ride.

A symphony of tugs on a wrench and pinches with pliers dropped the pedals from her preschool bike. Soon she was gliding alongside kids on Skuuts and LIKEaBIKEs, Schwinns and Kinderbikes — just a sampling of the companies that have rolled out their own straddle bikes.

“If someone tries to tell you that a balance bike is not a true bicycle and is a toy because it lacks a proper drivetrain, consider that when the ‘first bicycle’ was invented in 1817, it was a balance bicycle called a walking machine,” says Fred Clements, executive director 
of the National Bicycle Dealers Association. (In this week’s print version of TIME, subscribers can see a fun pictorial evolution — it looks way better on paper or on the iPad! — of the bicycle, from its 1817 beginnings all the way to today’s tiny balance bikes.)

With options that span sleek and spendy wooden boutique frames to cheaper metal and plastic mass-market models, this latest kiddie cycling trend really may sound the death knell for the rickety old training wheel.

Carl Burgwardt of the Pedaling History Bicycle Museum in Orchard Park, N.Y., derides the use of training wheels as a “crutch.” “It doesn’t teach anything,” he says. “All it does is prolong the agony of learning to ride.”

For the museum’s learning-to-ride program, staff members took the pedals off regular bikes to teach kids to coast, and children got the hang of balancing within three hours.

MORE: City Kids Walk and Bike to School More Often

My tentative 6-year-old had a similar experience earlier this month. Within weeks, she’d mastered what had taken her older brother many tearful months to achieve via training wheels, and laid claim to his old two-wheeler.

Meanwhile, in the tradition of the most beloved hand-me-downs, our DIY balance bike with its battered lavender frame is getting no reprieve. It’s now the proud province of our newly minted 4-year-old, who spent hours gliding down the sidewalk over the weekend. All bets are on that she’ll make the transition to two wheels before winter.

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.