Bikes are better than ponies, sweetie

PONIES are expensive, which is why I’m secretly jumping for joy that my nine-year-old daughter is taking an interest in cycling. You can buy a child’s mountain bike for the same price as a pair of leather riding boots, and bikes don’t need stables, feeding or vets. A squirt of GT-85 lube, a puncture repair kit and an annual service is your lot.

But getting children into cycling requires parents to do their homework to buy a bike that will leave junior hungry for more, rather than saddle-sore.

The first thing to know is that the price of a decent child’s bike isn’t on a sliding scale:  you are still looking at £200-£300 for a good one. That said, do your research and there are plenty of special offers that will drive that price down.

The golden rule is to make sure it fits. If your child’s feet can’t touch the ground or their fingers grip the brake, it is not only unsafe, but the chances are that you will put him or her off cycling for good after a few close encounters with roadside hedges. It’s better to buy bikes in stages, rather than getting the largest one you think you can get away with and hope they will grow into it.

For children aged 4-6, you should opt for a bike with 16in wheels. These won’t come with gears (what five-year-old needs them?) and avoid models with fancy suspension setups: they add to the weight of the bike, making it harder to pedal and  manoeuvre. Even at this age children can hurtle along, so pay particular attention to brakes: the lever should be within easy reach and not stiff to pull. Consider also a back-pedal coaster brake, which engages when the rider stops pedalling.

Older children have a bit more choice: gears are an obvious extra, but start with a simple and hard-to-break three-speed hub rather than derailleurs. For ages 6-10 you will be looking at a 20in wheels; for 10-12 there are 24in wheels. After that you start getting into small-framed adult bikes.

At this stage you should start looking for bike specs that are similar to an adult’s bike at the same price. So expect a micro-adjust alloy seatpost, brand-name V-brakes and a decent set of a wheels. Most bikes will come fitted with off-road tyres but a set of semi-slicks would be better for all-round use. “Less is more” still applies: instead of disc brakes, look for disc mounts for later upgrading. And seek out a good suspension fork, not full suspension.

Consider, too, what your teenager (and younger children) might regard as the most important point: is the bike deemed to be cool? Currently, this seems to mean simple paint jobs such as black, white, matt grey/brown or camo green, and a dirt-jump style of frame.

And finally, breathe a sigh of relief that it isn’t a pony.