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Christmas Bikes

Here's how to pick the perfect two-wheeler

A bicycle is the ideal holiday gift for your child. Besides offering great fun, bikes build health and fitness on every ride, provide economical transportation, and help to prepare kids for driving. Plus, on Christmas morning, with the dazzling paint and shiny chrome and the promise of adventure, few presents provide such joy for your child.

From a parent's point of view, however, kids bikes can be confusing because there are so many different types. You could just ask your kid to explain, but that would ruin any surprise. You could also visit a bicycle shop to check some out, which we recommend. In the meantime, we've put together this guide to help get you up to speed.

Size Matters
The first step in selecting a bicycle is determining what size your child requires. Adult bicycles are selected according to frame size. Kids bikes, however, are sized (and referred to) according to wheel size, as follows: Ages 3 to 5: 10- to 12-inch wheels; Ages 4 to 7: 16-inch; Ages 6 to 13: 20-inch; Ages 9 to 13: 24-inch; Ages 10 to adult: 26-inch or 700c.

Fitting a bike is more than determining age and height, though. You must evaluate coordination and cycling experience, too. For example, taller children lacking confidence do much better on smaller bikes because they feel more comfortable and in control. And a coordinated 10-year-old with long legs might be ready for a full-size bike.

The most important factor is safety. Don't make the common mistake of buying too big a bike expecting your child to grow into it. Oversize bikes are dangerous and can cause crashes. They're also discouraging to ride. These things may turn your kid off to cycling. Besides, when they outgrow the bike, you can easily trade it in or sell it in the newspaper or at a yard sale to buy the next-larger one.

When you're checking bike fit, make sure that the child can sit on the seat and place both feet firmly on the ground, which means he'll be able to hold himself upright and get on and off without difficulty. If the bicycle is equipped with training wheels, it's okay if the child reaches the ground with his toes only, because the training wheels support him. As he develops balance, gradually raise the training wheels so he gets used to leaning the bike to turn.

It's also important that children can comfortably reach the handlebars and steer. If the bars are out of reach, steering will pull them forward causing a loss of control. Plus, if the bicycle has hand brakes, it's crucial that the child's hands can reach and operate the controls. If the child doesn't have the hand strength to operate the levers, it's usually possible to adjust the brake system to make it easier for them, which a bike shop will help you with during the purchase.

Bike Types
Today, kids bikes vary as much as adult models. For tots, there are tiny "sidewalk" bikes not intended for street use. These get children accustomed to pedaling and steering and are great for getting them out of the house riding with the neighborhood hot shots on their tot rods.

Once they turn eight, many kids want BMX (Bicycle Moto Cross) models, which are ideal for everything from cruising to school and around town to trick riding and racing. Of all kids-bike categories, this is the most specialized with each type of BMX bike built for a specific purpose.

There are three different types of BMX bikes: the true BMX bike, the freestyle bike and the dirt jumper or just "jump" bike. Basic BMX models are great for all-around use on and off road. Freestylers are made for stunts and trick riding. They're built tough and usually have special features, such as pegs and street tires. Jump bikes are designed for rugged trail and jumping use.

Cruisers & Mountain Bikes
Also popular with kids are one-speed cruisers, and also mini mountain bikes. Cruisers offer style and wide handlebars and a wide cushy seat for an ultra-comfortable ride.

The mountain bikes have most of the features of adult models but are equipped with smaller wheels and/or frames to fit smaller bodies. This is the perfect choice if your child wants to join you on the local trails. Some models even include dual suspension for increased control and comfort on the rough stuff.

The Right Ride
If your child is very small, you might be able to pick out a bike for them. Once they get a little older, though, this gets tricky. Remember that it's their bike and keep in mind that they're more likely to want to ride and to get excited about biking if they've got the two-wheeler they like best. Because it's just as much about style as size, parents usually get it wrong on their own.

To find out what they want and keep the gift a surprise, check what your child's friends ride. You might also look for clues in magazine pictures or catalogs in their room. Or, bring your bike into the shop for service and keep on eye on the bike that attracts Junior's attention. These ideas should ensure that you pick a winner. Also, most professional bicycle retailers will let you return an unused new bicycle if it turns out that your child had her heart set on a different type.

Where To Buy
While it's true that you can purchase kids bikes at many department and toy stores, we recommend buying from professional bicycle retailers. You may pay slightly more, however, you get a lot more, too.

Only bicycle retailers have the tools and expertise to carefully assess your child and fine-tune bike fit so that you get the right bike and a safe bike. Plus, because they normally guarantee new bikes, they stock only quality models tough enough to withstand even the most rigorous riding.

Bicycle retailers also professionally assemble the bicycles at no additional charge and usually offer a free mechanical check-up in 30 days or so, an important detail because parts usually require adjustment after breaking in. This tune-up will catch any problems and ensure that the bike runs trouble free.

Besides superior service, the bikes are superior, too. Where the chain-store models can sport moving parts turning on plastic bushings, the bike-shop models use serviceable ball bearings. Often, department-store bikes feature non-adjustable handlebars, which compromise the fit and adjustability. Construction is usually cheap steel alloy and plastic parts versus the high-tensile steels and aluminum parts found on bike-shop models. In the long run, these details add value because the bike is easier and more enjoyable to ride, breaks down less often and can be handed down to a sibling or fetch a good price when it's time for a bigger bike.

When you’re buying that new gift there’s one more thing to consider: getting a lock for it. Bike theft is a serious problem in many cities and purchasing a lock and teaching your child to use it will ensure that your wonderful present won’t tragically disappear. Plus today, lost keys or forgotten combinations are things of the past. Several manufacturers make sturdy, easy-to-use cable locks with resettable combinations. So you can use your child's birthday, or digits from your phone number or address to make sure they never forget.