Making a DIY balance bike for $5

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There’s been a little trend brewing in the world of kids’ bikes: skipping the training wheels and getting the kid to ride a “balance bike” or “runbike” instead. It’s a pedal- and chain-free kids bike with a low seat so the feet can comfortably touch the ground. Here are pictures of two: a fancy one for $315, and a functionally similar one I made recently for $5.

diy balance bike and tester

Here’s why I made the second balance bike, and how:

The idea of the balance bike is to teach the balance part of biking before the pedaling part. The low seat lets the kid scoot around with feet for propulsion and brakes. They learn how to glide and turn, picking their feet up off the ground more and more, which is fun in itself and a confidence builder for eventually riding with pedals. Or so goes the argument, which I think is pretty solid — check out videos like this one where you can see coordination and balance developing while kids have a good time. At least one blog suggests adults might learn this way too.

So far so good. But do I really need to buy one of these from a specialty manufacturer? Are they that unique? As far as I can tell, balance bikes are basically just standard bikes missing a few components, and with a seat that is lower and farther back. This might be one of those times when the look and the feel of the toy (e.g. that mod plywood) is designed less for kids and more for parents with nontrivial sums of disposable income. I mean, can you leave one of these precious things out in the rain?

We have lots of rain where I live, and my disposable income is comically low (big date on Saturday: riding the Xtracycle to the Waffle Window). So I made my boy his own perfectly functional balance bike on a 1-digit budget…

1) I bought a small (10″ or 12″ wheel) toddler bike off craigslist for $5. It’s a girl’s bike with a “Butterfly Summer” theme — iridescent butterfly stickers cover the bmx-style crash pads on the tubes! My boy loves it — he digs the pink wheels. I’m charmed by his open-mindedness.

2) I removed the training wheels, fenders, chain guard, pedals, crank, bottom bracket bearings, and chain. Except for the chain, no specialized bike tools were necessary here. (Though I did have to remember that some of these parts have left-handed threads.)

3) I sawed off the section of seat tube that stuck up above the top tube, and I re-inserted the seat at a new lower level better for a 3-year old’s feet. Since there was now no collar with a bolt to hold the seat at the desired height, I fixed the seat in place with some rubber shims and a nice strong mallet. (A more adjustable seat height would be better, but this was a quick and dirty job.) Perhaps it might also be a good idea to pitch the seat back like this DIY-er did.

4) I used some plastic caps to cover the protruding ends of the axle bolts of the rear wheel.

5) I adjusted the handlebars and stem.

6) I kept, for safety and style, the bmx-style crash pads that came on the original handlebars and headset.

7) I took the new bike and boy to the park for a trial ride. (This bike doesn’t have a brake — intentionally, actually — so he won’t be riding it on the street ever.)

The results were remarkable — after about 2 minutes the kid was balancing and gliding and working on turns. It was clear this was going to be a favorite activity and great training for standard biking.

I’m already thinking of improvements and variations… like I could mount some footrests (through the now-unused bottom bracket tube) so the rider could glide standing up. Then on to the adult-sized version?

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