A study in kids' bikes, part 1

Gary Fisher Freeloader in motion

Our daughter Greta is eight going on nine. She has been an active bicyclist since she was around four. We recently wrestled with getting her a new appropriately-sized bike. She is at an awkward age where she is too little for the next-size-up 24" bikes on the market and too big for her current 20" bike. Since this is a common problem, I figured it would be helpful to share some of our experiences with Greta's bikes and various family bike transportation options we have used in the past. Later I'll discuss the new bikes we settled on for Greta.

When Greta was attending pre-K, I would commute with her. We bought a used Adams Trail-A-Bike to do this and it worked great. I'd drop her off at school and continue on to work, a few blocks away, with the empty trail-a-bike bouncing behind me. Becky would pick her up in the afternoon, either with the car or her own bike. (We bought a bike hitch for Becky's bike so, with the two hitches, we had a lot of cool biking/commuting versatility.)

The great thing about the Trail-A-Bike is that the kid helps with the effort. I think these bikes are a huge help moving a child past training wheels toward independent riding. The bikes help the kid develop the muscle memory of constant pedaling and staying upright. It's great real-world practice for when they're ready to pick up two-wheeling on their own. People were pretty surprised when Greta was biking to school on her own in kindergarten.

Greta learned to ride on a tiny crappy department store bike that I found abandoned in the neighborhood. It was pink (of course!), single speed with a coaster brake and 16" tires. When I found it, it needed new tires and tubes. The chain was rusty but the bike did the job once we had it lubed and all fixed up. As with many of these mass-market bikes, the quality was just above functional but that was all that was needed. It was so small that the ratio of Greta's size to the bike's weight overcame inherent junkiness. A young child is never heavy enough to cause much damage (unless it's ridden by an over-sized sibling!) Gearing also helps. It is so low that it overcomes weight and friction issues related to quality. There isn't much need for performance quality in a tiny bike. Kids don't go all that far or fast. The bikes can be abused and still hold up. (If they don't, they're so cheap they're practically disposable.) This bike ended it's association with Greta after it was quietly donated to the Community Cycling Center.

Jamis Capri

Sometime in first grade she graduated to a 20" bike, a used Jamis Capri 2.0. (Here's a link to Jamis's current Capri. It appears to have been improved a bit.) Greta recently told me "that practically everybody has a Jamis." (Like it's way too pedestrian for her now. Jeez!) It wasn't always like this. Jamis was a early bike company to incorporate better-quality and/or currently-in-use better components into regular kids' bikes. The Jamis Capri had a Sram grip shift selector connected to an indexed Shimano derailleur. There was no front derailleur and instead the chain sat in a channeled sprocket that acted as a chain guard. Another nice feature was that the rear derailleur had a metal cage to protect it from damage, a common problem when shifting bikes are dumped over on the right side. The bike had linear-pull brakes. (These brakes might actually be a little too good for such a small bike since I was told that the previous kid rider locked up the front tire and endo-ed over handlebars during a panicked stop when the bike was brand new. Greta never had an issue with this fortunately.)

One big advantage to the bike was that it was built with a lot of size variability. The seat stem came with a lot of length and could be positioned so it could be placed really low or high. Also it used a more-modern threadless headset so, as Greta grew, we were able to purchase headset spacers and higher-reaching threadless stems to keep the bike fitting. Braze-ons for a water bottle cage tucked into the bottom of the frame were a nice touch too.

The Jamis was a good bike but, as is my complaint with most kids' bikes, it was a little heavy. I wish we'd see more kids' bike frames built the same standards as adult bikes. I ended up replacing the original knobby tires with more-practical, comfortable and smoother road tires. I also found a lighter seat stem. Both of these improvements shaved some weight. I see that the new ones are aluminum so that probably helps a little with the weight issue.

It took a while for Greta to embrace the Jamis Capri. At first she didn't like it because she felt it was too large for her. A lot of this was that she was used to her older bike. There was also the inevitable adjustment from coaster brakes to hand lever brakes, always tough for kids.

Earlier this summer we started shopping for a replacement bike. At the same time we tried to come up with a solution for bike commuting to downtown Portland. Portland has fantastic bike lanes and routes. Our ride from our neighborhood five miles to downtown was practically entirely a bike route. Still we decided that Greta was still just a bit too young to bike all the way downtown independently. There were a couple of summer day camps we had in mind for her and the plan was to reintroduce Trail-A-Bike commuting, where I'd drop her and the trailer off, I'd continue on to work, and then pick her and the trailer up in the evening on the way home.

We bought a second used Trail-A-Bike for this purpose. This time it was a Gary Fisher Freeloader. These bikes are more-or-less a shameless ripoff of the Adam's Trail-A-Bike concept. The Gary Fisher has a gear selector which helps with the kid's energy production. We tried it out for a while but determined that, alas, Greta was now too big for the rig. It worked but the ride felt unstable.

Gary Fisher Freeloader, loaded up

Supposedly the Burley version of this bike is more stable feeling due to the way the trailer is hitched to the main bike. There were, at one point, 20" tire versions (made by Adams I think.) I suspect that these too would provide a little more stability when ridden. The Freeloader just felt like Greta's weight might throw me or cause me to lose hold of the handle bars if she slipped or jerked to one side all of a sudden.

We looked on Craigslist for tandems and lucked out finding one that was relatively cheap and worked well for a kid.
Motiv Duo demo

It was a bit of a wreak and took some work. Both brakes were either broken or out of adjustment. I had to spend a fair amount of time truing the front tire and adjusting the derailleurs. The bike spent the past few years outdoors so I'm still cleaning up rust.

The bike, a Motiv Duo, was purchased originally at a Costco sometime around 1999. It's an interesting bike because it was weirdly built around 1990s mountain bike components: heavy tubing, 26" knobbies (promptly removed), thumb shifters, linear-pull brakes, etc. I suspect that the Taiwanese factory was seeing the first signs of the mountain bike craze softening and attempted to come up with a unique niche product using the existing tooling and readily-available parts. Somewhere I saw a photo of a similar-but-later model with a suspension front fork. I just can't see dirt trail tandem riding. It's too goofy.

The big plus for us was that the Motiv Duo has a wide range of adjustablity, particularly for the rear "stoker" seat.

Motiv Duo detail

Here's another detail photo:
Motiv Duo seats

We were able to adjust the seat way down and the handle bars down and way out so Greta could comfortably reach things. I suppose one problem is the comparatively long 170mm reach of the cranks. At times this makes Greta's pedaling a little jerky. With a fair amount of effort this could be fixed with either new cranks or clamp-on crank adjusters but it hasn't been enough of problem to be worth it. A few weeks ago we biked to the SE Sunday Parkways ride and Greta and I pedaled up to the top of Mount Tabor. It was a killer but we made it!

The main thing was that it made biking for the two of us downtown a breeze. Greta attended PNCA camp. We had a blast biking to and from camp/work. Tandem biking takes a little getting used to, especially maintaining momentum when starting out from a stop. Greta would help out bit adjusting the pedal for a good initial power stroke from a stop. With all of the funky bike options in Portland, Trail-A-Bikes, triple tandems, I was surprised by all of the attention we would still attract from passers-by. Greta also enjoyed pouring it on and going fast. The downside was that unlike with a Trail-A-Bike, the pedaling effort of both riders is directly connected. If Greta got tired, I would end up lifting her legs, which is doing more than simply pedaling for her.

It makes sense to break this up, so in a future post I'll cover the two bikes we purchased as Greta's replacement for her 20 inch Capri.

Here's a link to our Flickr photo set on kids' bike

Here's the link to part 2 of this story