I hear from riders all the time that they can’t tell the difference between the differing geometries of different bikes. My response is always to give them more credit than they are willing to accept. The body can often discern differences that the brain is unable to articulate. Just because you can’t describe something doesn’t mean you didn’t experience it.
Some years back a buddy told me he was a bad descender. I told him it wasn’t him but the bike he was on; a combination of lousy fit and overly aggressive geometry meant the bike was sketchier than a back alley loan shark. Because were of very similar dimensions, I was able to send him down the famed Palos Verdes switchbacks on one of my bikes.
He got to the bottom exhilarated.
Now transport this issue to the province of children who can’t even pretend to know how a bicycle functions. They have zero ability to tell you what works or doesn’t. They also can’t muddle the issue by being certain that a bike handles poorly because it has a zero setback seatpost or a shallow drop bar. A kid gets on a bike and either their body figures out what’s going on and off they go to indulge their fun center or the device doesn’t made sense and they get off. The Deuce, when frustrated by anything incomprehensible (bedtime is a good example), will pronounce it, “No! Stupid!”
Recently, I picked up an Islabikes Beinn 20-inch, small. This is a review of a different sort as I’m not the person riding the bike, though this isn’t the first time I’ve interviewed another rider about their experience and then written a review based on my notes. With Mini-Shred, making each of the jumps in wheel size has been a trial. I’ll cover that in some depth in another piece I’m working on currently. For now, I’m just going to focus on the jump from 16-inch wheels to 20-inch wheels.
That four-inch jump is enormous. Think about it; in mountain biking we only moved from 26-inch to 29-inch wheels—a measly three inches, slightly more than a 10 percent gain in size, whereas jumping from 16-inch wheels to 20-inch wheels is a 25 percent increase in wheel size. It’s an astounding jump to a tiny person.
The first two bikes we tried were rangy, like putting me on a bike with a 63cm top tube. He fell a bunch, even after I tried swapping out the flat bar for something more back-swept. The 20-inch Islabikes Beinn comes in two sizes, a small and a large. They recommend the small for kids five years old and under and the large for kids six years and up. Because Mini-Shred is in the 35th percentile size-wise for six year olds, he’s small enough to need the smaller bike.
Basic stats for serious bike types: the Beinn features an aluminum frame and chromoly fork, quick release wheels front and rear (handy for car trunk transport), a SRAM drivetrain, linear-pull brakes, a kickstand, bell and tiny person-appropriate saddle, plus Kenda tires that perform both on and off-road.
Islabikes even goes to the trouble to talk about sizing in objective terms, suggesting that a child needs a minimum inseam length of 18.5 inches and a minimum height of 44 inches. Why don’t all the manufacturers do this? Mini-Shred is 45.5 inches tall, just tall enough.
That it was red was cool in his book. He loves red. That it had seven speeds and not six (or one) was even cooler. That the brakes were easy to reach and operate was also to his liking. Liking the bike even before he got on it was a good thing.
All of that is gravy though. I’ve seen him ride a bike and if it didn’t handle well, and by that I mean it was easy to climb on, start and maneuver at slow speeds, he would simply hop back off after a minute or two and want to do something else.
With the Beinn, Mini-Shred hopped on, took off and immediately started carving elegant serpentines. The smile told me all I needed to know. The bike moves in a way that’s natural for him and its maneuverable enough that when he turns from driveway to sidewalk, he can hit that turn without needing to brake.
I could raise the saddle a bit for fuller leg extension, but one thing I’ve noticed with kids this age is that many get nervous if they can’t touch tiptoe to the ground while in the saddle. So I leave the saddle just a touch low.
After our first few rides we headed over to Howarth Park where during the summer Bike Monkey runs a Wednesday night race series. The Dirt Crits are terrific fun. There’s a short fire road climb, a brief flat and then a descent that starts wide and rocky and gradually narrows following a couple of turns. Last summer, on his single speed, coaster brake 16-inch bike, the course was crazy difficult; he had to run the hills. On our recent ride, he did two laps with a couple of dabs and one dismount due to a poorly timed shift. His confidence on trails went way up.
The Beinn small is $439 in red, and $469 in pink or green. That’s multiplicatives more expensive than a Huffy, but this bike will survive both Mini-Shred and The Deuce, and I’ll be able to sell it to another family for continued use. Simply put, it’s rare I don’t come down on the side of quality.
The reason to look at Islabikes isn’t just the construction or handling of the bike. It’s the whole of the buying experience. You can call them for advice. You buy direct from them and it’s shipped to you, and they have a 90-day return policy. The Beinn was the most throughly assembled bike I’ve encountered. Someone with zero bike knowledge could turn the bar and add the pedals; it’s that simple.
Final thought: You don’t need to understand bike geometry to know good handling.