First Turns

First Turns

I spent a year working in a bike shop in a Memphis suburb where the vast majority of what we sold went to people yet to hit puberty. We had two different sizes of bikes with 20-inch wheels and that was it. Because we sold those bikes like the beer at a football game, I had the impression that we were providing a product that did a pretty good job of meetings the needs of young riders.

Lo, these many years later I now appreciate that what we sold didn’t begin to scratch the needs of kids. We didn’t sell tricycles, bikes with 12-inch wheels, bikes with 16-inch wheels or bikes with 24-inch wheels. Balance bikes? Dude, that category didn’t even exist in the 1980s. It was as if our ability to accommodate young riders didn’t start until they were eight and left off long before they could drive. As a customer retention strategy, it wasn’t.

We’ve come a long way.

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The Rothan is a balance bike from Islabikes. This is a segment of kids’ bikes I’ve had my eye on for a few years. The Rothan is significant because it’s the smallest of the balance bikes I’ve run across. That may not seem like much, but four years ago, I really could have used this when Mini-Shred took an interest in things with wheels.

At the time, our solution was to purchase a Skuut. As it happens, you can build it with the frame inverted. That kicks the seat back a bit and gives the bike a really slack head angle, but it lowers the saddle by several inches. It was not an ideal solution, but it was the solution I could find at the time.

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The Rothan is the most compelling balance bike I’ve encountered. Let’s start with the fact that by their own analysis, the Rothan can accommodate kids a short as 34.5 inches, with an inseam of 12 inches. No other balance bike I’ve uncovered can accommodate kids as small, largely because it dispenses with a traditional top tube.

The design of the Rothan is especially simple. It features a down tube, chainstays, fork and the stubbiest of seat tubes. Its aluminum construction makes it a light and well-balanced bike, which is crucial for little people; they can’t be expected to manage a broadsword. Construction quality on kids frames hasn’t always been excellent even on bike-shop-quality bikes, but the Rothan was straight enough to be obvious in assembly.

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Lightweight aluminum components are used throughout; indeed, there were spots where I’m accustomed to seeing steel—for strength and cost—that Islabikes chose to go with alloy, and the bike’s durability hasn’t suffered one whit.

In a move that surprised me a bit, the Rothan includes a rear hand brake, a tiny linear-pull unit. It’s not a bad idea to get kids learning about hand brakes from the get-go.

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The Rothan has a suggested price of $199 to $219, depending on color; the red-orange shown here is $199. That may seem like a lot for a bike most kids will ride only a single year, but the investment is merited by the quality. And then there’s the fact that if you’ll have other kids, it’ll last to be passed down, and once yours finish with it, you’ll be able to sell it to a family down the street.

I’ll be honest, The Deuce has only recently become interested in riding this thing; I don’t push him. He’s 39 inches tall and will soon outgrow it. That’s a reflection of his late-ish development rather than a statement about its fun quotient.

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I’m convinced that training wheels are the work of the devil. Teaching a kid to ride a bicycle goes so much more easily if the child starts with a balance bike and has the opportunity to keep feet on the ground while they get the feel for leaning a bike into a turn. The Rothan is a chance to start a kid off in a way that they are likely to fall in love with the sport.

Final thought: There’s nothing quite like leaning into that first turn.

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7 comments

  1. David Tollefson

    I wish these things were around when I was a kid. I learned to “ride” on training wheels. Then had to relearn once those satanic devices came off.

    I’ve made two now for daughter-the-younger, the first was a bit long due to the need for a low seat height, and was therefore difficult to take into a U-turn. But she managed to ride it around the house easily enough. Kick bike #2 is more sprightly, and she’s taken to it with aplomb.

    These bikes are great! And I can’t wait to see the transition my daughter makes to cranking the pedals.

  2. Steven

    Seems similar in concept to the Strider Bike, which has a minimum seat-height of 11 inches (and also has adjustable-height handlebars).
    The Isla has a nicer build quality, perhaps, (and real tires) but the Striders are pretty popular with the kids of the people we ride with. Most of them have been traded around to a couple of kids, and appear to be going strong.

  3. Rod

    The brake – great addition. I am having fits getting my 5 y. old learning to use hers now that she graduated to a real bike.

  4. Tman

    I was involved with Strider in the beginning. For my son I notched the front of the saddle and got the seat down to 10″. Plus, the kids will stick with them for far longer than you think. LilT was still playing on his when he could already pedal his Schwinn Gremlin. I think most kids finally hang them up around 5ish. By 6 we had him on a 7 speed 20″ wheeled MTB.

  5. James Rawstron

    If you want your child to learn bicycle fundamentals and have a great time doing it, the balance bike is the only way to go. I put my twin boys on balance bikes when they were about 3, and they got the hang of it pretty fast. This was a risk for us, because both my children have a rare brittle bone condition, making crashes potentially really bad. But they figured out how to glide around and they loved them, until they outgrew the bikes. Theirs were well built enough to hand down to a cousin, who also loved the balance bike.
    The best part was that once they were ready for a pedal bike, they had the foundation to get on and go. Pedaling took a little time to learn, but there was no hesitation about how the two wheeled bike turned or stopped. All in all, a great advancement in kids bikes.

  6. Bruce

    I had good success with my kids going the balance bike route. Put them on early when they were in their 1s and didn’t let them touch a tricycle until they had the feel of riding the balance bike down. Then let them ride tricycles to get a feel for the pedaling motion. When they were big enough for a pedal bike in their 3s got them an Isla CNOC because I knew it would be fun, light and easy to ride. I removed the pedals in the beginning and let them use it as a balance bike to get a feel for the handling and the brakes for a few weeks. Once they did this put on pedals and in about 5 minutes they were off riding on their own.

  7. Gianni

    My nieces and nephews were riding balance bikes in the 80s. They were made by me by removing the cranks from the crappy 12/16″ kiddie bikes available in the day. It floors me that anyone would pay $200 — or more — for one.

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