Small Rider, Big Fun

Small Rider, Big Fun

I’m just going to begin by saying that I feel for anyone who has such a passion for children that they decide to start offering a product line aimed at them. This is more true of clothing than toys. Production of anything that depends on a child’s size is like trying to learn the piano without the aid of hands or vision. Why anyone resorts to ages in sizing is beyond me.

What I’ve noticed in evaluating (let’s be real, I don’t “test” these bikes. I evaluate them) kids’ bikes is how vastly the proportions can range. Most balance bikes are so small they are intended for kids who aren’t more than 36-inches tall. The Deuce, my four-year-old, is taller than that, meaning he was starting to outgrow the balance bikes we had encountered by the time he was interested enough in things with two wheels to have any fun on them.

When I encountered Prevelo at Sea Otter, I was instantly intrigued. It’s not just that an entrepreneurial sort—owner Jacob Rheuban—had a vision for a better line of kids’ bikes, it’s that the had the particular genius to hire industry veteran Brad Hughes to actually design and spec the bikes.

Rheuban wanted a bike with lower standover, better rolling resistance, greater stability and, of course, better performance. With bikes for kids who are just starting out there’s an inherent design challenge. Kids prefer (many adults are the same) a saddle height low enough so they can touch the ground with both feet while sitting on the saddle. The upshot is that their legs don’t get enough extension at the bottom of the pedal stroke and their knees are in their chin at the top of the pedal stroke.

So how do you solve this? You design around a narrower bottom bracket and spec shorter cranks and relatively narrow pedals. This increases the the lean angle the bike can achieve before a pedal strikes the ground at the bottom of the stroke. With a narrow bottom bracket, short cranks and narrow pedals you can lower the bottom bracket, making it easier for the kid to reach the ground without completely sacrificing leg extension. This is the design underpinning the Prevelo Alpha One.

Okay so we have a bike with a low bottom bracket for increased standover. How low is it? Well two 12-inch-wheel bikes from industry leaders have a roughly 17-inch standover at the saddle. The Alpha One has a 16-inch standover at the saddle. It also has 14-inch wheels. It will come as no surprise to devoted readers of RKP that a larger wheel has lower rolling resistance and a lower angle of attack when presented with bumps, making the bike easier to ride on rough or uneven surfaces.

The reach from the saddle to the handlebar is also longer than on those 12-inch-wheel bikes. While the bar has some rise, it’s not much. A BMX-style bar would have allowed more size accommodation with bar tilt. That may be this bike’s only shortcoming. According to Prevelo’s site, the Alpha One should fit most 2.5 year olds to 4.5 year olds.

The Alpha One frame and fork are constructed from aluminum, and the weld quality is unusually high for a kids’ bike. Steel inserts at the rear dropouts increase the frame’s strength and durability and give the axle nuts better purchase. The complete bike weighs just 14.5 pounds, which is surprisingly light for a bike in this size. Every pound really makes a difference to a child; imagine if you had to pedal a bike that was half of your weight; that’s what most kids face.

The CPSC, that regulatory body that decided electronics for kids shouldn’t have exposed wires and blankets shouldn’t burn, has occasionally issues some rules that are, perhaps, less helpful than they think. One of those rules is that all bikes for children must include a coaster brake. From what I’ve seen of kids learning to ride, the coaster brake is profoundly confusing, and occasionally frustrating. I’ve seen many kids learning to ride who, after a moment of coasting, go to pedal again but forget which is which and end up pedaling backward and braking.

Fall down, go boom. Sometimes with the added bonus pack of tears!

So the Alpha One includes the coaster brake, but it’s also spec’d with very small V-brakes with tiny levers and springs light enough that little hands can pull them. When hand brakes are as easy to operate as these, I don’t see much point in the coaster brake. That was one of Rheuban’s insights: start them off with hand brakes and make a freewheel-equipped rear wheel available for next to nothing.

From the tiny saddle to the custom 85mm-long cranks, everything on the Alpha One has been thought-through with the dedication and passion I normally see reserved for bikes costing thousands more. So far as I’ve found, Islabikes is the only company offering a bike competitive with the Alpha One and it is noticeably more expensive. (As much as I love what Cleary is doing, they don’t offer a bike directly competitive with this.)

The Deuce has been riding the Alpha One for about three weeks. In moving from a bike with 12-inch wheels, higher standover and a shorter reach and wheelbase, he was a bit cruched up, fit-wise. The bike also featured ultra-quick handling, which will happen pretty much any time you build a bike with a wheelbase of less than 65cm. What I’ve seen since the transition is that his riding is more stable and predictable and judging from the look on his face, he’s more confident as well. He uses the hand brakes some, but they are mostly a novelty. Stopping is more often executed by dragging his toes than using the hand brakes or the coaster brake.

The Alpha One goes for $359. If you want to add the freewheel-equipped rear wheel, that’s just another $15. Both were in the box when I opened it. Assembly was speedy and simple; in less than 10 minutes I had the bike together. For non-bike-mechanic types, it might take all of a half hour. Prevelo includes the tools you need to assemble the bike as well.

I get that spending upwards of $300 on a bike for a child is a significant investment. My kids go through shoes faster than I go through tubes. However, the qualitative improvement in experience that comes from being on a bike this good will pay dividends in terms of how much a child comes to love cycling. Besides, you’ll be able to turn around and sell a bike this good to a friend. And they’ll be grateful.

Final thought: This is what happens when you hire experience.

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  1. David

    Padraig, there is another competitor besides Islabikes, and one you should take a look at- Woom Bikes. Really well designed, light and very well built. My 4½ year old granddaughter’s Woom 3 comes in at 12¼ pounds with 16″ wheels, a 19″ minimum saddle height and no coaster brake; the Woom 2 has 14″ wheels and a 17″ minimum saddle height, a freewheel option that comes in at about 11⅓ lbs. Its priced about the same as the Prevelo.

    1. Author

      I just ran across Woom last week, but haven’t had the opportunity to look too closely. I’m definitely interested to check them out.

  2. Les.B.

    It’s fascinating how something engineered with structural integrity and design integrity lends to elegant aesthetics, this bike being an example. It’s really a good looking bike, nice lines, and it gives the impression of a serious bike, in its own right as a toy. In fact, “toy” doesn’t seem right. It’s a serious bike for kids to play on. Try again: It’s a serious bike for kids to have fun riding.

    I hope the manufacturer markets to girls as well as boys. If we in the cycling community want increased participation from women, it pays to get them addicted at an early age.

    A young girl would look quite spiffy on this craft. And I mean the bike as pictured, not demeaned with pink paint and daisies. However without daisies and butterflies it might be a harder sell to certain parents.

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