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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.