We were deep into the first lockdown of oh-twenty when we started to wonder if our three-year-old needed a bike. The days were all the same: get up, figure out who was going to take the first shift to keep him occupied, and then, as appropriate, either escape to the desk in the spare bedroom or get out the Duplo. Or the crayons. Or the picture books. Maybe make a packed lunch and walk to the park, again.

Granted, we had it easy compared to some. The back garden gave us some toddler entertainment options. My wife’s job actively helped its employees adapt to the situation, and mine could at least be relied upon turn a blind eye to rescheduled meetings and tardy emails. Even so, we had no grandparental bubble to fall back on, and, worse, our son was getting bored to the point of irritation.

We formed a plan.

He’d always been a terror on his balance bike, happy to dance along and occasionally fall off the cliff-edge of his abilities. A pedal bike, we said, a pedal bike! That will keep him amused. I had visions of he and I ranging far and wide across the bikepackingest landscapes south Birmingham has to offer, him laughing joyously and me acknowledging the admiring glances of passers-by. Yes, I am an amazing dad, but fortunately I am humble with it.

First obstacle: no bike.

Second obstacle: a pandemic wreaking havoc on supply chains.

Third obstacle: kids’ bikes are terrible.

We trawled the web. We read articles on Cycle Sprog. We made weekly pilgrimages to the local Halfords. We made a Google Sheet. (And they say there’s no upside to a pandemic.) We did everything we could to pick a good bike, and still we managed to buy a bad one.

If your three-to-four-year-old has mastered a balance bike and wants something with pedals and brakes instead, 12-inch wheels are where you start. You land, naturally enough, at the cheap end of the market. Halfords, say, where you can drop what seems like a very reasonable £90 on this Paw Patrol bike. (Other franchises are available.) But wait: that funky-looking frame with the ovalised tubes? Steel, not aluminium. I shudder to think how much this bike weighs, but for the sake of comparison the Dawes Thunder 12, steel again and which costs only thirty quid more, will crack pavement slabs at 8.6 kilos. For context, our son weighed 15 kilos. That’s like an adult riding an e-bike with an empty battery and towing another one behind.1

Once you leave behind the very cheapest bikes, you hit a clutch of more convincing models at around £200. Most are from bigger bike companies – Trek, Specialized, Cannondale and the like. They’re lighter, for the most part: the Trek Precaliber 12 and the Specialized Riprock 12 both come in at about 7 kilos, which, for us at least, snuck in under the magical fifty-percent-of-bodyweight barrier. The problem, though, is that a lot of these bikes are lumbered with coaster brakes. I mean, why? Have we not passed the klunker phase?2 If you want a starter bike from a big American brand your kid will be partying like it’s 1976.

Finally, above £300 or so, the real bikes start to appear. Islabikes and Frog have managed to design 14-inch bikes, for much reduced rolling resistance, that will still fit a three-year-old. (The Islabikes Cnoc Small weighs only 5.2 kilos, too, which is incredible.) The Black Mountain Pinto not only fits the same bill but can also be made larger to accommodate older kids. All three have front and rear V-brakes, incidentally, and the other components are pretty good into the bargain: narrow Q-factor cranks, decent tyres, threadless headsets; that sort of thing. If you care about bikes and/or your children then this is where you should be looking.

So: three choices, two of them bad. We went a fourth, also bad route.

At the time we were looking, every bike shop in every town in Britain had been cleaned out of kids’ bikes. From a much-reduced field, we found what we thought might be a reasonable mid-range bike – a red and yellow Puky Z23 from an old-school German manufacturer – and ordered it from Cycle Republic. What we didn’t know was that Cycle Republic was in the throes of closing down. We waited and we waited, and no bike arrived. Eventually we filed a request to cancel the order and found another Puky Z2, for another £150, at an independent kids’ bike shop that had one in stock. It arrived promptly.

The Puky looked fine at first, even if we never quite got over the name. Nice solid mudguards, and the rear triangle had an integral rack: a very sensible, European kind of bike, even though that meant a coaster brake that our son never quite got the hang of. Our son learned to ride it within an afternoon (we hid the stabilisers and he didn’t miss them), but soon it became impossible to ignore the weight of the thing: 7.9 kilos, or just a bit less than the Dawes we’d congratulated ourselves on avoiding a couple of months earlier. All that extra money had gone into paint and chrome, not better components or a lighter frame. Each daily outing ended with my son on my shoulders and his bike dangling from my aching arm.

Eventually, we relented. eBay furnished a used Islabikes Cnoc Large in decent nick for about £300. (Here’s another thing about kids: they grow. Just a couple of months after getting the Puky, the Cnoc Small was already too small for him.) The difference between the Cnoc and the Z2 was startling. The Cnoc doesn’t look like much, to be honest; if anything, I’m put in mind of a scaled-down version of the Carrera hybrids ridden by every other Just Eat delivery rider. But the details make it work. It’s super light, for one thing, and the components are all well thought out: the chain is enclosed in a compact, quiet case; the grips have extended rubber end caps that stop your wallpaper getting torn and protect your kid’s hands; and so on, and so on.

Fundamentally, the Cnoc is a bike, not a toy, and our son is exceedingly happy on it. Eighteen months later, pedestrians are still agog: “Look at him! He’s so cute,” the students say on the way to the nursery. “You have an excellent cyclist there, sir,” the bearded cyclotourists say on the way back. I smile modestly to whoever happens to be watching. Yes, I am an amazing dad, but fortunately I am humble with it.

If we’ve learned anything, it’s that the spectrum of value for kids’ bikes is an illusion. Either you spend adult-bike money on a good one, or you spend less and get a bad one. It’s only a pity we had to find out the hard way.

  1. Also: my son loves Paw Patrol, but I don’t need to be reminded and he doesn’t need to be encouraged. If you’re set on a bicycle-shaped object, drop the extra few quid on a bike from a bike company rather than a money-grubbing cartoon. Better to grow up coveting a Dawes Galaxy than a pedal-powered fire engine. ↩︎

  2. Rhetorical question: no, we have not. Klunkers are cool again. ↩︎

  3. No longer made, although the current Puky Steel 12 looks identical. ↩︎