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.