Kids Bike Components PART 3 - Shifters, Pedals, Wheelsets & Gearing
We all want our kids to be as comfortable and confident on their bikes as possible. If speed is their goal, they will only go quickly when they are! It's not rocket-science, but it is a reasonably in-depth subject and so many different components influencing it. So if you are planning to build a new bike or you want to improve their existing bike, here is Part 3 of 3 on the basics of correct component selection to achieve the best bike fit...
- Handlebars & Stem
- Saddle & Seat Post
- Gear Shifters & Brake Levers
- Pedals & Cleats
- Wheels, Tyres & Gearing
Part 3: Shifters, Pedals, Wheelsets & Gearing
The combination of all the key components listed above, define the location of the 3 contact points for any rider: their feet, bottom and hands. By selecting the correct components, you can achieve the best bike fit for your rider which will maximise their comfort, confidence and power.
(It's worth reading this, in conjunction with our advice on BikeFit and what you are trying to achieve with the correct components - CLICK HERE). So let’s take a look at the next key components, starting with;
Gear Shifters and Brake LeversRoad shifters are an age long problem for kids, only very recently solved by the advent of SRAM eTap, as long as you are happy with the costs! So eTap aside, the next best option is Microshift Short-Reach. Why? So we already know that reach is a key problem on kids bikes and when it comes to stopping the bike or changing gear, reach is everything. This isn’t just about finding the best possible fit for comfort or power, it's also about confidence and safety too.
Let’s take braking first. To reduce reach for short fingers, their ‘Short-Reach’ versions (they make non short-reach too, so be careful) have a shifter casing that is 10mm shorter than the standard casing, which is a big difference. Due to this, we find kids as young as 5 or 6 are usually fine with the reach required to brake safely. But don’t forget, that’s on a frame that has the correct top-tube, stem, handlebars, seat post and saddle, to allow them the reach required. If their bike has the wrong components, they will seriously struggle to brake safely. Changing gear is slightly more complicated. Again, overall cockpit length needs to be right to put the child in the right position to operate the gear lever, if they are not - they will really struggle. Be ready for them to unexpectedly turn left at the foot of a climb, as they attempt to change to an easier gear, but start steering left instead!
This is where their smaller hands and short fingers become the issue. Typical ‘STi’ style road shifters, developed of adults, use the entire lever to change to an easier gear, in an arc shape moving towards the bike. Little fingers (usually between 5 and 11yrs old) struggle with this, with the effect that they simply won’t bother to try, continuing up the road grinding a big gear. Microshift differs from Shimano’s STi shifters, by having a separate, smaller lever to shift to an easier gear - which is both nearer to the handlebars (reducing reach) and uses a smaller arc of travel, helping shorter fingers. About as good as mechanical road shifters get for small hands.
Recently the design of STi shifters has been improved by Shimano, SRAM etc with the addition of ‘reach adjustment’ screws in the shifter casings. However, it's worth noting that when set to the minimum setting, they match (but are no shorter) the reach required for the brake lever on a Microshift Short-Reach shift - BUT they still use the full leaver to change gear, on the full arc of travel - so remain difficult for small hands/short fingers. Step in the right direction though!
The story is much easier on straight-bar bikes, as short-reach child-specific brake levers have been made for a long time by people like Tektro and are very simple to fit and adjust for the rider. The same can be said for gear shifters on straight-bar bikes, as modern Trigger shift designs are usually a nice and light action for little hands. Gripshift is best avoided, nice idea, but in practice they very quickly become stiff and unusable by kids. We recommend Box Components, the lightest action shifter we have used to date for young riders.
Top Tip: kids will always struggle with brakes and gears, if the other components are incorrect, putting them in the wrong position to operate the shifters. Shifters need to be short-reach, but the other components to be correct too!
Wheels, Tyres and GearingThis may not seem relevant to component selection, but it it’s all relevant. We know that lighter is easier, adults or kids, but it is actually more important for the kids. In the grand scheme of things, especially when building a 700c bike for young children, wheelset weight plays a big part - rotational weight and gearing. Once on a 700c, you have a real opportunity to use quality, lightweight wheels that don’t exist in the traditional kids bike sizes of 20”, 24” or 26”. A nice 1450g wheelset will be a much bigger boost to the performance of a 4st, 7yr old, than it would be for a 16st, 45yr old!
But by fitting larger wheels to take advantage of this (along with better ride/more control) you are also ‘gearing up’ the bike, so the chainring and cassette you fit are especially important. Whearas most adults are happy with a 28t cassette for Cyclocross, the kids will be far better served on a 32t, 34t or even a 36t cassette with the larger wheels. If we build a CX specific drop bar bike, we fit a 34T chainring with a 34t cassette linked to the Microshift Short-Reach shifters as a minimum, unless they specifically want a bike to cater for road racing too, which is always a compromise! A 28t cassette will do both, but they will have to be prepared for more dismounts and running on hilly cyclocross courses.
Straight bar bikes have more scope for larger gearing from the MTB world, with a popular choice being the Box Components 11-46t cassette with their very lightweight shifter. There is not a lot, that even the smallest rider on a 700c can’t get up with a 34T chainring and a 46t sprocket!
For road events the 700c wheelset choice presents slightly different issues, mainly around tyre profile. The common age groups to first use a 700c bike are U8, U10 and U12 riders using British Cycling gear rollouts of 5.1m, 5.4m and 6.05m respectively. The key age group the requires caution here is the U10’s, as their rollout is very sensitive to tyre choice...
- U8’s/TStart: 700c wheels, 23c tyres, 36T chainring, 15t sprocket (use 14up cassette, block-off smallest)
- U10’s/TS1: 700c wheels, 20c tyres, 36T chainring, 14t sprocket (use 14up or 12up, block-off 2 smallest)
- U12’s/TS2: 700c wheels, 25c tyres, 34T chainring, 12t sprocket (use 12up or 11up block-off smallest)
So you will see, particularly for U10’s, the tyre profile is critical to staying legally under the gear rollout limits. If you don’t want to be one of the parents panicking to let the tyres down before a scrutineer checks your childs bike, the above combinations should be fine. However, you need to be careful with your choice of wheel rims. The modern trend is for wider and wider wheel rims, to suit the desire for wider tyres on road and ‘adventure’ gravel bikes.
This poses a problem for those requiring traditionally narrow road tyres, like the U10 requirement for a 20c tyre. Sensibly, you can’t run these on a rim wider than 15mm ID. Many modern wheelsets are only suitable for 25c tyres and larger, with internal diameters of 17mm and larger, so buyer beware!
Top Tip: Lighter is better, so invest in the best. Once they are on a 700c wheel, they could be using that same quality wheelset 15 years from now - they won't grow out of it!
Pedals and Cleats
The final component choice to make is the pedal and cleats, perhaps the most important contact point of all! The most popular choice of system is Shimano’s SPD’s - a mountain bike system, but used widely by kids road racing, cyclocross racing or mtb xc. As a dual-sided pedal it helps kids to engage the cleat, without having to turn the pedal over as you would with a single-sided road system like LOOK.
SPD’s offer simplicity, reliability and durability, especially in muddy conditions. They are relatively heavy though, certainly compared to systems like the 3-bolt LOOK road pedals, or even the 2-bolt Crank Brother’s ‘egg-beaters’ which are another popular system.
Our philosophy with clipped-in pedals: the younger they're on them, the safer they are. Experience with our own kids left us in no doubt, cycling is safer once they are securely clipped to their pedals. We found the biggest cause of mishaps on a bike, is wet shoe soles and/or wet pedals. The feet slide off on the pressure stroke and the child loses balance. An accident as a result of wet pedals, is far worse than one resulting in them forgetting to unclip!
Another reason is simply how efficient pedalling becomes when you are attached to the cranks, wearing stiff-sole cycling shoes. All the riders leg power is transferred to the road! Kids especially notice the benefits when cycling uphill.
Key to good bike fit, is to move the foot position (by virtue of the adjustment built-into the cleat to shoe attachment) towards the knee position, so you achieve the best alignment of knee-over-pedal. This usually means locating the cleat as far inboard as possible on younger riders.
Top Tip: Always start them on a multi-sided pedal system (SPD/Egg Beaters etc) to make clipping-in as easy as possible. Save the single-sided LOOK style road only pedals until they are a bit older. Most parents go for the SH-56 'multi-direction release' cleats initially - giving valuable added safety for first timers.For more detail on Pedals and Cleats for kids CLICK HERE. It's also worth reading this, in conjunction with our advice on BikeFit and what you are trying to achieve with the correct components - CLICK HERE