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Look ma, no pedals! Balance bikes hit Canada

Two and a half-year-old Ben Metzner (L) and his four and a half-year-old friend Philip Scheibehenne ride their pedaless bikes imported and distributed in Canada by Philip's mother Sabine Scheibehenne under the brand Like a Bike, at Wanless Park in Toronto, April 23, 2011.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

A classic rite of parenthood - that heart-stopping moment after the training wheels come off - may soon be on the wane. A new model of child's bicycle that makes training wheels redundant and is reputed to get children riding big bikes at younger ages is making inroads in Canada.

These so-called balance bikes not only do away with training wheels, but pedals as well. Children start off sitting on the seat and walking, then progress to pushing their feet off from the ground and balancing. Soon they're coasting around turns and speeding along pathways. Kids as young as two can ride them, and many graduate to a big bike by the age of three.

Over the past decade, balance bikes have conquered the sidewalks of Europe, especially in Germany and Switzerland, where training wheels have become a rarity. Now some well-known retailers like Canadian Tire and independent distributors are introducing these bikes to Canadian parents and kids.

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"The kids can get on much earlier … they're really proud they can move fast," says Sabine Scheibehenne, who lives in Toronto and started selling the LIKEaBIKE, the best-known balance bike from Germany, last summer in Canada. She sells the bicycles, which start at close to $300, online and through a small number of retailers.

LIKEaBIKE, the brand responsible for the balance bike revolution, was invented in the mid-1990s by Rolf Mertens in Aachen, Germany. When his two-year-old son was desperate to ride a two-wheeler, he reached into the past for inspiration - back to Baron von Drais's original 1817 prototype for a wooden walking machine on two wheels. Mr. Mertens made a smaller version for his son, then one for his friends' children, and soon was creating themfor kids across Europe. A slew of competitors have since followed.

Parents like balance bikes because they believe their children learn to balance faster when they don't have to pedal. And it's not uncommon to hear of children who simply ride off when the time comes to switch to a big bike. Elizabeth Weatherhead, who lives in Toronto, recently bought her two-and-a-half year-old son a bike with training wheels but ended up returning it. "My son seemed to find it heavy, and just didn't get into it."

When he tried out a LIKEaBIKE, she says "I couldn't get him off it for about 45 minutes. He just immediately was flying around and was so happy. So I thought this is a good fit."

Experts aren't as convinced, however, that balance bikes are a better way of learning to ride.

"Children can ride a bike with training wheels as quickly as a LIKEaBIKE," says Georg Staubli, the head doctor at the emergency department at the children's hospital in Zürich, Switzerland. "The question is, which one does the child like?"

Brian Timmons, an assistant professor in the department of pediatrics at McMaster University in Hamilton, thinks balance bikes may be a novelty item. "Learning how to balance before learning how to pedal, versus learning how to pedal before learning how to balance - I don't know if there's a benefit to one order over another."

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Moreover, Mr. Timmons questions their safety, since many don't have a way to brake except for the child's feet. But Dr. Staubli says he doesn't see many accidents with such bikes, and argues that younger children would also find it hard to use brakes effectively. He says what's important is that parents make sure their children are physically ready to ride such a bike and don't start them too early.

Canadian retailers are willing to give them a try. This year, Canadian Tire started selling the WeeRide balance bike for $29.99. Mountain Equipment Co-op has sold the $140 Runners balance bike since September 2009. A new online retailer, Balance Bikes Canada, began selling a number of different balance bikes last summer, including the $129 Strider.

Balance bikes remain a rare sight in most Canadian neighbourhoods, although demand is picking up. They won't divulge numbers, but Balance Bikes Canada and Mountain Equipment Co-op report increasing sales. Ms. Scheibehenne has found that her kids provide the best advertising.

"When we run errands the kids usually have their bikes,'' says Ms. Scheibehenne "We're a big attraction."



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