Balance bikes are the latest toddler gear craze- these two wheeled contraptions have no pedals, no drivetrain, and usually no breaks. They are basically scooters with kiddie bike wheels and a seat. Think of it as the Flinstone version of a bicycle. The idea is your child will learn how to balance on two wheels quickly, making the transition to a real bicycle almost seamless and free from dreaded training wheels.
Choosing the right one, however, can take some effort. The self-professed original, the LIKEaBIKE, is a beautiful, >$300 birch toy that seems best suited for those with lots of disposable funds, a moderately careful child, and a penchant for European styling. Knockoffs such as Skuut and FootCycles are a third to half of the LIKEaBIKE price but not as well built or stylish... and they are a heavy at ~11 lbs. The only (arguable) functional advantage of birch plywood bikes seems to be the limited range of handlebar twist, making sharp turns and backwards handlebars impossible.
The boy and his new set of wheels
For those less concerned about aesthetics there is a range of steel & aluminum bikes that are cheaper and likely far more durable (especially if your child has a tendency to ride through puddles, leave their toys on top of sprinklers/out in the rain, etc). You can also salvage parts off of it when your child grows into a real 12" bike. The New York Times even rated some balance bikes and noted some models worth considering.
Any biker worth his salt knows the importance of proper hydration
Of course, the most economic route is to simply get a starter 12" bike, pull the pedals off, lower the seat, and let your little one have a blast. Unfortunately Ronan has both a propensity to sick his fingers in every threaded hole he finds and his often clumsy mobility may mean that crashes on this set-up could result in moderate injuries if the crank arms were left on.
A nice ride through a wetlands preserve, anyone?
Thus we decided to get Ronan the Raliegh Lil' Push- it's essentially the same as the Specialized Hotwalk with different graphics and no $50 brand premium. Both bikes are great- a well designed aluminum frame, solid wheels & tires, and light (probably just under 8 lbs). We paid $110 for it... more than I would have liked but a reasonable deal when compared to the other options. Most importantly to Ronan the Lil' Push has a decal of a bulldozer with flames shooting out of the exhaust pipes.
More striding near the fountain in front of Hoover Tower
What does Ronan think? He loves it. In fact, he was with me while shopping for balance bikes- I wanted to see which models he was most comfortable on, and which he was immediately drawn to. The Lil' Push was the clear winner- it had a the right seat height and the low slung frame made it easy for Ronan to get on/off. In just a few weeks Ronan seems to have developed some semblance of balance (see video above)- we just need to make sure we keep him riding where there are no lethal hazards (moving cars, mostly). Oh, and speaking from experience, steep hills, at least at first, should be avoided.