By Kat Hunter
My son calls it “Bluebike.” His delight in it is contagious, but I realize I’m probably going a little overboard when Theo starts mimicking my exaggerated “Wowwwww” as he rolls around the house. There’s no drive train on the little two-wheeled machine, no pedals; what’s turning are the gears in Theo’s 23-month-old mind, working so hard to understand—or rather, absorb—how the bike is meant to work. And just like crawling or walking or speaking, it seems to be coming to him via little checks and balances that smooth themselves out so quickly they’re almost undiscernible.
The idea of the balance bike isn’t a new one—this was how some of the very first bikes were designed—but it’s only recently that their use has become widespread with young children. In “my day” we started with a tricycle, transitioned to a clunky two-wheeled bike with training wheels, and finally removed the training wheels in what I can still vividly remember as a reluctant and rather painful rite of passage. The balance bike, on the other hand, teaches what’s considered the most difficult aspect of riding a bicycle—staying upright—before the act of pedaling, in most cases eliminating the need for training wheels altogether. Children can start using a balance bike as early as 18 months, and with the concepts of balancing and coasting already well understood, often begin riding a traditional bicycle at age three or four.
Two weeks ago at the Driveway Series racetrack in East Austin, Theo had spotted the WOOM tent and its gleaming stable of test bikes before I did, commandeering a balance bike with the speed and self-assurance of a little pirate. WOOM offers a full line of high-end kids’ bikes, from the 12-inch balance bike to a 24-inch “big kids’” bike. For the purposes of this review, a blue 12-inch balance bike was waiting for us in a bag, along with a WOOM helmet, tiny pair of bike gloves, and wooden stand. Once Theo was coaxed onto the intended steed, my husband had the pleasure of tirelessly plodding after him through parking lot and fields while I raced. Jack said the WOOM had the immediate side effect of making Theo completely deaf to instruction, especially any sentence including “stop” or “wait.”
By the next day, Theo was already managing short glides, picking up his feet for a second or two after a running start. The surprised, sideways grin he’d get when he gathered up a bit of unexpected speed, zooming down a little incline or the slope of our driveway, made my Proud Mama Bike Racer heart melt. Not surprisingly, we had our first minor wipeout on Day 2. (The helmet was a good idea.) But at the end of the week, Theo was fully agile and moving with such confidence and speed that teaching him how to use the hand brake has taken on a new sense of urgency. He spends so much time on the bike some days that he gets chafing, and let me tell you, all the time-proven remedies in the world are no help when the cyclist in question is still in diapers.
On the WOOM, everything is a charming miniature, from the saddle to the “small-hand reach” hand brake; the downtube curves and is very low and easy to mount…
Theo already had a balance bike at home, purchased five or six months earlier—its name is “Redbike.” Relatively inexpensive, Redbike had been something of a disappointment to us, as Theo had walked with it a few times, but had shown more of an affinity for his tricycle. He had a great deal of difficulty maneuvering Redbike and would tip over easily, making him fearful and tentative. Compared to the WOOM, there are a few obvious differences in design. Redbike is larger and much heavier, weighing in at 12 pounds to the WOOM’s 9 pounds. Redbike also seems to have a much higher center of gravity, the saddle is more similar to the size of an adult’s, and the wheels are chunkier. On the WOOM, everything is a charming miniature, from the saddle to the “small-hand reach” hand brake; the downtube curves and is very low and easy to mount, reminiscent of those “women-specific” cruiser bikes that make it possible to ride in a dress. The WOOM also has a small strap behind the fork that prevents the handlebars from being turned backwards (which can be confusing and awkward for a toddler). My husband is, of course, a big fan of the low rolling resistance of the tires. In all the offered bike models, WOOM’s geometry and components are advertised as being designed uniquely and specifically for small riders.
Theo still rides his tricycle, sometimes switching between the two bikes like a pro Tour rider on a flats-to-mountain time trial. Ours has a long handle attached to the back that can be used to push or steer, which is helpful when Theo gets tired or doesn’t want to go home. The tricycle is much more clumsy and limited in where it can go, however. Bluebike can be taken on virtually any paved or unpaved surface, navigating broken sidewalks and tree roots or rocks easily, both because the bike can traverse bumps better and because Theo can lift it over obstacles. Overall, the WOOM allows for greater independence and ease of movement, which can be both a positive and a negative. On Bluebike, we stop for every single snail and roly poly that has the misfortune of crossing our path. The capriciousness of a toddler mimics that of the universe itself: you never know until the final moment whether he’s going to smash it or “save” it.
WOOM bikes have the glossy look of high-end steel bikes, slim and classic. Perhaps I should know better given my own minimalist carbon frames, but at first Bluebike’s lightweight feel and graceful curves made her seem overly delicate. As the mother of a toddler big for his age—in terms of both height and heft—who smashes through toys like Godzilla through a cardboard cityscape, that set some big red alarm bells off in my head. What had I agreed to, “borrowing” a bike that looked so expensive and breakable? I could see myself returning it in so many crumpled pieces: “We loved your bike, guys…annnnnd here’s what’s left of it.”
Fortunately, Bluebike is as robust as she is beautiful. Assessing the damages after two weeks of heavy use, there’s a scratch in the black paint on the bell. And we’ve actually decided to make her a permanent addition to the household anyway.
I won’t say it’s an easy purchase—you get a lot for your dollar with the WOOM, but everything for a young child has a very limited shelf life. The final selling point for our bike-racing-family-on-a-budget was WOOM’s “Upcycling” program. If you buy a new WOOM bike within 24 months of the first purchase, you can exchange the original bike for the next size up and get back 40% of the original bike purchase price.
We also like the idea of buying local. WOOM bikes are designed in Europe, but Mathias Ihlenfeld, the owner of WOOMBIKES USA and sole distributor of WOOM products in North America, is headquartered in Austin. Retail locations currently include Austinbikes and All Things Kids at The Domain, and WOOM ships directly to customers throughout the U.S. and Canada. Mathias’ brother, Marcus, along with designer Christian Bezdeka, operate WOOM in Europe. Though its roots are spread wide, the company has a very personal, family-run feel. A father of two, Mathias is also an avid cyclist and bike racer, which means I have yet to meet him in person; at the Driveway, one or both of us is always racing. But in our emails, his enthusiasm and passion for WOOM’s products are clear—it’s not just money, but a mission. Such is the nature of a small business and the person at its helm, especially in the world of cycling.
I race on pro team Visit Dallas Cycling p/b Noise4Good this season, and my husband coaches me. Cycling is an enormous part of our lives. We’ve sworn, however, not to be the kind of parents who try to shape their kids into a more perfect version of themselves. If Theo wants to race bikes, he’ll race bikes. If he wants to paint sunrises, or play chess, or fix cars, that’s fine by us. At the moment he’s pursuing a crash course in sentence construction, with a secondary focus on how to most effectively delay tooth brushing and bedtime. The time will come, though, when he’ll explore careers and hobbies and shape his own life independent of ours. I just want cycling to be in his tool chest, like swimming or reading, as one of those life skills that can be both utilitarian and a source of great joy.
I have to admit that I do have a very selfish wish, too. I spend a lot of my time riding, and I often feel guilty about being away from Theo and what I might be missing. A big part of me doesn’t want him to grow up, wants to slow down the clock so that I can watch more closely, but another part of me looks forward to the day when we can go on a real ride together. With no stopping for snails.
What’s new for WOOM?
Right now, Ihlenfeld says meeting demand is the biggest challenge, and some models are in limited stock. The original WOOM line was red, so blue is a new addition as a color option, and the lightweight SUPRA models (20- and 24-inch) were recently introduced. Later this year WOOM plans to unveil new kids’ bikes designed for safe bike commuting to school, which include additional components like fenders, lights, and a backpack holder.