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Friday, October 16, 2015

Review: Woom 2 Child Bike

It's no secret that I'm a cycling enthusiast. A cycling enthusiast cares not just about his own cycling, but also whether his kids are going to enjoy cycling. The standard technique nowadays is to start with a balance bike. We started with a Strider, but in retrospect, the ones with air filled tires like the KaZAM would be recommended: lower rolling resistance is a big deal for a small kid.

As a result, it took us a while to motivate Bowen into playing with his strider, but by the time he was 3 and a half, he looked pretty competent with that thing. He was very close to the max seat height on the saddle, however, so it was time to get him a new (real bike).

I went with the WOOM 2 this time. There were several reasons for this choice:

  • I didn't want Bowen to have to start with a coaster brake. Have you seen adults struggling to start a bike by pawing the ground like an angry cow? You get that habit by learning to ride with coaster brakes, where you can't lift the pedal appropriately and push down on it in order to gain speed. The WOOM website lets you purchase a wheel with a freewheel attached instead of a coast brake.
  • The WOOM 2 has 2 hand brakes. Hand brakes are reliable ways to stop the bike no matter how long or steep a descent is. Coaster brakes aren't design for continuous difficult descents.
  • The bike is designed to be relatively light. Even so, at 15 pounds, the WOOM 2 is half Bowen's weight. If you weigh 132 pounds, that would be like riding a 66 pound bike. I do that all the time, but it's less fun than a 24 pound bike. Nevertheless, it's as light as I can manage without building a custom bike for a 3 year old, which would be prohibitively expensive.
  • The bike comes in a 14" wheel size. Bowen's currently right in between the 12" and the 16" wheel sizes, so 14" is appropriate, but otherwise difficult to find. A non-cycling family might simply buy a bigger bike so he would "grow into it.", but enthusiastic cyclists know that even a 1cm difference in adjustment in the wrong places can easily cause problems, and so if a 14" bike was appropriate, you wouldn't buy a 16" bike.
In addition to that, I added a kickstand to the order, since Bowen loved the kickstand on the quad. When the bike arrived, I discovered several things:
  • They forgot to gave me the coaster brake wheel, which was fine by me. They even pre-emptively gave me a $19 credit so the freewheeling kit turned out to be free.
  • They pre-installed the kickstand. This was nice.
  • They gave us a free bell, which Bowen loved.
  • The V-brakes are a major pain in the neck to adjust properly. I've long had an acrimonious relationship with V-brakes and cantilevers, and this bike did not endear me to them.
  • The bike came with solid axles and nuts and bolts instead of quick releases. This made it a major pain when I had to fix a flat tire, but replacing the nuts and bolts with quick releases would have been impractical because I'd have to replace the solid axle as well. This is not a bike designed to easily facilitate field repair, which was disappointing. After all, the kind of parent who'd order a $300 bike for a 3-4 year old isn't likely to be too dumb to use quick releases properly.
  • The bike is clearly over-built. Comparing the size of the tubes with those of my adult bikes, it's clear that it would take several generations of kids riding this bike before fatigue would be an issue. The bike will probably survive a few crashes at kid-friendly speed with no incident. There are several touches that had me scratching my head: there's a water bottle mount on the bottom of the down tube, but a bottle cage mounted there would probably interfere with steering. There are rack mounts on a bike that's so small that you couldn't find a rack that could mount there, and even if you did find one, there are no panniers that wouldn't interfere with pedaling. [Update: WOOM has informed me that in 2016 they will sell fenders that mount onto the rack mounts, which justifies the existence of those rack mounts. Racks will also be possible on the 16" and larger bikes]
Bowen loved the bike (it was his favorite color), but did not like the pedals. So I removed the pedals, and he scooted the bike over to the local middle school, whereupon I put him on a gentle incline, reinstalled the pedals, and had him roll down the incline to get started. Once he could put his legs on the pedals while the bike was moving, he quickly discovered that the pedals would let him move the bike without ever having to put his foot down. From then on, he never wanted the pedals off the bike again.

For a couple of days, he only ever wanted to start the bike on a descent, but we kept telling him: "Raise the right pedal, look straight ahead, push the pedal hard, and then you'll be moving." By Day 3-4, he was able to do U-turns, ride figure 8s, and (as long as we didn't tell him that's what he was doing) start on a slight uphill incline. We're still working on getting him to use the brakes, but at this point, he's pretty much riding a bike for as long as he likes without any trauma. (He fell a couple of times, but they were always low speed falls) By Day 6, he could ride to the middle school with me running interference in traffic and telling him to stop whenever a car drove by.

Having observed him throughout the learning process, I noted a few items:
  • The bike is easier to ride than other kids' bikes because of an unusually low bottom bracket. The bottom bracket is so low that Bowen regularly scrapes the pedals while riding on an unevenly canted surface. This is an appropriate trade off, but I judge it unlikely that the plastic pedals will survive more than a couple of years of such constant abuse. Be prepared to replace those pedals regularly. And yes, if you substituted clipless pedals for the plastic pedals they're less likely to scrape, but try as I might, I've yet to find SPD-compatible shoes that are Bowen's size.
  • The kick stand is too stiff for him to use independently. I frequently have to set or reset his kickstand for him. On the other hand, the quality of the kick stand is such that it'll never set itself on its own and cause a crash.
  • The single speed gear ratio makes it tougher to get started up hill, but does encourage him to spin the pedals if he wants a high speed. That's pretty good.
All in all, comparing how Bowen's doing against his friends and classmates, I'd say we made the right choice. Other kids his age who've graduated from balance bikes into bicycles with training wheels, for instance, have gotten so many bad habits that they found a two wheeler un-rideable. Since we have a second son who'll make use of this bike after Bowen out-grows it, we get to amortize the (expensive) bike over 2 children. Finally, I hope that the resale value will be decent, as it's likely that the prices of these bikes new would provide a sufficient price umbrella such that the used market wouldn't take a big hit. As such, while WOOM offers an upcycling membership that would reimburse 40% of the bike's cost when your kid grows out of this one, it's probably equivalent to you selling the same bike on Amazon, eBay, or Craigslist at 50% off.

All in all, if you have a 3-5 year old, I'd recommend the WOOM over other equivalents due to the above-mentioned reasons. We'll probably return for a WOOM 3 when Bowen outgrows this, unless some other manufacturer provides similar features for a better price while correcting the defects I alluded to above.

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