The Christmas bike: Jamis Laser 20”

Our son liked his old balance bike so much that he was reluctant to share it with his sister, even as he outgrew it and she grew into it. Until recently we had not considered getting him another bike, as larger-sized bicycles came with pedals, which he had never really shown much interest in using. His initial attraction to renting a kid’s bike in Copenhagen was immediately overtaken by the fun of riding on the back of our bikes. We assumed that he’d come around to riding his own bike eventually, but estimated that that interest would build over the course of a year or two. That didn’t concern us much given that both logistically and traffic-wise it’s unrealistic for him to ride on his own to school and back. We were surprised but pleased when after a few months of riding with us he said he wanted a “big kid” bike with pedals.

We didn’t take our son’s interest in a new bike very seriously at first, but as time passed, he became increasingly insistent that a bike was what he wanted for Christmas. I’m not sure where he learned that a bicycle was a traditional Christmas gift, but fair enough, it was. When we mentioned at one point that there is a bicycle summer camp in San Francisco, where kids can both learn to ride and take day trips across the Golden Gate Bridge, to cooking classes at the Ferry Building, through city parks, and to the zoo, his desire for a bike reached a fever pitch: he wanted a bike, and he wanted to learn to ride it in time for Wheel Kids summer camp.

Although buying so many bikes in a few months was starting to feel ridiculous, we also felt like it would be crazy to miss the opportunity to get our son riding when he was so motivated. And he correctly pointed out that he was now the only person in the family without his own bicycle. So onward: another bicycle. The selection of children’s bicycles is almost as confusing as the selection of adult bicycles, but mercifully, there are many fewer models available and they are cheaper. Our son, a very tall six-year-old, seemed the right size for a bike with 20” wheels, which would probably last him until middle school.  We hardly needed the advice to avoid big-box store kids’ bikes, as there are no such stores in San Francisco. Once again my brother-in-law offered advice that could get us to a decent ride. He recommended Wheels of Justice Cyclery, a Bay Area shop specializing in children’s bikes that not only had the coolest name ever but offered a buyback program, where any bicycle purchased from them could be returned anytime and 50% of the price would be taken off the next bicycle. The idea behind it was to help parents resist the temptation to save money by buying a bike that was too big and that scared kids off of riding for good.

The downside of Wheels of Justice is that they are located in Oakland. Getting there involves a brutal drive that promised to send our kids, no fans of driving anyway, into complete meltdowns. We weren’t absolutely sure about the appropriate size of bicycle and knew we wanted to bring our son for a fitting. So despite our fears, we packed both kids into the car one evening a couple of weeks before Christmas for a trip to what we said was a surprise destination. Our daughter screamed bloody murder for the entire half hour it took us to get off the Bay Bridge and into Montclair. By the time we parked the car, I wanted to kill my brother-in-law for sending us across the Bay. Mercifully, our son passed out cold about five minutes into our daughter’s screaming fit. Less mercifully, we had to wake him up on arrival, at which point we had two howling kids to wrangle. Fortunately Montclair has a frozen yogurt shop, which we carried them into, ordering each an extra large cup. By the time they’d finished eating, they had mellowed to the point that they were only in very bad moods. Onward to Wheels of Justice!

To my surprise, our son had not made the connection between his desire for a bicycle and this trip, and was completely gobsmacked when we arrived at a bicycle shop. His mood immediately ratcheted up to delighted. Our daughter spotted some bikes with streamers and perked up as well. Living up to their promise, Wheels of Justice primarily stocked kids’ bikes, and given that it was the Christmas season, there were a lot of them on the floor. There were also a lot of people buying kids’ bikes; unlike our other bicycles, this was clearly not going to be a purchase heavily discounted from list price. The selection of bikes ranged pretty widely, from simple single-speeds to geared mountain bikes with suspension forks (which I still think of as the thingy that holds the front wheel on the bike that looks like it has springs inside). Thanks to the Wheel Kids site (and once again vetted by my brother-in-law, who has in a few total hours over the last five years spared us many bad decisions) we knew what we wanted as a first bike: a single-speed bike with coaster brakes and a hand brake for the rear wheel (not the front wheel because gripping a front wheel brake too hard could send a kid over the handlebars). Happily, this is also the cheapest kind of decent kids’ bike.

Classic Christmas morning photo

It took a while to find someone to help us as the shop was slammed, but Matt was happy to cruise the selection of commuter gloves while the kids climbed on and off various bikes. When someone in the shop was finally free he confirmed that we wanted a 20” bike after popping our son on and off a couple of bikes, and told us that given what we wanted there were two options: a Jamis Laser or a COBO. They could build us a COBO in the next week that we could reserve and drive back to pick up, or sell us a Laser that night. The guy at the shop didn’t see much difference between the bikes except that they thought the Laser had a nicer paint job. Remembering the drive we’d had already, we bought the Laser.

Our son, who is a model of patience and discretion among six-year-olds, accepted that this was the last he would see of his bike until Christmas, and even pretended on occasion over the next two weeks that he didn’t know he’d be getting one. His first ride was on Christmas Day, and he needed one of us to hold the back of his jacket the whole time. His second ride was a couple of days later, and by the end of that ride, he was riding on his own. Admittedly his strategy for finishing a ride still involves riding headlong directly at one of us and yelling, “Grab my bike! I need to stop now!”

The Jamis Laser has some weaknesses, but I’m not sure that there is much we could buy that is better. Our son is familiar with our bikes, and immediately noticed the lack of fenders, lights, and a bell. He has argued that these are gaps that compromise safety and function and would like these accessories added to his bike as soon as possible. (Of course, he is six years old, and thus I suspect that he would cheerfully accessorize with anything and everything up to and including streamers on the handlebars.) I’m not sure that we can add fenders to the bike (we asked, and the verdict was that it is unlikely), but the rest is easy enough; however I feel like the bell at least should come standard. Our son also wondered why his bike didn’t come with a U-lock, as it has not escaped him that we lock up our own bikes even within the already double-locked building garage (I myself have often wondered the same thing about my own bike). Finally, we all find this bike to be pretty heavy for a child. Our son is strong for his age but lifting the bike is real work for him; this was a big disappointment after the ultralight balance bike.

We were surprised and delighted to see one of his 1st grade classmates, a friend since the first day of kindergarten, riding the exact same bicycle, right down to the color, on New Year’s Day. His parents don’t bike commute to school, so we didn’t realize they even had bikes, but like us, they were out for a family ride on Sunday in Golden Gate Park: one parent had a child seat for their daughter, the other carried her balance bike, and their son rode alongside on his Laser. Seeing our friends out like us on bikes, and our kids’ matching bicycles, pretty much made our day. What can I say? We’re cheap dates.

Girl on Schwinn

In defense of the Laser, there is a lot of crap out there people expect kids to ride. Other than an amazing old Schwinn one girl was riding, our son’s bike was the most functional bicycle we saw in the parade of new Christmas bikes in Golden Gate Park over the last week of the year. The awesome Schwinn was, according to the rider’s grandmother, 35 years old and her mother’s bike before her, stored  in the garage (under a bag of lawn fertilizer…) awaiting a new generation all those decades. That bike did have fenders, as well as huge sweeping handlebars and a kickstand and a full chainguard. The Laser, to its credit, also has a kickstand and a chainguard. The Schwinn did not have a hand brake, and that is a strong point in the Laser’s favor, because the only way that poor girl could stop the bike quickly was to reverse the pedals, at which point she would fall right off the bike. (I suspect it would be easy to add a hand brake.) Both bikes weigh a ton considering that they are meant for children. The absence of hand brakes was epidemic among other kids’ bikes we saw, many of which seemed to rattle aggressively even after they stopped moving. Based on their lack of major brand labels I assume that these bikes were purchased at Target or Walmart. Although I understand the temptation, because those bikes are cheap and because employees at Target/Walmart typically don’t treat kids like they are radioactive, I’m glad we went to a real bike shop (and I’m particularly glad it was kid-friendly). Despite my annoyance about what’s missing from the Laser, it is clear that we could have done much worse.

10 Comments

Filed under family biking, reviews, San Francisco

10 responses to “The Christmas bike: Jamis Laser 20”

  1. “Grab my bike! I need to stop now!” Far too funny!

    Do you really think a 20in will get him into middle school? That would be really great! Our 8yo is on a 20 in now and about ready for a geared 24in. We are hoping to get one from a friend to try. Our 9yo is on a 26in. She is exceptionally tall for her age however.

    I was also wondering if you have had an opportunity to try a follow-me-tandem and if they are less wobbly than the trail-a-bike? It seems like the ideal, kid pedaling, bike towing, connected to an adult, solution.

  2. We are hoping that it gets him into middle school, but our son enrolled in kindergarten at age four (legitimate at the time in California and recommended by his preschool). Like your oldest he is really tall, though, and might have to move up earlier. My brother-in-law suggested that it might be possible to get our son on an extra-small adult frame when he outgrows the 20″, which would offer a lot more options.

    We haven’t tried a Follow-Me tandem (I’d like to), but it seems like it would wobble less; my concern would be that it’s supposed to be heavy and that might mean a lot of extra drag on the back going uphill. Maybe when I’m in Portland next (work trip coming up…) I’m thinking that something like your Yuba setup might be better for us–we only have two kids, so maybe we could carry his bike when he doesn’t want to ride and have both kids aboard? But I’ve also read the Sheldon Brown article about the wonders of tandems, and our friends at school like their triple, so we’re thinking about that now too. Although they told me the tandem is easier to captain when you’re tall and strong–dad is over 6′ and has no problems, mom is more like 5’4″ and has trouble sometimes.

    We are holding off on making any decisions until we see how our son does at bike camp this spring with developing traffic skills and stamina. CYLRAB just posted that her 7-year-old is alternating riding on his own and on the Xtracycle on city streets now, so we are hopeful.

  3. We like having our children on the deck, but with hills, the ‘idea’ of extra help is tempting :) Would they be able to ride the bike and assist in a tandem like situation with the Follow me tandem? That was my understanding. Would that negate the extra weight issue?

    Portland? I hope you have your test rides lined up! What a treat :)

    • I wish I knew whether the Follow Me helped with hills. The people who review it seem to be mostly doing brief test rides or live in flatter areas. So it’s hard to say. It would be an expensive mistake for us if it didn’t–at $400, almost as much as another bike.

      I won’t be traveling with the littles when I go to Portland–it’s all business–and even if I were we wouldn’t bring their bikes, so I’m not sure if it would make sense to try bikes while I’m there. But if you have suggestions, I’m interested! There is a complicated hand-off after that trip (Matt is going on an extended business trip to China the same week) so I will most likely meet my mom and the kids in Seattle and spend spring break with them, and I’m thinking it might make more sense to rent some interesting bikes there instead, if we can.

      • You could email Family Ride (she and I email often, I could cyber into if you need) and see what she can hook you up with in both Seattle and/or Portland. See if she knows of a PDX family set up that isn’t available in Seattle to see if you should take advantage of that time there. She seems to have a fleet of her own to try out ;) I would love to hear of your take on the hill comparisons between all the cities you visit. Maybe there is a way to gauge it?

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