On first impressions the Isla Beinn looks huge, with adult sized wheels, the ‘26 small’ aimed at ages 8+ seemed a stretch for even our ten year old tester’s unusually gangly limbs. But appearances can be deceptive, as he soon discovered with this elegant bike, fine-tuned to meet the specific needs of a child on his way up the growth chart.
The company was founded by the eponymous Isla Rowntree, the UK competitive cyclist, back in 2005. Since then, Islabikes has positioned itself as one of the few bike manufacturers with the pursuit of kid’s riding comfort rooted firmly at its heart. Taking their inspiration from the Gaelic words for everything outdoors when naming the models of their bikes (beinn = mountain) – Islabikes also reveal something of their passion for getting kids out adventuring on two wheels.
With a choice of customisable features – tyres, mount-points for mudguards and panniers – you can potentially use the Isla Beinn for anything from the school run, to touring and mountain biking. As we were off to test the bike on a summer camping trip around France, we decided to keep it simple with road-bike tyres to give it a run for its money on the rough and ready continental surfaces.
It is often underestimated just how crucial it is to keep the weight down in the composition of a kid’s bike.
From a distance, the aluminium frame, weighing in at 9.46 kg (including the pedals), looks ridiculously minimalist. This could have been an issue when trying to sell this to a ten-year old with an eye for gadgets and accessories, but straight away he felt the difference in handling. Bursting out of the car after ten hours on the AutoRoute he threw himself onto the trails of the campsite and flew up the steep hills with ease (even when carrying the morning’s croissant and baguette supply back to camp).
It is often underestimated just how crucial it is to keep the weight down in the composition of a kid’s bike. Think about it – an extra 5kg of bike may be of little consideration for a 60-80kg grown-up, but for a 25kg kid, hauling an extra 5kg up a steep hill becomes a very big deal. This is where Islabikes really stand out in this market; most high-street bikes aimed at children offer a cruel early lesson in power-to-weight ratio, whereas Islabikes have made light-weight frames their business with home-brand light-weight wheels and cranks to match.
Gears can add significant heft to a bike and with multiple chain rings they can also be complicated to operate. The Isla Beinn has adopted a very wide ratio cassette, which has allowed the use of a single ring. This cuts down weight and has the added benefit of fewer dropped chains; surely one of the biggest banes of family rides out.
While, of course, the eight-speed Sram X4 gears offer a wide range of flexibility and the short crank massively improves riding comfort, you may initially have trouble persuading your child that they really don’t need 18 gears. But after a few minutes of turning smoothly through the light action twist-grip shifter on the handlebars, they should be sold.
The short-reach aluminium brake levers, while brilliantly designed for little fingers, took a bit of getting used to. Likewise, the big wheels give the initial impression that climbing on and staying secure is going to be a stretch.
In fact, the short cranks and low stand-over height helped to give a powerful sense of confidence and the V brakes give extremely responsive, soft-touch action braking – which, after several years of squeezing hard on longer and stiffer levers nearly sent him flying over the handle bars. But after a while he got so used to the lighter touch and maneuverability of the Isla Beinn that a quick go on his old bike elicited the comment that it was “like driving a tank.”
For the money (£399.99), there could be a temptation to go for a mini-replica of your own sophisticated and tooled-up model including lots of gears, suspension, disc breaks and so on, but all of these things add weight, which is the enemy of the little rider.
It might seem a little perverse paying for all the extras that don’t come with an Isla bike, but it is the Isla Beinn’s pared down simplicity that proved one of its biggest strengths when it came to ease of riding for this enthusiastic but cautious ten year old tester. And the pleasure of making it to the top of the steepest hill and to the end of a lengthy family ride, taking in both trails and road, left him beaming with satisfaction.
The elegant minimalism and clean lines of the Isla Beinn might not be what the average child is pining for in their brand new bike and it is possible you could be faced with a disappointingly lacklustre reaction to the unboxing. But what the Isla Beinn lacks in cool-factor is skilfully made up for in its exquisite attention to the details that really matter if you want to get past the usual frustrations that might prevent your child from developing a real passion for the ride.
Check it out, for £399.99 here.