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Review: Islabikes CNOC delivers aggressive, durable ride for kids

If you're looking for a bike that can serve your young, dirt-exploring children, Islabikes' 14-inch frame is worth consideration

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Parents, if you’re anything like me, your passion for bikes and riding them bleeds over to your kids. Perhaps your little one started on a balance bike before two years and has quickly outgrown his or her first pedal bike. If so, the Islabikes CNOC 14 is a durable, lightweight, and maneuverable option for kids starting to explore singletrack and the freedom of fast bikes.

The British builder first brought its frames for young riders to the U.S. market in 2013. Founded by former British cyclocross champion Isla Rowntree, the brand focuses on ergonomics and weight in its designs and the results paid off over four months of riding by my four-year-old son.

I measure children’s bikes against three qualities: Immediate visual appeal, ridability across conditions, and durability. The 12.4-pound Islabikes CNOC 14 nailed all three.

Jumping for excitement

We tested the CNOC’s first-impression performance on Christmas morning with the time-honored “cover it with a blanket in the corner” unveiling. Our then-three-year-old couldn’t conceal his feelings after carefully pulling back the cover.

“I’m jumping because I’m excited,” he said loudly as he hopped around the living room.

The rest of the morning centered around one thing: getting to the trailhead for a barely-above-freezing ride on the dirt.

It’s easy enough to dismiss our son’s reaction; he would probably be over the moon for any new bike under the tree. But with the Islabikes micro V-brake levers and knobby Kenda Small Block Eight tires, this new rig looked like mom’s and dad’s bikes, and he was thrilled. The CNOC is a bike for big guys and girls, shrunk to fit the youngest riders.

The CNOC rips, and takes some getting used to

The aggressive geometry of the CNOC 14, constructed of lightweight 7005 T6 aluminum with a cro-moly fork, took a bit of getting used to, but after a couple hours in the saddle on our local trails and the road between our house and the nearby park, our son was dialed. What was twitchy at first became maneuverable after three rides.

Many bikes designed for the sub-seven-year-old set feature handlebar height that is 10cm-plus above the saddle. The CNOC 14 features a more level plane between its small-diameter aluminum bar and saddle, forcing young riders into a more forward, over-the-bars position, which makes for improved handling on the pump track and trail.

The first handful of rides were a bit nervous, and we had a few crashes that wouldn’t have happened on a more upright frame, but the performance benefits made the memories of those skinned knees fade.

The downsized 1.5-inch Small Block Eight tires hooked up well on the dirt and didn’t provide an overwhelming amount of resistance on the road. And while the front V-brake allows the rider to gain familiarity with hand brakes, the coaster brake provided secure stopping. The brand’s British bikes sport two hand brakes and no coaster, but U.S. law requires all “sidewalk bikes” under 20 inches to carry the pedal-based stopping.

The 25-tooth front chainring, 89cm crankarms, and 14t rear cog make for a solid all-around gearing, though our son did spin out a bit on high-speed descents. This, thankfully, allowed dad to win an occasional race home from the park and was expected, given the singlespeed drivetrain and small sizing requirements.

The 12.4-pound claimed weight meant our son was able to push and carry his own bike — a big benefit at the pump track, where he was able to dismount and walk up any hits he didn’t top out.

Two shortcomings do mark the CNOC. First, the saddle cover is slick enough that our son shot off the seat and into a superman position after catching a little air on the trail. (Yes, he rode it out, and it’s one of his favorite riding memories, at the moment.) A grippy saddle would be a functional improvement, though it might take away some unscripted fun out on the dirt.

The size range is tight on the 14-inch model as well. Our son is 106cm tall, with a 42.5cm inseam, and he’s on the verge of outgrowing the bike, which fit perfectly just four months ago. I would recommend sizing up one model, if possible, though it’s hard to say how this would affect the ride quality early on.

Standing up to abuse

Perhaps the most important characteristic of a high-quality kids’ bike is its ability to stand up to abuse. We’ve ridden the CNOC hard off-road, left it out in the rain, and allowed mud to dry all over the drivetrain, and the bike keeps working as if it were new. In the instance you encounter trouble, each Islabike comes with a five-year frame guarantee and a two-year parts guarantee — plenty of time to run two or more kids through the bike.

The paint has held up to the usual throwing around kids do with their bikes and the grips show no sign of the dozens of scrapes on the concrete they’ve endured. I’ve lubed the chain just twice in five months and there has been no sign of needing more care.

We’ve also had zero flats on the Kenda rubber — which reminds me, I should start carrying a spare tube for the kid.

Availability and accessories

The 12.4-pound CNOC 14 retails for $269.99 and is available directly from the brand’s Portland-based U.S. offices. According to the company’s website, bikes deliver to most locations within 14 days, for $25-40.

Accessories available from the manufacturer include “full wraparound ‘cromo-plastic’” fenders ($24.99), spare tubes ($6.99), and “no tools” training wheels ($14.99).