10/01/2013 11:00 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

No pedals: Balance bike racing offers tiny tots a chance to keep up with the bigger kids

EAGLE, Colo. - They gather at the starting line with their tiny handlebars nearly touching. Decked out in helmets, jerseys and protective knee guards, they wait at the gate, listening to the call of "On your mark, get set, go!" before racing off.

Between 18 months and 4 years old, they look like mini versions of BMX racers.

They are — sort of.

Yes, they are on bikes and they are racing. Difference is, these little tykes are on balance bikes, also known as Strider, kick or push bikes.

That means no pedals, no brakes, no fear.

Only fun.

"It's awesome," said Benno Scheidegger, whose daughter Kira became a nationally-ranked BMX racer after learning how to ride on a balance bike. "It really is a great thing. I recommend Striders for everyone who has little kids who want to ride."

Balance bikes go back to the early 1800s, when the first bicycles, known as walking machines, featured wheels and seats but no pedals or brakes.

Racing on pedal-less bikes, at least by kids, didn't really take off until a few years ago, when a mechanically inclined father decided to strip down his 18-month-old son's bike so he could tool around on the family's land in South Dakota. A mountain bike and dirt bike enthusiast, Ryan McFarland wanted his son Bode to ride along with him. Bode had plastic toys he could push around in, but he was too small to ride clunky, heavy tricycles and bikes with training wheels.

McFarland came from a family of tinkerers — his grandfather was a racecar engineer and his father owned a motorcycle dealership — and he held several patents from his own inventions, including a bicycle seat post and a suspension system for wheelchairs. So when Bode needed something different, it was natural for McFarland to take a blowtorch to his son's bike, chopping it down and taking away everything that was unnecessary for a little rider who hadn't been walking that long.

His creation generated interest from parents who saw little Bode running around, and he decided to make a business out of it.

"I would have people driving down the road next to us where he's tiny and zipping along the sidewalk. People driving down the road would pull over, get out and ask us about this bike because they had a little kid and they can't believe he's riding so well," McFarland said. "After enough of those, it's like OK, I'm evidently onto something and I'm missing the boat if I don't do something."

McFarland started Strider Sports International in 2007 to develop and sell balance bikes.

Because it was created with performance riding in mind, not as a toy, the Strider became the standard for balance bikes. The company sold 600,000 bikes last year.

And, as is usually the case with kids, the bike riding became a competition, leading to the first Strider races in 2009. The races became big draws at BMX and pro cycling events, giving the little ones a chance to participate and adults something that's kick-in-the-pants fun to watch.

Strider racing is now a sanctioned class by USA BMX, which holds races across the United States, including national championships.

"We're seeing a big push for a lot of parents to get their kids out on Striders," said Jay Lucas, who built a Strider track next to the BMX park in Eagle. "It's nothing for us to go out on a weekend and see a mom with her kids and their Striders out on the little Strider track. It's going big."

The bikes and races are as functional as they are fun. When kids are first learning to ride bikes, they typically start with training wheels, then have their parents chase them around, holding the seat while they try to gain balance.

With balance bikes, the kids don't have to worry about pedaling and braking, so their entire focus is on balancing and steering. At 18 months old, most kids can walk and run, so they can do that with the bike underneath them and figure out the rest as they go.

By learning to ride balance bikes, kids figure out how to balance on two wheels quickly, and the transition to pedal bikes becomes much easier.

"You think about this: If you're 4 and you started on one of these at 2, half your life has been spent riding on two wheels," McFarland said. "It's as natural to you as walking at that point."

Plus, by wheeling around on bikes, the littlest kids feel like they can do what the big kids are doing.

Grown-ups get to see their kids try to pop wheelies and run around like crabs on wheels.

"If you have little kids, get them out and try it," Scheidegger said.

They'll love it and so will their parents.