Men and women are built differently. Bike manufactures from days-gone-by realized it right off, and started building women specific bike frames. You remember them, with the missing top tube. For some strange reason, they figured that women had a tougher time getting off and on the bike. But things have changed. The days of the missing top tube are over. Manufacturers have realized that women require roughly the same geometry as men to be competitive in cycling — albeit smaller. But do women specific bikes really differ that much from men’s bikes?
On average, women have shorter torsos and arms, with longer legs than a man of the same height. Their hands and feet are smaller, and shoulders are narrower. And one of the more appealing differences — their hips are wider. All of these differences affect the way a bike fits, feels, and handles.
The bikes in the bike shop are designed around the average-sized man. Women have adapted to what men need, opting for smaller frame sizes. Bike frames are built for efficiency, and what works for men, should work for women, in theory anyway.
If a road bike is marketed as “women specific,” it should be different from the ground up. It should provide fit and features in reach, hand comfort, shifting and braking, pedals and crank arm length, and last but not least — the rear end.
Note that women are also never the same size or weight, some of them can ride a bike designed for a man, better than a man. But a women’s specific bike can give the average woman a better chance of competing, or just being more efficient, with fewer aches and pains.
Design and Unisex
Bike manufacturers have different approaches to designing a women specific bike. Some modify a stock “unisex” frame with a shorter stem, smaller, more narrow handlebars, shorter cranks, and a wider saddle. Others take a more aggressive approach, designing women specific bikes differently with a shorter top tube, a more relaxed head tube angle, a taller seat tube, with a slightly steeper angle.
Science of Geometry
The shorter top tube decreases the reach between the saddle and the handlebars, which is one of the most common issues for women, due to shorter torsos. But too much shortening can cause the bike to be less stable, and increases the chance that toes contact the wheel in tight turns. To compensate for it, other modifications are made, such as relaxing the head tube angle slightly, and moving the front wheel forward. A relaxed head tube angle also lengthens the wheelbase slightly, which makes the bike handle better. A taller seat tube with a steeper angle make it easier to accomplish a shorter top tube, increasing comfort by reducing neck and upper body strain.
Not For All Women
Not all women need women specific bikes. Some female cyclists prefer the stretched-out, aggressive riding position of a man’s bike. So male geometry frames, equipped with parts that make contact points more comfortable for female riders, such as narrower bars, slimmer grips, a female-specific saddle and shorter cranks are fine. If you fit into this category, you might find the geometry of a man’s bike better suited to your shape and size. If you fit the scenario, then changing a component or two on a bike designed for a man could increase your cycling enjoyment, performance and comfort.
Seats and Stems
A few minor changes might be all you need to make your bike more women specific. Stems are available in all lengths to make your reach more comfortable. Seats are easy to change out. Crank arms can be shortened or lengthened. Some manufacture’s offer adjustable brake and shifter levers that can be shortened. And then there’s the wheels.
The majority, if not all contemporary road bikes, are equipped with 700 wheels. But it hasn’t always been that way. When the smaller 650 wheel came out in about 1989, it was considered one of the fastest and most efficient wheels that you could put on a triathlon bike. If you’ve ever ridden a tri-bike, you know they’re fast, but terribly uncomfortable. By 1993, only a few years later, the 650 had fallen off it’s perch. But the smaller wheel is still out there, available in upscale brands, because it befits its role as a competitive wheel.
650’s Weigh Less
Install a 650 on a road bike to create frame geometry that compliments the elegant shape, and size for some women. If you’re a woman riding a small frame bike built for a man, almost nothing can do more for speed and comfort than switching to a 650 wheel. As a plus — they weigh less than 700s. Depending on your bike, switching to a 650 may involve some modification to your brake pads. Check with a mechanic before doing so.
The Competitive Woman
If you’re a competitive woman racer, you probably already know that an “off-the-shelf” production bike, even if it is women specific, may not be the best bike for your needs. A good custom framebuilder will spend considerable time and effort to make sure that you get exactly what you want. But it might end up being different from what you think you want, because the framebuilder will measure you, take into account your riding style, your flexibility, arm, legs etc. The frame builder will take all of this information into account, along with your preferences, and build not only a women’s specific bike, but a bike that fits your one-of-a-kind body.
The discussion about women specific bikes has typically centered around the frame, but other gear is also important. Fortunately, and maybe because women are more fashion oriented than men, the availability of jerseys, gloves, jackets and shoes is not limited to men’s designs and sizes. The availability of women’s gear almost outpaces men’s, who are sometimes comfortable wearing the same gear day after day.
When it comes to gear, it’s usually disappointing that sizes almost always seem too small. Even the most petite woman (or man) can struggle getting some of the jerseys or shorts to fit, opting for medium, or even large sizes — especially after the item is washed. Don’t be discouraged by it. The models they use for sizing must be terribly undernourished.