There's nothing like road cycling for the sheer speed you can travel at and distances you can go. Once you've eliminated the other possible women's bike types from your list, it's time to get down to enjoying some high-speed, skinny-rubbered fun. We're here to help you find the best women's road bike for you.
- Keep your eyes peeled for the results of our upcoming BikeRadar Women's Road Bike of the Year Awards
Road cycling is the discipline of choice for those who like going fast. Whether you want to fly along country lanes, explore the landscape, or pit your racing skills against others or the clock, road cycling has something to offer everyone. It's also amazing exercise, burning calories, improving cardiovascular health, and getting those legs toned up and strong.
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Do I need a women's road bike?
Once upon a time, buying a women's road bike meant buying a scaled-down version of a unisex or men's bike with a 'feminine' (read pink and/or floral) paint scheme. This was the infamous shrink-it-and-pink-it approach to designing products for women, which is thankfully, in the bike industry at least, on its way out.
It wasn't the choice of paint so much as the ethos behind the design that was the issue; the assumption that women were just scaled down versions of men. Thankfully, with the growth in women's cycling, increasing numbers of women working in the bike industry, and better data available on women's body dimensions and power output, few brands approach women's-specific bike design in that way any more. In fact, there are three main approaches brands can take.
- The first is based on the assumption that women have, on average, longer legs and shorter bodies than men. This is still a prevalent view in bike design, and influences how a number of women's-specific bikes are designed. This usually translates into bikes that have a shorter reach and give a more upright riding position. This can work very well for some women, particular those with shorter torsos, or those who prefer that upright position. It can work less well for taller women and those who want a more aggressive, racy position on the bike.
- A second approach is to develop women's bikes with different geometry to unisex bikes, but to base these designs on data collected from a large number of women, and to take into account the purpose of that bike, the type of body position the rider will be in on that bike, and how much any morphological differences are likely to make for that design. This is an approach Specialized takes, for example.
- Finally, some brands feel that the differences between genders aren't great enough to warrant a completely different frame design, but that getting the correct size of frame and ensuring the overall bike fit is correct is more important. Hoy bikes in the UK takes this approach, producing more sizes with smaller incremental differences between them, and providing a bike fit included in the price that will swap out elements like the handlebar and stem to get the best fit possible.
Some of the main differences between unisex and women's specific bikes, irrespective of their approach to women's bike geometry, include having a women's-specific saddle, narrower bars with a shallower drop, and in some cases shorter crank arm lengths.
So if you are a women do you need to have a women's specific bike? In short the answer is no. Many women find unisex bikes suit them; many others swear by the fit of a women's specific bike, so there's no one-size-fits-all answer here. It's worth not ruling anything out when you're looking for a new bike. Taller women may find a unisex bike works better for them; smaller women may appreciate the smaller sizing options and associated features of a female-specific option.
The best advice, as ever, is to take a few bikes for a decent test ride, and make a decision based on which feels best for you.
How much should I spend?
The budget you have is going to be the biggest influencing factor when it comes to deciding which bike to go for. Road bikes vary massively in price, from several hundred pounds/dollars for an entry-level bike through to five-figure sums for a carbon-framed pro-level race machine. Whatever bike you go for, there are a few things you should consider.
- You may want to keep some money in your budget aside for some key maintenance items. Road bike tyres run at high pressures, and keeping them topped up with air will prevent punctures and the bike rolling slowly. A track pump is the most efficient way to do this, so if you don't have one, get one.
- Most road bikes will be supplied with either basic flat pedals or no pedals at all, so again leave some money aside for a decent pair. Most riders use a clip system to clip cycling shoes into place on the pedal, as this gives a much more efficient ride.
You can get a lot of bike for your money if you shop carefully. Here's what to expect at each price point.
- Under £500 – Alloy frame and fork, a seven-speed double crankset (giving you 14 gears), with alloy bars and stem.
- £500 to £700 – Alloy frame with carbon or alloy forks, and eight- or nine-speed gears (often Shimano Sora or Claris) with a double or triple crankset.
- £700 to £1000 – Alloy frame with carbon or alloy forks, 10-speed Shimano Tiagra (or similar) with a double crankset, and in some cases with mechanical disc brakes.
- £1000 to £1500 – Alloy frame with carbon fork, Shimano Tiagra or similar 10-speed gearing, rising to Shimano 105 11-speed (so 22 gears) at the higher end of the price scale. Hydraulic disc brake options and lighter components are likely to feature around this price point.
- £1500 to £2000 – Carbon frame and carbon forks, lightweight and high-end Shimano Ultegra or similar 11-speed gearing, carbon bars.
- £2000 and upwards – This is getting towards the level of kit used by professional racers. Expect carbon frames and forks, carbon parts, hydraulic disc brakes or quality rim brakes, lightweight wheels, plus Shimano Di2 electronic gear shifting.
Looking to score a saving? You can save some serious cash by buying an older model, as many retailers will start to discount their bikes in the middle of the year – you could get in the region of 30% off the list price.
You can also save yourself some money by buying a secondhand bike online, though there are pitfalls it pays to be aware of so you can avoid falling foul of them.
What type of road bike do I need?
Road bikes come in two main strands: endurance and race, each designed to fulfil a different purpose.
Endurance road bikes are, as the name suggests, built for long rides and big distances. They'll tend to have a more upright position, and the focus is on comfort and efficiency on the road rather than out-and-out speed.
On the flip side, race frames are designed to give the best transference of power to forward momentum, and place the rider in a more downward, aggressive, aerodynamic position on the bike.
If you're not sure which one is right for you, take an example of each for a test ride. Generally speaking, if you are planning on riding long distances or entering a non-competitive event such as a sportive or gran fondo, then an endurance-focused bike would be worth looking at, whereas if you want to race, or like a stiffer bike with powerful acceleration, then try a race-focused bike.
There are other types; time trial and triathlon bikes have a similar geometry to race bikes, but taken to the extreme, with frames and componentry designed to reduce aerodynamic drag as much as possible. Touring road bikes are designed for comfort, longevity, and to be load bearing, so they'll usually be able to take heavy pannier racks front and back. Fixed gear and single-speed bikes are a very popular option with urban cyclists, as the single gear and lack of derailleur means little maintenance.
Rim brakes vs disc brakes
A lot of road bikes now come with disc-brakes rather than the traditional rim brakes. Disc-brakes have been used in mountain biking for many years, and consist of a circular brake rotor that attaches to the wheel hubs, and a separate caliper that contains the brake pads. There are two types: cable-operated, and hydraulic, with the hydraulic option offering more subtle control.
The advantage of disc brakes is increased stopping power and little-to-no decrease in braking power in wet and muddy conditions – which is one of the reasons they are very popular on cyclocross bikes. However, there are some claims that they may be risky to use in road races because of their sharp edges, and the cycling bodies governing France and Spain banned bikes with disc brakes for events during 2016.
Electronic vs cable-operated shifting
The vast majority of road bikes still use a gear shifting system that relies on cables. However, at the upper end of the price spectrum, you'll start to see electronic shifting systems, such as Shimano's Di2 or SRAM's wirelessly operated eTap, which launched in 2015. In practice, they operate in a similar way to mechanical gears; you'll still use the shifters on the bars to change gear. However, that will send a signal to trigger movement in relevant derailleur.
The systems are powered by a rechargeable battery that sits discreetly on the frame, and are relatively lightweight – though slightly heavier than the very lightest high-end mechanical options.
What size women's road bike do I need?
Most road bikes will come in a range of sizes listed as a measurement; for example, 54cm, 56cm and so on. Other brands will size their bikes small, medium, large, etc. While there'll be some size alignment between brands, it's worth noting that, as with clothing sizes, these aren't standardised across brands and will vary with bike geometry and purpose, so we'd always recommend checking the manufacturer's sizing guidelines.
The size of bike you need to go for is predominantly determined by your height, though there are other measurements to take into account. Our guide to road bike sizing paints a more detailed picture of bike geometry and fit that will help you work out which measurements suit you best.
Getting the right size of bike is paramount. While there are some fit adjustments that can be made, such as swapping in a longer or shorter stem to adjust the reach, or moving the saddle forwards or backwards, ultimately the wrong size frame can cause problems, and may even lead to injury.
Road cycling is a very repetitive motion; think of the thousands of times your knee moves up and down with the pedalling motion. Having a poorly fitting bike can through your body out of alignment, and over time that can add up to muscle or joint strain and injury, and a bike that doesn't handle as well as it could. Best avoided!
This is why we'd again suggest taking any bike you are considering for a good test ride, following the manufacturer's guidelines on fit, and talking to your local bike shop staff.
We'd also highly recommend getting a professional bike fit. Many shops offer these with the purchase of a bike, and there are also independent fit companies. A bike fit involves taking measurements of you including your limb length and flexibility, and watching you ride the bike in a turbo trainer. Based on this, the fitter can ensure that the saddle position, height, and tilt are all spot on, as well as the position of the bars and brakes. They may recommend swapping out the stem or bars, or might adjust the position of the cleats in your shoes, but you'll walk away with the best possible fit.
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Popular women's road bikes
Most cycling brands will offer women's specific models, and there's now plenty of choice ranging from entry-level road bikes through to high-end performance-focused race machines.
Global brands Trek, Specialized, Cannondale and Liv produce some of the most popular women's road bikes, and you'll see plenty of bikes from these brands on the roads. Popular models include the Specialized Dolce, Specialized Amira, Trek Lexa, Trek Silque, Cannondale Synapse, Liv Avail and Liv Envie. Other popular makes and models include the Bianchi Nirone Damabianca, Norco Valence, Fuji Supreme and the Scott Contessa Speedster.
Direct-sale company Canyon, which retails its bikes online, also produces a range of women's road bikes at very competitive prices. The Canyon Ultimate and Canyon Endurace are two examples.
In the UK, Pinnacle (sold by Evans Cycles) and Boardman (sold by Halfords) produce a good selection of women's specific road bikes and can represent great value for money.
If you're looking for something completely bespoke – and have deep pockets – you could also consider getting a frame built especially for you. There are many independent frame builders who can do this. They'll talk through what you want from a bike, what you'll be using it for, and
Best women's road cycling clothing
Got the bike sorted? You may also want to invest in some women's cycling kit, including glasses, helmets, gloves, shoes, jerseys, shorts or tights, jackets, and other accessories such as base layers and leg and arm warmers.
Road cyclists tend to wear Lycra clothing for a number of reasons: because it's form fitting, there should be no seams or lumps that can move and chafe the skin, tighter-fitting clothing is more aerodynamic and helps reduce drag that can slow you down, and some Lycra kit is compressive so can help muscle performance. Jerseys and jackets will usually have pockets at located at the lower back where riders can stow essentials such as phone, a lightweight jacket, tools or spare inner tubes, or some snacks. Shorts (or three-quarter length knickers, or full-length tights) will feature a pad or chamois which helps cushion the nether regions. Glasses are a good idea to help protect the eyes from dust, insects and sun-glare.
There is now a huge variety of women's road cycling kit available on the market, covering everything from entry-level shorts and jerseys through to kit made to the same technical specifications as that worn by professional women's teams. Style-wise, whether you want stealthy black, floral, geometric prints, skulls, retro style and pretty much anything else you can think of, it's available, though you'll probably have to shop online to find it.
Most of the big bike brands also produce women's road kit, including helmets and shoes, including Specialized, Bontrager (Trek) and Liv (Giant). Other major brands producing women's kit include Endura, Rapha, Altura, Castelli, Assos, Primal, Morvelo, POC, Sportful and Santini. Smaller independent brands are springing up all the time, often started by female cyclists who couldn't find what they wanted on the market so took matters into their own hands, creating something great in the process. Some examples include Fierlan, Victor + Liberty and Queen of the Mountains.
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Sizing can be an issue with some women's road cycling kit. Certain brands tend to size up small when compared to high-street sizes (which is why on BikeRadar Women we always list the size we tried and the dimensions and dress-size of the product tester) and most brands don't go up past a size UK14 / US10. There are a few exceptions, and new brands have sprung up that produce larger sizes of cycle kit, including Fat Lass At The Back, Terry, Tenn Outdoors, Altura, Road Holland and Primal. Several of these brands are only available in the US however, so while you can get them shipped internationally, be aware there will be postage and customs charges.
If you don't like the spandex look, then happily there's an increasing amount of cycle kit that doesn't just feature skin-tight Lycra. Aimed predominantly at people who either want a more casual cycle look, or want kit that transitions from bike to work easily, these companies produce T-shirts, shorts, trousers, jackets and more that combines a smart-casual aesthetic with performance fabrics, meaning they wick well, breathe, avoid the dreaded arm-pit pong and stay crease-free. Brands producing this type of kit include Rapha, Vulpine, Levi's and Velocity.