One of the questions BikeRadar is often asked by women getting into cycling, is whether they need a women-specific bike. Well, the definitive answer is... maybe.
Women and men obviously have different physiologies, with women in general often being shorter, having narrower shoulders and carrying less muscle mass than men.
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Many bike brands make women's-specific models
Many bike brands design and build frames with women-specific geometry. These designs are based around research and data collected into the average female body.
Some brands build frames around the traditional 'short torso and arms with longer legs' view of women's body shapes. This means shorter top tubes and reduced stem lengths to create what is, in some cases, an exceptionally short bike.
This reduces the stretch to the bars and can make riding more comfortable if you’re shorter than average or petite. If you’re not, it can adversely affect your weight distribution on the bike, making it harder to find where to position your body, which can in turn affect how the bike handles.
Brands building their bikes based on data collected from female riders, including Specialized, may have some or all these elements, but will design each bike according to how these dimensions affect the ride.
Some female cyclists, however, prefer a more stretched-out, aggressive riding position – so other brands have concentrated on providing a wider range of sizes of standard 'male' or 'unisex' frames.
Almost all women’s specific bikes, including those based around 'unisex' frames, will be kitted out with parts that make contact points more conformation for female riders, such as narrower bars, slimmer grips, shallower drops on road bikes, a female-specific saddle and shorter cranks.
Getting the best fit
Whichever type of bike you go for, it’s worth getting a bike fit to ensure your new bike fits you perfectly. This service is offered by many shops,
We’ve listed some of the main points of difference between women’s bikes and unisex bikes, plus some of the simple tweaks you can make yourself to ensure your bike fits better.
The Pinnacle Arkose 2 has a shorter reach, women's-specific saddle and other distinctive elements
Although frames are often sized by the height of the seat tube, the effective length of the top tube is just as important because this dictates reach – the distance from saddle to handlebars.
When you stand over a bike, there should be enough clearance between you and the frame for you to feel comfortable getting on and off. Meanwhile, the top tube shouldn’t be so long that you feel too stretched out – this will lead to back, neck and wrist pain.
This is where bikes with women’s specific geometry come into play. They’re often made with shorter top tubes, more standover room and possibly an extended head tube. This combination is designed to suit the average female form, and gives a slightly more upright riding position.
Not every woman needs to be riding a women’s specific frame though. The frame should fit you, whatever its intended gender is.
The obvious anatomical differences between men and women mean that saddle choice is an important factor to take into account. Since how comfortable your saddle is translates directly to how comfortable and pleasant your ride is, getting this right is crucial.
A good saddle should provide support to the sit bones while relieving pressure on the soft tissue.
Many saddle brands including Specialized and Bontrager produce saddles with different width fittings based on your sit bones, so you can get a saddle that fits you. Most retailers will be able to measure you up for one of these. Saddles are also designed to suit the different riding positions you sit in for road cycling, mountain biking and leisure or commuter riding.
While most women’s bikes will come fitted with a women’s saddle, we can’t stress enough that saddle choice is a highly personal thing, so you may still want to swap out the stock for something you feel comfortable with.
Saddle position is also important for comfort and performance. To set the right saddle height, lean against a wall and sit on the saddle with one leg straight down on the pedal (which is in the 'six o’clock' position). Your heel should rest lightly on the pedal with only the slightest give at the knee. Next, adjust the saddle angle for comfort. Begin with it level and clamped in the middle of the rails. A flat position works for many, but some prefer the saddle to tilt down at the nose by one to three degrees so as not to rub on delicate areas.
As with the bike, being able to try multiple saddle options will help you find the best fit. Some brands offer demo saddles, which you can try out to see if they are for you. While there are many reviews online, and good friends will be able to recommend some, don’t forget that what works for them might not work for you.
These can be straight or have some ‘setback’, which shunts the saddle slightly further away from the handlebars. There’s an ideal position for your body to be in to ensure optimal power when pedalling, with respect to the angle between your saddle and the bottom bracket. Most bikes come with a seatpost designed to help you achieve the optimal position provided you have the right-sized bike, and a bike fit can help ensure you have this right.
You can also affect the reach by shifting the saddle forward or backwards on the rails it attaches to the seatpost with.
Fitting a different seatpost may help you get a better reach to the bar, but it will also affect this pedalling position. Make small seapost and saddle fore/aft position adjustments, but be aware of how this feels when you’re pedalling.
Cranks are the arms the attach the pedals of your bike to the central spindle which powers your drivetrain.
Most cranks are 165, 170, 172.5 or 175mm long. The shortest came on the market for small women’s bikes to help minimise ‘toe overlap’, where your foot comes into contact with the front wheel of the bike when turning. Your ideal crank length depends on a combination of factors including femur length, power, and your riding style.
Cranks that are too long make it hard to feel ‘on top of’ the gear, as though you’re always trying to push too hard and lift your knees too high to turn the pedals. Cranks that are too short feel odd and make you loose some powerful leverage.
If you’re short or average height, it’s worth checking out 165 of 170mm crank lengths. If you’re changing from long cranks it’ll feel strange and first, but might be better for your joints in the long run.
Most bikes should come with a crank length that is appropriate for the frame (and thus rider) size.
Aim for a bar about the same width as your shoulders to give you the optimum blend of control and comfort. Too narrow and you’ll lack leverage for steering, too wide and the bike will feel ungainly.
The exception here is with mountain bikes, where the bars are often considerably wider – particularly on bikes designed for trail, enduro or downhill. The wider bars here give greater stability and fine control on technical, rock-strewn descents and other tricky terrain.
Handlebars on road bikes will also have a shorter reach along the top of the curved portion and a shallower drop to the lower part. Both of these factors make reaching the brake levers easier.
On the subject of those levers, adjusting the reach to the brakes is a simple process for most road, mountain and hybrid bikes, and can make the ride much more comfortable. Read our simple tweaks for making your bike fit better or pop into your local bike shop.
To adjust the reach on road bike levers, you’ll need to add some ‘shims’, little wedges that bring the levers closer to the bars. Most bike shops can fit these, and they’re available cheaply.
Many mountain and hybrid bike brakes will have a small screw on each brake lever you can turn to adjust the reach.
Too long or too short a reach can cause pain in the neck, wrists or lower back, and changing the stem length can help get a better fit. There should be a slight bend in your elbows when reaching forward that allows you to comfortably reach all the positions on your handlebars.
Shorter stems will bring the handlebars closer and reduce the reach, but this can also affect the handling. While on road and hybrid bikes, stems shorter than around 80mm in length will start to feel twitchy, on mountain bikes 50 to 90mm isn’t unusual for a cross country bike, and shorter than 60mm is now the norm for enduro and more technical, aggressive riding as it provides more responsive handling on rocky, rooty trails.
Some stems can also be flipped to give a more upright position, which can also shorten the reach by a few short, but often noticable, millimetres.
Women tend to be lighter than men, and the lighter the rider, the greater proportion of the total weight is made up by the bike. This means the bike should have as little mass as possible to boost performance.
One of the best ways to shave weight off the bike is in the wheels. Good quality, lightweight ones are expensive, but reducing this rotational mass will make a big difference.
Most mountain bikes and some hybrid bikes have suspension, a coil or air spring which allows the front and rear ('full-suspension' bikes) or just the front wheel ('hardtails') to move over uneven terrain.
This suspension can be set up to suit the weight of the rider, and as many women are lighter than men, it can make a big difference to how the bike handles. Setting up your suspension is a fairly simple process, but you’ll need a special suspension pump with a pressure gauge and a little time to do it. Have a watch of our rear shock and suspension fork set up videos to find out what you’ll need to do, or pop into your friendly local bike shop.
What’s the best women’s bike for me?
Road, hybrid, mountain, cruiser, gravel – not sure what type of bike is best for you? Our buyer's guide to the best women’s bikes will help point you in the right direction.
Women's specific bikes do work well for some women, but not every woman. Don't assume you need to have one, but don't discount them outright either. We'd always recommend trying both women's specific and 'unisex' bikes if you are shopping for a new bicycle.