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’s bodies obviously have different proportions than men’s, so women can benefit from bikes with different geometry to suit. Some brands build dedicated frames with geometry that works around the traditional ‘short torso and arms with longer legs’ body shape of women.
This means shorter top tubes, steeper seat angles and reduced stem lengths to create what is, in some cases, an exceptionally short frame length. This reduces the stretch to the bars and can make riding more comfortable if you’re shorter than average or very petite, but if you're not, it can adversely affect your weight distribution on the bike.
Some female cyclists prefer a more stretched-out, aggressive riding position, so other brands have concentrated on providing smaller sizes of standard ‘male geometry’ frames, kitted out with parts that make contact points more comfortable for female riders, such as narrower bars, slimmer grips, a female-specific saddle and shorter cranks.
BikeRadar's advice for buying your first bike would be to try out lots of bikes – not necessarily just women's bikes – and see what you find comfortable. You may find a women's bike suits you best, or find the geometry of men's bike might be better suited to your shape and size. If you find the latter to be the case, then just changing a component or two on a men's bike could increase your cycling enjoyment.
A female-specific saddle is the best option for comfort for the female anatomy. Positioning your saddle correctly takes a litte trial and error.
To set the 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 delicate female areas.
As with the bike, being able to try multiple saddle options will help you find the best fit. Good shops — and good friends — should be able to help you with this.
These can be straight or have some ‘setback’, which shunts the saddle slightly further away from the handlebar. 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.
Fitting a different seatpost may help you get a better reach to the bar, but it will also affect this pedalling position. Make small seatpost and saddle rail adjustments, but be aware of how that feels when you’re pedalling.
Although frames are sized by the height of the seat tube, the effective length of the top tube is just as important because this dictates reach. When you stand over the bike, there should be enough clear air 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-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 more suitable for the average female’s shorter torso and gives a slightly more upright riding position. Not every woman needs to be riding a women’s frame though. The frame should fit you, whatever its intended gender is.
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, which is what what happens when the turning front wheel comes into contact with your foot. Your ideal crank length depends on a combination of 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 lose some powerful leverage. If you’re short or average height, it’s worth checking out 165 or 170mm crank lengths. If you’re changing from long cranks it’ll feel strange at 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. Sizes go from about 36 to 46cm.
Women’s bars also have a shorter reach along the top to the curved portion and a shallower drop to the lower part. Both these factors make reaching the brake levers easier.
Fitting adjustable reach levers is the quickest way to gain confidence. You can make shifting and braking easier by bringing the levers more within your reach. This also reduces strain on the wrists and hands.
Too long or too low a reach can cause pain in the neck, wrists or lower back. There should be a slight bend in your elbows so you can comfortably reach all the positions on your bar. Try a different stem to tweak the fit slightly.
A shorter one will bring the bar in closer, which may help, because women tend to have shorter torsos. But avoid going less than about 80mm in length, or the handling will start to feel twitchy.
Women tend to be lighter than men. 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 rotational mass will make a big difference.