If you’re just getting started with cycling, but aren’t sure what type of bike would be best, then this guide is aimed at you.
We break it all down, helping you decide what bike will suit your needs and budget, plus steer you towards plenty of advice and info (such as whether you should wear underwear under padded cycling shorts) to help you get out and riding. Let’s get started…
What’s the difference between women’s and unisex/men’s bikes?
Nearly every bike company makes bikes specifically targeted at women. Some will have a distinct frame design that the companies say suit female riders better, while others will have a unisex frame.
All will have contact points (the points where the rider touches the bike) that are designed for women, such as a women’s specific saddle.
Because each brand has its own approach to women’s bike design, there isn’t a universal consensus on what makes a bike women’s specific. However, there are a few features most will have in common:
- Smaller sizes: Small, X-Small and XX-Small cater for smaller riders. Sometimes these are the small sizes of the men’s/unisex bike, other times it’s a dedicated women’s frame with a unique geometry.
- Lowered top tube: This mostly applies to hybrid or commuter bikes. They have a lower or sloping top tube, which allows a lower standover height, making it easier to get on and off.
- A shorter reach: This refers to the distance from the saddle to the handlebars. Bikes with a frame designed for female riders will sometimes have this when compared to equivalent men’s or unisex models. This sometimes means, combined with other frame elements such as a higher front end, the result is a more upright position for the rider.
- Shorter crank arms: For riders with shorter legs, shorter crank arms (the part linking the pedals to the spindle around which they move) reduce the stretch that the leg needs around the pedal stroke, which reduces strain and makes pedalling easier. Shorter cranks can also be pedalled faster.
- Narrower handlebars, shallower drops on road handlebars: Narrower handlebars are designed to suit narrower shoulders, and the shallower drop on road handlebars means a shorter reach from the seat to the bars.
- Smaller range choice: Women’s bike ranges typically have three or four models, whereas a unisex range can have more. This often means less choice for women if they are looking for a women’s specific bike, but many women find unisex bikes suits them fine.
- Lighter shock tune: Mountain bikes that feature suspension will have this set up to accommodate the on-average lighter weight of female riders.
- Women’s saddle: Women’s bikes usually come with a saddle designed to be comfortable for female riders. However, because saddles are a personal thing, you may still want to try something different. Our buyer’s guide to women’s saddles is a great place to start your search for the perfect perch.
What are these design differences based on?
Bike companies have carried out research into physiological differences between male and female bike riders, and some conclude there are significant enough differences between the riders of each gender to warrant a specific frame design.
Meanwhile, others conclude a unisex bike fitted to the rider is a better solution.
Do I need a women’s bike?
Some women have a better fit on women’s specific models, while others find no difference between women’s and unisex bikes, or prefer unisex bikes completely.
It’s worth testing out a few bikes, if you can, to compare how different brands or different sizes fit because there are always slight differences in the way brands size up their bikes.
Having a bike-fit will ensure your bike is right for you, whatever type you go for. A bike-fit is where an experienced bike-fitter takes measurements including leg length, flexibility and how far you reach forward when seated. They will also observe as you ride the bike on a static trainer.
From this, they can adjust elements of the bike, such as saddle height, handlebar reach, etc, to give you the best fit possible.
This may require swapping out certain parts for others, such as handlebars with a deep drop to a pair with a shallower drop, or a long stem to one that’s slightly shorter.
What type of bike do I need?
Your best bike depends on where you ride and/or what you want to do with your bike. There are four general types of bikes:
These are designed for speed and distance on the road. They have lightweight frames, thin tyres and handlebars with a drop so you can take a more aerodynamic position on the bike.
Some road bikes are designed with a focus on endurance and comfort, others for speed. These options are ideal if you want to cover greater distances, explore the countryside or are planning to do a race or other on-road event.
If that’s what you’re looking for, check out our top rated women’s road bikes for 2020.
Mountain bikes are extremely versatile. They’re typically built for off-road use but can still be ridden on any road, they’ll just be slower going than a road bike.
They have flat handlebars and wider tyres, and usually have suspension on either the front only (hardtail) or on the front and rear (full-suspension), which helps smooth out rough terrain and provides traction for climbing and cornering.
Mountain bikes are ideal for exploring the woods, heading out on singletrack or going to a bike park.
Hybrid bikes, also known as urban bikes, commuter bikes or city bikes, usually sit somewhere between road and mountain bikes in their design.
They typically have flat handlebars and an upright riding position, which makes it easy to keep an eye on your surroundings when riding in traffic.
They may have a road-style frame that’s lightweight with a focus on speed and agility, or a mountain bike-style frame that’s designed to handle rough roads, canal paths or fire roads, and some front suspension.
Hybrid bikes also have lugs that allow you to attach mudguards (fenders), pannier racks and child seats.
You can commute on any type of bike, but if your commute involves a bus or a train, or you have to haul your bike into the office, you might want to consider a folding bike. As the name suggests, these fold up to a small size that makes taking them on a train or storing them under your desk much easier.
For more info on hybrid bikes and our top rated picks, take a look at our best hybrid bikes in 2020 list.
Cyclocross, gravel and adventure bikes
These bikes are based around road-bike design, with lightweight frames and handlebars with drops, but have carefully tweaked geometry and greater tyre clearance to allow them to be ridden off-road as well as on.
They usually have a more rugged frame design, fatter tyres with a tread for plenty of grip on grass, mud and gravel tracks, and attachment points for adding mudguards and luggage.
Gravel riding is exploding in popularity right now, as cyclists look to get off busy roads and bring a bit more fun to their riding. If we had to recommend just one bike to do a bit of everything, a gravel bike could be the best option for you.
Cyclocross is a type of bike racing, so these bikes will have a more aggressive geometry that puts the rider in a racier position on the bike, while gravel and adventure bikes are designed for comfort over long distances on rough surfaces so will tend to have a more upright position.
Some of these bikes even come with types of suspension similar to mountain bikes to increase comfort and grip.
Best women’s road bikes
You can buy a road bike from as little as £200, but to get a decent-quality bike we recommend starting from about £500 if you’re planning to use it for longer distances or events.
At this price point, you see a massive jump in quality that will really make a difference to anyone doing serious riding.
You can also get excellent bargains — often in the region of a 30 to 40 per cent discount — if you don’t mind buying last year’s model, so shop around and consider waiting for a sale period if you’re looking for a bargain.
In general, as you go up in price you’ll get a lighter, more aerodynamic bike with better quality parts that shift more smoothly and/or are more robust.
If you’re willing and able to spend big, there’s nothing quite like a top-of-the-range bike, but don’t forget no matter how expensive your bike is, you’ll still be the one turning the pedals.
What to expect for your money:
- Under £500 / $700 / AU$900: Alloy frame and fork, which may feature carbon blades, an 8-speed double crankset (giving you 16 gears), alloy bars and stem, rim brakes or mechanical disc brakes.
- £500 to £700 / $700 to $900 / AU$900 to AU$1,500: Alloy frame with carbon or alloy forks, and up to 10-speed gears (often Shimano Sora or Tiagra) with a double or sometimes triple crankset. Rim or mechanical disc brakes.
- £700 to £1,000 / $900 to $1,200 / AU$1,500 to AU$2,000: Alloy frame with carbon or alloy forks, Shimano Tiagra or 105 groupset with good-quality rim brakes or mechanical disc brakes.
- £1,000 to £1,500 / $1,200 to $2,500 / AU$2,000 to AU$3,000: Alloy or carbon frame with carbon forks, Shimano Tiagra, 105, Ultegra or similar groupset. Hydraulic disc brake options and lighter components are likely to feature around this price point.
- £1,500 to £3,000 / $2,500 to $4,000 / AU$3,000 to AU$5,000: Carbon frame and full carbon forks, lightweight and high-end Shimano Ultegra or similar 11-speed gearing, with electronic groupsets on some bikes, carbon bars and seatposts in some cases.
- £3,000 / $4,000 / AU$5,000 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 Ultegra or Dura-Ace or electronic gear shifting.
Best women’s mountain bikes
As with road bikes, you can get a mountain bike from as little as £200, but if you’re planning on riding trail centres or off-road, rather than towpaths or bridleways, we recommend spending in the region of £500 upwards, ensuring you get a bike with disc brakes for more stopping power.
While there are full-suspension bikes available under £500, we suggest going for a hardtail at this price point because they’re simpler and more likely to include quality parts.
What to expect for your money:
- Under £300 / $500 / AU$600: Alloy frame and steel-forked rigid bike (no suspension) or hardtail. Around 18 gears with V-brakes or mechanical disc brakes.
- £300 to £500 / $900 / AU$600 to AU$900: Alloy frame hardtail with around 100mm travel on forks, 21 to 24 gears with a double crankset, and either hydraulic or mechanical disc brakes.
- £500 to £950 / $1,000 to $1,500 / AU$900 to AU$1,500: Alloy frame hardtails and some full-suspension options, with better-quality suspension forks by brands such as RockShox and Suntour.
- £1,000 to £2,000 / $2,000 to $3,500 / AU$2,000 to AU$3,500: Full-suspension trail bikes, alloy bars and stem, hydraulic disc brakes and high-quality cross-country hardtails (these are lighter and designed to go faster rather than take on the roughest ground), with a carbon or alloy frame, quality forks such as RockShox Yari, and 11-speed gearing.
- £2,000 to £3,500 / $3,500 to $5,000 / AU$3,500 to AU$6,000: High-grade alloy or carbon frame with quality suspension components including Fox 34 or 36, or RockShox Pike forks and Fox Evolution rear suspension shock. 12-speed chainset, wheels designed to take tubeless tyres (which are less puncture prone and can be run at lower pressures for more grip) and more suspension travel options up to 150mm.
- £3,500 / $5,000 / AU$6,000 upwards: High-quality carbon fibre frame with top of the range suspension from Fox or RockShox. Wide-ranging 12-speed gearing with a single-ring crankset, high-end tubeless-ready wheels.
Best women’s hybrid and urban bikes
The starting price for a hybrid bike is around £150, and although you can find cheaper, you may find yourself paying in other ways, due to the likely weight and quality of parts.
In general, as you go up in price the bike will get lighter, which is something to bear in mind if you need to carry it anywhere.
While some hybrid bikes have pannier racks and/or mudguards fitted, you may want to factor in the additional cost of these if not.
You’ll also find an array of Dutch-style upright bikes, cruiser bikes, and bikes with vintage-inspired styling, so if you want something that’s beautiful as well as functional you’ll find plenty of options, with many under £500.
Prices don’t rise uniformly across these different kinds of bikes though — for different styles the value comes through in different ways, such as quality gears and leather finishing kit for some, and premium aluminium for others.
What to expect for your money:
- £150 to £300 / $250 to $400 / AU$300 to AU$500: Steel or aluminium frames with steel forks, V-brakes and 21 gears with a triple crankset on the front. At this price point bikes are likely to be weighty but robust.
- £300 to £400 / $400 to $600 / AU$500 to AU$700: There are a huge number of great-quality hybrid bikes available in this price range, with everything from mountain-inspired bikes with front suspension, bright-coloured cruisers and vintage-styled Dutch bikes to hybrids already equipped with mudguards and pannier racks. Expect aluminium or steel frames, and forks and gears ranging from seven to 27.
- £400 to £600 / $600 to $800 / AU$700 to AU$1,000: You’ll start to see bikes with mechanical disc brakes or, at the higher end, hydraulic disc brakes plus higher-quality suspension and gearing.
- £600 to £1,000 / $600 to $1,200 / AU$1,000 to AU$1,500: This is getting towards the high end of hybrid bikes. Expect higher-quality parts such as Brooks saddles, Sturmey Archer internal hub gears, premium aluminium frames and/or 10-speed Shimano Deore gears.
- £1,000 / $1,200 / AU$1,500 and up: Top-of-the-range machines where you’ll see overlap between road bikes and mountain bikes at the same price. Expect high-quality alloy frames, and alloy or carbon forks. Spend up to £1,500 and you’re looking at carbon-framed premium hybrids with Shimano Tiagra or equivalent gearing.
Popular women’s hybrid bikes include the Specialized Vita, the Fuji Silhouette and the Cannondale Quick – or you might consider an electric bike such as the Specialized Turbo Vado.
What size women’s bicycle do I need?
Most bikes are sized as Small, Medium, Large, etc (usually mountain bikes and some hybrid bikes), or numerically as centimetres or inches (e.g. 54cm, 17in, etc).
Like clothes, sizing isn’t consistent across brands so don’t expect one brand’s Medium to feel exactly the same as another’s.
Most brands have an online size guide that will recommend a size based on your height, or other areas such as your inner leg length. This is where you should start.
Try to demo the bike if you can, so you can see how it feels when you ride it. This is particularly important if you sit between sizes because it will help you work out which size to go for.
For more information we have created a simple guide to women’s bike sizes that may help.
How can I get my bike to fit better?
If you want to make the bike you already have fit better, or adapt a unisex bike, there are some simple changes you can make.
- Fitting a women’s-specific saddle
- Changing the seatpost
- Swapping in a shorter stem for the handlebars
- Checking the width of your handlebars
- Changing to shorter cranks
- Adjusting the reach of your brakes
Many of these adaptations are easy to do yourself, or if you buy a bike from a shop then the staff should be able to help.
As we’ve mentioned, if you’re going to be riding a lot – and particularly if you’re going to buy a road bike – we’d recommend getting a bike-fit.