How to set up mountain bikes to fit women riders

Make any mountain bike work better for women riders – and some men, too

Female mountain bike rider

You may have noticed that there were no women’s mountain bikes in this year’s Bike of the Year tests.

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That’s because only one global brand, Liv Cycling, still makes a full range of true women’s specific mountain bikes – that’s to say, bikes with frames designed around typical female body proportions.

Other female mountain bike brands, such as Juliana Bicycles or Scott’s Contessa range, simply take men’s or unisex frames and change a few key parts, along with the paintjob. These bikes are often then offered in limited sizes and at fewer price points than the men’s equivalents.

If you want more choice, the good news is that any mountain bike can be tweaked to fit female riders better.

Many of these adjustments will work for smaller male riders, too, while larger, heavier riders can often do the opposite to get a better mountain bike setup.

How to set up mountain bikes to fit women riders

Modern mountain bikes can be altered to suit your body shape in many ways.
Steve Behr / Our Media

Many elements of your mountain bike setup can be dialled in to get it working better for you.

Consider some of these tweaks and parts switches to suit your specific body ‘geometry’ and riding style.

Frame size

The right size mountain bike will fill you with confidence.
Steve Behr / Our Media

The most important thing is to buy the right size bike in the first place. If your frame is too big or small for you, you’ll never be truly comfortable.

Yes, you can tweak the fit slightly, but if you make big changes to areas such as stem length or saddle position, it may compromise the handling, potentially reducing grip and control.

The good news is modern bikes tend to have shorter seat tubes (to allow use of longer-travel dropper posts) than in days gone by, along with plenty of standover room, both of which are a boon for smaller riders.

Take a few bikes for demo rides before buying, so you know what size you need and what sort of geometry you like. The key things to consider are:

  • Can you get the saddle to the right height for efficient pedalling? As a rough guide, sit on the bike with one crank arm pointing directly down and adjust the seatpost until your heel just reaches the pedal.
  • Just as importantly, is there enough standover room (the distance between your crotch and the top tube when stood between the saddle and handlebars) so you can dismount safely?
  • Can you drop the seat low enough to get it out of the way on descents?
  • If clearance is an issue, even on the smallest sizes, consider a bike with 27.5in wheels, rather than the larger 29in diameter.
  • Is the top tube long enough that you don’t feel cramped on seated climbs, without feeling uncomfortably stretched-out?
  • When standing up on descents, do you have to really stretch to reach the handlebar and weight the front wheel in corners? (If so, look for frames with a shorter ‘reach’ measurement).

Brake-lever reach

These SRAM Code RSC brakes have lever-reach and bite-point adjustment.
Ian Linton / Immediate Media

Some brakes allow you to adjust their ‘reach’ – how far the lever blade sits from the grip. This can be really useful for riders with smaller hands.

Use the provided dial or screw to gradually reduce the reach until you don’t have to strain to pull the lever, for safer and more precise braking.

Changing the lever reach also impacts on where the bite point of the disc brake is, however. So, adjust the reach while being mindful that you can still comfortably fully squeeze the brake lever to get the maximum power out of the brake. Higher-end brakes may include bite-point adjustment, to better fine-tune the brake lever feel.

You might want to adjust the brake lever reach towards the bar, while adjusting the bite point to earlier in the lever’s stroke.

Stem length

Modern mountain bikes are designed around shorter stems and wider bars.
Steve Behr / Our Media

Modern bikes generally have longer frame geometry and wider handlebars, so stems are usually fairly short – 35 to 60mm long – to keep the handling snappy (although longer stems do feature on some cross-country race bikes, to give a more stretched-out position).

Fitting an even shorter stem seems like an easy way to adapt a bike for a smaller rider, but be aware that changing the length will not only affect your position on the bike, but also the handling characteristics.

A shorter stem will put you in a more upright position – which can be beneficial if you’re feeling too stretched-out – but will also result in faster steering. It will shift your weight further back on the bike too, which can reduce front-wheel grip and cause the tyre to lift off the ground on steep climbs, unless you use deliberate weight shifts to counteract this.

On average, women have shorter torsos for their height than men, so this could still be a worthwhile adjustment if you feel there are improvements to be made with your bike position and can deal with the handling changes.

Bar width

Experiment thoroughly with different widths before trimming your bars.
Andy Lloyd / Immediate Media

On average, women have narrower shoulders than men (of course, shoulder breadth also varies greatly among male riders).

Cutting down your handlebar to a correspondingly appropriate width can make a huge difference to your riding. There’s no hard-and-fast rule, but most riders opt for bars between 700 and 800mm wide.

Experiment and see what feels right for you, but remember to only saw off a little at a time – you can always cut off more, but you can’t add any back on.

Before you cut, it can be a good idea to shift your grips inwards by 5mm on each side at a time, until you find a comfortable width, assuming your grips don’t have an integrated bar-end plug. Keep your bar-end plugs in place while doing this, and take care through tight trees.

Many bars have markings to aid you when cutting them down – it’s a very common adjustment to make.

Pedal size

Pedals are an often-forgotten component.
Andy Lloyd / Immediate Media

Mountain bike pedals are another element that can be adapted to your needs. While clipless pedals work well for riders of all sizes, larger flat pedals don’t always give optimum grip when used with smaller shoes.

Thankfully, more compact options are available, such as the DMR Vault Midi or Crankbrothers Stamp Small.

Saddle shape

It’s impossible for the saddle specced on the bike to suit every rider’s sit bone.
Russell Burton / Our Media

Finding a comfortable women’s mountain bike saddle is crucial, and one of the most personal aspects of bike setup.

Start by measuring your sit-bone width. Place some aluminium foil or corrugated cardboard on a carpeted stair and sit on it, picking up your feet to mimic the riding position.

Two depressions should be visible when you stand up. Measure the distance between the centres and add 25 to 30mm to find your ideal saddle width.

Next, decide whether you need a recessed channel or cut-out to relieve pressure on your delicate bits.

Then, consider what padding (how much/firm), rail material (titanium or chromoly steel should be flexier than carbon fibre or alloy) and hull construction (nylon or carbon-nylon have more ‘give’ than carbon fibre) will best suit your posterior.

Note that a saddle you love on another bike may not work for you on your mountain bike, due to different body positioning. Try a few – some brands offer test saddles or a switch-out service.

Grip diameter

Grips are a relatively inexpensive way of improving comfort.
Russell Burton / Our Media

The handlebar grips are one of your main contact points with the bike. If you have smaller hands, thinner-diameter grips might feel better and more secure, though they may offer less vibration damping.

Also, consider the shape and material – ergonomically shaped grips can provide greater support for all-day comfort, while foam grips can be great for tuning out trail buzz.

Crank length

If you’re unsure, the crank length will often be signified on the inside of the crank.
Alex Evans / Immediate Media

Crank arm length on stock bikes is often proportional to frame size – 165mm on the smallest sizes, 175mm on the largest and 170mm on the majority.

This assumes leg length is proportional to height. However, on average women have longer legs and shorter torsos than men.

You might think many female riders would thus benefit from longer crank arms, but these actually have few advantages.

The effect on power output is negligible, while shorter cranks give more rapid acceleration, can reduce knee and hip pain, and make you less likely to clip rocks.

Tyre choice

There are a plethora of mountain bike tyre choices.
Ian Lean / Our Media

Nail your tyre pressures and you’ll enjoy the optimum balance of grip, comfort and speed.

The best mountain bike tyre pressures for you will depend on a number of factors, including tyre width/volume, casing thickness and riding discipline/style.

However, your weight is perhaps the most crucial element. Generally speaking, lighter riders can get away with lower pressures, for improved grip and comfort.

This is because with less force going through the tyres, they’re less likely to ‘bottom out’ on the rim, potentially causing a pinch-puncture or damaging the wheel.

Online tyre-pressure calculators are a good place to start, before fine-tuning your pressures according to your preferences and trail conditions.

The same general rule applies to tyre casings – female riders can often get away with running a thinner carcass, which can give a more supple ride feel and additional grip, with weight-saving as a bonus.

Suspension intervention

Fine-tuning your fork will unlock its potential.
Mick Kirkman / Our Media

Suspension setup is one of the most critical things to get right. The best settings will depend on your weight, riding style, frame geometry, suspension fork and shock.

Spring rate

Set the right spring rate for your weight, by running an appropriate amount of sag.

Your optimum spring rate is decided purely by your bodyweight (and that of any riding gear you’re wearing or carrying), so isn’t gender- or shape-specific.

First, use the manufacturer’s chart to find a ballpark spring pressure for your fork/shock.

Then, adjust based on how much the suspension sags once you’re on the bike. For general riding, we’d suggest running around 20 per cent fork sag and 30 per cent shock sag.

Spring curve

Find a suitable spring curve for your riding style (how much the suspension ‘ramps up’ towards the end of its stroke) by adjusting the air-spring volume.

Your optimum spring curve isn’t just affected by your bodyweight, but also your strength and how aggressively you ride, so is likely to be different for male and female riders of a similar weight. It’s worth experimenting to get it right.

Stronger riders may need to add one or more volume spacers to make the suspension more progressive (increasingly firm towards the end of its stroke) so it doesn’t bottom out too often.

Those who are slighter may benefit from removing one or more spacers, to make the suspension more linear and be able to access all of the travel.


Tweak the damping to suit your weight and riding style, by using any external compression or rebound adjusters.

It’s a good idea to check out the manufacturers’ guideline settings for your bike, fork and shock as a starting point, then fine tune based on your preferences.

Generally speaking, lighter riders will require less rebound damping than heavier riders in order for the suspension to rebound at the same speed.


Because female riders weigh a little less, on average, than male ones, some women’s bikes have a gender-specific suspension tune – the factory-preset range of damping adjustment in the fork and/or shock is set up for slightly lighter riders.

However, this isn’t always the case, and some riders may need an even lighter tune. If you struggle to get a good setup using the tips above, it’s worth considering a custom retune.

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Services we can recommend include TF Tuned, Sprung Suspension Workshop and Full Factory Suspension, but there are plenty of others.