‘I’m a woman on the hunt for a new bike; do I need to buy a women’s-specific bike’? It’s a good question, and one that understandably gets asked a lot.
So if you want to know whether women need to ride women’s-specific bikes, read on, because while the short answer is no, the longer answer is… maybe.
First, the short answer. Women can ride any bike they want and feel comfortable on. After all, a women’s bike is any bike being ridden by a woman.
But – and here’s where it gets interesting – while anyone can ride any bike, if you’re looking for the best fit possible, which can translate to better comfort, better performance and a better experience on the bike, some women find that women’s-specific bikes work better for them, and here’s why.
However, before we get started, if you want to know more about how different brands consider women’s bikes, we’ve got a separate article on the five approaches to women’s bike design.
It’s the fit that is important
If you want to have the best experience on a bike, getting the right fit is the most important thing. This is true whether your focus is comfort, speed or performance, and if your bike is a hybrid for commuting, a mountain bike for trail riding or a road bike for speed on tarmac.
The fit starts by having the right size frame. Bike brands provide height guidance for each size bike they produce though it’s always worth a test ride if you can. This is usually something your local bike shop can help with.
Next, the fit can be tweaked and tailored to your exact needs. This will be based partly on your height, but also elements such as how long your legs and arms are, how flexible you are, whether you have any injuries and so on. Most shops offer detailed bike fits that will help you find the perfect position for your needs.
Some of the things on a bike that can be changed or altered to make the rider more comfortable and able to perform better include:
- A saddle that’s comfortable and works with a women’s genitalia
- A handlebar that is the right width and in the right position
- Cranks length that works with the size of the bike and rider to feel better when pedalling
- Suspension (on mountain bikes) that works better with the lighter on average weight of women compared to men
- Brakes that are easy to reach and control without having to stretch the hands
Some of these are just a question of moving things about a bit on the bike; for others, products will need to be swapped out and new products bought – saddles and handlebars being good examples.
This is where women’s-specific bike design comes in
There are (confusingly) a few different ways bike brands define what makes a bike ‘women’s-specific’, but in simple terms most women’s bikes are either:
- A unisex frame with women’s-specific finishing kit such as saddle, handlebar and, if it’s a mountain bike, a lighter tune on the suspension. Brands taking this approach include Juliana Bicycles, Ribble and Scott.
- All the above, but based around a frame that is specifically designed for women using data from women cyclists. Liv Cycling is the biggest women’s bike brand.
The idea with a women’s bike is that, at a minimum, it gives women a better fit without having to invest in additional products on top of the cost of the bike.
For example, unisex bikes are usually fitted with a handlebar that suits an average male rider. Women on average tend to have narrower shoulders compared to an equivalently-sized man, so the chances are the handlebar on a unisex bike will be too wide.
Therefore, either a new handlebar will need to be bought or, if it’s a flat handlebar, cut to size. Some unisex bike brands such as Ribble, or Specialized specifically for certain saddles, do offer a swap over for products in the bike price, but not many.
Women’s bikes also run to smaller sizes to cater to the on average height range for women being smaller than men.
The second approach is much more involved, using data from women riders and creating specific frames to suit those riders.
The idea here is that the data used will help give women a better experience on the bike, according to their needs. A few examples include greater flexibility, a lower centre of gravity and more lower body strength than upper body strength, all of which can subsequently affect the design of a frame.
However, a lot of brands have abandoned the idea of women’s bikes altogether, and only produce ‘unisex’ bikes, and then recommend a bike fit.
Women’s-specific bikes have been around a while and, in all honesty, a lot of the previous ideas of what women needed and wanted from a bike weren’t well understood, for numerous reasons, and weren’t necessarily well-executed.
The result was a lot of the products were often not particularly good, and were just the same model only a bit smaller and painted pink (the ‘shrink it and pink it approach’), were pricier than the ‘unisex’ equivalent, or were only available in a lower-spec build, so women looking for high-performance bikes had to go ‘unisex’.
However, as the women’s market has grown, women’s competitive cycling has got more support and coverage, and with more and more women working in the bike industry itself, things have changed and are changing.
Nowadays, you can find high-performance road and mountain bikes with women’s-specific designs, the equivalent unisex and women’s bikes within ranges are (mostly) priced the same, and a lot more research, design and development has gone into them.
So should all women use women’s-specific bikes?
Like any group of people, women are not one homogenous mass and there are significant differences between individuals. What works for one woman may not work for another.
Saddles are a perfect example of this; ask any group of women what their favourite saddle is, and the chances are you’ll get a different answer from nearly every person.
While some women get on really well with women’s-specific bikes and absolutely swear by them, others have no issues at all with unisex bikes. Some riders may also choose a unisex bike, make some of those tweaks we mentioned earlier and have an excellent experience.
The important thing is that women have more choice than ever before. There is no wrong answer here.
So long as the bike you ride feels comfortable, isn’t causing you pain, and is fun to ride, then it doesn’t ultimately matter whether it’s a ‘unisex’ bike or a women’s-specific bike.