If speeding along smooth tarmac, sprinting along flats, flying down descents and conquering climbs is your thing, then there's nothing like the thrill of road cycling. We're here to help find the best women's bikes for you.
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Road cycling is the discipline of choice for those who like speed, distance or both. It's also amazing exercise, improving cardiovascular health and getting legs strong, which makes it good cross-training for cyclists from other disciplines, such as mountain biking and BMX.
Touring is also increasingly popular, and many road bikes can be set up to carry luggage so you can explore the countryside.
This guide will take you through what to look for when buying a woman's road bike, what you'll get for your money, and suggest some great bikes we've tried and tested.
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What type of road bike do I need?
Road bikes are, as the name suggests, designed primarily for use on the road or paved surfaces. They feature drop handlebars, narrow tyres, and give an efficient and fast riding experience. They’re ideal for covering large distances or for just pure sprinting speed.
However, if you’re looking for a bike for commuting, even if your route is mostly on paved surfaces or the road, you might find a hybrid bike with flat handlebars works better for you. Check out our guide to the best bike for cycle commuting for more info.
Road bikes can be grouped into five main types, but, in reality, most bikes fit into the first two categories, and the distinctions between the bikes within the other categories are on a sliding scale rather than being separate.
These bikes are designed to give the best transference of power to forward momentum, and place the rider in a more downward, aggressive, aerodynamic position on the bike. They feel light, fast, nimble and often have features such as aerodynamic frame geometry. On the flip side, they can feel uncomfortable for longer rides.
Sportive / grand fondo / endurance bikes
These bikes are designed for long rides and big distances. They tend to have a more upright position, and the focus is on comfort and efficiency on the road rather than out-and-out speed, though they will often be light and fast too.
Gravel, adventure and cyclocross bikes
These could best be described as road bikes that are designed to go off road. They usually feature tough frames, wider tyres than most purely road-focused bikes, disc brakes for more powerful stopping power, and plenty of clearance around the tyres for mud or if you want to fit mudguards.
This category can cross over with gravel and adventure bikes, and vice versa. These will usually have a sturdy frame, a comfortable upright riding position, gearing that makes climbing with heavy loads easier, and lugs to allow pannier racks and mudguards to be fitted. Touring bikes are almost a category on their own, crossing over into flat handlebar bikes and even towards the mountain-bike end of the spectrum.
Time trial and triathlon bikes
Both these disciplines are about pure speed. The bikes typically have a very aerodynamic shape, with elements such as aerobars fitted to allow the rider to stay in a streamlined position.
What's the difference between women's specific and unisex bikes?
While most brands will have women’s specific bikes in their product lines, there is no unified definition of what ‘women’s specific’ actually means.
For some brands it means a unisex frame with women’s specific finishing kit, which may include narrower handlebars, a women’s specific saddle, and sometimes different crank lengths or wheel sizes. Brands that take this approach include Trek and Specialized.
Other brands design bike models for women, based on body geometry information taken from different sources. These bikes have a distinct frame geometry from unisex equivalents within the brands' ranges, and usually have a shorter reach and lower standover, in addition to the features mentioned above. Brands that take this approach include Liv and Canyon.
Have a look at our article on the main approaches to women’s specific design for more details on why and how brands opt for these different philosophies.
Some women find women’s specific bikes suit them, others find unisex bikes work fine. Shorter women may find the features on women’s specific bikes — such as smaller sizes, shorter reach to brake levers, shorter cranks and in some cases smaller wheels — result in a better fit and riding experience.
The best advice is to take the bike you’re considering out for a test ride to see what feels best for you.
What size bike do I need?
Getting the right size bike is of paramount importance. There are some adjustments you can make to fine-tune the fit, such as narrower handlebars or a shorter stem, but you need to have the right frame size to start with.
Most road bikes will come in a range of sizes listed as a measurement, for example: 54cm, 56cm and so on. Other brands will size their bikes Small, Medium, Large, etc.
While there will be some size alignment between brands, it's worth noting that, as with clothing sizes, these aren't standardised across brands and will vary with bike geometry and purpose. We recommend checking the manufacturer's sizing guidelines first.
The size of bike you need is predominantly determined by your height, though there are other measurements to take into account. Our guide to road bike sizing paints a more detailed picture of bike geometry and fit that will help you work out which measurements suit you best.
You can also visit your local bike shop for advice.
As well as recommending test riding, we also suggest booking a professional bike-fit once you’ve made your purchase. A good bike-fit will take into account your riding style, the riding you’ll do, any injuries you might have, and ensure that the bike is perfectly set up.
Women's road bike features and specs
As mentioned above, some women’s specific bikes will have a unique frame geometry while others will be based around a unisex frame with different finishing kit designed to suit women.
Handlebar size is related to shoulder width, and since women tend to have narrower shoulders than men, many women’s specific bikes will usually have correspondingly narrower handlebars.
They may also have brake and gear levers set up with a shorter reach, which give better comfort and control for smaller hands.
Most bikes will feature a women’s specific saddle and often have a cutout. These are designed to more comfortably support female anatomy. Read our buyer's guide to women’s saddles for the lowdown.
Crank length can also vary on women's bikes and will also usually be size specific. So, for example, the size 3XS and 2XS Canyon Endurace WMN bikes have 165mm cranks, while the XS has 170mm cranks.
Disc brakes vs rim brakes
As part of our testing for Women’s road bike of the year back in 2017, we received feedback from our test team that hydraulic disc brakes gave them more confidence on descents. This is because they are more powerful but with an easier lever action. This means they give controlled braking on long descents without needing a lot of pressure to control, which is also more comfortable.
Some riders prefer the feel of rim brakes, and, until recently, there were rules that prohibited the use of disc-brake-equipped bikes in road-bike races, though rules still vary from country to country.
Standover and sizes
Women’s specific bike ranges usually offer smaller size options to suit the on-average smaller height range of women. If the frame geometry is women’s specific, the bikes may also have a lower standover height.
A few brands offer a smaller wheelsize on the smallest frame sizes in its range — 650b wheels rather than the standard 700c wheels you find on most road bikes. This means handling and performance of the bike feels uniform throughout the range. The new Canyon Endurance and Ultimate WMN bikes are good examples of this.
How much should I spend?
The budget you have is going to be the biggest influencing factor when it comes to deciding which bike to go for.
Road bikes vary in price, from several hundred pounds/dollars for an entry-level bike through to five-figure sums for a carbon-framed pro-level race machine.
Whatever bike you go for, there are a few things you should consider:
- Road bikes are supplied with either no pedals or basic flat pedals, so keep some money back for a decent set
- Key maintenance items will keep your bike running sweetly, so apart from the usual spare inner tubes and tyre levers, a good-quality track pump, some bike cleaner and chain lubricant should be on your list
- If you haven’t already got them, don’t forget the usual kit and accessories, such as shoes, helmets, lights and locks
If you shop carefully you can get a lot for your money. Below is a rough guide to the typical features you should get for your cash:
- Under £500 – Alloy frame and fork, which may feature carbon blades, an 8-speed double crankset (giving you 14 gears), with alloy bars and stem. Brakes are either rim brakes or mechanical disc brakes
- £500 to £700 – Alloy frame with carbon or alloy forks, and up to 10-speed gears (often Shimano Sora or Claris) with a double or sometimes triple crankset. Rim or mechanical disc brakes
- £700 to £1,000 – 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 – Alloy frame with carbon or alloy 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 – Carbon frame and 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 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 Di2 or equivalent electronic gear shifting
How to get a bargain bike
Looking to score a saving? You can save serious money if you don’t mind having the previous year's model, though of course there may be limited sizes available.
You could also look to buy a second-hand bike online, with lots of choice on websites such as eBay. There are of course pitfalls you need to be aware of, so arm yourself by reading our guide to buying a second-hand bike.
You can also save money by buying from a direct sell brand such as Canyon, which often have excellent value-for-money specs. However, the downside is you don’t get a bricks-and-mortar store with staff to talk to in person or the option to test ride. That said, Canyon does hold demo events where you can try a bike if you’re thinking of getting one.
Check out the rest of BikeRadar Women for more women's cycling reviews, news, advice, tips and more.
This article was last updated March 2019