Many big brands have changed their approach - so what can custom frame builders tell us?

The debate over women’s specific bikes has dragged on for well over a decade.

Women’s bikes – typically with shorter top tubes and taller head tubes – have been around on the mass market since the early 2000s. They were designed to cater for a perceived difference in average anatomical measurements – with women reportedly having longer legs, proportionally, compared to men.

Other arguments in favour of women’s bikes included female riders having a lower centre of gravity, and less core strength.

I bought my first bike in 2010, aged 21. Online retailers typically kept a ‘women’s bike’ section well stocked, and in stores I was funnelled in the direction of the ladies’ bike isle.

Since I bought my clothes in Topshop, not Topman, used a Venus instead of a Mach3, and would probably buy my socks from the women’s selection in Asda as opposed to the men’s, this appeared sensible.

Elsewhere in my consumer life I was marketed to as a female, and when entering a brand new world of debating three chainrings instead of two, Shimano Tiagra vs 105 and trying to find a saddle that didn’t sever all nerve endings, the question over the validity of women’s specific design was far from my mind.

Since then, a lot has changed – my bike family has grown from one (Specialized Dolce) to a small army, and I’ve been lucky enough to test a myriad of both women’s and unisex bikes. I’ve debated the differences between the two approaches at more trade shows than I’d care to count.

What do the big brands do?

It’s now the summer of 2018, and the same brands that championed women’s bikes – Specialized and Trek, who brought theirs out in 2002 and 2003 respectively – have begun to faze them out in their higher end or race focused models.

Trek’s Domane and Madone models have a unisex geometry, with female bikes carrying adjusted touch points (handlebars, saddles). The big ‘S’ is producing fewer Amira price points, replacing it with a Women’s Tarmac that takes the same approach.

Handlebars and saddles are an area where the vast majority of women will need something different to their male counterparts – so speccing narrower bars and women’s saddles as standard is pretty much a no brainier.

Lizzie Armitstead’s World Champion Specialized Amira

Meanwhile, Liv (the women’s arm of Giant) is entirely dedicated to separate geometry for female riders. Its founder Bonnie Tu looked most offended on a recent launch when I referred to ‘unisex bikes’ at all, saying “those bikes are made for men, they’re not unisex.”

Canyon also has a range of dedicated women’s bikes. The brand used 60,000+ data sets to determine its approach, concluding that women had a shorter wing span on average, so needed a shorter top tube to get the same ride quality.

“We position the women in the same way that we do men on a bike – taking into account the average differences between measurements,” said women’s brand manager, Katrin Neumann at the Canyon WMN road bike launch.

What we’re left with is a massive discrepancy in opinion.

Custom geo for an individual

This year, I was fitted up for a custom bike. It was created by Werking CC‘s Andrea Sega, an artisan bike builder based in the Dolomite region of Italy. The geometry was designed by Lee Prescott, expert in ergonomics at Velo Atelier, based upon my riding experience, body dimensions, flexibility and strength.

Asked if the bike looked like a women’s or a unisex bike, Prescott answers: “your bike looks like a small road bike.”

Though the stack is similar to a Specialized Tarmac, the top tube isn’t as long as a traditional race focused bike, and since we built it for racing, I ask if it doesn’t look “a bit endurancey.”

The reply is, “it looks like a Michelle race bike” – that’s the way Prescott’s fitting jig positions me and my personal proportions.

The stem is short – at 90mm – but that’s not got anything to do with gender. Prescott believes far too many riders use long stems as they try to fit the fashionable aesthetic.

“This fashion for long stems came out when a lot of factories made bikes with high head tubes, so a lot of the pros had to use a smaller frame size, and to get their length, they’d put a longer stem on – and people just copied what the pros do. It creates horrible handling,” he claims.

werking cc bike

The handlebars are 36cm, in line with my shoulders, and the bike is wearing a women’s saddle. The carbon layup has been crafted for a rider of 58kg, who wants a bike that’s stiff enough to pounce in a crit race, but still light enough to climb well when the road goes upwards. A full review is on the way.

No statistical difference

Of course, I’m only one individual, I could well be that anomaly on the chart and brands creating for the mass market and need to fit the majority.

So what do custom bike fitters – who have no warehouses full of bikes to sell – feel the majority needs?

“Based on the Dreyfuss Human Scale – the most comprehensive ergonomic data display there is – there’s no statistical difference between women and men’s limb lengths. There’s no measurement which is different between men and women that affects bike fit,” Prescott tells me, providing the data below:

Numbers collected in the NASA anthropometric summary tell the same story, as do those produced by the USA Military database, based on 132 body measurements on around 4000 individuals.*

It is worth bearing in mind that the anthropometric doesn’t take into account flexibility and position on the bike.

“Women are typically more flexible than men – so to ride in an ideal position many female riders might actually have a slightly longer top tube,” Prescott says.

Former lead physiotherapist at British Cycling, Phil Burt agrees that there’s no statistical difference in limbs that required a differently shaped bike.

The founder of bike fitting services at ‘Phil Burt Innovation‘ believes women are massively under served by the market – in terms of kit, saddles and more. But he doesn’t think they need women’s bikes; “I don’t think they [women’s bikes] exist. Does a woman pole vaulter use a women’s pole?”

“The only women’s specific parameter is stance width. All bikes come with the same stance width [Q-Factor], all pedals except Speedplay, come with the same 53mm axles – but women have wider hips. So your Q-Factor is greater – which is why some women have knee pain, because their knee goes inwards as they pedal.”

Small bikes for smaller riders

Despite being against women’s specific geometry, Prescott does believe that shorter people – and taller people, anyone outside of the statistical norm – in general are not well served by the current market.

This is a position shared by frame builder Adeline O’Moreau of Mercredi bikes: “My personal experience with the men and women I’ve built bikes for is that the differences in reach and saddle to bar drop have all been to do with general fitness, and how much they stretch – it has nothing to do with your gender.

“What you find when you look at anthropometric data sets is that men and women have similar proportions, it’s just that more women are slightly shorter. What we need is more bikes for smaller people, not more bikes for women.”

Many brands currently produce fewer bikes in small sizes – and sometimes the smaller bikes share moulds with larger versions – resulting in dramatic jumps in seat and head angle, and discrepancies in handling.

“If you’re not producing many small bikes, the space between the steerer and the saddle needs to be as small as possible, so you can increase it by putting a longer stem on, or more setback on the saddle” says O’Moreau, “so you make a really steep seat angle, and a really shallow head angle. That means those bikes don’t handle well, but it’s a problem that affects everyone who is smaller – not just women.

“Off-the-peg manufacturers could make more smaller off-the-peg bikes – so the changes in top tube, or seat angle, would be less dramatic.”

Many women’s specific models have been designed around a shorter average height – and for that reason their handling can be more consistent.

One such selection is Canyon’s WMN range, which provides for smaller riders in a way no other mass produced off-the-peg brand does (if we exclude kids’ bikes): with smaller wheels.

Canyon WMN bikes use 650b wheels on smaller models

The women’s models range from 3XS (suitable for a rider or 152cm ) to Medium (186cm rider height), and the 2XS and 3XS bikes use 650b wheels, designed to alleviate the compromises made when attempting to design a small bike around the 700c standard.

“When you get to small sizes, if you’re using 700c wheels,  you still need to maintain a certain distance between the two wheels, and between the crank and the front wheel to make it rideable. So you end up slackening the head angle, increasing the fork rake”, says Canyon’s Marketing Coordiantor Jack Noy.

“That pushes the front wheel back out again which solves the problem but affects the way the bike feels and affects the consistency of handling.”

“By using a small wheel you gain the extra room, the size range increases and the consistency between the sizes stays the same,” he adds.

Prescott certainly supports this approach, “I would say smaller people are better served by 650b wheels. There is always going to be a rolling resistance penalty. But the smaller wheel allows them to get into a better position,” he comments.

Also not covered by limb measurement stats is carbon layup.

Women’s bike manufacturers often adjust the material to cater for a smaller individual producing less power and with a lower weight. This means lighter riders aren’t forced to pay a penalty for stiffness they won’t utilise, and it’s something Canyon allowed for with its WMN range, creating the lightest bikes in its brand offering.

A different market

There is of course, another argument: a lack of statistical difference in limb measurements is irrelevant if the bulk of female riders are looking for something different to the male audience.

Whilst American giant Specialized is fazing out its Amira women’s race bike, the Ruby continues to have a less aggressive geometry when compared with the men’s Roubaix. At the time of the Ruby launch (2016), the brand said data from Retul bike fits showed these riders were seeking a “different experience” when compared with the smaller segment of racing women, who may previously have purchased the Amira but were now just as happy on a Tarmac.

The chart on the left shows, according to Specialized, typical stack and reach as required by Ruby and Roubaix riders, whilst the chart on the right is Amira and Tarmac riders – the differences between male and female are much more marked in the Ruby/Roubaix section.

Determining the reason behind this split could take us down a sociological rabbit hole that’s perhaps too deep to explore here. On the other hand, it could simply be to do with the current rate of progression.

The female cycling market is on the move. In 2016, Rapha’s founder and chief exec told the BBC “our fastest-growing customer section is female road bikers”** and that trend shows no signs of slowing down.

British Cycling’s strategy to get one million more women cycling by 2020 has started well, too – with over 723k extra female bums reported to be on saddles since the scheme launched in 2013.

In the last four years, the number of women holding British Cycling race licences has increased by 72 per cent.***

The typical journey into cycling obsession begins with an entry level road bike, which typically favours a more relaxed geometry to suit someone getting used to the feel and position of skinny wheels. Those who persevere in a sporting direction usually move on, at a later date, to a more agressive bike that caters for their newly discovered strength, flexibility, and confidence in a longer, lower stance.

Therefore, it follows that if the women’s audience is dramatically increasing, it’s populated by a larger number of riders on the beginner end of that scale and not yet comfortable with a long and low geometry.

O’Moreau hits the nail on the head: “for mainstream bike manufacturers, there are so many women that they’re not selling bikes to just yet, that they want to sell bikes to. The biggest population that they could extend their market to is women.”

What should customers buy?

The debate continues to drag on. Whilst one set of brands tones down its approach to female specific geometry, a new host of creations arrive from their competitors.

Statistical differences in limb length appear to be a bit of a red herring, though without delving into the collation of each it would be hard to be absolute. None of the number sets is perfect – what they don’t consider is flexibility, riding experience, fitness and good old fashioned personal preference.

Regardless of limb length, height, weight and experiential desires – when all is said and done, the only person who has to ride your bike is you.

So the bike fitters, brands and custom builders can have their own debates. The best bet a buyer has is to arm themselves with knowledge of what’s on the market, annoy the hell our of their local bike shop by requesting multiple test models, and ride whatever fits them best.


Sources

* Speed Theory, The Difference Between Boys and Girls (5 July 2011)

** BBC News: Pedal power – the unstoppable growth of cycling (4 Jan 2016)

*** British Cycling women’s strategy four year report (26 July 2017)