Not every female rider will want a women's specific bike. But if you think it's the best option for you, read on for advice on buying a bike that ticks all of your boxes.
In the past few years, the number of brands creating women’s road bikes has increased dramatically.
A women’s specific bike is not the perfect solution for every female rider – some find they get on well with unisex frames. However, for others a bike created with a woman in mind is the superior option.
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The answer for you depends upon your body: strengths, weaknesses, flexibility, the length of your legs – and what you actually want from a bike.
We’ve picked out some of the best women’s road bikes below. But first, here’s an explanation of what makes a women’s road bike female specific…
What makes a women’s road bike female specific?
There is no simple black and white answer here. It depends who you ask. There are two clear approaches that brands take:
Brands offering women’s road bikes with female specific frame geometry
Some brands build a frame to be completely women’s specific. This is often represented in a shorter top tube, and taller head tube. The result is a slightly more upright geometry. Many women’s bikes also feature a slacker head angle and longer rake – which does tend to position the bike closer to that of a unisex endurance bike – and there are more ‘women’s endurance bikes’ on the market than ‘women’s race bikes’.
The reasons for this vary – some brands say their research suggests women have a shorter wingspan (arms), meaning a shorter reach is ideal, others suggest women’s lower upper body mass and centre of gravity make this a more suitable option, whilst some explain that women position their pelvis differently to avoid soft tissue compression. Finally, some say the reason is that their focus groups and studies suggest many women want to ride in a more upright position.
Brands creating a bike with female specific frame geometry will spec the bike with components that match the intended rider – the handlebars, stems, saddles, cranks and gearing will all be female friendly (more on that below).
Liv offers all bikes built specifically for women, whilst Specialized now makes a call on each model family – creating a women’s version in some cases, but not in others. For example, the Specialized Ruby has a completely different geometry to the Specialized Roubaix (the unisex model) – the brand says their fit data from 35,000 women suggested customers of different genders were after something different. The Specialized Shiv time trial bike, however, is available in a unisex fit only as the brand says female customers buying this bike don’t need or want anything different.
Discussing the need to offer a women’s specific frame over altered components, April Marshke, women’s business manager with Specialized told us: “We have identified the specific needs for the female rider and built products that address those needs. We adjust geometries to achieve optimal stack, reach and standover. Often this results in taller head tubes and altered head tube angles together with shorter top tubes, adjusted chainstays and bottom bracket positioning for better handling.”
She added: “Making adjustments to force a specific fit and position will often compromise the quality of the experience,” says April Marshke, women’s business manager with Specialized. “For example, adding four spacers to the head tube of a bike to achieve a more upright position will affect the front-end handling of the bike.”
Brands offering women’s road bikes with unisex bikes and female specific components
Other brands choose not to create a female specific frame, but instead to offer the same chassis as the unisex bikes, but with components adjusted to better suit the average woman’s requirements.
Heather Henderson – Cervélo senior product manager comments: “[The belief that women have longer legs and shorter arm] is a myth. [On average] women are smaller, we’re not as strong, our bodyweight distribution is not the same, we don’t have as much muscle mass and we tend to have more body fat.”
She added: “If I were going to sell someone a bike I wouldn’t ask if they were a man or a woman, I’d ask what they want to do with it. I do think there are times when you could actually physically make different products that could be more suited to different people, but it might be less related to gender and more related to use patterns.”
Components that are often changed on a female specific bike include:
Handlebars: women generally have narrower shoulders, and in an ideal world your handlebars measure a similar width to your shoulders (unless you’re chasing aerodynamics, when they might be narrower). So a well fitting women’s bike will have narrow handlebars fitted. Shifters are often ready wound in to suit smaller hands (though you can do this for free at home on Shimano or SRAM shifters).
Stem: whilst frames built from ‘the ground up’ to suit women often have a shorter reach, those providing a unisex frame will nearly always fit a shorter stem. This does the same job of decreasing the reach, but can affect the handling. However, women’s bikes are often available in smaller sizes – so you would expect a shorter stem to match that.
Cranks: Women are typically shorter than men, so usually have shorter legs. Crank length is a debate on its own – but as a rule reducing the length of the crank allows smaller riders to get the most from each pedal stroke. In the case of a very small frame, the cranks also need to be reduced in size to prevent toe overlap with the front wheel.
Gearing: If we’re comparing Joe Bloggs and Lizzie Deignan – it’s not realistic to say that the female rider will produce less power. But if we’re comparing Joe Bloggs and Joanna Bloggs, it’s an understandable assumption. Most women’s bikes will feature a compact or semi compact chainset (50/34 or 52/36 respectively) and wide ratio cassette (11-28 or 11-32) – this gives more gear options and can lend a hand in the hills.
Standover height: Some women’s bikes have a sloping top tube, to reduce standover height. This applies more to hybrid bikes and mountain bikes.
Sizes: A unisex frame, with female components, marketed as the women’s version will usually be available in smaller sizes. In an ideal world, the brand will scale down other elements of the geometry and aspects such as fork angle will change too. If they do don’t, it’s a red flag.
Saddle: Women frequently report saddle discomfort putting them off cycing. Those who tend to sit in an upright position may struggle with sit bone pain, whilst those who adopt an aggressive position (often on the drops) might have issues with soft tissue compression. Most riders will swap the saddle on their bike early on – but a women’s model will come with a women’s saddle – giving a slightly higher chance of getting on with the perch on first rides.
Brands offering unisex frames with non-adjusted components
Many women choose to buy a standard unisex frame, and adjust the components above to suit. Indeed, many men will adjust these on unisex bikes in time. If you’re at a stage in your riding career where you know you’ll do this anyway, then it doesn’t make much differance. However, going for a model with these components already tweaked can make the first few months of bike ownership much cheaper – especially for beginners who don’t have the standard cyclist’s garage full of spare stems, handlebars and saddles.
Is it all about the saddle?
Mike Smith is one of Britain’s top Retül bike fitters and runs Velomotion in Milton Keynes; he believes that the major difference in men’s and women’s bike fit lies in saddle comfort.
Discussing the issues, he commented: “I think it all comes around the saddle which makes the real difference to a female rider. Women are a lot more sensitive to putting weight through their perineum, soft tissue and their pubic bone,” he says. “They prefer to sit to the back of the saddle where they put more weight through their sit bones.”
This sensitivity can be relieved by using a saddle with a cut-out, though thought should still be given to saddle width. “Spacing between the sit bones means the average woman would favour a wider saddle compared to a male rider,” continues Smith.
Failure to address the saddle issue will see the rider sitting way back on her saddle, bending at the waist, not the hips, to give an upright position that makes the bike feel longer than it really is. This is a problem manufacturers mitigate with the aforementioned different tube lengths.
Do pro women ride female specific bikes?
Firstly – in some respects, it doesn’t really matter. Pro riders generally ride what they’re given by their sponsors. Those racing for teams like Cervelo-Bigla, where the brand doesn’t believe women need female specific frames, will be on unisex platforms with components matched to their needs. On the other hand Lizzie Deignan generally sits aboard the flagship women’s model from Specialized, the Amira, though the team have had the opportunity to use the Venge Vias.
Men in the pro peloton ride very different bikes to the average bloke on a club run. It’s the same for women – the right bike for you is the one that makes you feel like you’re getting the optimum experience.
Women’s road bikes: eight of the best
There’s more on what makes a women’s bike female specific, and if you need a women’s bike below. But first – here are our top models
Cannondale SuperSix Evo Women’s Road Bike
Read more: Cannondale SuperSix Evo Women Ultegra review
Great for: a rider seeking a race ready frame with excellent handling.
Winner of our 2017 women’s bike of the year award, the Cannondale Super Six Evo features the same frame geometry as the unisex model, but comes with narrower handlebars, women’s Selle Royal saddle, and sizes start at 44cm. We loved the handling, responsiveness, and clean finish.
We chose the Bike of the Year winners based on hundreds of test bikes. The SuperSix has plenty of pedigree, and this latest model is better than ever with a new carbon lay-up making the frame stiffer and better to ride, while also reducing overall weight.
This is a bike that is great fun to ride, with a stiff asymmetric BB30a bottom bracket that really responds when you chose to put the hammer down.
The slender seat tube and seatstays also help to improve comfort, and the redesign fork means there is enough space for 28mm tyres. Finally the women’s specific saddle and bars mean it’s ready to ride straight out of the box.
Specialized Ruby women’s road bike
Read more: Specialized Ruby Elite review
Great for: a rider planning long endurance excursions, but still seeking a speedy feeling machine.
A close second to the Cannonade, the Ruby was the runner up in the 2017 women’s bike of the year category – and is designed to suit the needs of a very different rider.
The long standing women’s endurance road bike from Specialized saw a major update for 2017. The brand added front suspension, in the form of a ‘FutureShock spring’ which is positioned above the head tube.
The suspension is designed to reduce the effect of vibrations, to create a more comfortable and faster ride – along with road buzz quietening Zerts inserts at the chainstays and the CG-R seatpost.
Another endurance focused female specific bike is the Scott Contessa Solace – which comes with disc brakes and 28mm tyres to dampen the road buzz on long rides.
Liv Envie Advance Pro 1 Women’s Road Bike
Read more: Liv Envie Advanced Pro 1 reviewed
Great for: a rider after aero gains from a wind cheating frame.
Liv was the first brand to offer a women’s specific aero road bike – further cementing their place at the forefront of female specific bike development. Our reviewer applauded the frame for its excellent handling, responsiveness, and aero features. If you’re after a fast race bike, this might be it.
The Liv Envie is available from £1,549, with a Shimano 105 groupset – right through to £5,775 with SRAM red e-tap.
Buy it now: Liv Envie Advanced from £1,549 at Liv
Boradman Air Women’s Road Bike
Great for: an aero frame with top end components at an affordable price point
Boardman is a brand that doesn’t believe women need female specific frames, so their women’s ‘Air’ mirrors the unisex model, but comes with narrower handlebars, women’s saddle and is available to a size Extra Small (recommended height from 155cm).
The Air is an aero road bike that has been designed using wind tunnel optimisation – it’s got a slippery frame profile and integrated brakes. Boardman are able to provide a Dura Ace group-set and the brand’s own AIR Five wheelset with 35mm rims.
Cube Axial Race WLS road bike
Great for: a rider who wants an aluminium frame that’s still lightweight.
Making the shortlist for our women’s bike of the year award, clearly the Cube Axial Race has a lot to give. Available with or without discs, it’s a born climber – even with a more affordable aluminium frame.
We felt this bike – with it’s racy ride and lightweight frame – pushed the boundaries of what was available when it comes to bike shopping on a budget.
Ridley Liz road bike
Great for: a rider after a fairly comfortable ride with a racey geometry.
Ridley – sponsors of Marianne Vos’ team WM3 Pro Cycling – offers a range of their unisex frames with a female specific finishing kit. The Ridley Liz is akin to the Ridley Fenix – a race bike designed to be comfortable over the long miles and rutted roads of the classics. The geometry is fairly aggressive, but the frame offers plenty of compliance.
The Liz is available with an alloy frame (from £800 with Shimano Tiagra), as well as carbon (from £1500 with Shimano 105) and the top end Carbon SL.
Ribble Sportiva Carbon Women’s Road Bike
Great for: a rider after comfort with a little bit of ‘zing’
Ribble sell their bikes direct via the internet. That means they save on overheads – and ultimately are able to offer some excellent deals. Not only that, but they offer a ‘bike builder’ service, which means you can choose the components that you want and tailor the finished product to your needs (and desires).
The Sportiva Carbon offers a comfortable ride, with careful design around the rear to ensure compliance is top notch. However, the frame is still stiff and quick to accelerate – providing a noticeable kick when you ramp up the pace. The recommended build comes in at £1,249 with the latest Shimano 105 groupset and Shimano RS010 wheelset – but you can of course increase or decrease that figure with your own selections.
Trek Silque S 5 2017 Road Bike
The Silque was designed by Trek to be a women’s model, with fine tuned geometry, and it’s become an incredibly popular member of the brand’s road family. Fitted with Trek’s IsoSpeed decoupler, this is a mile-muncher that’s been built for comfort, but it’s still fast and fun to ride.
A size 52 comes in at 8.45 kg, making this a light weight option that will feel at home in the hills – powered by a 50/34 chainring and 11-32 cassette which will provide plenty of gears.
The S5 model is Shimano 104 equipped, and as you’d expect the wheels and finishing kit all come from Bontrager.
What type of women’s road bike should you look for?
Before you enter a bike shop, get a clear idea of what you want the bike for. If you want the speed and aerodynamic benefits of a drop bar bike, then you’re in the road bike camp – and the next step is to decide if you want an endurance focused on more aggressive race orientated frame.
Key road bike categories include:
Endurance focused women’s road bikes
On the women’s endurance side, the Specialized Ruby, Scott Contessa Solace, and Liv Avail are all popular options. The will generally feature a shorter reach, and a taller stack – putting the rider in a more upright position. Disc brakes are more popular in this category, along with a longer wheelbase to aid stability and the material will be fine tuned to offer greater compliance – or comfort.
Race focused women’s road bikes
On the race bike side, there’s the greatly revered Specialized Amira (ridden by Lizzie Deignan), Liv Envie and the Ridley Jane. These bikes are created to offer nippy handling and a lower, more aero position – usually with a longer reach, lower stack and short wheelbase. The fork angles will be tuned for quick and responsive handling. Some bikes in this style will have disc brakes, but you still can’t use them in races under British Cycling regulations which is worth remembering if you plan to pin on a number.
Women’s cyclocross road bikes
If you want the option of going off road, then a cyclocross bike, gravel or adventure bike might be up your street – in which case check out models like the Liv Brava Cyclocorss bike, Specialized Dolce Comp Evo adventure bike or Pinnacle Arkose Women’s.
There’s a lot of variation between cyclocross, adventure road and gravel bikes. They’re all designed for riding on and off road – just to different degrees. Cyclocross bikes are most suited to trails, and have higher bottom brackets to help you avoid roots and rocks, with more space for tyre clearance. Adventure road and gravel bikes will be a little closer to road bikes in geometry – but all three styles will likely feature disc brakes.
Hybrid women’s road bikes
For city slickers who want flat bars and the option of hopping onto rough park tracks and canal paths, then a wider tyred hybrid with disc brakes like the Pinnacle Neon or Specialized Vita could be the thing. These will have flat handlebars, and offer a great deal of stability, though handling won’t be quite as nippy as a road bike.
Women’s road bike sizing
Road bikes are generally sold in sizes along the lines of 48cm, 50cm, 52cm and so on – though some brands choose instead to go for ‘Small’, ‘Medium’ and ‘Large’.
There’s no real standardisation in road bike sizing – which means one road bike brand’s 48cm might suit a rider on a 50cm frame from one of their competitors. Not only that, but the same brand might call a unisex frame a 50cm, whilst the same rider might fit a 52cm frame in their women’s range. Confusing, right?
The best option is to start by using the brand’s designated sizing chart, dictating the ideal height range for each frame size. Then, ask for a test ride – a rider with a shorter torso will generally go for a smaller frame than a rider with a long torso, even if they’re the same height, as most of their length is in the leg (saddle height is much more adjustable than reach) – so getting the right size is down to personal preference rather than black-and-white measurements.
Tips for choosing a women’s road bike
Once you know what sort of bike you’re after – shop around online, and produce a list of bikes you’re interested in. Most brand’s frame families will come available in a range of models, with different levels of specification.
More expensive groupsets will be lighter and longer lasting – and it is generally considered that it’s better to spend at the top end of your budget to avoid further expenditure through upgrades.
With a few choice models selected, ask for test rides, using the experience to help you decide what you like. Remember when testing unisex bikes that wider handlebars and a less-than-perfect saddle might be altering the ride quality.