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
Women’s cycling is growing. We’ve said it a number of times over the last decade – but that’s because the upward trajectory is on a constant march – as is the sale of women’s road bikes.
If evidence in numerical form is what you need, then you’ll be pleased to hear that this Spring, British Cycling announced a staggering 45 per cent increase in the number of women holding race licenses between 2013 and 2017.
Growing demand means that more and more brands are offering bikes designed to suit the needs of the female cyclist. Some manufacturers believe women need their own, purpose designed frames, whilst others feel that adjusted contact points (saddle, handlebars and cranks) are where it’s at.
Looking for something else? Check out:
We’ve teamed up with a selection of top brands to show off some of their women’s road bikes below.
There’s more information further down the page which explains the different approaches brands take when creating women’s bikes, and how to make sure you choose the very best bike for you.
Boardman AIR Women’s road bike – £2,999.99
The AIR is Boardman‘s aero focused road race machine. Constructed from C10 carbon, it’s capable of handling rolling road races, fast-paced crits and flat out time trials. Boasting Olympic gold and world titles, it’s a proven talent, too.
Cannondale Synapse Carbon Disc Women’s Ultegra road bike – £2,699.99
Having undergone a total redesign for 2018, this Cannndale Synapse Carbon Disc Women’s Ultegra is now 200g lighter than past models – making it one of the lightest disc brake, endurance bikes on the market.
Canyon Ultimate WMN CF SLX Disc 9.0 Team CSR 2017 road bike – £5,499 (2017 edition)
The Ultimate WMN bikes were developed alongside Canyon-SRAM Racing Team, with two wheel sizes available: 700c or 650b – meaning smaller riders still get to experience the nimble handling of a thoroughbred racer.
Cube Axial WS C:62 SL Disc women’s road bike – £2,599
Oversized tube profiles and Cube‘s own C:62 carbon mean this is a bike designed to feel fast, but there’s still enough flex in the rear and carbon forks to dampen out buzz. The geo has been designed to combine comfort with agile handling, and is described as ‘Aero Endurance’.
Trek Domane SL 5 Women’s road bike – £1,900
What makes a women’s road bike female specific?
There is no simple black and white answer here. Rather unhelpfully, it depends who you ask.
However, whilst manufacturers have to make their decisions based on what they feel will suit the ‘average rider’, remember that when buying a bike you’re an individual.
All you need to do is choose a bike for you – so test riding women’s specific and unisex bikes will probably give you your answer.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Components that are often changed on a female specific bike include:
Handlebars: women generally have narrower shoulders, and ideally your handlebars should measure a similar width to your shoulders. 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.
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. Women’s bikes often feature a compact or semi compact chainset (50/34 or 52/36 respectively) and wide ratio cassette (11-28 or 11-32).
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.
Saddle: Women frequently report saddle discomfort putting them off cycling. 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 difference.
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.
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
Endurance bikes 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. The Trek Domane is an example of an endurance road bike.
Race focused women’s road bikes
Race 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. The Canyon Ultimate WMN is an example of a road race bike – though it does come with discs.
Women’s cyclocross road bikes
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.