Most brands now make frames designed for female riders. But what is special about these bikes, and do women need them at all?

A quick check of any bike retailer’s website will reveal a plethora of women’s bikes. Apart from softer colour schemes, which some manufacturers think will attract female riders, the geometry is often strikingly different. Longer head and shorter top tubes with differing angles, allied with a lower standover height, can make these bikes look squat and ugly.

So why are gender-specific geometries deemed necessary? One popular belief still circulated in some quarters, is that women have longer legs and shorter bodies, but this is not the case.

>>> The best women’s bikes: a guide to female specific bikes

“That’s a myth,” says Heather Henderson, senior product manager at Canadian bike maker Cervélo.

“[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.”

It is also accepted that women have smaller hands, a shorter reach and a lower centre of gravity, the latter possibly affecting handling.

>>> The best women’s bike saddles

Mike Smith is one of Britain’s top Retül bike fitters and runs Velomotion in Milton Keynes; he believes the major difference is a little more sensitive. “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.”

The inaugural Women's Tour in Hertford

The inaugural Women’s Tour in Hertford

Fit for purpose

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.

We all use our bikes for different purposes, from racing to commuting, and there is nothing wrong with an upright or recreational position. What is important, something equally relevant to men, is to purchase a bike that fits your intended use. Would you buy a full-on time trial machine for the odd Sunday ride to the pub?

So it’s horses for courses, then. But surely all these differences can be dealt with by changing components? “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.”

>>> Cannondale SuperSix Evo Ultegra Women’s 2015

While many retailers will offer this service, the lower your budget — and figures suggest that women spend less on their bikes — the less likely you’ll receive this. However, do you know what changes to stem, crank or saddle you need? Many don’t and will need to be professionally fitted: another expense.

Women’s bikes are no longer about slapping soft colours on a small frame — so-called ‘shrinking and pinking’. Companies have researched geometries and now produce race-specific bikes, consisting of specially designed carbon lay-ups. There is an entire product range to suit everyone from the casual Sunday rider, to the committed elite racer.

Manufacturers have realised there is money to be made by creating a market especially for women. We all know the average cyclist does not exist, but if these products improve rider experience that can only be a good thing.

Marianne Vos team bike

Marianne Vos’s gender-specific team bike. Photo: Andy Jones

Is there a need for women specific bikes?

Yes: April Marshke – Specialized women’s business manager

“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.”

No: Heather Henderson – Cervélo senior product manager

“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.”

Our take

There may be advantages to buying a standard bike and adjusting it to suit, but this could require far greater changes than a women specific machine. These bikes exist to help the ‘average’ woman achieve a good fit and creating the perfect bike should be straightforward.

Whatever you decide, a personal fitting by a professional will ensure you get the very best from your bike.

  • David O’Brien

    Dave2020, don’t you know most of the world is moronically into form over function? Sad, but true.

  • David O’Brien

    Hear, hear!

    Georgena, do you still favor your old 24″+700c design, or is newer 2x650c or 2×26″ better for the 4’10”-5’1″ rider?

  • David O’Brien

    Tuna-Egg, the seat isn’t an issue just for women. At this point I think all new bikes should come with a throwaway “demo” cheep seat as they do pedals. I’ve had to replace the seat on every new men’s bike I’ve bought as what ever seat the manufacturer picked wasn’t one that was century ride comfortable to me. So it is annoying to pay for a nicer seat that feels like a brick and won’t be used.

  • Dave2020

    The short answer is NO! The facts of the matter are:-

    “Manufacturers have realised there is money to be made by creating a market especially for women.” That tells you all you need to know. The frame geometry they advocate is small-specific, not woman-specific, and it’s generally wrong (74°-75° STA). Acquired pedalling biomechanics is the only factor to determine STA, and Cervelo are right – all frame sizes should use a 73° STA as a fundamental datum, and adjust everything else to suit.

    Manufacturers also realise there is no money to be made in producing a low volume of shorter cranks, so they don’t, which means they don’t give a toss about any cyclists with shorter legs, male or female. If a ‘professional’ tells you; “science has shown that crank length makes no difference” – ignore them. That’s just commercially motivated pseudo science; i.e. The ‘market’ doesn’t supply the crank you need, so make do with the ‘standard’ length.

    “. . will see the rider sitting way back on her saddle”. On the contrary, a majority of riders, male or female, will sit ‘on-the-rivet’ when trying hard. So diligent saddle design goes to waste! This very common error is caused by faulty biomechanics and/or having the saddle set too far forward – hence 73°. . .

    “neck, shoulder and low back issues” (Georgena Terry) predominantly arise because of a rider’s poor biomechanics – the way they transfer power to the pedals. The world’s best suffer from these problems due to bad coaching in their formative years; e.g. Chris Froome and Marianne Vos. Size has nothing to do with it. They generate force from the body’s centre of gravity (push down) when the reactions should be to and from the hips, which places far less stress and tension on your ‘core’.

    “. . . can make these bikes look squat and ugly.” What’s that got to do with anything? A good fit is of fundamental importance to the rider. The aesthetic appeal to the onlooker is irrelevant. (and down to the arbitrary, historical choice of a 700c standard, instead of the more appropriate 650c wheel size)

  • Georgena Terry

    Proper fit is the goal. But just as women’s clothes are more likely to fit women than men’s clothes, so too with bicycles. There are distinct anatomical differences between men and women — women’s centers of gravity differ and this often manifests itself in neck, shoulder and low back issues. The female rider who is most affected is the petite rider. Until the industry lets go of the idea that a 700c wheel is perfect for everyone, she will continue to be hard pressed to find a bike that fits.

  • Tuna-Egg

    I’m female and short to boot, shopping for my first road bike so this is a sensitive issue for me. Long legs-shorter body definitely doesn’t describe me. In fact I have longer than normal arms and I wouldn’t mind a longer top tube or stem for the current hybrid that I ride. One thing I do appreciate about the women’s models is that they come with women-specific saddles and narrower handlebars, saving the expense of changing these components. But other than that, I personally prefer the unisex models as they come in wider variations and are usually cheaper. My only issue is that it’s hard to look for a road bike with a minimum stand over height – many manufacturers do not take short-legged people into account!

  • mwbyrd

    Really…that’s the conclusion of the article? You guys can do better than that.

  • djconnel

    I’d like to see a stack-vs-reach comparison of main manufacturer (Giant, Specialized, Trek) women’s versus men’s bikes, comparing to Cervelo’s consolidated geometry (everything except the new S5).

  • lefthandside

    You need a fence with a cut-out saddle to protect the soft-tissue areas

  • Adam Beevers

    Is the fence comfortable to sit on?