Women – and men – come in a variety of shapes. We can make plenty of generalizations about women having shorter torsos and arms, wider hips and narrower shoulders but in the end, bike fit is all about the individual. The best thing for women to do is ditch the labels and find a bike that fits their bodies.
Believe me, fit is important.
Riding a bike that doesn’t fit well can cause pain in your knees, your back, your shoulders and your seat. Worst of all you may just not have fun riding.
I have two bikes, both of which are “unisex” frames: a Kona Dew Deluxe (around town bike) and a Lapierre Xelius (road bike).
The Lapierre is a fun bike. It’s fast, it climbs hills like a dream… but it never felt quite right. It was twitchy and hard to control. My shoulders ached after even a short ride and the seat was, well, less than comfortable.
Even though I couldn’t quite put my finger on what bothered me, most days the Lapierre languished at home while I took my heavier, slower, more comfortable Kona. Until last month, when my bike mechanic/husband changed the stem to bring the handlebar position up and back a little bit, and put on a different saddle. All of a sudden the Lapierre felt like a completely different bike – more stable, easier to control and way more comfortable.
Men’s frames vs. Women’s frames
Traditionally, bike frames were made assuming equal proportions between the legs and torso (which the average man has). Someone with longer legs and a shorter torso (like the average woman) will end up feeling stretched out when reaching for the handlebars. Bringing the seat height up to accommodate longer legs makes the handlebars reach even longer.
To cater to the women’s market, more manufacturers are selling women-specific bikes, either by redesigning their frames from scratch to the meet the average woman’s proportions, or by spec’ing their unisex frames with components meant to create a comfortable fit for the average woman.
The redesigned frames often feature a lower standover height and shorter top tube length. Some designs feature a more relaxed head tube angle that brings the handlebars closer while also pushing the front wheel forward (since the shorter top tube creates a shorter wheelbase, which can cause problems with toe overlap).
Do women need women’s specific frames?
Ward Griffiths, a bike fitter at River City Bicycles, doesn’t think so. “Just like everyone else, women are different proportions,” she says. “The main thing is that you want to find a comfortable neutral position.”
Every cyclist has a different body, and no matter your gender if you’re looking to get the best fit it’s worth talking to a specialist. In general, however, there are some problems that can be more common with women cyclists.
“It depends on the bike,” says Ward, “but often the top tube might be too long, or the head tube too low and you need to get the front end up a bit. Sometimes the handlebars are too wide, if you have narrower shoulders.”
What to look for in a frame
You want a frame that you can comfortably stand over (ideally with 1″ clearance from the crotch to the top tube on a road bike, and 3-4″ on a mountain bike). You also want to be able to put a toe on the ground when you’re on the seat.
Your perfect frame size will probably vary by manufacturer (since everyone seems to measure frame height from a different starting point), so trying out bikes at your local shop is a must-do step in the process of finding a frame.
If you have a proportionally shorter torso, it can be helpful to look for a frame with a shorter top tube, although your reach can also be improved by using a shorter stem, handlebar with short reach or moving your seat forward.
There’s a pitfall to the shorter stem option, however. You may not notice on a casual bike, but on a performance bike a shorter stem can be more twitchy, as it amplifies your inputs when turning or reacting. One of the benefits of a frame with women’s geometry is that it allows you to use stem length which can be more stable while still getting a good fit.
What to look for in a saddle
As with the frame, Ward cautions women from from buying women’s components simply because of the label. Saddles are a great example: “Not all women need a ‘women’s’ saddle,” she says, “but you do want to make sure both sit bones are on there comfortably.”
Women’s saddles are designed to be wider than men’s because, in general, women’s sit bones are spaced wider apart. When choosing a saddle for yourself, either try out a few different widths to see what feels the most comfortable, or visit a fitter who will measure your sit bones and recommend the best saddle.
The saddle I have on both my bikes is actually a men’s saddle. I loved it on my Kona so when it came time to build up the Lapierre, I tried the wider, shorter women’s version. I found this saddle to be insanely uncomfortable. I tried to pass it on to my mom, who also hated it. We both ended up with the men’s version of the exact same saddle.
You should ride what’s comfortable for you, no matter what the intended gender. It’s always worth checking out a few different options to see what fits best – and don’t hesitate to try something unusual. Let yourself be surprised!
If you’re having trouble getting the right level of comfort on your own, consider calling in the experts. A professional bike fitting varies in price, but can creep into the $200 range. The settings and information will influence your future bike purchases so, really, it’s a small price to pay to be extremely comfortable (and healthier) on your bike.
Jessie Kwak is a writer who loves to type about the good life: travel, outdoor adventures, food and drink, and (of course) cycling. You can find her at Bictoro: Bikes and Crafts.