Do we need women specific bikes?
Some background, stories, pros, cons and what we might want and/or need as women who ride bikes.
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A little trip down bike memory lane
I got my first road bike in 1992/1993. It was a deep purple Bottecchia, way too big, and totally awesome. I am still low key looking for that bike or frame online so I can buy it and restore it… If you have any leads, please let me know! I learned a lot of lessons on that bike. The most memorable one happened on one of our first rides: I learned that riding 18c tires (pumped to 130+ psi) on loose gravel is not wise. Especially when it results in wiping out in front of a bunch of teenage boys. I always knew how to make an entrance 😂🤷♀️. I was 12 in the photo below.
A year an a bit later, I got my second road bike. It was a lightly used 1993 Klein Panache, a model that was designed for ‘small people’ under 5’2 (it came in two very small sizes). Shortly after, it was re-branded as a women specific bike (the ‘kirsten’) and to my knowledge, it was one of the first ever road race bike specifically designed for women. As you can see below, my LBS made adjustments to turn it into a tri bike, similar to the Klein Aeolus… Please refer to this 1993 Klein catalogue, which is super rad. I think I rode this bike until 1995, when I got a partnership with Trek and then with Specialized in 2000.
I had many bikes over the years, mostly unisex. The women specific ones were demos that I rode for a bit - A Specialized Ruby in 2007 and a women specific Norco MTB in 2006/2007 (I can’t remember the specific model).
The first ever women specific bike was made in the early 80’s by Georgena Terry, who was a mechanical engineer and founder of the Terry Bicycle brand (currently selling saddles and apparel). I won’t get into the history of women specific bikes, other than mentioning that brands like Santa Cruz (with the Juliana spin off), Specialized and Trek led the charge in the early 2000’s.
My experience fitting women specific bikes
I worked with many women riding women specific bikes, and I still do. Years ago, I encountered several interesting issues when fitting women to bikes that were supposed to be designed for them, which made me wonder if we even needed women specific bikes, in particular at the highest level of racing.
Between 2009 and 2016, two of the women I was fitting regularly were racing the ITU WTS (World Triathlon Series) circuit. Both were riding women specific bikes at the time, mostly because that was what they got from their bike brand sponsors. In both cases, we ran into issues related to the fact that those women specific bikes were too tall through the headtube and a had a reach that was much shorter compared with unisex bikes… It was challenging in both cases, but more so with one of them as she had relatively short legs and a long torso. To get her into a racing position that was balanced from a bike handling point of view, powerful and allowed her to run fast off the bike, we ended up with a -17 stem, with no spacers under the headset cap. And by no spacers, I mean no headset cap either, just a very thin rubber spacer. And yes, we shortened the cranks (refer to the previous article on crank length).
That made me think: Do bike brands just assume that women can’t race? Or do not want to race? It was as if bike manufactures assumed that women do not want or need performance oriented bikes. Wait, what?! 🤔🤦♀️.
This was with two (big) brands, both of which stopped making women specific bikes around 2019. To one of those brand’s credit, they made changes starting with adding a women’s race bike to their women lineups and then using a unisex bike with narrower handlebars, zero offset seatpost, shorter cranks and a women specific saddle before they completely phased out their women specific line up.
One of the only stand alone bike brands today, Liv, has various models within their line up, some more race oriented, some more relaxed in terms of fit.
Juliana, which is to Santa Cruz what Liv is to Giant, offer the same frames as Santa Cruz, but in smaller sizing, different colors, with a women specific saddle (they are very open that these are the only differences). Canyon is similar. For example, the women specific Grizl is simply a different color than the men’s and comes in smaller sizes. That’s it.
Why Women specific bikes to begin with?
The assumption that there is a need to accommodate for anatomical factors like height, that women tend to have a shorter torso and longer legs, narrower shoulders and different pelvis shape.
Women’s bike are smaller and have shorter reach, narrower handlebars and in many cases, have a higher stack also.
Click here to read what Liv centers their bike design around. In a nutshell, there are claims that women have less strength through their upper body and more through their lower body, so they need to be more upright and use a different frame design, and that women produce less power overall so they can use bikes that are not as stiff.
Why we might not need women specific bikes
Lets start by linking to some relevant information from Specialized, released as explanation for why they do not make women specific bikes anymore.
There are a few things in the argument for women specific bikes above that get to me a bit… I know I am just a has-been cyclist these days, but I am willing to bet I am still able to produce more power than a lot of men and I do notice the difference in stiffness of the bikes I ride. Of course, I can probably get away with a frame that is not as stiff compared with a man twice my size, but perhaps this is a size and strength discussion, not a gender one?
Most brands realized that the fit differences between men and women, are not necessarily bigger than the differences seen within a group of men or a group of women with similar needs. A lot of of the arguments for women specific bikes simply do not hold up on a practical level. Here is some food for thought:
We need more smaller bike options in general, for smaller riders of all ages (ie. youth & junior riders, so we get more youngsters into the sport), regardless of their gender.
I have seen as many men as women who need a shorter reach bike, sometimes for body proportions, but most often because they need it to suit their riding style, body limitations and individual goals. This is actually a major issue in the bike industry in my opinion and it goes far beyond gender.
Parts like handlebars and saddles are easy to swap - This has nothing to do with a women specific bike and everything to do with individual preference and needs. As a side note, I fitted plenty of men to women specific saddles due to personal preference (and I have the saddle pressure data to back it up). I also know many men who ride 38cm handlebars comfortably, which is often a handlebar width associated with women specific bikes.
I do agree that in the case of MTB riding, suspension settings could vary between men and women, but that is mostly due to weight and size, again not necessarily gender alone.
Lets dig a bit deeper
I want to see more women riding bikes and loving it and the reasons we have a long way to go in making this happen might not actually have that much to do with whether women specific bikes are available or not, at least in my opinion. I think the women vs men stats I posted when I shared my annual fit data for 2022 are relevant…
I want to dig a bit deeper.
As women, we often need to prove ourselves
No, it’s not okay, but ask any woman working in a male dominated field and she will tell you that she often needs to prove herself more than men in similar roles.
The bike world can be very overwhelming, for both men and women, but in my experience, women seem to be a bit more sensitive to it. I had many issues being a (relatively young) women in the bike industry and I very briefly touched on a few of them when I wrote about how I got started as a bike fitter. To share a bit more, here are two examples from the last 4 years…
About 3 years ago, I had a man in his late 50’s almost leave when he saw that his bike fitter was a women. He did not hide the fact that he was skeptical of my competency due to my gender and age. To his credit, he did apologize half way through and even sent me a few referrals afterwards, but it was not a pleasant experience for me to say the least.
About 4 years ago, I got an email from a women who had a few questions before coming in for a bike fitting appointment. We started by setting up a phone consultation and a male friend of hers asked to be on that call too, to make sure the information she is getting was ‘right’. I can’t even begin to express how annoying and insulting that was, but I have been at it for long enough and had enough confidence to know my bike knowledge was likely miles ahead of his, so I just shrugged and did my thing. Of course about half way through the conversation he logged off realizing he had nothing of value to add to the conversation. F’ that. I could be wrong, but I doubt my knowledge and experience would have been questioned if I was a man.
How many female bike fitters do you know? How many female bike mechanics? Women working in bike shops? Female engineers working on product design / development within the cycling industry? Not enough, if you ask me!
I think that if we want to get more women riding and serve them better, we need more women working at bike brands in roles traditionally held by men including engineering, biomechanics and product development (side note: If you are in need of a bike fitter for product development consulting, hit me up - I’m game 😉).
We need better bike options
Do women need women specific bikes? I think we do not.
My personal thinking is that everyone should get better, more appropriate bike choice regardless of color preference, size, and riding style. It’s better for both women and men. It’s actually a good thing brands are evaluating their bike line ups and designing bikes that fit riders based on their needs, not their gender.
Unisex bikes vary in geometry between brands and between models within each brands. I think that is where efforts should be made - Many people buy bikes that are not appropriate for their riding goals, typically too long and low for many. this is the same for many, independent of gender.
We need safe, supportive spaces
We need to give women space to come together in a positive and supportive way. A welcoming and inviting community to get together without judgment, etc.
We need to give women a say in what they want and actually listen to them
We need to realize that a lot of women want performance. Things like riding style, strength and experience level have a bigger impact on bike choice than gender alone.
At the end of the day, anything that helps women feel like they belong, helps them get over their fears of riding and makes them happy on a bike gets my vote, women specific or not. Be authentic and ride what you want, as long as it fits you. And men, if you want to ride a women’s bike - go for it. If it works, why not?
If women specific branding helps get more women into riding, I am all for it. If a brand has a mission of inclusiveness, empowering women and it is trying to make cycling accessible and welcoming, that is amazing and I am all over that. I want to mention that Liv Vancouver is doing all of that within our community here in Vancouver and it is really amazing and appreciated - Thank you 🤍.
Note: I deliberately chose not to get into women specific saddles, apparel, shoes, components, etc. I do have a post about that and will post it down the road.
I hope you found this article valuable and interesting. I would love to hear your thoughts and I think a discussion on a topic like this is important, so feel free to comment below and share this post with others!
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The debate over women specific bikes has been going on since the mid-1980’s! Talk about staying power! I don’t think any of us who work in that domain believe a WSD design is perfect for every woman. But I do think we believe that women need to be treated as equals, whether they are newcomers to the sport or seasoned riders. These designs continue to do just what the bicycle market needs — more choices for more riders. Women specific designs may not be for every woman, but isn’t it nice to know they’re here when you need them?
There is this funny thing called technology. Maybe bike makers could do a little research about the buying public especially after the deluge of new riders in the COVID era.
RE not trusting you as a bike fitter; my personal experience coming into cycling from motorcycle racing was/is that at least where I live there are very few mechanics I trust to do work as well as I do and even less fitters. I tried to get area bike shops to explain what the different frame tubing decals meant and every single one just read the label to me. This is circa 1985. Most bike staff are trained to mouth the buzzwords (it like the car sales business). You have to dig to find info. Big population base does not necessarily mean really good bike shop staff. Trying to get bikes that fit my wife, 1.56m, with an inseam that is really short has been a treat. Things are far better now as far as ability to source gear. We had one good fitter in the area using the Retul system which produced good results and that option is now gone. I think it's cool that you can bring you view point and experience of trying to get bikes that fit for yourself. Kudos to you. And sorry but I thought you were a guy until the latest post where I saw you. cheers