Lifestyle: The answer to the question as to whether women should ride female-specific bikes depends on several factors. Building a women’s bike no longer consists of merely painting a smaller frame in a pastel colour. It’s much more complex than that.
After having researched the specific needs of female bike riders, manufacturers are now producing much more specialised women’s bicycles, ranging from bikes for the casual rider to the elite racer.
From the structural point of view, the physiologies of both genders are of course very different, so let’s have a look at the variances between women’s and men’s road bikes to see how a bicycle can be constructed to reflect these differences.
Consider the top tube of the frame. This is the part of the bike that connects the handlebars to the seat. It is often the single most noticeable difference between men’s and women’s bikes. For ease of mounting, in women’s bicycles this bar is slanted towards the seat rather than parallel to the ground, as it is with men’s bikes. In some women’s bikes, you’ll find that the top tube isn’t necessarily slanted, but is instead constructed to be shorter than the typical men’s bike, for the reason that women usually have a proportionally shorter torso and longer legs than men. Doing so brings the front wheel forward more and extends the wheelbase slightly, which helps to promote further stability.
Ideally, when you stand over your bike, there should be enough clearance between you and the frame so that you feel comfortable getting on and off. Also ensure that the top tube isn’t so long that you become too stretched out, as this will cause discomfort and pain in the neck, wrist and back.
Next consider the handlebars. Shoulder width is often an obvious difference between men and women, and to accommodate narrower shoulders, women’s handlebars range from 38cm to 40cm, while men’s bikes have wider handlebars measuring between 42cm and 44 cm. As a rule of thumb, your hands should be shoulder width apart when you hold onto the handlebars. This means you should aim for a bar about the same width as your shoulders, which will give you better comfort and control. The handlebars shouldn’t be too narrow as you’ll lack leverage for steering, and if the bar is too wide, the bike will feel clumsy.
A bar width of 38cm to 40cm is most likely to allow your hands to be positioned squarely in front of your shoulders, which is not only more comfortable, but also aids in more efficient handling.
Women’s bicycles also often have slimmer grips, to better fit smaller hands. In addition, to accommodate for a shorter torso as well as shorter arms, the handlebar stem is usually shorter than it is on men’s bikes, so that the female cyclist can comfortably reach the handlebars. Since the stem is not adjustable, the length should be just right – not too short and not too long. And one final tip – to make sure you can easily reach a variety of positions on your handlebars, make sure there is a slight bend in your elbows when reaching forward.
Seat shape is another consideration. Cheaper bicycles usually have unisex saddles that fit both genders and are okay for shorter rides. If you are riding in a more upright position your sit load will fall to the sit bones, which helps to prevent a lot of bruising and discomfort. But if you are into longer rides or commutes, then the longer and narrower seat of standard men’s bicycles may not be right for you. When riding in a more forward aerodynamic position, the pressure also moves significantly forward, leading to a greater chance of pinching and bruising. In these cases, consider a wider women-specific seat that not only fits the female pelvis and sitting bones more comfortably, but also has a space between the two sides to relieve perineum pressure.
Your bike should have a crank with a length that allows you to pedal comfortably while maintaining your cadence. The length of the crank arms are generally proportional to height. Men’s bikes typically have 170mm cranks, while women’s bikes come with shorter cranks of 165mm in length. This allows women to better get to the bottom of their pedal stroke. However, while women are generally shorter, shorter crank arms won’t be better for all women, because their legs are proportionately longer, and so a standard crank arms length may still be sufficient.
To boost performance, the ideal bike should weigh as little as possible, and as women tend to be lighter than men, a greater proportion of the total weight of both rider and bicycle is made up by the bike. One area where you can reduce the weight of the bike is in the wheels. Although it may be more costly, try to choose the better quality lightweight wheels, as it will make a difference to your performance if you can reduce this rotational mass. Additionally, if you select smaller wheels and tires, you can also prevent toe-wheel overlap.
However, keep in mind that as long as you feel safe and are comfortable in handling your bike, then what type of bike you’re riding isn’t the be-all and end-all. Taller women often tend to fit better on men’s bikes, and the opposite is also true for shorter men. The correct bike also depends on your riding style. A woman-specific bicycle provides a slightly more upright riding position, so if you prefer a more stretched-out, aggressive riding position, then a male or unisex frame may suit you better.
Whatever bike you end up choosing, make sure you don’t ride sub-optimally, and be aware of the technical and biomechanical issues of riding and get a proper bike fit that not only increases your performance but also makes your ride more comfortable.