Bikes and their components are designed with Mr Average in mind. Ms Average is shorter and lighter. Designing a bike to suit her, however, isn't as simple as 'shrinking and pinking' the gent's version.
First a word on step-through frames. This design stops you having to lift a leg over the bike to get on it, so it's handy if you want to ride in a skirt or have limited mobility. Otherwise, there's no reason not to use a bike with a top tube, which is structurally a better design.
There's a myth in the bike world that women have longer legs and shorter torsos than men. That might be true of catwalk models or cycle racers but it's not true of the general population. Most women do prefer riding in a more upright position. That's because of differences in the pelvis and lower back, and perhaps arm and hand length. So a bike designed for women will be shorter between saddle and handlebar.
There are a few ways to achieve this. The simplest, and one you should try yourself if you feel too stretched out on your bike, is to change the stem for shorter one. A higher-rise stem will also move the handlebar back (as well as up), because the head tube angle on a bike is not 90 degrees; it's around 70.
A flat handlebar reduces the reach compared to a drop handlebar, on which the hands usually rest several centimetres in front of the stem. That's a change you or your shop can make too, to make an overly long drop-bar bike fit. It requires new brake levers and gear shifters.
A more complicated fitting solution is to make the frame shorter. It's complicated because if the builder shortened the whole frame horizontally, your feet would overlap the front wheel. So it's common for women's frames to use a steeper seat tube angle, which moves the saddle forward, and a shallower head tube angle, which keeps the front wheel away from feet. There are a couple of caveats with this approach: steepening the seat tube angle affects weight distribution, putting more of it on your hands; and changing the head tube angle changes the way a bike steers – unless the fork is also changed.
A more elegant solution would be for smaller women's bikes with drop bars to have smaller wheels; the 26-inch 'mountain bike' size would be ideal. This is seldom used, so shorter women will struggle to find a drop-bar machine that fits well. A small flat-bar bike, such as a mountain bike, might be the only option. Or a so-called child's bike might fit. Conversely, long tall Sallys will have more choice, and may find a gent's bike fits fine, given a different stem and saddle.
Women typically need a wider saddle. For while both men and women need a saddle that carries their weight on their 'sit bones' rather than the perineum, women generally have a wider pelvis. A saddle that's too narrow or too convex could cause pain or numbness. Swap it and, if necessary, sit more upright (see above).
Handlebars on women's bikes should be narrower, as women have narrower shoulders, and drop bar models need a shallower drop and shorter forward bend. Brake levers must be in easy reach. Most can be easily adjusted to bring them closer to the handlebar.
Anyone with shorter legs than Mr Average will benefit from shorter cranks. As a rough rule of thumb, cranks should be no longer than about 10% of height. So if you're 165cm tall, you're better off with 165mm cranks than 170 or 175mm. It will make pedalling easier and more fluid, and if the bike has been designed for shorter cranks the bottom bracket should be lower too – so it will be easier to get a foot down when you stop at the lights.
Here's just a few of the better women's bikes now available.
Giant Escape 1W
This lightweight, carbon-forked hybrid is available down to an XS size, so should fit the majority of women. A relatively short stem and flat handlebar mean that the reach isn't too stretched, while the steeply sloping top tube gives plenty of stand-over room. There are mounts for mudguards and a rear rack and plenty of room to fit them. The 27-speed gears have a wide range, with a 26/34 bottom gear that will readily cope with hills or heavy loads. Comfort should be good too, thanks to a women's specific saddle and wider (32mm) tyres.
Specialized Dolce Sport Equipped
The 'endurance geometry' on this aluminium and carbon road bike means that there's a comfortably short reach to the handlebar, courtesy of a shorter top tube and higher head tube. Specialized bikes usually have good contact points and this is no exception, with an anatomic Riva Sport saddle and a gel-padded, shallow-drop handlebar. Unlike lots of road bikes, the gears have a sensible range: 27-speed Shimano Sora with a road triple chainset and an 11-30 cassette. It's great to see that the smaller sizes are equipped with 165mm cranks. While a rear rack will fit the frame, only race-bike-specific mudguard will do so.
Trek Mynx S
Mountain bikes with bigger wheels are all the rage, but 26-inch wheels can provide a better fitting bike for shorter women – especially anyone wanting the smallest 14-inch frame size. As well as being well proportioned, with a compact reach and low stand-over, this Mynx S comes with a RockShox Recon solo air fork. That's much better than a cheaper coil fork, as the suspension can be precisely set to suit the lighter weight of its female rider. Hydraulic disc brakes (Shimano M446) offer excellent stopping power without the grip strength that cable-brakes require. The frame even has rack mounts for commuting.
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