Step-through bikes are easier to mount, ride, and dismount while wearing a skirt. That's the reason they get called women's bikes, even though a frame with a top tube is standard for most road, touring, and mountain bikes for women. Step-through bikes also suit anyone, male or female, whose mobility makes it difficult for them to throw their leg over a saddle – perhaps due to arthritis or a condition such as cerebral palsy. The step-through bikes we're looking at here are hybrids, but it's worth considering a roadster if you live somewhere flatter or a compact folding bike if you need easier portability or storage.
A step-through frame isn't as stiff as one with a top tube, because it isn't triangulated. The extra torsional flex is rarely an issue for everyday cycling, but can sometimes be felt – and affect handling – if there's heavy luggage at the front or rear. To make the frame stiffer and stronger, manufacturers usually use a secondary tube above the down tube to help brace the frame. Wider tube diameters are also used.
Aluminium is a good choice for a step-through frame because it's light, about a third the weight of steel. Stiffer, larger diameter aluminium tubes can thus be used without a significant weight penalty. Narrower steel tubes work well in a triangulated frame, where the material's resilience (springiness) can be an asset, but not so well in an inherently more flexible step-through frame. Steel tubes that are wider or have thicker walls are quite a bit heavier. That's okay for a roadster, but a hybrid may be ridden further, on hillier journeys.
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The riding position of a step-through hybrid tends towards the sit-up-and-beg position of a roadster. That means less weight on the hands but more on the backside, so a wider, supportive saddle works better than a narrow racing perch. Larger volume tyres are a good idea to reduce bumps and vibrations, particularly from the rear wheel. A suspension fork and a suspension seatpost seem like good ideas, but the budget ones fitted to step-through hybrids generally add little except weight. Look for rigid alternatives where possible.
Apart from weight, the most noticeable difference between a step-through hybrid and a roadster is the gearing. Step-through hybrids are usually trekking bikes with wide-range derailleur gearing. Three chainrings is standard, sized 48-36-26 or thereabouts, mid-way between a road triple's 50-40-30 and a mountain bike triple's 42-32-22. Combined with a wide-range (e.g. 11-34) cassette, this gives a lower bottom gear than most roadsters and most flat-bar road bikes, making hills easier.
Like other trekking bikes, cheaper step-through hybrids get V-brakes, while more expensive ones have hydraulic discs. Discs have an additional advantage over rim brakes for this design of frame: the rear brake cable path is less convoluted. Without a top tube, a rim brake cable has to go along the down tube, bend upwards along the seat tube, then bend over again to reach the brake from above. These bends add friction, so the brake won't work as well. A mechanical disc's cable takes a more direct path along the down tube and seat stay. And of course hydraulic hoses don't suffer cable friction at all.
Step-through hybrids usually come equipped with at least full-length mudguards. Many also have a rear rack for panniers. Some have a kickstand, which is more useful than normal as there's no tube tube to lean the bike against a cycle stand. A few come with hub dynamo lighting, offering get-on-and-go convenience at any time of day or night.
Here are three step-through hybrids at different price points.
Dawes Mojave Ladies
The aluminium frame of this Dawes resembles a roadster's, with an unusually low standover height. It's similarly well-equipped too, with full-length mudguards, a rear rack, and a kickstand. The riding position is quite sat up thanks to a tall quill stem whose height and angle you can easily adjust. Gearing is seven-speed Shimano Tourney but the 14-34 cassette only sacrifices the small sprockets you don't need rather than the big ones you will use, and the chainset is a trekking triple. V-brakes are decent economical stoppers; just be sure to keep that rear cable well-lubricated. Sturdy 36-spoke wheels and comfortable 35mm tyres complete the package.
Cyclescheme Price: £299.99*
Merida Crossway Urban 100 Lady
A dropped top tube like this is common in 'women's' hybrids. Standover is higher than fully open frame like the Cube's but it's still fairly easy to mount by stepping over the top tube. Frame and fork are aluminium, contributing to a low weight – for a trekking bike with mudguards and a kickstand – of 12.3kg, although adding a rear rack would nudge that to 13kg. Merida deserve applause for specifying exceptionally low gears; the 9-speed Shimano Alivio/Altus drivetrain employs a mountain bike sized 40-30-22 chainset. Hills should be a breeze. Descents shouldn't be daunting either, as the Shimano M315 hydraulic discs translate little lever effort into lots of braking power.
Cyclescheme Price: £450*
Cube Touring EXC
There are three versions of this German trekking bike: standard frame, with a top tube; 'trapeze' frame, like that of the Merida, above; and the easy-entry frame pictured. They're equipped the same. Gearing is 3×9, using some high-end components such as a Shimano XT rear derailleur. Brakes are the same effective hydraulic discs as the Merida. And it has every bit of commuting equipment you need short of a lock: full mudguards, a rear rack, a kickstand, a partial chainguard, and hub-dynamo powered lights. The coil-sprung SR Suntour NEX HLO suspension fork isn't strictly necessary, particularly given the plush 40mm tyres on this bike, but it can at least be locked out to prevent bobbing while climbing.
Cyclescheme Price: £524.25
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