Let's get one thing straight: unless you want to ride in a skirt or dress, a step-through frame is strictly optional. Step-through frames are useful for men and women who can't get their leg over a top tube due to limited mobility, or who are restricted from doing so by their clothing (skirt, kilt, etc).
A top tube makes a bike frame a stronger and stiffer, and it's a difference you can readily feel if you cycle with rear panniers or a childseat. Many women's hybrids have step-through frames, particularly at cheaper price points, but it's not a defining feature of women's bikes.
There are ways in which women's bikes ought to be different. Size is the most important. Women are on average shorter than men and need correspondingly smaller bikes. Women generally have a wider pelvis, narrower shoulders, and smaller hands too. These differences call for: a wider saddle, so that bodyweight is carried by the sit bones rather than soft tissue; a narrower handlebar; and adjustable-reach brake levers.
Women's specific geometry essentially means 'a shorter reach to the handlebar and a slightly more upright riding position'. This is not because women have longer legs and shorter torsos than men in relation to their height. (There are just as many long-legged men and shorter-legged women.) For women, leaning forward on a saddle puts pressure on the plumbing. So sitting more upright tends to be more comfortable.
These are generalities. You might be happier on gent's or so-called unisex bike, particularly if you're taller than average. It might need no adjustments, or you might want to change only the saddle and the stem. Whatever is comfortable is fine.
If you're shorter than average, shorter cranks will match your shorter legs and enable you to pedal more fluidly. Smaller bike models are sometimes offered with 165mm cranks rather than 170mm or 175mm. Shorter still would better suit petite riders, but shorter ones than 165mm are not commonly available.
There's a limit to how small a frame can be made and still accept a hybrid's 700C wheels. If you're short and the bike feels unwieldy to you, or your foot hits the front wheel when you turn, you might be better served by a bike with smaller, 26in wheels.
There is an argument for slightly lower gears on women's bikes: the lighter and less muscular you are, the easer it is to spin a lower gear than stamp on a higher gear. (Since you can pedal a lower gear faster, you can cycle just as quickly.) The gears of most hybrids go quite low, with the largest sprocket being as big as or bigger than the smallest chainring. If the bike has a double chainset (two chainrings), it's worth checking for this; it'll help on hills.
Brake levers simply need to be within easy reach. Those on good quality bikes have an adjuster, enabling the lever to be moved closer to the hand grip. The rear brake on step-through bikes can be harder to pull, as the more convoluted cable run to the brake introduces more friction.
Just like men's hybrids, women's hybrids tend to be sold in the UK without mudguards and a pannier rack – although they will almost always fit. So don't forget to include them, plus lights and a lock, in your Cyclescheme package.
Here are three good examples women's hybrids across the price range.
Liv Alight 2 City
Liv is Giant's brand name for its women's bikes. 'City' means that it gets a rear rack, mudguards, and a kickstand. It's nevertheless relatively light for an equipped hybrid because of its aluminium frame and fork. A tall head tube and a stack of spacers on the steerer tube put the handlebar at an easy-to-reach height. Gearing is 24-speed Shimano Altus, which works fine and has a decently-low 28/32 bottom gear. Reach-adjustable V-brakes are simple and effective. The Giant S-X3 tyres have some puncture resistance, and the 32mm width will cope with less-than-perfect roads. There's scope to fit a front rack if you want to ride further afield. Sizes: XS-L.
Trek 7.4 FX WSD
Trek are unusual in offering this hybrid in two women's versions: diamond frame (pictured) and step-through frame. They're otherwise the same bike. The 7.4 FX WSD is lighter and sportier than the Liv Alight 2 City, saving weight with a carbon fibre fork and by eschewing accessories. Mudguards and racks will fit. Component quality befits its higher price, being a mix of Shimano Deore and Acera. A 9-speed rear end gives more gears, and they go a little lower thanks to the chainset's 26-tooth inner ring. Bontrager AW1 Hard-Case Lite tyres are fairly tough and efficient, and the 32mm width suits an all-rounder. Stopping is again handled by reach-adjustable V-brakes. Ergonomic grips improve hand comfort on this flat-bar bike. Sizes: 15, 17, 19in; or 15, 17.5, 20in step-through.
Whyte Pimlico Women's
There's a glass ceiling in many bike ranges, and higher-end hybrids for women are relatively rare. So it's great to see this sporty, 10kg hybrid from British brand Whyte. It's a 20-speed bike that uses Sram's Via Centro groupset, which is designed for flat-bar road bikes. The 48-32 chainset is a little smaller than a normal road double, giving a more practical range with the 11-32 cassette provided. Hydraulic disc brakes deliver maximum stopping power for minimal grip strength, and these Tektro Auriga brakes have levers for smaller hands. The aluminium frame and carbon fork are ready for mudguards and a rear rack. Tyres are one size narrower than 32mm at 28mm, but that's still enough shock absorption for most roads. They're higher pressure and they're mounted on lighter-weight wheels, so the Pimlico accelerates well. Sizes: S, M.
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