Liz Colebrook
Liz Colebrook

Do women need women's specific design bikes?

Framebuilder, bespoke bike maker, bike mechanic and occupational therapist Liz Colebrook explains the perfect bike fit for female cyclists and looks at the popularity of off the peg Women's Specific Design (WSD) bikes.

As a women who started out in the cycle trade in the mid eighties, I’m still here thirty years later and delighted to have been asked to share my opinions on this matter with you. When I was 35, I decided to retrain as an Occupational Therapist. I progressed quickly to Senior 1 but I always felt quite nostalgic about my years in the cycle trade. When faced with completing an 81 page Social Services assessment with a client, I decided enough was enough, handed in my notice and re-entered the cycle trade. So, this article is written by probably the only woman framebuilder with an OT qualification in the world.

Je ne regrette rien, as time in the NHS and social care had given me a really good understanding the human anatomy as well as the reasons why we struggle to mount and dismount, why it takes some children longer to learn to ride than others and all the little things that translate into confidence when riding.  

Essentially, ‘women specific bicycles’ are designed around the proportions of an average woman. The term ‘woman specific’ is used when describing a road bicycle or hybrid that could potentially be mistaken for a man’s bike - dreadful expression I know! But you know what I mean – a frame that features a cross bar or top tube. 

Historically, a bicycle is sized according to the length of the seat tube. However, this became more ‘fluid’ when the sloping top tube/compact frame design became fashionable. We now often talk about ‘virtual top tube length’, which must be very confusing if you didn’t grow up with an understanding of horizontal top tube lengths as seen on classic frames from 1900 - 1980.  But during the nineties, we switched to t-shirt style sizing for frames, which was perhaps more helpful to the layperson. Women’s specific sizing would range from XS S M L, but there’s no getting away from it, we still vary enormously in leg length, shoulder width, back length and hip width let alone overall height, age, confidence and flexibility!

What is Women Specific Design and why does it matter?

Well, it all starts with the average woman – Ha! I hear you cry, what’s average? Exactly. For the purposes of getting a few differences flagged up and examined in more depth, let’s look at some general physiological differences but I know as well as you, that we are all on a huge continuum in reality.

Back length

As a general rule, women tend to have longer legs and shorter backs and men shorter legs and longer backs. Already this is limiting as I think of several women I know with a longer back and shorter leg. But, let’s put that thought aside and continue. In essence, an off-the-peg ‘women’s’ road bicycle designed for day rides or sportives will have a shorter top tube and handlebar stem than a comparatively sized men’s version. This means that the rider should feel comfortable in terms of ‘reach’ which is the expression used to describe the horizontal distance from saddle to handlebar.

If the reach is too long, anyone (regardless of gender) will feel ‘stretched’ and this will be felt within 30 minutes of riding as a strain/pain in the neck and upper back, shoulders and upper arms. The body will try and find the least stressful position which will result in the rider holding the handlebar on the ‘tops’ rather then resting the web of the hands snuggly on the rubber brake hoods. The rider may even try and hold the bars with just the ends of the fingers with a claw-like grip. 

If the reach is too short, the rider will feel cramped and the tell tale signs will either be a sense that your bottom is slipping off the back of the saddle or the web of your hands creep up the brake hoods a bit like a praying mantis!

Saddle height and handlebar height

Turning our attention to leg length, I’ve mentioned that women tend to have longer legs and shorter backs. So the saddle may need to be set noticeably higher than the given handlebar height. This distance from the top of the saddle to the ground compared with the top of the handlebar to the ground should be a ‘drop’ of at least 25mm i.e., the handlebars are set a little lower than the saddle.  But this distance will vary depending on the length and flexibility of your back. The longer and more flexible your back, the deeper this ‘drop’ can be. If the drop is too deep, you will feel it in your neck as you strain to look ahead. 

Can the handlebars be raised? Well, that depends on the configuration of the stem and corresponding spacers as well as the frame’s headtube length. My experience of designing frames that accommodate a relatively minimal ‘drop’ for a women with a shorter back and a long leg, is this - I opt for a sloping top tube to give standover clearance, making sure the headtube is long enough not to look disproportional. There is nothing uglier, in my opinion, than a short head tube with handlebar height extender and a load of spacers. But if it’s what you need to be comfortable, that’s far more important than ‘looks’.

Shoulder width

By and large, women have narrower shoulders than men. A women’s specific bicycle should therefore feature a proportionally narrower handlebar. A wide handlebar will spread a rider’s arms and actually serve to trap more air as you ride - like a sail - literally causing you to punch a bigger hole in the wind. Luckily, we have elbows, so even the widest shouldered among us can keep the size of the hole we punch to a minimum. The smaller the hole punched, the less the wind resistance. Very important when you’re time-trialing or track cycling. The handlebars I particularly like have a slight flare to the dropped section making a descent feel more stable as the rider’s hands are just a little wider.

Women’s arms are usually shorter then men’s so the ideal handlebar style features a shorter reach in terms of the distance from the top of the handlebar to the point where the brake levers attach and ideally a shallower drop, which is the distance from the top of the handlebar to the dropped position. This style of handlebar is commonly called ‘short and shallow’.

Hand size

Women tend to have smaller hands than men. Not many of us know that there are small interchangeable rubber blocks that effectively reduce the distance from handlebar to the brake lever making it slightly closer and therefore easier to grasp. Remember these dual function brake levers are designed around the average male hand. If you have quite small hands, try asking the salesperson to fit the larger brake adjustment blocks to reduce the reach.    

Saddle shape

Probably the single most important component fitted to a women’s specific bicycle. A saddle that fits and is appropriately designed for the purpose intended is like choosing the right shoes. Here goes with the generalisation again: Women’s sitting bones are usually wider than men’s. The technical name for the sitting bones is the ‘ischial tuberosities’ - two curved bones arranged like two sides of a triangle. These are the bony structures of the pelvis that ‘contact’ the saddle. Now here’s the thing: The more you sit up, the wider the distance between these bony contact points. The more you lean forward, the narrower the contact points become. This is why a Dutch-style bike has a wide saddle and a road bike has a narrower saddle. 

Where you see the central groove or cut-out section on saddles – celebrate – designed well, this missing section serves to relieve pressure on soft tissue and nerves within our nether regions. Cycle shorts have padded inserts and are designed to be worn next to the skin, so no pants please! I regularly hear of people wearing pants under their lycra shorts. Someone I know developed an abscess doing an endurance ride as his pants seam ran right under his sitting bones. If you don’t wear padded shorts or lycra, look at cycle specific trousers with gussets and/or double thickness seats.

Other componentry

One final factor to mention is crank arm length and bottom bracket height. The shorter you are the more this matters in a nutshell. Anyone under 5’5” would be much more comfortable riding a 165mm crank arm or less. A shorter crank arm allows the bottom bracket to be lower but beware of a wide Q factor as this will force the bottom bracket back up again. Suffice to say you may only see attention paid to this on a custom frame build.  Age, strength, flexibility and terrain play a very underrated part in the choice of gearing. As a coverall, many manufacturers will fit a triple chainset (urgh) or you may see the same gearing as the men’s version. I feel this carries a subtext, namely That ‘women’ probably won’t notice and if they do, they can pay for it to be altered or just get fitter. Mmmm not sure I like this attitude. I’m very pleased that 1x or ‘one by’ is becoming more popular. This makes so much sense.

Summary

To return to the question, do women need ‘women specific’ bicycles? The answer is that everyone needs a bicycle that fits well. For about 5 or 6 sizes of ‘woman’, the woman specific bicycles big companies like Trek, Specialized and Giant have produced will make a positive difference. But it’s important to remember we are all different and our bodies change over time and sadly the majority of bicycle shops are not fully versed in dealing with those women (and men) who don’t neatly fit off-the-peg sizing.  My colleagues in the trade who ask, listen and adapt a bicycle to suit the ‘outliers’ among us will reap the rewards in more ways than one.

When a bicycle has been adjusted to fit the rider, the rider gets the best from it, enjoys cycling more and wants to ride more.  An ascending spiral of success with all the planets aligned. That is how it should be.

Liz Colebrook is a member of Cycling UK and owns www.beaumontbicycle.com

What do you think about WSD bikes? Let us know in the comment box below. 

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Actually this post is from

ColinGadsden's picture

Actually this post is from Julie Gadsden, not my husband (we have a family membership!). Interesting article about Women's Specific Bike design - I have a range of bikes from full-on triathlon race bike to an 'adventure/gravel' bike and am perhaps fortunate that I have a long back and so don't have many problems with bike fit as long as I can get a small frame size (I am 165cm in height). But of more concern to me is the so-called 'ladies' bikes which are beloved of the European rental market. We take a lot of cycling holidays in Europe - sometimes we take our own bikes across to France (either road bikes or hybrids) and sometimes we rent. You can rent good quality diamond-frame road bikes in most areas but if you want a hybrid (or leisure bike) they insist on giving smaller people (and that's usually women) the dreaded step-through frames - which seems to me (as an engineer) to be a travesty of design. We are off to Spain in October with a very good UK bike holiday company and they have had to fight to get me a 48cm diamond-frame hybrid bike from the rental company. We would travel much further afield in Europe to cycle if we could find decent hybrid bikes to rent.