Should You Buy a Women’s-Specific Bike?
Cycling Expert Julie B. walks through the differences between unisex bikes and women's specific bikes to give you a better idea of which style might be best for you!
I remember purchasing my first hybrid bike as a teenager. I walked into the bike shop and found this awesome used Specialized Crossroads in purple, my favorite color. That was the bike I wanted, but it was a men’s bike. I bought it anyway, and remember mentioning many times that it was a men’s bike as if for some reason that made it better. Back then women’s bikes still had a slanted downtube, which was designed to accommodate skirts and dresses. Thinking back now, I know why I liked that it was classified as a men's bike—I didn’t want to be pegged into a specific mold because of how I looked, I wanted something that I liked and was willing to cross outside of the norm to get it.
Why Women’s Specific Performance Bikes?
In the late 90s, a few bicycle companies began marketing performance bikes that were designed specifically for women. These bikes did not have the slanted top tube but instead had the standard straight top tube that was previously only for what were considered men’s bikes. Aside from its shallower motivations as an admittedly excellent marketing ploy, the adaptation of performance bikes for women was also guided by the fact that it was universally understood that women’s bodies are different from men’s. On average women have shorter torsos, shorter arm lengths, narrower shoulders, and longer legs than men. They are more flexible too. Many companies felt that having a women’s specific line-up made a lot of sense because then women had a product that was made specifically for them. We have women’s riding clothing, so why not women’s rides?
A Look at the Bike Market
A More Unisex Trend
Now bicycle manufacturers are trending the other way. Trek, Specialized, and Yeti decided to drop their women’s specific lines altogether and go with unisex models. Some companies, like Marin, make a women’s specific option in entry-level models, but the higher-end models are all considered unisex. Scott and Canyon are still committed to making women’s specific frames, and Santa Cruz has a line of women’s specific bikes under the name Juliana. However, Juliana admits that their frames are the same ones that Santa Cruz uses, so there’s no change in geometry there. The only company that is solely a women’s bicycle manufacturer is Liv, which was founded by Giant.
Things continue to be a little murky with entry-level bikes, hybrids, cruisers, electric bikes, and so on. Some companies have stuck with the slanted top tube for women, others have not. Many now advertise step-through frames, or half-step-through frames, to better assist those with needs based on medical conditions, personal preference, or just the way they dress. For the little ones though, kid's bikes still come with the boy or girl description which is differentiated mainly by color. I absolutely cringe when kids’ cartoons have female characters dressed in pink to differentiate them from the men. But, I also consider myself a consumer that can be swayed by something with a different design or color because it is marketed for me. I guess some things will take more time to change.
Why Back to Unisex Bikes?
So why did many companies revert to unisex bikes? For an excellent work that highlights a lot of what the companies were saying via in-person interviews, check out Morgan Tilton’s in-depth article Should You Buy a Women’s Specific Mountain Bike? Maybe. Mainly the companies that reverted to unisex argued that you want to fit the rider with the best bike, period. But, is there a difference between men's and women’s physical geometry? This is a tough question to answer. Like with any medical research, there are studies that support the general assumption that a large percentage of women do have smaller torsos and longer legs than men, and there are also studies that show no significant difference. When it comes to any empirical study it’s important to look at the sample size and who was sampled, as well as the results. For the companies that made the unisex switch, there was not enough data out there to convince them that women were different enough to need a specific frame. Whether saving money in the long run by not having to design and forge extra frames factored into this decision, only the insiders know.
The Cost of Customization
The whole short torso, long legs argument makes total sense to me. I am one of the women that fit into that general category because I have a short torso and long legs. I am also considered tall at 5’9” which, as it turns out, is a great height for finding bikes that fit well. I have two women’s specific bikes in my quiver: a road bike and a mountain bike. With the road bike I needed to get a shorter stem, and with the mountain bike I swapped out all sorts of parts including the crank arms, seatpost, handlebar, grips, the drivetrain, and the tires.
Bike shops will sell the bike they have on the floor first, and most shops can only order bikes in specific sizes with specific stems, seats, handlebars, and so on. So, when attempting to get the right fit, you can end up buying not only a bicycle but a bunch of extra parts. Some shops will swap the items out for free, others will make you pay the difference between the costs, and many shops will just add the cost on top. Granted, we are talking about performance bikes, so an elevated price tag is not unexpected.
Not everyone can afford to spend a ton of money customizing a bike, though. Sure, if you have the resources to do it, go play around with Trek’s online custom bike builder, Project One, where you can pick the bike, color, and all the components and accessories. There is no way you will get a bad fit as Trek requires you to get measured for the right size at one of their retailers worldwide. Many manufacturers also offer the option to customize bikes online with your dimensions, or you can go to specific online shops, like Moots, that offer custom bikes where the frame is made exactly to fit your measurements.
What Do the Pros Ride?
I was really happy when Trek chose Yolanda Neff as one of the faces to launch their new Supercaliber when it first came out. I felt the same when Scott lined up Kate Courtney alongside Nino Schurter to show off their Scott Spark RC 900s. At the Tour de Femmes this year, the only teams riding women’s specific frames were those sponsored by Liv. The caveat to this is that every pro has a mechanic and sponsors that fine-tune their bikes precisely for them. Some riders even get their frames specifically built, so no pro is ever going to be riding a bike that comes stock from a shop. If you want to ride like a pro, you will have to spend a significant amount of money.
The best comparison I can make between women’s specific bikes and men’s is between Liv and Giant bicycles. Because most bike shop employees and cycling experts cannot afford to have a nice bike, a shop I worked at provided demo models that store employees could take out for free whenever we felt like it. What I found from riding the demos and playing around with our fit finder, was that I was a medium in Giant bikes and a large in Liv. I also found that with the Giant road bikes, I had to shorten the stem to make the bike fit properly. With the Liv road bikes, I made no adjustments to the parts. With the mountain bikes, if it was the right size, I didn’t have to swap out any components at all.
I was also fortunate enough to be able to travel out to Giant headquarters in California and attend a three-day class on the Liv brand. I learned that they were adamantly against the “shrink it and pink it” idea and that with everything they designed, from bikes to clothing, they took a ton of women’s measurements and preferences into consideration before the final product was manufactured. We joked that the Liv bikes had some of the coolest colorways that year compared to the Giant bikes, which made the guys jealous.
For the majority of people, getting a bike that is the right frame size is the most important thing when bike shopping—even if you have to use everything that comes along with it for a while until you can purchase other parts. Based on the industry, and from my own personal experience, it is rare to purchase a bike that won’t need something swapped out on it, whether it's the stem, the saddle, or the handlebars, etc. It can take a while to dial a bike in. I am a pretty versatile rider, so if a shop has something that fits my measurements, I’m more likely to go with that. If they don’t, I’ll take what comes stock on the bike. As far as components go, women’s saddles are shaped differently than men’s for obvious anatomical reasons—so is it better to buy a bike that comes with a women’s specific saddle from the get-go? And, what do you do with the guy that may fit better on a Liv bike than a Giant? Do we really need to make people feel ostracized by making them choose between something designated for men or for women? I believe every person in the bike industry should find the right bike for each individual rider, regardless of designation.
So, if you’re looking at getting a new bike and are trying to decide between a women’s specific bike, a unisex bike, or men’s bike, here are four takeaways for you:
- Get sizing advice from a reputable person
- Get the right bike frame size
- Make sure it’s comfortable (whether you are able to test ride or take advantage of the return policies)
- Get something that makes you happy
If you're looking for more information on women's bikes, men's bikes, or or any cycling related gear, check out the Expert Journal here on Curated for more articles!