Should You Buy a Women’s Specific Mountain Bike? Maybe.
Some of the most lauded best bikes in the industry are women’s specific while others are gender-neutral. Award-winning journalist Morgan Tilton explores what sets the two categories apart.
‘Shrink it and pink it’ has long been a marketing mantra for manufacturers’ products to appeal to female shoppers by making the goods smaller and a stereotypical ‘feminine’ color. The strategy has been used on everyday goods, like razors and ear buds, as well as for outdoor gear from snowboards and skis to backpacks and footwear, which I’ve written about many times as an outdoor industry reporter. The hangup is, if outdoor equipment and apparel design is based on male anatomy—plus male product testers, engineers, and designers—then those products won’t fully support women’s bodies and movement.
Bicycles have also been pinked-and-shrinked. And today, the topic of gender-specific bikes in the mountain bike world is still a contentious one. Across the board, manufacturers diverge about whether or not female-specific frames are effective, necessary, backed by science, sought by enough consumers, or worth the investment.
A Bit of Data
On one hand, mountain biking has seen an uptick in popularity and sales. Mountain bikes represented 25% of all bicycles sold by specialty bicycle stores, in 2012, reports the National Bicycle Dealers Association’s Industry Overview 2015. Among all riders ages 6 and up, national participation in mountain and non-paved bicycling increased from 6.9 to 8.6 million between 2007 and 2017, according to the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) 2018 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report. Most recently, front-suspension mountain bike sales surged by 55-percent in March, according to The NPD Group market research firm.
And what about women, specifically? In a recent news story that I wrote, I found data that reflects a growing engagement of female riders in mountain biking. In 2017, REI’s women’s-specific cycling programs quadrupled in attendance compared to the year prior, and the most popular mountain biking course was Women’s Introduction to Mountain Biking. That same year, the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) experienced a 10-percent surge in female membership. However, male mountain bikers still outnumber female counterparts two to one, both in overall and first-time participation, according to the 2019 OIA Participation Report.
Sales and participation statistics aside, as a journalist I wanted to take a closer look at the big question of women's mountain bikes: Do they serve a purpose? I called ten mountain bike industry leaders and dove into a boatload of research to find an answer for riders who are eager to know, ‘Is a female-specific bike right for me?’ Read on.
Women’s Specific Leader: Liv Cycling
To date, one company is solely committed to building mountain bikes for women: Liv Cycling, a cycling brand owned by Giant Manufacturing Company, which was founded in 2008. Beyond women’s specific bike frames, an all-women team runs Liv, from marketing to the engineers.
The company was born when Giant CFO Bonnie Tu rode the 2007 annual Tour de Taiwan, and she couldn’t find a bike or apparel that comfortably fit. Devoted to finding solutions, Tu launched Liv to support female riders across the board in road, gravel, and off-road bicycling.
“Historically, bicycle designs have been built with and by primarily male engineers, designers, and test subjects,” says Liv Cycling Senior Product Marketing Specialist Jen Audia. So, Liv found anatomical and physiological research to support their mission. To legitimately construct female-specific frames, Liv’s “3F Design Philosophy” incorporates research from more than 15 sources including NASA, Aerospace Medical Research, and PeopleSize, a global anthropometrics database. The Liv team uses that data to incorporate women’s body dimensions, muscular activity, and strength patterns into their bike designs.
“These three layers of data are the backbone of all Liv bike designs,” said Sophia Shih, Liv Product Development Advanced Engineer, in a press release. Also, “Our global team of riders and ambassadors is also important to our process. Using their feedback, we refine products to perform at the highest level possible. This involves frame design and stiffness, component design and selection, and positioning.”
Bike Frames Built For Women
What does it actually mean to be a women’s specific mountain bike? Let's deep dive into what exactly Liv focuses on and adjusts in their bikes.
Women have a particular physique including narrower shoulders, shorter arms, and shorter crotch heights, Liv told Outside. When I spoke with Audia, she shared more insight:
“In our proportional studies of men and women, there’s overlap but the bell curve is different. On average, a woman’s torso is shorter but as they get taller, it’s not as significant. So, every size, every frame, and every bike model we develop has a unique design and geometry. We're not taking our size medium bikes, doing a 10% shorter top tube, and calling those our size small. We're not just applying percentages and lumping every bike size together. We recognize that women who are 5’4” or 5'3” can have certain proportional tendencies that women who are 5’7” or 5’6” don’t necessarily have,” she says.
Let’s take a look at bike anatomy 101: The bike frame—the skeleton of the bike—includes the top tube, head tube, down tube, seat tube, chain stay, seat stay, and the fork. Liv alters the specific segments of each frame, in order to proportionally match the majority of women’s bodies.
For starters, the seat-tube angle is key. “We want to support the activation of the rectus femoris (exterior thigh muscle), which is women’s superpower,” says Audia, so Liv bikes help enhance that muscle activation via steeper seat-tube angles. Indeed, a steeper seat-tube angle supports the utilization of power-producing muscles, which reduces the demand on ancillary muscles, according to a study published in the International Journal of Exercise Science, in 2017. Another study in the Journal of Applied Biomechanics likewise found that a “steeper seat-tube angle induced significantly greater rectus femoris activity during the upstroke of the crank cycle.”
Furthermore, the density of the material in Liv bikes is altered throughout the frames to support women's muscular activation. “We tune [a variety of stiffness] throughout the parts in each frame, for balance and leverage. We also do specific suspension tuning for every single bike,” explains Audia.
A Wide Spectrum of Frame Sizes
One disparity within mountain bike designs is offering extra-small frames across all bike models and wheel sizes. So, Liv decided it was important to invest in one of the broadest size ranges of women’s mountain bikes on the market including extra-small, small, medium, and large for bike frames with both 27.5- and 29-inch wheels, otherwise known as a 29er. Not many companies design extra-small or small frames for 29-inch wheels.
The two wheel sizes provide a different feel and experience for a rider, but the size of the wheel affects the overall geometry of a bike frame. Compared to a 27.5-inch wheel, a 29er rolls faster, better absorbs ground obstacles, and has improved traction. However, a 29-inch wheel raises the front end, so for small frames, the handlebars and standover height need to be lowered; and in general, the steering geometry needs to be altered, outlines Total Womens Cycling.
In 2018, Ibis Cycles launched a size small Ripley LS, a 29er full-suspension bike, designed by Co-owner and Lead Designer Roxy Lo. “Contrary to popular opinions, you don’t necessarily need to have a 27.5-inch wide tire if you're five feet tall. Bike designs are now figured out to the point where even a five foot tall person can ride a 29-inch wheel without any problem,” says Ibis Cycles Founder Scot Nicol. That landmark design “goes back to Roxy's expertise for designing bikes. She can fit everything where it needs to fit on the bike frame, and make it very appropriate for shorter riders, even for that larger tire size,” he says. The demand for a size small 29er exists but is low, so Ibis does not plan to produce many small Ripley LS bikes, reports Bicycle Retailer.
Then, in 2019, Liv pushed the industry with one of the first-ever 29er extra-small bike frames. Liv launched its first-ever 29er design, the Pique 29, followed by the 2020 Pique Advanced Pro. Both bikes feature a complete size run. And both models received widespread acclaim.
Developing an extra-small frame size for a 29er was a challenging product design goal to take on. “Sophia Shih, Liv Product Development Advanced Engineer on this project, was like, ‘This is going to be tricky. Small, medium, and large—not a problem. Extra-small is going to be a challenge.’ It definitely was a labor of love,” says Audia. There’s even room on the extra-small frame to fit a downtube water bottle. It’s rare to develop a “29er bike with room for a water bottle cage, because of the top tube and the down tube size. The innovation of the Pique 29er was about committing to what our consumers were asking for from us, and achieving something that not many people in the industry are even trying to approach at this point,” says Audia.
What Female Bike Testers Say
Gear testing is woven into my job as an outdoor industry and adventure travel industry reporter. That said, I’ve never tested Liv bikes, so I wanted to study feedback from top journalists.
Nicole Formosa, Managing Editor at Bike Magazine, tested a medium Liv Pique Advanced Pro 29. A typical medium frame that she rides has a 450mm reach, whereas the Pique Advanced Pro 29 has a reach of 427mm. (Reach refers to the horizontal distance from the center of the bottom bracket to the middle of the head tube.) Despite initial assumptions regarding the size, Formosa reported that the bike was really fun, she “didn’t feel cramped” and "felt it was the right fit.”
And veteran outdoor reporter Kelly Bastone, who is five feet tall, tested an extra-small frame size in the Pique Advanced Pro 29. She reported that the design tackled most if not all of the issues typically associated with smaller frames and 29-inch wheels, including pedaling efficiency, which she covered in a review for Outside. Bastone noted that the bike felt agile and responsive compared to other 29ers that felt sluggish, Audia shared with me on our call, “because the rear center is very short and it helps create that fast, flowy feel you’re looking for in this type of bike.” The rear center is the distance from the bottom bracket to the rear axle. Overall, Bastone didn’t have anything negative to say about the bike but acknowledged that plenty of female riders have found happiness on gender-neutral bikes, so the choice is ultimately personal preference. She also mentioned that the bike is a pretty penny at $12,300.
The Pique Advanced Pro 29 also earned a spot as one of the best mountain bikes of the year in the Bicycling Bike Awards.
Alternative Viewpoint: Gender-neutral Bikes
A handful of mountain bike companies have cut their women’s specific lineups. Trek is phasing out women’s bikes for a gender-neutral platform. In 2020, Specialized and Yeti Cycles discontinued their women’s lines.
“Our decision to discontinue the line was driven by the women who work here….When launching the Beti bike line we developed a custom rear shock tune to achieve better performance for lighter-weight riders. After rounds of internal testing, we found that the enhanced tunability of FOX’s current suspension means we can achieve the same ride performance across a wider range of weights – male and female,” said Kristi Jackson, Director of Marketing at Yeti Cycles, in a press release.
The Yeti Beti bikes, like many other female bike lines, didn’t technically offer different frames. The bikes had a different color wave, component choices, and suspension options. Juliana Bicycles, launched in 2013, also duplicates their frames from the lineup of parent company Santa Cruz, but with their own colors and components. The brand has been successful, though it’s also been criticized for “being all marketing, no product development,” reports Bike Magazine.
“A lot of brands have done a women’s specific product line where they take the existing bikes, add the color pink, narrower handlebars, cheaper components, a different seat, and call it women’s. We don’t believe in that, and it doesn’t make the sport inclusive,” says Revel Bikes Founder Adam Miller. Indeed, GT Bicycles Senior Brand Manager Mike Marro recalls meetings when that was the case. “Ten years ago, a product manager would say in discussion, ‘Oh, we're going to make the girls’ version? I gotta ‘pink it and shrink it’ with pretty colors and narrow handlebars. That's changed. Based on our research, we found that women are drawn more to a unisex approach. We want to create a gender-neutral, level playing field,” he says.
Many companies have also found that men's and women’s anatomy does not differ enough to support distinct bike geometry. For instance, Specialized worked with Retül, a bike fitting technology company now owned by Specialized, to analyze data from an 11-year span that collected 7,750 fits of people on bikes, according to the report “When to Share Product Platforms.” Researchers found the differences between female and male bike sizes to be insignificant.
“We used to make women’s specific bikes, but the more we continued to innovate and look at [research], the more we realized that women-specific bikes were based off of studies that were done a long time ago by the military, which weren't that thorough,” says Sam Benedict, Specialized General Manager and USA Market Leader. “We believe in body geometry, fit, and high precision measurement. Through tens of thousands of data points and fitting people on the bikes, we realized that the difference between a man and a woman in terms of how they fit on a bike is no different. Saddles? Chamios? Shorts? Yes, those are different. And we have the data points.”
Guerrilla Gravity Founder Will Montague agrees: “Our personal take is that we make person-specific bikes and not gender-specific bikes. Both women and men are proportioned in all sorts of ways, and we're happy to help make a fit recommendation based on if someone has really long arms or long legs or is really, really short. There are all shapes and sizes of people,” he says. (It’s worth noting that one of Guerrilla Gravity’s three founders is a woman, Kristy Anderson.) Diamondback Vice President of Product Development Michael Brown also echoes the gender-neutral perspective, “There are broader size ranges for all sizes of riders, men or women.”
Instead, body differences—regardless of gender—can be supported through a change of components and greater size options. For example, GT’s full-suspension mountain bikes aim to accommodate different body types with small, medium, and large bikes for the gravity category; and small through extra-large sizes for the trail and all-mountain categories. Suspension needs to be body-specific, too. “It doesn’t matter if you're a guy or girl: What matters is your suspension setup, if you weigh less, we’ll help you set up your suspension,” Miller explains.
However, Ibis Cycles is a progressive outlier that bridges the gender gap. “We have one of the foremost bike designers in the industry who happens to be a woman, Roxy Lo. Every single one of our bikes are designed for women, by default,” says Nicol. Lo joined Ibis in 2004, four years before Liv was founded. “We're not subscribers to women's specific geometry. We’re not believers in shrink it and pink it. We’re believers in making bikes that work for women. But we don't build a bike with the moniker women's specific,” says Nicol.
Are Women's Specific Bikes Important?
Female riders are also split on the topic of gender-specific bikes. According to a Bicycling Magazine 2014 women’s cycling survey, 46 percent of respondents preferred a women’s specific design and 54 percent liked unisex bikes or had no preference, states the “Big Book of Cycling for Women.”
The majority of major mountain bike companies in the industry do not agree that a women’s specific bike frame is necessary. However, Liv Cycling brings a unique perspective to the table that’s backed by research, positive product reviews, and third-party accolades. Also, Liv supports females through employment across every position. Not many mountain bike brands have female executive leadership at the c-suite level or female engineers and designers.
In my opinion, it’s healthy for the bike industry to have a contrast of design philosophies, which paves way for a greater variety of choice for riders. Aside from gender-specificity or neutrality, based on the research at hand, Liv seems to have a lead on building well-constructed small and extra-small frames, especially with 29-inch wheels.
Ultimately, bike frame choice comes down to you, your body, and which bike designs fit you and best support your riding style—whether you are female or male.