Not every road cycling woman needs a female specific bike, but a great many would benefit from one.
In general, a woman’s leg to torso ratio is different to a man’s – usually women will have longer legs and a shorter torso. They also have narrower shoulders, smaller hands, and wider hip bones. A female specific bike is designed to fit this shape better.
Of course, one rule does not apply to all – a lady who is 6ft tall will probably have wider shoulders and bigger hands – so will be less likely to need a female specific bike than someone who is 5ft tall.
A woman looking to buy a new bike should try a unisex and female specific bike to see which is more comfortable. Here are some of the key things to look out for…
Note: We’ve also got a blog post on the best carbon road bikes for men.
This one is simple. Many female specific bikes often go down to a 44” frame, whilst unisex bikes often stop at 48” – which is suitable for someone 5ft – 5ft 3. If you’re around this height or smaller, a female specific bike will give you more options.
Emma Pooley, Image> The Telegraph
Racing cyclist (now retired) Emma Pooley is 5ft2 and usually rides a bike with 650c wheels. With a smaller frame, this often makes sense – the wheels suit the bike better, the chance of toe overlap is reduced, and there is no point carrying unnecessary weight in larger wheels.
A shorter woman will generally weigh less than the average man. Therefore, the bike makes up a greater percentage of her weight – so getting a frame in the correct size is important. Riding a larger bike than you need is giving yourself an immediate handicap.
Shorter reach & narrower handlebars
Once you’ve found the right frame size, you can look at reach. A female specific bike will have a shorter top tube (remember the shorter torso?)
If you test ride a unisex bike and find the distance to the handlebars feels perfect, then no problem. If it feels too long – you have two options: go for a female specific bike, or put a shorter stem on.
My Amira with a 90mm stem
A shorter stem will make the handling slightly more twitchy. Bikes often come with a 100mm stem, but an 80mm or 90mm will be fine, and losing 20mm from the reach can make a big difference to the feel.
If the handlebars on a unisex bike feel too wide, again you’ve got two options: looking for a female specific bike, or buying new, narrower handlebars. A set of alloy bars will set you back around £20 to £30, but if you’re buying a higher end bike with nice bars, you might want to spend more to replace like for like.
Smaller ladies hands might also struggle to reach the shifters and brakes on a unisex bike – but often it is possible to change the position of the shifter on the bar. Shimano shifters can actually be adjusted to lessen the reach – a mechanic or sales assistant should be able to show you how to do it.
Women have wider sit bones, so will usually want a wider saddle. A saddle with a cut out or recessed channel to aid bloodflow and prevent numbness to sensitive areas is also more common on a woman’s bike, and saddles are often shorter and narrower at the front end.
Of course, it isn’t uncommon to change a saddle and this can set you back anywhere between £30 and hundreds depending upon your preference of perch.
There is no law stating that a woman should ride a female specific bike. If you’ve set your heart upon a unisex bike, it can be adapted – but perhaps at the cost of a new stem, handlebars and saddle (plus shorter cranks if you’re going all out). Therefore, if you are buying a brand new bike, it isn’t always the most cost effective choice.
If you’d rather go with a bike ready made for a woman, here are some suggestions I would personally recommend:
This was my first road bike, and I’ve still got her now, 4 years later.
The Dolce comes at various price points, with the Specialzed Dolce Elite X3 EQ at an RRP of £1k, now at £900. You get an aluminium frame, and an entirely Tiagra groupset –which is a sign of quality as brands will often look to fit cheaper brakes if they want to cut costs.
You do get a triple chainset, which is a point of contention – nice for hills, but few women really need that extra chainring, which really just adds weight – a double or compact offers more than enough gearing unless you are tackling very hilly terrain.
The Dolce is designed with a relaxed, sportive favouring geometry, though it would suit fine for a few races or triathlons if you had that in mind.
I’ve still got the Dolce, but have upgraded to a Specialized Amira for summer rides – the Amira being sister to the Specialized Tarmac. A Shimano 105 groupset and carbon frame on an Amira will set you back £1400 (£1600 RRP).
Moving up the price scale, the Trek Silque came out this year as the brand’s new female specific frame design.
The Silque calls itself “the perfect choice to ride fast, climb high, and go the distance” – so you can expect a racey bike that is comfortable enough for long rides.
For £1,500 you’ll get the Trek Silque C with Tiagra gears, derailleur’s and cassette, but unbranded brakes, and compact chainset. As with all Trek bikes, you do get a quality Bontrager finishing kit (saddle, tyres, rims seat post, bar tape).
If you’re really splashing out, the Fuji Supreme is based on the men’s Altamira – which was until recently ridden by pro team NetApp-Endura.
The top end Fuji Supreme is £1,999 (rrp £2,300) but that’s for carbon frame, and an Ultegra groupset.
On a more affordable budget, Fuji also have the Fuji Finest range, which starts at £495 – there are a variety of options available here.
Got questions about women’s specific bikes? Michelle keeps a blog at RideWriteRepeat and talks about women’s cycling quite a bit..
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As seen on The Guardian, BBC and The Independent.