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Do women need women's bikes?

Anna Cipullo
5 Feb 2018

Is women-specific frame geometry a necessity or a gimmick? Cyclist investigates

Women are different to men. It’s not just about chromosome combinations and the ability to multitask – women tend to have differently shaped bodies to men. The question is whether those bodies are different enough to warrant a specific bicycle frame geometry designed just for women.

It’s a question that has become particularly pertinent of late, as some of the biggest bike brands have recently changed their attitudes to women-specific bikes.

Only a couple of years ago, Canyon had no specific offering for women (beyond adding women-friendly components to a standard frame), but now the German company has released a women-specific variant of all of its road frames, with slightly altered geometry to the original versions.

On the flipside, Trek, which was one of the first companies to suggest that women needed something different, has now about-turned. All of its women’s road bikes now have the same geometry as the standard equivalents, only with slightly altered components and paintjobs.

Specialized is somewhere in the middle. It is another company that previously championed the concept of women’s geometry, but now seems to be pulling back from that stance by getting rid of its women-specific race bike, the Amira, in favour of a ‘unisex’ Tarmac.

So what’s going on? Who’s right?

Same or different?

For its 2018 range, Canyon has decided to adjust the geometry on each of its women-specific road bikes. The reason for the change is its Perfect Rider Position system, which has analysed data from more than 60,000 real-world riders who have entered their details into Canyon’s website to find the right bike for them.

The manufacturer concluded that women of the same height as men are typically lighter, have shorter arms and narrower shoulders, and sit in smaller size ranges, and therefore warrant their own bikes.

‘Because of these differences, particularly regarding arm length and shoulder width, a female rider will naturally sit in a more stretched out position compared to a male rider of the same height when sat on the same bike,’ says Katrin Neumann, women’s product manager at Canyon.

To accommodate these differences, the company now offers its women’s bikes with a shorter reach (compared to stack) to ensure the typical woman gets the same rider feel as their male equivalent.

And with the majority of its female customer base requiring much smaller sizes – Canyon says that the average man is a medium, and the average woman is an extra-small – it has added further sizes with the 2XS and the 3XS.

Interestingly, these two smaller sizes come with 650b wheels to maintain handling characteristics, but this is something it has started to do on other smaller frame sizes, regardless of gender. 

Trek, meanwhile, has taken completely the opposite tack. As of 2018 it will be ditching its women-specific Silque bike (a women’s equivalent of the Domane) and producing one range of bikes to suit both men and women.

Its only nod towards gender will be to change the paintjob and to adjust some of the components for women, such as shorter stems, narrower handlebars and women-specific saddles.

‘It’s more about the fit, and that’s a product of over seven years of research, collecting data from every bike fit ever done in every Trek store globally,’ says Jez Loftus, Trek’s UK marketing manager and lead trainer for the manufacturer’s bike-fitting services.

‘I train our stores to identify the right size for a rider and then find the bike that best suits that rider.’

Loftus says that, over the years, shops were finding there were men who better fitted some of Trek’s women’s bikes, and vice versa.

‘We don’t need women-specific geometry, we need the right bike for the rider, considering their size and the purpose of their riding.’ Hence Trek now offers its models with H1, H2 or H3 geometry, ranging from low and racy to more upright and cruiser-like.

So, Canyon says women need different bikes to men, Trek says they don’t, as long as there is a broad range of sizes and geometry available. What about Specialized, another pioneer of women-specific geometry? On the surface, its new range seems a little gender-confused.

The company has dropped the women-specific Amira race bike in favour of a gender-neutral Tarmac, yet at the same time it has maintained its Ruby women’s bike, which has different geometry to the men’s equivalent, the Roubaix.

‘There have been some changes in thinking since the days of our D4W [Designed For Women] range,’ says David Alexander, Specialized’s Retül technical advisor.

‘Based on feedback from our Retül fitting systems, we concluded that when an experience between the two genders is the same, we didn’t need to change the frame’s geometry, but where the experience was different, the geometry needed to be different, and we therefore changed the name of the model to highlight this difference,’ he says.

What that means is that feedback from Retül suggested women wanted the exact same race bike as the men, and so the Amira was no longer required, but with the Roubaix endurance bike, Specialized found
that women wanted something different to the men.

‘The Ruby is in fact largely unchanged from our original design,’ says Alexander. ‘It was actually the men that received a re-work of the geometry, because feedback suggested that they wanted a more aggressive pavé road bike, but the women didn’t.’ 

What about the pros?

In most cases, the pros ride whatever they are told to ride, but the pros at women’s team Canyon/Sram have been given a choice for the 2018 race season.

‘The first time Alena Amialiusik rode the Ultimate WMN CF SLX she immediately felt at home on the bike,’ says Neumann. However a number of team members have chosen the non-women-specific Aeroad, despite the availability of an Aeroad WMN.

‘A few brands are stepping away from women-specific geometries, in our opinion mainly because of the extra costs,’ continues Neumann.

‘There are more and more women entering the sport and I don’t understand why a lot of companies ignore that or change their primary approach and deny their previous studies and results. So, we will probably always see both bikes [in the women’s peloton].’

Ultimately, it looks as though the big brands are all doing rather different things but for very similar reasons. They have all spent time and money researching the market, and they have all concluded that different riders need different bikes, but they each offer their own interpretation of what it means to be different.

Women are different to men, but women are also different to other women, just as men are to other men. We are all unique, regardless of gender. So perhaps the question is not ‘Do women need women-specific bikes?’; perhaps it should be ‘Do you need a women-specific bike?’

You might or you might not, no matter what sex you are.

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