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Equal rides - Women's specific bikes

Do women's specific bikes offer a better ride for women, or is it still just a case of 'shrink it and pink it'?

Giant women's bike
Susannah Osborne
8 Mar 2016

Women’s bikes have been causing controversy since the days of the sidesaddle velocipede. In the late 19th century there were warnings that women’s bikes would ‘shake feminine organs of matrimony’ and that female cyclists were ‘loose women pedalling along the path of destruction’.

The creation of bikes that were comfortable and usable by women has been credited with driving feminism forward and aiding social change, but while the rides of today aren’t sparking any revolution, the issue of women’s specific bikes and kit still causes heated debate.

Wheels of change

Scott women's bike

‘The first women’s bikes were essentially just smaller versions of the men’s, with a shorter top tube and narrower handlebars,’ says Chris Garrison, who hosts seminars on women’s cycling for Trek. The story goes that the Wisconsin-based company developed its first women’s bike in response to complaints from its female staff that they were suffering from neck and back pain after their training sessions.

That was in 1999. Fast forward a few years and by the mid-noughties both Specialized and Trek had created women’s specific road bikes – in 2002 Specialized launched the Allez Dolce and Allez Vita, and in 2003 Trek released the 2200 WSD.

The earliest models, however, almost certainly subscribed to a simplistic ‘pink it and shrink it’ mentality, a term that’s been hard for the industry to shake off. Abby Santurbane, an ex-pro from Colorado, joined the company in 2008. ‘When I was hired, a bunch of men were running the show and the general rule was to shorten the top tube, raise the head tube and change the colour. I took over and they were genuinely excited that they wouldn’t have to deal with women’s bikes anymore,’ she says.

Today the big manufacturers are making huge investments in developing women’s road bikes, says Amber Lucas, the first female bike engineer to work at Specialized. But while there’s clear evidence that the female specific market is growing rapidly, there are still cyclists, among them many women, who believe that the whole thing is more of a marketing revolution than a technological one. The big guns are certainly keen to develop the women’s market, but is it resulting in significantly different bikes for women, or is it mainly about getting women to part with their cash?

Wilier is the latest brand name to announce a new female model with the launch last year [article originally published April 2014] of its Stella, which it claims is ‘race-ready and affordable and styled specifically for women’. Look more closely and it’s not apparent what the specific benefits are for women beyond a shorter stem and a pastel paint scheme. The Stella has the same frame and fork geometry as its male counterpart, the Izoard.

Cube Axial WLS GTC SL Review Womens Front Tube

Ceri Dipple, owner and director of bike shop Twenty3c in Milton Keynes, is one female rider who is not convinced there are any benefits to women’s specific designs at all, saying, ‘When it comes to WSD, I’m not a huge advocate. I do feel it is marketing and, in my opinion, the US market has driven it. Personally I’ve only ridden one women’s bike,’ she continues, ‘and my position was no different because I have the same setup on all my bikes, but it did handle differently and I didn’t feel that it was an improvement.’

Santurbane at Liv/giant estimates that women make up around 25% of potential bicycle buyers, but actual sales volumes of women’s specific bikes are still relatively low. Dipple says that in 2013, sales of women’s bikes accounted for only 8% of her shop’s total bike sales.

A so-called ‘women’s tax’ sees equally specced women’s bikes priced higher than the men’s equivalent

Simple economics suggest that it doesn’t make sense for brands to invest large amounts of money in R&D for women’s bikes. So it’s perhaps understandable that many companies opt for an approach based simply on cosmetic changes and clever marketing for their women’s ranges, but does that mean on the whole that women are being given a worse deal than men?

Equality is a burning issue in the women’s bike arena, where some women feel strongly they are getting
a raw deal when it comes to pricing. A so-called ‘women’s tax’ sees equally specced women’s bikes priced higher than the men’s equivalent, or the men’s versions treated to a higher spec for the same cost.

After trawling the websites of the major brands and big bike retailers, we failed to find significant differences between the prices or specs of comparable male/female models, however it’s fair to say that whenever a discrepancy did arise, however small, it was rarely in the women’s favour.

Lizzie Armitstead sprint

Santurbane is quick to claim that this is not something that happens at Liv/giant. She says, ‘We don’t believe in taxing female cyclists; most of the important models have the same spec, whether they are women’s specific or men’s bikes.’

Garrison says the same for Trek, but interestingly she goes so far as to suggest that the gender discrimination that exists is, to some extent, women’s fault. ‘Women are still in the mindset of not deserving or not being worthy of high quality bikes, which means that they don’t question why they are not getting the same as men,’ she says. This assertion is backed up by research from Mintel, the global market research agency, which found that ‘men are notably more likely than women to attach importance to the specification and equipment on a bicycle (36% vs 27%) and the brand (24% vs 18%)’. 

Getting the fit right

Having established that some women’s bikes are just pinker versions of men’s bikes, the next question is: do women really need significantly different bikes?

While there is no such thing as an average woman (or man for that matter), women of all shapes and sizes generally have shorter upper bodies than men, a shorter torso, shorter arms and longer femurs (thighs). Women’s hips are normally wider and the centre of gravity is lower.

Womens bikes

Standard road bikes are made to fit men, but that’s not to say that they won’t fit women according to some. Jochen Harr, communications manager at Scott, says, ‘Women are not so different from men and they do not need a totally revised bike, like some other big brands pretend, but we do believe that our female specific features are crucial and make sense.’ Garrison disagrees, however. ‘The cycling experience for women riding a men’s bikes can often be summed up as: sore, stiff neck and shoulders, and back pain,’ she says.

To configure with their shorter reach, women’s bikes tend to have shorter top tubes – on a 52cm men’s Trek Madone 3.1 the top tube is 53.4cm, while on the women’s model it’s 52.9cm. ‘While on paper the numbers may look small,’ Garrison says, ‘those small changes are magnified when they are on a bike.’

When it comes to saddles you don’t need to have a degree in anatomy to see the need for gender specific products. Legend has it that women’s specific saddles were born out of the frustrations of Heather Henderson, product manager for Trek’s Women’s Specific Design, whose first road bike, a Bottecchia, had a hard, narrow and very uncomfortable saddle. Henderson took a drill to her saddle and created the first cut-out design to ease the pain on her sensitive parts.

Working the figures

Over the last ten years Specialized, Giant and Trek have all collected huge volumes of data from female cyclists in a bid to find the best geometry for women’s bikes. ‘We’re constantly trying to make women more efficient and find that optimal position,’ says Lucas, ‘and we do that by pooling the data from the thousands of bike fits we have done through the Specialized Body Geometry fitting system.

‘When I first started riding a road bike men would say, “You’re tall, why can’t you just ride a men’s bike?” I’m five foot 10 and ride a 56cm frame, but however much I played with the set-up – I moved the saddle as far forward as it could go to stop overreaching and shortened the stem – I just couldn’t get a man’s bike to be comfortable for me,’ she says.

Conversely, for shorter women many men’s bikes are just out of the question. Dipple says, ‘WSD does offer a broader range of sizes and this is particularly relevant if you’re under 5ft 2in, a height that would become a very limiting factor if you were buying a men’s bike.’

Charlotte Easton, who has ridden at Elite level, says, ‘I do have a shorter body and comparatively longer legs and my Specialized Ruby [women’s specific], which I’ve raced since 2006, fits me well. My training bikes however are unisex and the fit on my Glider Boxer has been adjusted several times over the years. I’m probably most comfortable on this bike which leads me to suspect that ultimately it isn’t about the bike but about the bike fit.’ But that’s a discussion for another article.

Trek womens bike

Lucas maintains that WSD is the way forward, though. She says, ‘There are lots of women who still believe that men’s bikes are better than women’s bikes, but there are limitations on any bike, even if it’s fitted for you. You can find a place that’s close to perfect but if, for instance, the saddle can only move back so far, then you won’t get the optimum positioning for your body. With a women’s specific bike the parameters are most likely to be closer to what a woman needs than if you custom fit a men’s bike.’

Predicting what women want is never easy. Mintel found that while different types of buyers look for different qualities in a bicycle, ‘the biggest differences are evident between genders’, with women ‘much more concerned than men about a bicycle being an affordable price and the quality of after-sales service than what is actually on the bike’.

Saddled with pink

Most surprising, though, is that nearly a third of women place a high level of importance on a bike’s styling, colour or décor, compared to less than a fifth of men. So, although some women get frustrated about the pinkification of bikes, it seems that fashion does matter if you want to shift women’s bikes. Trek’s head of women’s design attends Fashion Week in Milan, London and New York so as to keep on top of the latest trends.

All things, all bikes and all kit considered, there is still a feeling that cycling is a male dominated industry and that women are an afterthought. At a recent forum on women’s cycling in the US, Giant USA’s general manager, Elysa Walk, identified what she sees as the problem. ‘The larger problem is segmenting women as a niche market.’ The majority of suppliers still see women as a ‘segment’ says Walk. ‘It’s half the population; it’s not a niche.’

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