The term 'women's specific bike' gets thrown around a lot by various bike brands, retailers, pundits and commenters, but what does it actually mean when it comes to designing bikes?
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Sadly, if you were expecting there to be a unified agreement as to what 'women's specific bike design' entailed — other than the obvious 'a bike designed for a female rider' — you'll be disappointed. Unsurprisingly, just as each brand has its own approach to designing bikes in general, they also have their own approach to designing bikes for their female customers, of which there are ever growing numbers.
What's more, these approaches have changed over the years, generally for the better, as brands have taken a more sophisticated and evidence-based approach to designing for women. Again, this isn't surprising, after all, bike design in general has changed over the years as manufacturing techniques, information on biometrics and ergonomics, and the market itself has evolved.
So here's a very brief rundown of some of the ways the term 'women's specific bike design' has been applied, both in the past and currently.
1. 'Shrink it and pink it'
This evocative term refers to a design approach that does exactly what it says; take a men's (or unisex, depending on your point of view) bike, make it smaller and add 'feminine' touches — such as a pink paint job, a few floral flourishes and perhaps a butterfly or two.
Dating back from the early days of women's specific bike design, the thinking behind this design philosophy is essentially along the lines of 'women are just like men, only smaller. And they like pink. So let's make them smaller bikes with pink on.' We're obviously paraphrasing.
There were often other issues with bikes from this era, including less choice, lower spec bikes often only available and many of the bikes had a lesser quality build for the same money as the men's equivalents. Also, this lackadaisical approach has had a lasting legacy, making women understandably guarded against what can seem to be a tokenistic or marketing-based ploy to sell different bikes to women.
2. Short and high
The next approach that was popular for a while, and can still be seen on some women's bikes at the entry level end of the market, is based on the assumption that the average woman has longer legs and a shorter body than the average man, and therefore women's bikes should have a shorter reach and a more upright riding position.
The trouble with this is that while it might feel good initially when you're just getting started with cycling, because the resultant bike design will likely have very responsive turning due to steep seat and head angles, this geometry can then inhibit progress further down the line. On the mountain bike side, steep head angles and a short reach bring the rider weight forward, which feels nervy and unstable on technical terrain and descents. On the road side of things, it makes achieving a racier position for racing harder, for example.
The traffic with bike design philosophy isn't all one way however. The lower standovers popularly put on women's bikes have increasingly become the standard across mountain bikes for all genders.
3. Unisex frame, women's specific finishing kit
Now we're in the realms of approaches that are popular today. Some brands feel that the physical differences between the genders aren't sufficient to warrant different frame design and instead it's the finishing kit and getting the right fit that are the crucial factors.
Brands such as Juliana (mountain bikes) and Hoy (unisex road and commuter bikes) both subscribe to this philosophy. Juliana mountain bikes are built on Santa Cruz frames - which they openly acknowledge, and indeed embrace - but with different colours, women's specific finishing kit such as saddles, and marketing aimed at adventurous women.
Hoy feels that it's getting the right size and fit that is crucial. All the bikes in the Hoy range are unisex, but the incremental changes between sizes are smaller, which means getting a better frame size fit is easier. It also offers a range of finishing kit that can be swapped in to ensure the fit is correct, based on a bike fit and including different widths of handlebars and different saddles.
Some brands who subscribe to this philosophy will also offer smaller frame sizes than those available in their men's/unisex ranges.
On the mountain bike side of things, this approach will usually also include a women's specific tune for the suspension, designed partly to suit the fact that women are typically lighter for the same height as men. Trek's WSD (women's specific design) full suspension bikes also used to use a higher leverage ratio on the rear shock linkage to overcome the shock seal friction, because achieving the right force needed to get it moving was an issue for shocks run at lower pressures used by females — or indeed any lighter — rider.
4. Activity specific design
Although they all involve bicycles, the disciplines of cycling and the stresses and strains they place on the body are very different. Road cyclists hold a very fixed position and go through repetitive motions, whereas mountain bikers tend to be out of the saddle and dynamic throughout the ride.
This approach takes the view that whether or not women's specific design is required depends on what type of riding is being done. Specialized is one brand that takes this view.
Its philosophy is called 'rider first' and takes data from an extensive dataset of Body Geometry bike fits that it has conducted, plus similar information from the Retul bike fit system. This system helps to map out a rider based on their geometry and type of riding they do and using the data Specialized can then evaluate and decide whether a female-specific bike would in its opinion benefit a female rider.
So, for example, the Specialized Ruby road bike has a women's specific geometry, which is a distinctly different geometry from its male equivalent the Roubaix, while the Specialized Women's Camber mountain bike is based around the same frame design as the men's/unisex camber, but comes with women's specific finishing kit, such as saddle.
Again, mountain bike suspension will often have a women's specific tune.
Trek and Scott are other companies whose philosophy is more towards this approach.
5. 'True' women's specific design
There are a few companies that currently do what could be called 'true' women's specific design, with Liv Bicycles (sister company to Giant Bicycles) being the largest. All Liv bikes have been designed from scratch for women, with not only women's specific finishing kit but also bespoke frame geometry across road, mountain and commuter bike ranges.
Liv feels strongly that the physical differences between men and women are significant enough to warrant a frame geometry that's specifically designed to suit them and the purpose for which they were intended. It's based this decision and its subsequent bike design process on body dimension data taken from a global body dimension database — PeopleSize Anthropometry — that records up to 289 individual measurements, such as arm length, torso length, femur length etc, and identifies general trends across genders and sizes. Liv also conducts its own research looking at areas like flexibility, body position, etc.
It concluded that on average women would benefit from frame geometry designed for them and has implemented this across its entire range. So while its bike frames are made by Giant, they have a distinct geometry from the other bikes it produces.
Liv isn't the only company to offer this approach, other examples being Boardman bikes in the UK, but it is perhaps the most well known globally. Again, with this approach, mountain bike suspension will often have a women's specific tune and bikes will of course feature women's specific finishing kit and its own look and branding.
It's a complicated picture
A couple of quick disclaimers: this isn't a comprehensive guide, just a quick overview, and each brand will have its own variation on this, access to its own data and its own design philosophies. It's not in any particular order. This also isn't a comment on how robust the evidence is for women's specific design, nor a statement as to whether all women should ride a women's bike or not — as with anything else to do with people, the picture is a bit more complicated than simply taking some measurements, and bike designers are well aware of this.
There are factors such as what the bike is used for, where it's going to be ridden, trends and fashions in bike design, and so on, and perhaps most importantly, people aren't a homogenous mass. Every element of us exists on a spectrum, from the shade of our hair to the length of our femurs. Bikes are designed around averages within certain populations (e.g. female mountain bikers, enduro riders, pro-level time trialists, male beginner road cyclists), so it's likely that women's specific bikes will suit some women but not necessarily all and actually may also be just right for a percentage of the male cycling population.
Ultimately, it's a case of working out what works for you and we rather like this statement from Trek Bicycles that we noted down on a recent visit to its HQ: "a woman's bike is any bike being ridden by a woman."