Q & A : What Makes a Bike a Women’s Bike?

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2014 Trek Lexa SLX

Question : What Makes a Bicycle a Women’s Bicycle?

This is a broad question with  long answer so maybe take a seat.

In the old days…

Masi Soulville Mixte 7Many women rode their bikes with skirts (much like they rode horses side saddle.)  When bicyles were designed for women they came out with a dropped top tube design.  The most popular of these were the “mixte” or step through.  The design is still carried in many lines.  Personally I think it is much easier to get on and off a step through frame, though some people don’t like the look.  Another advantage of the step through is for tight clothing, or tight hips.  I have successfully sold step through bikes in black or grey to gentleman with bad hip joints.

For a very long time this step through design is all women rode and men had a diamond frame with taller top tube.  Even now many people visit bike shops and shop for bikes based on this very traditional thought process.

Modern time and modern designs…

These days bikes are designed differently.  Most mid to high end womens bicycles have many other features that make them womens, and almost none of them are a step through design.

Some key thoughts going into the designs of modern womens bicycles :

  • Most women have longer legs over longer upper body.  This makes so when they ride a traditional “squared” geometry, their seat is too high and length or top tube of the bike is too long . Making for a very stretched out, painful, ride.
  • Women come in all sizes, but often smaller sizes than men.
  • Most women have narrower shoulder width than men, which means narrower handlebars.
  • Most women have breast or chest to worry about when getting into a more aggressive fitting.  This also means more weight on the upper body.

Details by Bike…

Road bikes have a couple key differences :

  • Shorter top tube of the bicycle. I touched on this above but many women have longer upper body and shorter legs.  A shorter top tube allows them the length of the bike they need without needing to raise the seat on a smaller sized bike.
  • Taller head tube.  A taller head tube allows the bikes front end to sit up higher. This allows for a more upright fit, if you decide, and less weight on your hands and more on your rear.  It also makes it so you don’t have to rock your pelvic bone and hips so far forward to get the proper fit alignment on your back.
  • Womens seat. These seats tend to be shorter, wider in the back and a medically designed cut out to relieve pressure.
  • Narrower & shorter handlebars. Women tend to have narrower shoulders, so they need a narrower handlebar.  Another thing a womens handlebar addresses is the “reach” down to the drops.  Womens tend to be shorter, so easier to get into an aggressive position.
  • Different steering angles.  When you shorten or lengthen a bike, it changes the handling.  Many manufactures have fixed this by changing the angle that the fork and seat tube sit at.

Mountain bikes carry many of the above differences plus some extra :

  • L2010 Trek Fuel EX 5 WSDighter weighted suspension.  Suspension works two ways, coil or air activated.  With air you can easily change the feel of suspension with a shock pump.  With coil if you are below or above the recommended weight for that coil, you need to replace it.  Many womens mountain bikes if they come with coil suspension are set up with the lighter suspension coil.
  • Lower stand over.  Allowing women to feel more confident on the bike.

There are many other things I can talk about in this topic, which in the future I plan to, but for now try to read through everything above and let me know your questions.  Many things have to do with brand specific designs and thoughts.  One thing that happened when womens bikes first hit the market was an overwhelming feeling of “fru-fru” and that the product managers just didn’t get it.  The bikes were mostly pink or baby blue and hit some of the above design thoughts but not all.  They wanted to put a band aid over the issue.  Granted, I partially feel that the band aid is still there for many but hopefully it is slowly being pealed off.

Next in this series will be  “Do I Need a Womens Bike?” question.  If you have questions or comments about that topic please let me know.

7 Comments on “Q & A : What Makes a Bike a Women’s Bike?”

  1. Good overview. Better explanation than my lbs gave me. I researched on my own and learned all that about roadies.

    Specialized is bad, IMHO on doing a shrink it and pink it with their WSD bikes. Girlie designs and not a lot of difference in top tube from the non wsd. But I’m 5’6″ with the torso of someone 6 inches smaller, so I’m a little biased on top tube length.

  2. The problem I have is finding a light weight step through that is upright but not a tank (Im 34 and have had two hip replacements)

    I guess I could go with the Masi in the above picture and drop allot of money on it. However I wish I could go to my local bike store and see some step throughs that do not have suspension on them and have good components. I dream of the Masi in the above picture with at least 14 gears and at somewhere I can test. Instead I only see trek, specialized, ect with there super fat tubes and heavy suspensions everywhere labeled women’s comfort bikes.

    Anyone have any ideas?

    The closest I can find is the raleigh detour line.


    1. The two bikes I know in the trek line are the Trek 7000 WSD (no suspension up front and 21 gears) or the 7.1FX (not as upright but same idea as the 7000)

  3. Tara, what about the Ridgeback Avenida? I was considering it instead of a Pashley (but ended up getting the Pashley), and it was considerably lighter. it comes in a 3 speed and 8 speed.

  4. Agree with everything said here. Although at 5’10” I’m actually too tall for any of the WSD bikes. And if you look at any of the men’s bike size charts, i should technically be riding a 56-58cm sized frame.

    I was really lucky that i went to a bike store that really knew what they were talking about. As such, to compensate for the fact that on a 56-58 i just can’t reach the handlebars, they put me on a 54cm cannondale caad9, and fitted the bike with a shorter stem with a bigger ºangle, turned the stem upside down (so it tilts upwards, rather than downwards), which means it is now a perfect fit.

    Whilst the WSD bikes come with this all already done, the choice is really limited, and i recommend that you call bike stores ahead and check that they can fit you. In my case they put the bike on a turbo so that i could try it out for size and then made adjustments.

  5. (To Tara)

    I know of two really nice, surprisingly lightweight bicycles that are a traditional step-through design. They are by Raleigh and Gary Fisher, and thus should be somewhat easy to access, although the Raleigh in its nicest version will be hard to find on a shop’s floor, since shops are reluctant to stock hybrids as expensive as these.

    Both of the bikes below feature an 8-spd shimano Alfine hub- which is waaay lighter than the previous nexus generation that is still pretty commonly used. That being said, the gears are internal and you get hassle-free shifting that you don’t even have to pedal to shift! Also, said gears are protected from the elements, and you get the cool aesthetic of a single-speed-looking bike. I wouldn’t worry about having 8 gears (you said you wanted 14) because the RANGE of the 8 gears is almost that of a 21-speed! Its the range that matters, not the numbers. I find 8 to be plenty, and the easiest gear is easy enough to climb pennsylvania hills with panniers!

    The main difference between the two bikes is the frame material; Raleigh uses steel, (“steel is real”, real comfortable that is!) which is though of as more forgiving yet heavier than aluminum, but I swear the frame is surprisingly light! The Fisher is aluminum, and lightweight. The weight of the Fisher comes from its fenders and components. But a rep said they spent a lot of time designing that frame to be light, and its lighter than most of their mountain bike frames. The bikes have similiar components, notably that Alfine rear hub which is SWEET.

    On a side note, I ride a 2008 Specialized Globe City 6 Step-through with the Nexus 8 spd internal hub, generator lights, and fenders. I love my bike for commuting and find the step through feature convenient when my rear rack is loaded with groceries (leg doesn’t have to fight giant load of stuff in back when dismounting) and I’m flexible, young, and consider myself a fairly hip lady. This bike has since changed since that model year and has gotten heavier and more expensive. It shifts like a dream but would be even lighter and smoother with that Alfine hub. Anyway, sorry for the long rant, but I have a considerable passion for well-made functional bicycles.

    Raleigh Superbe Roadster: (The women’s frame isn’t easy to find, it is the same as pictured from the “classic roadster” navigator tab.)

    Gary Fisher Simple City:

    Good luck on your quest for the perfect bike.

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