accessibility · body image · cycling

Why “women’s specific” anything is likely a bad idea

Let me begin by noting that I don’t ride a women’s bike. Gasp.

You mean I ride a men’s bike?

No.

Adult bikes come in two flavours: unisex and women’s specific.

That’s odd and it might make you wonder what unisex really means.

When I was a kid the difference between a boy’s bike and a girl’s bike was the top tube. The one on a girl’s bike slanted down to allow modest access to the bike and ease of riding in skirts. This isn’t the issue with adult bikes. When it comes to road bikes they look pretty much the same. Sadly, that image accompanying this post is one of the dozens I found by searching for images of girl’s bikes!

Of course, it turns out that unisex adult bikes are proportioned to your typical male cyclist. So road bikes come in two flavours, unisex, which really isn’t, and women’s specific.

Here’s Team Estrogen on women’s specific designs.

What’s the difference? Women’s bikes have typically “a shorter top tube, a more relaxed head tube angle, a taller head tube, and perhaps a slightly steeper seat tube angle.” Mostly it’s the ratio of the top tube to the leg length of the rider.  Women’s bikes are made for people with long legs and short torsos.

I don’t have long legs and a short torso. Rather the reverse. I have a long torso and short legs. I am 5’7 (above average height for a women, my tall teens say “You keep telling yourself that mum”) but I have to wear petite pants to get the right fit in leg length. If I wear a one piece bathing suit it has to be the special long torso version but mostly I stick with bikinis. Men will be shocked that most women’s clothes don’t come in a variety of lengths. We just use heels to make it work. Unless you don’t like heels then you’re screwed and add $10 to the price of each pair of pants you buy for hemming.

So I have a regular unisex frame road bike not a women’s specific frame. Lots of women ride regular bikes and the geometry of women’s bikes is a great fit for some men.

Then there’s the packaging. Women’s bikes also often come with different women specific seats which might work great or not. It all depends on your anatomy. Choosing a bike seat is a tricky business. The bars are often narrower too because women, though not me, have narrow shoulders. Of course, some men have narrow shoulders but regular manly torso leg ratio.

Do you get where I am going with this?

Ditto bike shoes. Men’s shoes are wider. But some men have narrow feet so they wear women’s shoes. Some women wear men’s shoes and other than colour choices there is no other difference.

Can’t we just call them “wide” and “narrow”?

Can’t we just call the frames “long torso” and “short torso” and measure people?

How about just giving people choices about seats and bars etc? Why do we need gendered packaging?

I agree the addition of women’s frames is an improvement over the days when women had to struggle to fit bikes made for men but I’m not sure anyone is well served by the gendered labels.

Or so says the woman who rides a men’s bike. I think men riding women’s bikes would probably agree with me.

I actually like my son’s response best. At school he was teased for wearing “girl’s shoes.” The child of a philosopher he said very calmly, “I’m a boy. They’re my shoes. So they’re boy’s shoes.”

Proud moments in parenting….

Oh, and here’s my road bike for real in front of our cage of other bikes:

29 thoughts on “Why “women’s specific” anything is likely a bad idea

  1. Every point you make is valid and thought-provoking. That said, if that pink bike came in adult sizes I would TOTALLY get one.

    A friend of mine recently gave me a paid of souvenir socks from Paris (I know, weird gift). When I opened them I said “Oh… they’re MENS’s socks.” And he said “So what? Feet are feet.” Which may be true, but with a pair of men’s socks, the heel ends up about halfway up my calf. It made me wonder what men with small feet do – do they buy women’s socks? I’ve been known to buy boy’s shoes, and men’s shorts and sweatpants (because they have pockets), but I imagine men would feel less comfortable buying female clothing. Good for your son!

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    1. Yes, men with small feet buy women’s and it’s really just size not never. Ditto oars. We have one set of “ladies oars” with a narrower group. I hate them but some men with small hands might like them. Why not just call them “narrow grip”? It’s not a huge deal, not a great injustice, mostly just strikes me as a case where talk of gender is inefficient and gets in the way of way we really mean. For bike components such as shifters, brakes etc lots of women prefer euro brands because they’re made smaller but selling them by size seems more accurate than “euro” or “ladies.”

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  2. Great post! I’ve been researching bikes because I would like to upgrade one of these days but everything I’ve seen for “women’s bikes” tells me that they are just not going to work for me. I’m just too tall and too broad and too lanky. (Basically once again I am reminded that I am an outlier when it comes to women’s bodies.) I agree that it makes more sense to categorize bikes according to the actual dimensions of a person’s body as opposed to the average body of a certain sex.

    BTW I love your son’s response. Clearly he had some good parenting. 😉

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    1. Right. Exactly. And I’m secure in my athletic body and build but it seems odd to be reminded that I’m not a typical woman when buying a bike!

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    2. I wish they’d categorize bikes (and clothing) according to actual personal physical dimensions, even if it meant — and it often would — that I wind up shopping in the kids’ section. Then, of course, I’d need there to be fewer Disney princesses and glitter and whatnot.

      Ah, dreams.

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  3. I am very strongly against the whole notion of women specific design, from the standpoints of gender/sexual equity AND industrial IQ. I have several points to make and as this is the best venue to educate more than one, here I go.

    As someone who have spent a good half of his life in the cycling industry, we are seeing comparatively more women spending a sizeable portion of their discretionary funds in cycling merchandise. This takes into account the general increase in popularity of road cycling and multisport events in the last 15 years, we are still seeing female outspending their male counterparts. I believe this is both good and bad, because in many apparel lineups the top line “female-specific” equipment transfer horizontally to the 2nd and even 3rd tiered product designed for male. This is a well documented phenomenon of the cycling industry and many mftrs have been accused of discrimination and/or lacking in long term vision for their part. Some of the giants of the industry have recognized this and for 2012/2013 season have tried very hard to come up with a technologically equivalent line to go up against the men’s line. Here, I can say that, as my professional opinion, of the many things you can get for cycling, apparel, aftermarket ROAD saddles and shoes are the ONLY (ed note: OOOONNNNNLLLLLYYYYY!!!!!!) things that differentiate between male and female cyclists. This provides a great segway into my second point, Women-specific bikes…oy vey.

    I forgot where I read the statistic, so take it with a grain of salt…but I remember that the WSD (to use an acronym from a mftr that is very guilty of this) bike industry is over four billion-dollars-a-year-business. Now if I were making widgets that sold like crack cocaine pancakes, and they are infact pancakes with icing sugar in them, I’d probably continue to sell them and not tell anyone. The same goes for here. It’s a myth that was created in the 90’s just at the cusp of road cycling explosion and every Tom, Dick and Harry (in this case, Tina, Diane and Harriet) lapped it up like it was the Ten Commandments. Women specific bikes are nothing more than marketing schemes and here is why:

    Toptube/Seattube length difference – ever since the advent of zero-offset seatpost, threadless headsets and pinchbot stems, we have been able to customize the reach of any bike manufactured after 1995. With the threadless headset, spacers above and below the stem can now customize the stack of any bike manufactured after 1995. It takes a qualified, trained professional bike fitter to do it, but it is readily doable. Seattube angle and fork rake are the same between female and male bikes, they are different on different TYPES of bikes like endurance road and race road. These are facts, anyone arguing against this is taking up room standing in a bike shop.

    Women saddles – this is my favourite part because here I do the most damage to those WSD mftrs. Very few bike mftrs have the gumption or knowhow to design a saddle, most will simply go to well-established saddle mftrs and give them the colour palette for the new bike and tell them to match it. In road cycling, a proper fitted form should have the ischia tuberosity and pubic bone resting on the saddle w/ the former taking a higher portion of your lower body weight. The big difference between male saddles and female saddles is the ischial width differential, necessitating a slightly wider saddle for female than male. When we talk about triathlon saddles, the pubic bone width differential between the sexes becomes secondary to other factors. This means that while saddles makes for a different ride, it also means it doesn’t make a difference whether you are on a WSD bike or a unisex bike, as LONG as you have a female specific saddle, which the bike mftr doesn’t make.

    Brake reach – this one is relatively simple, female have statistically smaller hands than their male counterparts of the same height, drivetrain mftrs (Shimano, SRAM and MicroShift) have technology that decrease the reach of the levers so smaller hand individuals can get their hands around the levers. This is independent of bike mftrs, and the responsibility falls on the bike shop to include those or install them on smaller bikes.

    Well that took no time at all to write, anyone in the industry who pays attention to the amount of BS that comes out of the marketing dept ought to see this as well. I would welcome correspondence to keep this topic going. If you need to quote this, please remember to give credit where it’s due 😀

    Eaton Kwan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Eaton. I was so happy to have my brakes adjusted do I could easily reach them while in the drops. Makes for much more confident descents.

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    2. Nice post, Eaton. I never bought into the WSD hype, and have been greatly disappointed that the top end women’s-specific models are, as you said, generally equivalent to the second or third tier in regular models. Yes, I race. And yes, I admit that the top end models are overkill for me. But I’m not happy with the message that the best for women is somehow less than the best for men.

      “Shrink it and pink it”. I guess there are a lot of women out there who want Disney Princess pink bikes or they wouldn’t keep offering them, but I also don’t like the message that you need to wear pink to be feminine.

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  4. Thanks eatonk.

    As for the WSD, would be curious to hear Georgena, over at Terry Bikes what she says..she was one of the pioneers on WSD(?).

    If my memory serves me correct, but the every popular saddle type where there is a hole cut in the centre …started off catering to women cyclists over 25 yrs. ago? But now is more widely adopted as a choice for some men’s saddles?

    In terms of sizing I am a small person both for bike geometry fit and for clothing size. Sorry, men’s clothing just is wrong fit for small folks like me.

    For bike geometry marketing, there just needs to be yes, “unisex” and men’s (for the he-man who refuse to think/try differently branded goods. Not all guys are so narrow minded. :))

    Right now I’m on a long search for a spring cycling jacket that has pit zippers or a back vent that is : not all white, all pink, all bright blue. Just yellow or bright visible light green. It’s actually difficult to find it. And I must try it in person. The choice of high visibility colours for cycling jackets in yellow….has actually dropped in the past 2 years across cycling apparel manufacturers.

    Not wanting to waste time ordering online as a Canadian customer from an U.S. or overseas distributor. 1/2 of the time stuff doesn’t fit me.

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  5. I hate the term “women’s bike” – especially as it applies to leisure or utility bikes, where the step-through frame style is convenient for a whole lot of people for a lot more reasons that “you can wear a skirt!”. At the same time, I appreciate the increase in smaller framed and differently-proportioned performance bikes over the last few years. Then on the pendulum swing back from *that,* it drives me completely up the bloody wall that the “women’s” bikes always have poorer components than the “unisex”.

    I like the idea of calling them long and short torso fit, and eatonkwan’s point above about stems and effective top tube length is a very good one. Crank length would be another thing to consider, as it relates to femur length.

    I’m a bike fitter myself, as well as a mechanic, and one of the first things I do on any small bike is to bring the brake lever reach in; I’ve had SO many people comment that they had no idea brakes could be adjusted for reach. (I have very small hands myself, but even if I did not, come on! Other mechanics, what gives?)

    I’m 5’8″ with disproportionately long legs – I ride a 56cm road bike frame with 175mm cranks. I have long arms as well, so I generally don’t need to shorten the stem. Flipping it is the most I have ever needed to do, but I always have to hunt up the right shims to bring the brake reach in. My father is 6’1″ and we can swap bikes with no adjustments whatsoever (he is slightly less flexible than I am through the low back, so ends up comfortable in a more upright posture with my handlebar and stem configuration).

    Most WSD bikes top out at 53cm seat tube, and 170mm cranks.

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  6. Your frustration with finding jackets with pitzips and back vents is well founded. Sugoi, Louis Garneau, Gore, Craft, Pearl Izumi, etc. will all make jackets with vent flaps, however I am not aware of cycling apparel that make have pitzips AND vent flaps. Perhaps in US custom apparel or Italimade. Furthermore, a few DOT testing has shown that reflectivity and flashing light are better for visibility, rather than neon yellow/green/pink.

    I’ve met Georgena a couple of times at Interbike, always a fantastic lady to speak with. Along with a large group of bespoke mftrs usually found at the annual NAHBS, custom steel bicycles are built using horizontal top tubes and these are the bikes that Terry makes. The classically understood female/male body differences, namely shorter torso (f) and longer legs (f) needs more attention for horizontal top tubes of touring bikes rather than sloped top tubes that is the de rigueur for carbon “race” bike

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  7. Great post!!

    The problem stems from taking statistical averages and then creating something that must fit an individual’s specific measurements.

    And, from forgetting that “within group variation is greater than between group difference.” Women’s sizes vary more from each other than men vs. women.

    So, I agree. There should be general terms, like long or short etc, rather than gender binaries!

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    1. I don’t really think that’s a problem, the weakest link is when people who fit bikes don’t know what they are doing. In my shop, sizing of bikes is something we train junior employees how to do, fitting of the bike is different.

      As I said in my original post, the benefit comes from the copious amount of stem sizes and seatposts setbacks that can change the bike stack and reach. Female or male variations can be accounted for, no exceptions.

      Of course, nothing beats custom bike mftrs, Lynskey, Moots, Guru, etc. where they measure you up and make a frame FOR you. They ask you the particular drivetrain you want, for $6000 to $7000 starting price for a good bike, it’s actually quite reasonable.

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  8. Wait, so you’re just specifically dealing only with branding for sports goods, but not necessarily things like women-only races or women-only gyms; I gather from the tone of previous entries, probably more favourable to those.

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    1. Yes, no issues with women only rides and races. Some of my favorite rides and races have been women only. I just don’t see, for the consumer, that the gendered labeling is that helpful here. Men can have small feet, narrow shoulders, short torsos too. I see from a marketing point of view why bike manufacturers do it but I think it’s better to sell to people in all our individuality….

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  9. What’s funny for me, reading this, is that I feel like a light has gone off with regards to the issue of how bikes fit me. I’ve always just assumed that (a) most bicycles are somewhat awkward to ride, and (b) that “women’s” bicycles are just those with the lowered bar for urban skirt wearers. As one of the long-legged, short-torsoed, narrow-shouldered folks who also happens to be female, it’s a bit of an epiphany to realize that bikes designed for that shape actually *do* exist, and that to find them I should have been looking for “women’s” bikes all along.

    So, weirdly, the branding of those bicycles as “for women” ironically discouraged this woman from realizing that they are actually the sort of bicycle I should be riding!

    (I’m very much a casual cyclist, so durability is less of an issue for me. Heck, the bicycle I currently own is one I fished out of the trash ten years ago.)

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