A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, as the feminist slogan goes. But does a woman need a women-specific bicycle?
The short answer is: No. The long answer is: Every woman, man, and fish that wants to cycle should find a bike that accommodates their lifestyle and feels comfortable in their body proportions. They should shop for a holistically chosen bike—one that factors in their hobbies, health, pregnancy status, affinity for skirts, limb lengths, intended cycling needs and adventures—but not a gender-specific one.
Still, you’ll often find women-specific bikes that try to fill a gap in the market. As a female or gender-nonconforming shopper, cycling culture can feel overwhelmingly male. (Women ride bikes only a third as often as men do, according to Jeremy Singer-Vine, data editor at Buzzfeed.) As a result, many bikes on the market cater to traditionally masculine aesthetics and body proportions. The women-specific bikes hope to whisper: It’s OK! You’re welcome, too, in this culture of bike tubes with logos so large, they practically shout.
It’s part marketing, and part functional: Women-specific bicycles aim to fit the female body, accounting for shorter torsos and longer legs by offering women a more upright position. From cycling’s early days in the 19th century, “women’s bike” often refers to a Dutch bike or step-through frame that accommodates full skirts and doesn’t require flashing onlookers while mounting the bike (even though we all might be able to name men who love skirts and women who hate them).
Limb proportions aren’t so easily broken down by gender, either, says Kevin Bailey, head fitter of 3D Bike Fit in San Francisco. “You will hear in general that women’s legs are longer and torsos are shorter versus men’s,” Bailey writes in an email. But in the bike fitting community, “we find it’s all over the map, even more so in diverse populations as it really comes down to each individual’s bone structure differences.”
Instead of choosing a catchall option, cyclists should think about their own bodies and personal needs. When choosing a bike, women—and almost everyone—should consider:
- Stem length. The stem—the tube that connects the handlebar to the fork on the front wheel—should be long enough to apply pressure on the front wheel and keep control over the steering, especially when you’re going downhill, Bailey says. If your bike is too long, it’ll handle “slow like a limo.” If it’s too small, it’ll be “twitchy” (think: circus bear wobbling on a tricycle).
- Head tube length. The metal tube that connects the handlebar to the bike frame should be long enough so that you don’t round your back. With a slumped back, your lower leg muscles disengage, putting more strain on your knees and wearing you out. It disrupts the “kinetic chain,” Bailey writes. “A bike ride should feel like you’re not in a hurry to finish due to discomfort. Even after a long ride, you should not hurt or have a hard time standing up, feeling no back strain whatsoever.”
- Saddle width. Another stereotypical female body proportion? Child-bearing wide hips. But here’s a bubble burster: “The common belief that women have wider hips than men is not supported by scientific data,” writes Lori A. Livingston in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy. But if you happen to have wide hips, you’ll want to choose a wider saddle. Bailey breaks it down based on what he’s noticed: “Most women run 120 mm to 150 mm with the norm usually at 125 mm. Men have a norm of 110 mm ischial width [Ed. note: that’s “hipbone width,” for you non–anatomy geeks]. I have seen both sexes vary a lot.” In short, measure your body before picking that perfect, $100 leather saddle—only to find out it’s not so perfect for your hips.
- Pregnancy. Pregnant women should take extra care, as a fall could be harmful to the baby. “Activities like jogging, using a bicycle, or playing racquet sports might be riskier as you near the third trimester,” warns the Office on Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. However, some women feel that governmental agencies are overly cautious, and that cycling into the third trimester helped them bear the symptoms of pregnancy. Pregnant riders should raise the handlebars and get a wider, more padded saddle, recommends the British cycling charity CTC.
- Fashion. Adored by women, men and the Scottish alike, skirts are wearable while riding any bike. In a diamond-frame bike, the top tube keeps the skirt far from the gears. But a Dutch bike will accommodate the full length and girth of any A-line so that it still drapes fashionably over your legs, and you can modestly get on your bike. If you wear light-colored or high-quality duds, you might want to protect them from exposed, greasy gears by choosing a bike that comes with a chain guard.
- Cycling style. Do you want to pedal at maximum speed on a 60-mile ride in the country? Or use your bike for a city commute of just two miles? Different cycling styles will call for different bike fits. With a diamond frame that angles your body more parallel to the ground, you’ll have extra stamina for a longer, faster ride. But upright Dutch bikes might be preferable if you have a short city commute—they give you a better view of your surroundings, including pedestrians and cars.
The irony is: Despite the market selling women-specific bicycles, women might actually be better at accommodating their bodies to all sorts of bikes. “Women tend to be more flexible, and sometimes, it’s easier to bike fit them because they have less muscular restriction and usually better hip flexion or less hamstring tightness than men,” Bailey writes.
Ultimately, don’t let your gender alone choose your bike. Instead, find what’s comfortable in your body—and your life.