Dirt Rag Magazine

Feature: Coming up short—In search of the truth about women’s-specific bikes

Photo: Devon Balet

Photo: Devon Balet

By Kate Skrainka

Get to the bottom of it. That was my goal: Once and for all, to clarify the murky, muddy waters that are women’s-specific bikes. I pored over vintage bike catalogs, read up on the mathematics of frame geometry, interviewed more than a dozen people and tested a few bikes. I heard a lot of gut feelings and a lot of pretty marketing words—and even got into a Thanksgiving-dinner argument over my findings. It seems everyone has an opinion about the validity of “women’s-specific.”

But the facts? Candid answers and hard evidence are harder to come by. I set out to find out. Even so, I may have come up short. But here’s what I know. There are few useful generalizations that can be made about women, what styles of mountain bikes we want and how best to sell bikes to us. On average, we’re shorter than men, but we’re not all short. On average, we weigh less than men, but we’re not all lightweight. On average, we are less muscular than men, particularly in our upper bodies, but we’re not all spaghetti-armed and puny. We are freeriders, downhillers, trail riders and cross-country weight weenies.

With such a diversity of body types and riding styles, can there possibly be a meaningful biological difference in bike fit? How well do women’s-specific bikes work? And for whom?

THE BACKSTORY

You might think that the average American woman is 5 feet 6 inches tall, maybe 5 feet 5. You’d be wrong. The average height of women in the United States is just less than 5 feet 4 inches, whereas the average height for men is just over 5 feet 9 inches, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Before 1999, few mountain bikes—and virtually no road bikes—were mass-produced for adult riders under about 5 feet 6 inches tall. More than 75 percent of women in the U.S. are under that height, and a quarter are less than 5 feet 2 inches tall. Unsurprisingly, then, many average-size women didn’t fit all that well on what passed as “small” frames. Shorter-than-average women had few options outside of full-custom bikes until women’s-specific came along.

In 1999 Trek became the first major bicycle manufacturer to design, produce and market a line of road, mountain and city bikes for women, under the trademark Women’s Specific Design (WSD). Other manufacturers followed suit not long after. It’s been written that these bikes were pink and other “feminine” colors, but that gets overplayed. A look through some vintage Trek catalogs revealed models in a respectable blue with white and red accents.

Moab IMBA women-1

Photo: Katherine Fuller

While the earliest women’s-specific bikes filled a gaping void in the market for women who weren’t man-sized, there was little else to cheer about. The bikes were, by and large, outfitted with lower-end parts, heavy and overbuilt. There were no high-end, race-ready machines for women who wanted a performance product but didn’t fit on a “men’s” bike. Little consideration was given to who the rider of these bikes might be other than “a woman.” Even so, the increasing availability of smaller sizes played a crucial role in getting more women out on the trails.

Regardless of manufacturer, mountain bikes with women’s-specific geometry have historically featured proportionally shorter top tubes, steeper seat angles and often a taller head-tube stack. These combined characteristics result in a more upright riding position. There’s a prevailing notion that the cockpit of such a bike is smaller when compared to men’s bikes. That’s sometimes the case, but depending on what else happens to the head angle and such, the reach can lengthen even if the top tube shortens.

Perhaps not coincidentally, all of that is pretty much what happens when you scale down a road bike to sizes under about 54 cm—sizes that fit the majority of women. At the time, mountain bike geometry was much more heavily influenced by road bikes than it is now—think 71 degree head angles and 120 mm stems. And this geometry—particularly the shorter top tube—was vaguely claimed to better suit “typical” female body proportions.

But what’s “typical”? It’s still often said that women have proportionally shorter torsos and longer legs than men. Reps from Trek, Liv and Specialized admitted to me that their engineers had perhaps assumed this in the past. But as they gathered fit data over the years, they found no evidence that this is true—even as a broad generalization.

Sex aside, many cyclists still believe that a rider with the short-torso/long-leg body type will feel more comfortable on a frame with women’s-specific geometry. Yet the relationship between body proportions and ideal frame geometry remains fuzzy. Things like flexibility, fitness level, past injuries, pedaling technique and even the number of times one has given birth all factor into achieving a comfortable bike fit and a powerful riding position.

Around 2009, companies offering women’s-specific bikes shifted away from treating women as an undifferentiated category. In the last two years especially, women’s-specific mountain bikes with high-end spec, carbon frames and longer amounts of travel have become less scarce, and there’s no longer much uniformity to women’s-specific geometry. Do these bikes offer real performance benefits to women?

I looked at six different companies—some that sell women’s specific bikes, and some that don’t—to see what they offer female riders. Trek and Specialized design mountain bikes with women’s specific geometry and also provide women some options built on men’s frames. Liv offers women’s-specific geometry exclusively. Pivot and Kona largely avoid the term “women’s-specific” but offer some models for hardcore riders down to about 4 feet 11 inches tall, and they are mindful that a lot of those smaller riders are women. Juliana uses platforms from parent company Santa Cruz decked out in eye-catching paint and women’s-specific build kits.

These are by no means the only bike manufacturers paying attention to women, but they provide some good examples of what’s on offer for gals looking to shred some singletrack—whether or not they’re also looking to show off their feminine side while they’re at it.

Moab IMBA women-2

Photo: Katherine Fuller

TREK: TWO KINDS OF WOMEN’S-SPECIFIC

Trek uses a women’s-specific geometry on its models aimed at entry-level and intermediate female mountain bikers. The Lush is its women’s-specific trail bike, a 27.5 aimed at riders for whom a feeling of confidence and control—not big air—leaves them grinning. Amanda Schulze, women’s business manager at Trek, said that WSD geometry isn’t about body proportions so much as a fit preference.

“That comes from legit research,” Schulze said. “We go out and watch people and ride.” She explained that the more upright position of the Lush takes pressure off the shoulders and neck, helps the rider see up the trail better and still allows the rider to get low when needed without being committed to that position all the time. It features ultra-low standover, ostensibly for confidence, and a higher leverage ratio to improve the likelihood that lighter riders will get full travel from the rear shock.

I tested the top-of-the-line carbon-fiber version at a demo day in Tucson, Arizona, in December. According to Trek, I should be on the 14-inch size because I’m 5 feet tall. Unfortunately, I had to test the 15.5-inch size since the smaller one wasn’t stocked on the demo van. This is a problem across the industry. These days, manufacturers produce a lot more options for us mighty mites, but a frustrating number of local bike shops and demo vans still fail to stock the smallest sizes. Shop employees I spoke with in Tucson and Phoenix said they fear being stuck with merchandise that won’t sell.

Manufacturers could do a better job of equipping their demo vans with at least one extra-small model. For the love of short people! We won’t buy what we can’t try, so just put the tiny bikes on the van please.

I also rode a Top Fuel 9.8 SL, which in the smallest size is a 27.5, per Trek’s Smart Wheel Size system. Although it was the same frame size as the Lush, it actually fit pretty well. Trek doesn’t do different geometry for bikes aimed at more advanced female riders.

Schulze said, “You don’t see a real difference in how women ride at that level and how men ride at that level.” The performance-minded WSD models use the same frames as the men’s versions and add some feminine styling: a women’s-specific saddle, different paint colors, smaller-diameter grips and WSD suspension tuning. There’s nothing particularly sex-specific about suspension tuning, other than women tend to be lighter than men. Even when sag is correctly set, those under about 135 pounds can be held back by a stock tune in a way that others aren’t. (Heavier girls can now cheer.)

Anthony Diaz of Diaz Suspension Designs said suspension valving has a huge effect on how easily a rider can maneuver a bike. If the stock tuning were to be too light, most people would bottom out their fork like a 250-pounder, so stock bikes are typically tuned for the assumed weight and riding style of the average male rider. This leaves lighter riders unable to pop out of corners or charge descents, because even with compression damping fully open, it’s too stiff. The average weight for women is more than 30 pounds less than the average for men, so it makes sense that women’s-specific mountain bikes would have a different tune.

When I asked Schulze if the WSD tune was based on an assumed lighter rider, she said that Trek gets input from female testers from 100-plus pounds to “not lightweight” and that the company works closely with Fox and RockShox to develop parameters for each bike.

SPECIALIZED: MORE THAN GEOMETRY

Specialized offers women’s-specific mountain bikes in most off-road categories, from $10,000 race thoroughbreds like the S-Works Era to the Hellga fat bike. It’s hard to put a finger on how its women’s geometry differs from the men’s other than proportionally shorter top tubes and more stand-over clearance.

I asked their team of women’s product managers about the rationale for a shorter reach, since we now know that the short-torso/long-leg thing is a myth. They told me that Specialized has analyzed some 40,000 bike fits from consumers fitted at certified Body Geometry and Retul fitters around the globe. The data shows a shorter reach is a common preference among women. Women tend to sit farther back on the saddle and have a shorter “wingspan” than men, both of which correlate to a shorter reach. But, they said, a dialed reach isn’t as important on a mountain bike as on a road bike. “It’s not all about the geometry,” said Amy Nelson, one of two women’s MTB product managers. “You have to think of the bike as a whole system.”

The Specialized team said that women of all sizes and experience levels may prefer their women’s platforms for the lower stand-over, a lighter tune on the suspension and size-specific components—reducing the potential need to swap bars, stem, cranks or saddle. The team acknowledged that the sex-specific labels on their bikes shouldn’t be viewed too rigidly. Some men prefer the plush feel and light weight of the women’s Era or the extra stand-over on the Hellga, for example. “I think it’s very open and people should choose based on what they feel most comfortable on,” said Stephanie Kaplan, women’s road product manager.

New for 2016, the Rhyme represents a different approach for Specialized. This was based on demand from female riders with a more aggressive riding style. The Rhyme uses the same chassis as the men’s Stumpjumper, but features a lighter suspension tune and size-specific components found on all Specialized women’s mountain bikes. Notably—unlike the Stumpjumper—the Rhyme is available in an extra-small size to fi t riders down to 4 feet 11 inches tall. It’s offered in two wheel sizes: 27.5 and Specialized’s 27.5plus wheel size, the 6Fattie.

Photo: Devon Balet

Photo: Devon Balet

LIV: NOT JUST A GOOD LOOKING PAINT JOB

Giant launched Liv as a standalone brand for women in mid-2014. Liv’s headquarters is in Taiwan, and the brand reflects a global culture and demographic. A YouTube video of the kickoff event at Eurobike shows multi-time world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prévot saying “I like pink.” (Don’t judge. Maybe Ferrand-Prévot does like pink.) Abby Santurbane, global category manager at Liv, said their bikes target women who differ from Giant’s ridership in their goals, the influences in their lives and how much they ride.

Santurbane said Liv designs bikes “from the ground up” to fit the majority of women. Giant has its own proprietary anthropometric database, which is the starting point for frame design. Liv maximizes fit and comfort by keeping the rider centered over the bottom bracket, making the most of her (or his) natural strengths. The mountain bikes are all 27.5 and have seat angles around 73 degrees, notably slacker than most women’s-specific bikes. They also have proportionally shorter top tubes, slightly taller head tubes and shorter reach measurements compared to similar Giant models.

I asked Santurbane about Liv’s approach to suspension and she said, “People may disagree, but we don’t do suspension tunes by weight.” Rather, they do them based on how the bike will be ridden—cross-country, trail or all-mountain for example.

Selene Yeager, better known as Bicycling magazine’s Fit Chick, had a plausible explanation about all this. She’s got a no-bullshit East Coast vibe and has tested tons of bikes. Although she doesn’t consider herself an expert on sex-differentiated bike fit, she’s written about it in her most recent book, “The Bicycling Big Book of Cycling for Women.”

Her take? There is legitimacy to the concept of women’s-specific as a fit preference. Some women—and men—don’t fit all that well on men’s bikes because of their size, weight distribution and riding style. Yeager reminded me that, in addition to the average height and weight differences between men and women, a woman’s center of gravity is lower than a man’s, and, in general, women “are not as upper-body muscular. That’s a fact. So pushing a bike into the corners, having your weight over the front wheel, distributing your weight is more of a challenge if your weight is not distributed in a way that the bike is built to react.”

Based on what I’ve heard, read and experienced, I’m willing to buy this. It doesn’t sit well with a lot of folks, but to deny that some people don’t fit optimally on a typical bike is to deny reality for them. Riders of different sizes don’t necessarily have the same experience on the same bike, (which is why Dirt Rag prints the height and weight of the rider along with the size tested in every review).

PIVOT: RIDER SIZE-SPECIFIC

I’m not flying the women’s-specific flag just yet, though. Many smaller and midsize companies offer extended sizing without using the “women’s-specific” designation. Pivot Cycles, owned by Chris Cocalis, offers several models in sizes to fi t riders from 4 feet 11 to more than 6 feet 4 inches tall. Cocalis is mindful of who rides the smallest of those: “We call it rider-size-specific geometry. It just so happens that the majority of riders under 5 feet 5 inches are women, and so that’s who we design the smaller bikes for, but we also build great bikes for women over 5 feet 5 inches.”

Cocalis emailed me a detailed description of how Pivot designs each frame size to perform optimally for the intended-size rider. Among other things, engineers tweak the head and seat angles to keep the smaller bikes maneuverable yet stable. The goal is always to keep the rider “centered in a way that is optimal for cornering, climbing and aggressive technical descending.” All of that, plus size-specific carbon layups, helps ensure that riders of all sizes experience the same ride quality.

“Some of our smallest female athletes lay down incredible power, so we need to make every size a world-class performer,” Cocalis added. When it comes to suspension, Cocalis also mentioned that, in the last couple of years, Fox has changed up its air-spring system to better suit a wider range of rider weights. “It used to have a negative spring that would pull the fork down shorter, and the forks would lose about an inch in length and travel. This was not great for smaller riders. The new forks have a self-regulating negative air spring, as do the rear shocks, so the negative spring is perfect for any air setting and therefore any weight rider.”

KONA: ENDURO FOR ALL

Although Kona has long been kind of a “dude” brand, it has lately listened to its sponsored female athletes and female staff, which has paid off in some new options for women and smaller, lighter riders in general. In 2015 Kona offered the Process 134 SE, which we tested in issue #184. It’s built on the same platform as the well-received Process models but in an extra-small size and its own build kit to accommodate riders under 5 feet 4 inches tall.

Angi Weston, one of Kona’s sales reps, said, “It isn’t just women who benefit from smaller bikes; teenagers and short men do too. This approach also shows that we acknowledge female customers are just as particular as male customers and want attractive, but not necessarily ‘girly,’ colors, modern spec—like dropper posts, wide bars and short stems—and ripping good geometry.”

For 2016, Kona is offering both the Process 134 and 134 DL in an extra-small size, giving shorter riders more than one price point to choose from.

Photo: Devon Balet

Photo: Devon Balet

JULIANA: SISTERS OF THE SHRED

Some female riders are looking for something that goes beyond fit or even attractive styling. Back in 1999, Juliana started as a single Santa Cruz model developed with racing legend Juli Furtado. Launched as a separate brand for women in 2013, it now boasts six models. Each one is based off an existing Santa Cruz platform, the only differences being a women’s-specific saddle, narrower-width handlebars, smaller-diameter grips and some snappier colors.

Katie Zaffke, Juliana’s brand manager, said, “Our physical differences aren’t actually so different [that women need unique geometry].” Changing up the touch-point components and offering smaller sizes and lower stand-over take care of the differences that do matter, in her estimation. Juliana does not alter suspension tuning, but Zaffke said, “Suspension tunes for Santa Cruz are a light tune in general.”

For 2016, Juliana will add an extra-small size to the Furtado, (aka the 5-inch-travel Santa Cruz 5010 and Juliana’s most popular model). This is the only one available in that size, so it’s a welcome addition for the very smallest of shredders.

Zaffke said that what hardcore female mountain bikers really want and need is a sense of community and “their own thing, their own brand, their own identity.” This approach resonates with a lot of women. For years many women have been buying men’s bikes and swapping out the various bits to suit, so why not give them build kits that are more likely to be size-appropriate in an off-the-shelf package and their own good-looking colors?

IS IT RIGHT?

The professional female racers I spoke with were universally skeptical of the women’s-specific designation. They said it was important to select components carefully, depending on what works best for the type of riding you do and your size, without regard for labels. You can study geometry charts and read product reviews, but there’s no substitute for knowledge gained through experience and some trial and error. They recommended demoing lots of bikes to get a feel for the different geometries and bike styles and speaking up if something doesn’t seem right. A good demo person will swap a stem or adjust suspension so you can make an accurate assessment of a bike.

The need among women for a sense of community and inclusion isn’t in dispute. Yet there are economic forces at work here too. Maybe sex isn’t the best way to segment the market, but it’s a simple solution to a complex problem: how to fit wonderfully diverse humans onto bicycles so they can fling themselves through space. There’s a lot we don’t know about how a human and a bicycle fit together, especially when you add suspension and different wheel sizes to the mix.

We need to make our voices heard by manufacturers, local bike shops and each other. We all want bikes that work for the size that we are, for the bodies that we have. A good bike should feel natural and handle intuitively; that’s true for everyone. In the end, what you think of women’s-specific bikes will probably depend more on what your own experience and gut tell you than on what anyone else says.

A friend of mine has two mountain bikes. She’s about average height for a woman, lean, a phenomenal athlete. She loves both her bikes, she says, but the women’s-specific one “just fits me and balances really well.” She doesn’t think it’s better, but she doesn’t think it’s worse, either. When you get to the bottom of it, which bike she picks has more to do with the day of the week and the trail she’s riding than someone else’s label.


This feature was originally published in Dirt Rag #189

 

 

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