Riding a bike can be a great way to burn some calories, improve your cardiovascular health, and to have fun while doing so. Once you realize the benefits that cycling provides, you’ll be asking yourself why you didn’t start sooner. And that’s okay; it’s better to start making positive changes late, than never.
It’s possible that if you’re reading this, you haven’t hopped into a bike saddle since you were a child. You’re not alone in this. In fact, statistics show that in childhood, boys and girls both ride their bikes to the same degree, but by adolescence, the girls ditch their bikes. While the same research shows that they get back in the saddle during the years of 18 and 24, polls also suggest that between childbearing and rearing years, women make up a very small population of the cycling community.
Bikes with purpose
Before running out and buying the first bike that you fall in love with, it’s important that you establish why you’re buying this bike to begin with. There are many reasons why people start riding, but the most common reasons are:
- Stress relief
- Explore otherwise inaccessible areas
Whatever your reason, make sure that the bike will be able to meet your needs and expectations for years to come. You might be wondering if it’s worth spending a little bit extra on a higher-end bike. The simple answer is YES - especially if it means that a high end bike spares you imminent disappointment and giving up on the dream. Here are some suggestions when considering a bike:
- Make sure to do your homework and know which features are most important to you. It’s important that you have a list of things to test out when you go to the bike shop. The last thing you want to do is buy the “perfect bike,” only to realize on your first ride that you overlooked the fact that the handlebars are too wide or grips are too thick, or even worse, that you can’t comfortably reach the brake levers. By knowing what bike features tend to differ for women, you can save yourself some time, money, and the hassle of having to return to the bike shop for adjustments, order new parts, or even return the bike.
- Always test out a bike before purchasing. Even if your mind is set on a particular bike, do not buy it without test riding it first. While bikes are categorized by type and size, it does not mean that all bikes of the same type ride the same or all bikes of the same size fit identically.
- Skip the mainstream retailers. While the bikes sold in mainstream retailers such as Walmart and Target look flashy, they tend to be of subpar quality and are often assembled by inexperienced staff. It’s hard, if not impossible, to have a fulfilling cycling experience on these bikes; this is why most of them live out their lives in the garage with deflated tires. Even though you might spend two or three times more on a quality bike from a local bike shop, it will come with the assurance that it fits you properly, was assembled by a qualified mechanic and tuned to perform to the highest of standards.
- If possible, get professionally fitted at a bike shop. By getting your measurements taken, you are ensuring that the bike will fit your body’s dimensions properly. This also increases the likelihood that you will have a more comfortable riding experience, as well as enhance your control of the bike and the overall quality of the ride. You might feel like Goldilocks as you try different bikes, some feeling too tall, others feeling too stretched out, but it’s definitely worth the time and effort; when you find the bike that’s “just right,” your rides are much more likely to be enjoyable.
You might find that, depending on your needs, you’re better off with a unisex or men’s bike. Or you might also discover that you fall into the category of women who benefit from riding a “women’s specific geometry” bike.
Before determining whether or not you need a gender specific bike, first you need to determine the bike type that you will be considering. The bike type that most suits your needs will be determined by the purpose behind your riding and the terrain on which you will be riding. The most common reasons that most people start riding were mentioned above. Once you’ve determined the “why” for your riding, think about the “where” and “when.” The “where” and “when” will play a significant role in determining the bike specifications that you would benefit from most. Depending on your intentions and needs, the most common kinds of bikes to choose from are:
Mountain bikes are a great option for almost any terrain. As the name suggests, they are designed to maneuver through rough, mountainous terrain. To better handle the rough terrain, mountain bikes are equipped with suspension, the most common options being front, rear, or both. If you often find yourself on dirt roads or even hiking trails, or expect to be switching in and out of such terrain, you should consider this type of a bike.
Road bikes are designed to be lightweight and fast and are best suited for smooth, paved surfaces. Common features of a road bike include thin tires running high pressure, drop handlebars, and a more aggressive riding position. If your primary interest is fitness, then a road bike might be your best bet. Keep in mind that road bikes are unstable on unpaved surfaces and are generally not capable of carrying loads.
A hybrid bike is an excellent choice if you expect to find yourself on a variety of geographic terrain. It is a “hybrid” of various features taken from both the mountain and road bike. While it isn’t as able to take on rocky or gravel terrain as well as a mountain bike, it’s still a very capable option - especially if you’re going to be using your bike for commuting. Some features of hybrid bikes include: wider tires than road bikes, flat handlebars that result in a more upright riding position, and numerous accessory mounting options.
Similar to hybrid bikes, cruisers are designed with casual comfort and functionality in mind. They are equipped with wide balloon tires, upright handlebars, an upright sitting position, and coaster (backwards pedalling) brakes, and are usually heavier in weight than most other bike types. Even though these features provide comfort and stability, they also make it a slower ride. Cruisers are best ridden on flat, paved roads and are also a good option if you have to carry a load.
Some other bikes that might appeal to you, depending on your needs, include:
- Triathlon/Time Trial
If your sole purpose is to commute to work and you don’t encounter any significantly harsh terrain, a folding bike might be a great option for you. Because they fold up, they are easier to carry onto a bus or the subway or almost any workplace. Foldable bikes are also a viable option for anyone who has limited living space or who lacks a safe place to secure their bike; just fold it up and put it in the coat closet or under your bed. If you live in a metropolitan area with limited parking, you might find it convenient to keep a folding bike in the trunk of your car and use it as a “last mile” transport.
Electric bicycles, or e-bikes, are becoming increasingly popular because of their versatility and functionality. A common misconception is that electric bikes don’t have pedals, but that isn’t the case. Electric bicycles are equipped with a rechargeable battery powered motor that offers an additional source of power to propel the bike forward. The cyclist herself is actually powering the bike by pedaling, but is basically receiving an extra boost from the motor: the harder you pedal, the more help you receive from the motor. Electric bikes come in a variety of functionalities, including mountain, hybrid, and road.
Much like e-bikes, cargo bikes are rapidly growing in popularity across the globe. That’s because the cargo bike offers an inexpensive, simple alternative to the daily struggles of sitting in traffic, finding parking spaces in an over packed parking lot, and losing riding time to accomplish both of these feats. Cargo bikes have seen a lot of changes in recent years, which means that they now come with so many features and options, there’s sure to be a cargo bike out there for just about anyone. If you feel like you might benefit from assistance in the power department, you can even get an electric cargo bike! So if you find that you need to carry larger loads, like a week’s worth of groceries, then a cargo bike might be the way to go.
If a driving factor in picking up bike is to eventually participate in triathlons, then you’ll eventually want a triathlon, or time trial, bicycle. Time trial bikes, however, are not intended for novice or beginner riders. These bikes sport an aggressive “aero” riding positionstance with gear shifting levers located on the aero bars, far away from the brake levers, which are located on the “hoods”. Additionally, an ultra-aggressive geometry optimized for speed makes these bikes very twitchy and difficult to control. A triathlon bike is rarely a good choice for a first bike. If your goal is to participate in a triathlon, start riding on a road bike; once you’ve gained enough experience, head out to your local bike shop with your “must haves” list and get a proper fitting for a tri bike. Out of all bikes, a tri bike allows for the smallest margin of error when it comes to achieving a proper bike fit.
Female-specific bikes and gear
The question that’s often asked is whether women actually need a female-specific bike and gear. The general answer is “maybe.” A common belief is that two main anatomical differences that apply to cycling exist between males and females: women have longer legs and shorter torsos. However, it seems that for every source that makes this claim, there’s another that contradicts this idea. The truth is, what each cyclist requires will vary greatly on three things: her physical needs that are determined by body composition and physique, her riding purpose, and her personal preferences.
Almost every major brand designs and builds frames with female-specific geometries. The reasoning behind this is that women have different physiologies than men, often being shorter, having narrower shoulders, shorter torsos and longer legs. This way of thinking often results in bicycles with much shorter top tubes and reduced stem lengths, which can have a negative effect on weight distribution. Some manufacturers go through extreme engineering while trying to fit petite women on bikes built around standard sized wheels. This is very evident in extra-small road bikes with 700 cc wheels and mountain bikes with 29” wheels. Even to the untrained eye these bikes look quite bizarre. Unfortunately, it doesn’t end with the looks: this also seriously impedes maneuverability of the bike and creates a rather dangerous situation known as “toe overlap.” Toe overlap is a result of several design-limiting factors and cannot always be avoided. It occurs at low speeds when it is possible to hit the front wheel with a toe when turning. While it’s rarely a problem on road bikes that normally travel at higher speeds, it can create a dangerous situation on mountain bikes that commonly maneuver at much lower speeds and through tighter turns.
While major brands like Trek, Specialized, Giant, and Scott focus on producing bikes from designs based around research and data collected about the average female body, other brands, like Cervelo and Felt, are sticking with the more stretched-out, aggressive riding position that most men prefer. These brands usually produce a wider range of sizes other than the standard small, medium and large, which may allow for a more tailored fit.
Whether the bike is female-specific or based around “unisex” geometry, a bike targeted towards women will be outfitted with the parts that make contact points more comfortable for female riders. These usually include narrower bars with shallow drops, slimmer grips, shorter cranks, and a female-specific saddle.
One of the most common issues that arise with male or unisex bicycles is that of handlebars. In general, women tend to have narrower shoulders than men. This physical disparity can lead to less than ideal riding experiences when the rider’s physical characteristics are not taken into account. It’s important to make sure that the handlebars that you decide to go with aren’t too narrow, as that can create an uncomfortable, cramped riding situation. Likewise, it’s important that the bars aren’t too wide, because that could lead to increased pressure on hands as well as neck and arm discomfort.
Many women’s bikes are also designed to have slimmer grips, because women’s hands are generally smaller than men’s. If you’re hoping to get into mountain biking, it’s worth knowing that modern mountain bikes are usually equipped with trigger shifters and adjustable brake levers that work quite well with small hands. However, shifters on road bikes present a larger problem since there are no female-specific shifters on the market. Both Shimano and SRAM shifters can have their reach adjusted with a standard multi-tool or screwdriver. Additionally, Shimano levers can be brought closer to the bars with shims. Campagnolo shifters can not be adjusted.
The crank arm, or simply the crank, is the long piece that connects the pedals to the chainwheel. While it might not seem like the length of the crank matters much, for some, it can be the difference between a leisurely ride and a painful one. Your ideal crank size is primarily determined by your leg length, but your pedaling style should also be considered. Shorter people tend to have shorter legs, requiring a shorter crank; taller people generally have longer legs and need a longer crank. So how do you know if you need a shorter or longer crank? The most effective way to identify the correct crank length is to get a professional fitting. Back and knee pains are telltale signs of an ill-fitting crank and should not be ignored. It’s worth noting that if you change your crank for a much shorter or longer one, it will likely also affect your gearing and might require that you get new chainrings or a cassette.
Women’s saddles are generally wider than men’s to accommodate the anatomical differences. While there are obvious pelvic differences, the most important consideration that is taken when designing male and female saddles is the actual contact that occurs. Women’s bike saddles tend to be wider and shorter, whereas men’s saddles tend to run longer and narrower. Spending too much time in a saddle that doesn’t fit your body properly can result in discomfort and even injury, so it’s critical that you make the right choice. Don’t assume that since you are a female, any female saddle will work for you. There are literally hundreds of bike saddles on the market to accommodate all body types, riding styles, and personal preferences. Higher-end bike shops offer demo saddles so you can try multiple saddles without investing any money. If you’re struggling to find a saddle that works for you, consider scheduling a saddle mapping session at a local bike shop that does such fittings.
Make it personal
The best way to ensure that your bike and its components are appropriate for you and your needs is by getting a professional bike fitting. In a bike fitting, various precise measurements will be taken and your riding style will be observed. The goal is to get you on a bike that is selected and fine-tuned to your specific needs. Having the “right” bike is important because it gives you greater control, which ultimately promotes safety and the likelihood that you will enjoy yourself.
Remember: everyone is different; what works for one person may not work for another. While there are common differences between the male and female body, some women may find that simply switching out the saddle on a men’s bike is all that is needed to make riding comfortable. Others may discover that switching out a combination of parts to female-specific will suffice, while others realize that they need an actual female-specific bike. There’s no right or wrong decision, as long as the decision you make is the best decision for you and your riding experiences.
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