Women in cycling | 5 MIN READ

Women’s involvement in cycling through history

Women have set a new “first” in US bicycling history: 60 percent of bicycle owners between the ages of 18-27 are women.

The gender gap

The sport of cycling has been associated with men for a very long time. While it’s common to see grade and middle school girls riding bikes, most of them abandon cycling by high school. However, this wasn’t always the case. The 1890’s was a time of oppression for women, but many sought and found solitude in the two-wheeled machines we now know as “bicycles.” Bicycles brought a sense of freedom and independence to women, as was noticed by Susan B. Anthony in 1986 when she told New York World’s Nellie Bly that bicycling has “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”

Towards the end of 20th century, the number of teenage girls riding bikes dropped dramatically. Several years ago, the National Children's Bureau published research revealing that on average, boys cycle 138 miles a year, while girls only cycled 24 miles. Rapid abandonment of cycling by girls is largely explained by two factors: fashion or fear.

woman bicycle retro

Towards the end of 20th century, the number of teenage girls riding bikes dropped dramatically. Several years ago, the National Children's Bureau published research revealing that on average, boys cycle 138 miles a year, while girls only cycled 24 miles. Rapid abandonment of cycling by girls is largely explained by two factors: fashion or fear.

BuzzFeed’s Jeremy Singer-Vine recently collected data from the top three bike-share programs in the United States--New York, Chicago, and Boston-- and determined the gender balance in each location. Based on the data collected, he concluded that “for every three men riding a bike, just one woman does the same.” These findings seem to be fair representation of the national averages. The most recent National Household Travel Survey reported that 24 percent of bike trips in 2009 were made by women. The numbers are even higher in other countries such as Germany with a reported 49 percent of cyclists being women. Women make up an even greater population of the cycling community in Holland at 55 percent.

Women riders aged 18 to 24 actually ride more days per year than men of that age do, but their riding days drop off dramatically in the child-rearing age groups of 25 to 34 and 35 to 44.

Yet female baby boomers (aged 45 to 64) who ride, get in the saddle almost as often as male baby boomers do, and the average number of riding days stays high for women riders in the 65 to 74 and 75-plus age groups (see table 5). This is evidence that women enjoy riding bikes as much as men do, but that time for riding is difficult to set aside if they are also responsible for life duties and raising children.

In the early 2000’s, bicycling became less of a “pastime” and grew as a sport. In 2015, an opposite trend was observed; we are now observing a trend where bicycles are slowly becoming modes of transportation rather than means of recreation.

The number of women who choose to commute by bike has grown by 58.8% since 2006. What's more, the ACS data shows that the growth in bike commuting by women is outpacing that of men. Between 2011 and 2012, the growth in bike commuting by women was 10.9%, compared to 8.4% for men.

women on bikes

During the last decade, brands operating in the US market have been desperately trying to recapture the women’s segment of the market. This resulted in clothing optimized for the female body type, brighter and more stylish color palettes, and most importantly, women-specific bicycle geometry. These efforts are finally starting to show results: the number of women who rode 110 days or more exceeded 1.3 million and increased 8 percent since 2005. At the same time, the number of men who ride that frequently increased 15 percent.

The number of women who choose to commute by bike has grown by 58.8% since 2006. What's more, the ACS data shows that the growth in bike commuting by women is outpacing that of men. Between 2011 and 2012, the growth in bike commuting by women was 10.9%, compared to 8.4% for men.

Female-specific bikes

The question that’s often asked is whether women actually need a female-specific bike. The general answer is “maybe.”

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 exceptionally short 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.

Trek Remedy

Even to an 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, 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 have a wide range of size of standard and “unisex” frames. 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 forms more comfortable for female riders. These usually include narrower bars with shallow drops, slimmer grips, shorter cranks and a female-specific saddle.

woman with kids on bike

Modern mountain bikes are usually equipped with trigger shifters and adjustable brake levers that work quite well with small hands; 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.

A look ahead

Despite all the efforts of the bicycle business to get more women on bikes, women still make up only 24.7 percent of riders. The number one concern that keeps women away from bikes is safety. The Women’s Cycling Survey that took place in 2010 asked women about their cycling choices and found that 73 percent cited “distracted driving” as the primary safety concern. Unfortunately, there’s more to safety than the possibility of bicycle versus automobile collision. Other concerns include the fear of sexual assault and harassment. Women’s decision-making around cycling also includes factors such as “inability to carry children or other passengers” and possibility of “injury to self and others.”

female cyclist

The latest developments on the bicycle market and urban planning are slowly addressing these these common concerns. Manufacturers such as Pedego, Juiced Riders and Yuba have released a number of cargo e-bikes capable of climbing even the steepest city streets while carrying significant loads, be that cargo or passengers. Bike lanes and dedicated bike paths, such as Rails to Trails Conservancy, are connecting more urban landscapes than ever.

Velosurance is a cyclist-specific insurance policy that addresses the injury and liability concerns by offering multi-risk, stand-alone coverage against theft, physical loss, damage and liability. The policy was designed with cyclists in mind and provides coverage for the vast majority of risky situations that a cyclist and their bike might be involved in. The bicycle is also covered while in transit by airline and other shipping companies, or when carried in or on a car. Medical coverage option can mitigate or eliminate the annual out-of-pocket expense in case of an injury.

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