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Apr 15, 2022

What’s So Specific about Women’s Specific Design?

“I’m looking to get a new bike. Do I need to buy a women’s bike?” is asked by almost all of my female clients and the short answer is “no”, but the longer, more complicated answer is “maybe you should.”

What does Women’s Specific Design (WSD) mean anyway?  The answer to that has evolved through the years.  Women make up a small, but quickly growing portion of bicycle riders.  First attempts at WSD went by the adage “Shrink it and pink it” following the assumption that women are all smaller than men and prefer a stereotypical feminine color scheme over performance.  These bikes were often built with cheaper components than similar level men’s bike and there was understandable backlash. There have been a few different well-intentioned approaches along the way eventually evolving into the current strategies bike companies use to define “women’s specific design.”

The foundation of a good fit, no matter who you are, is choosing a bike that is made for the kind of riding you want to do. Bikes have different shapes, step overs, suspension, etc for specific uses that will make it more enjoyable for you.  Riding a town bike on a technical descent will never be a comfortable fit and will likely end poorly for you.

All bikes come in different frame sizes and picking the right size for you is very important. Just like you may not wear the same size of jean in different brands, you may require a different frame size between bike brands.  There are frame size ranges provided by the bike manufacture for each model. If you are in between sizes, generally choosing the smaller size will lead to a better fit and handling in the end. Women’s specific designs will often come with smaller frame options compared to unisex bikes. Mountain bikes often do not come in as many size options as road bikes. Frame size in mountain bikes is very important for handling. However in road biking, prolonged positioning leads to more repetitive stresses on the body possibly making frame size more important not only for comfort but injury prevention.

Women’s specific design. There are two strategies that bike companies use to address what they consider are women’s needs.

  1. A unisex frame with women’s specific finishing kit such as saddle, handle bar, and lighter-tuning (mountain bike.) We will discuss these specifically in a little bit.
  2. All the above but on a frame that is specifically designed for women using data from women cyclists. Liv Cycling is the largest producer of this approach.

Previous efforts at the approach assumed women had longer legs and shorter torsos than men so the frames had shorter top tube and lower step over height.  However this was based on limited number of women examples.  As companies have collected more data, they have found there is far more variability within women than there is between an “average” man and a woman so going “short and high” is no longer the only approach.  How they decide to design their frames is part of the “secret sauce” but is based on far more body shapes and sizes than even 10 years ago.

Women’s finish kits do decrease the chances that the rider will need to purchase new components compared to a unisex bike. They will usually come with more narrow handlebars as women’s shoulders are often not as wide as men’s. A female seat (or saddle as they call them in the industry) will have a different shape giving room for women’s anatomy and accommodating the slightly wider space between sit bones seen in the female pelvis. The brake lever reach is smaller to accommodate smaller hands. Finally, women’s bikes will often have shorter crank arms, especially on smaller frame sizes to keep the crank arms in proportion to the size of the rider and decrease the chances of knee pain.

Bottom line is choose the bike that fits your body, no matter who you are. Quality bikes are built to have interchangeable parts to really hone in on your comfort if you start with the right frame size. Some women will absolutely benefit from women’s specific geometry and components. However plenty of women will also find unisex bikes work just as well for them. The most important thing all companies agree on, you have to start with a quality product that performs well, and gives riders choices to dial in the bike for them.

By: Anna Perry, PT, DPT, OCS