Big bike, little bike

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Women’s
Rights

Let’s
deal with the biological facts first. Compared to the typical
male, women have longer leg bones and shorter upper body dimensions.
They also weigh less and aren’t as tall as a bloke. Their
pelvis bones are wider to allow for sprogging, putting the
‘sit bones’ which comfortably support body weight on the saddle
further apart too. All this genetic make-up significantly
affects what constitutes an ideal woman’s bike.
The
frame will generally be smaller but, most importantly, it
should be shorter so it can be easily reached. Several companies
are producing frames with altered proportions and a woman’s
tag, but the recent rash of ‘jumping/dual’ bikes are generally
built shorter for more manoeuvrability as well. In fact, Scott
were dubious about sending us one of its top-level Solution
series bikes as they’re proving so popular with the jumpy
stunters, it feared a loss of vital credibility if we reminded
everyone it was actually designed as a ‘girl’s bike’.

As rider
weight is lower, suspension settings — both spring weight
and damping – need to be lighter as well to achieve the same
performance level. Rear shock spring weights on Marins, Scotts,
Treks, Specializeds and others are already altered to suit
the size, and air pressure is of course totally adjustable
(but needs damping to match), but it seems to be a different
story up front.

Unfortunately,
manufacturers want bulk discount on their fork orders and
if they start asking for different internals for a small number
they’ll have to fork out more, and only Trek are big enough
to ask for specific rates for their WSD (more of that later)
without upsetting suppliers. This means you’ll either have
to ask the shop to change the spring settings when you buy
them, or look for forks that are on the soft side as standard.
This year’s Marzocchis immediately come to mind.

 
Get
a Grip

Hand size
is also crucial as many brakes will be out of reach in stock
set-up. Most levers can be reduced in reach, but this often
means less cable pull, clearance and power, and specific short-reach
levers are hard to find. Large grip diameter can also cause
aching and fatigue in small hands — this also applies to
bar-ends. Wide bars will also stretch arms and shoulders but
a few minutes with a hacksaw should provide lasting relief.
Women’s saddles are widely available with broader profile
and centre cut-outs to reduce pressure on sensitive areas,
but preferences vary on shape and padding levels, so try as
many as possible before parting with your dosh.

Many of
our female testers also find rear shocks or a suspension seatpost
a welcome addition. On the componentry front, the basic consideration
is that women are less powerful than men in terms of potential
wattage output, and lighter in their riding style and physical
make-up. This means low bike weight is more of a concern than
durability. Light bars and seatposts, featherweight rims,
radial spoking and lighter tyres are all a bonus to female
riders. Unfortunately, lighter components nearly always cost
more, and current women’s bikes generally sit in the budget
end of the market, so you’re generally looking at aftermarket
upgrading to really lose weight

 

What’s
the best?

So that’s
the ideal theoretical ride, but out of the bikes on test which
comes closest?

Raleigh
BOB: Designed specifically for women but built on a tight
budget so weight is an issue; correctly proportioned frame,
shortish reach levers and adjustable stem, women’s suspension
saddle and seatpost.

Marin
B17: Not really fair as it’s not a specific women’s bike,
but softer rear spring, good standover height on a compact
‘downhill- orientated’ frame make it fit well; brake levers
with full-reach adjustment and discs that stay powerful, even
with a short lever pull.

Pace Compact:
Custom built up specifically for a female rider on a large
budget; proportionally shorter top tube, resprung forks, narrow
handlebar grips, full lever reach adjustment with no braking
compromise, women’s saddle, lightweight wheels and fast-rolling
tyres. Unsurprisingly, the Pace fits the bill better than
the others, but then it’s a custom build with little monetary
restraints on choice.

There’s
only one production bike we know that fits all the parameters,
from correct frame shape, through tweaked forks to really
short-reach levers and small diameter grips, and that’s the
Trek WSD (Women’s Specific Design) range. Trouble is, supplies
are so limited they don’t want us to test one as demand already
exceeds supply. From the comments of Keeley and Bex who are
lucky enough to have their own, the bike’s an absolute peach,
but for the moment you’ll just have to put your name down
on the waiting list for next year. Wonder if it’s a bloke
who decides production schedules in Wisconsin?

 
The
Big Issue

It probably
won’t come as much of a surprise that big lads require a totally
different sort of vehicle. Even tall, thin riders will be
significantly heavier than ‘average’, while those carrying
extra meat and muscle can be twice the weight of a Pro-class
racer. With increased size comes larger musculature to give
it movement. Once you start training, that muscle can deliver
power most of us just dream about. Riders like our tester
James have the muscle ability to tear well-regarded frames
components to pieces without even crossing the lines of abuse,
whereas oversized downhillers have been known to destroy three
frames in a single race weekend, or round off steel bottom
bracket axles just with their initial power surge.

So if
you’re stooping or turning sideways to get through the bike
shop door what should you be looking out for to ensure reasonable
longevity? The bigger the diameter of a tube, the greater
its stiffness. Given that you’ll be providing a whole lot
of power, and throwing a lot more weight into corners, stiffness
is essential to keep everything going where you point it.
Look for big aluminium pipework such as Kleins, Cannondales,
Paces and a whole host of other aluminium oversizers that
have appeared. While many of these are marketed on a lightweight
tip, we’ve seen them being hammered by the big lads on a regular
basis and we can assure you that Gary Klein himself is no
nymph.

 
Gussets

Gussets,
extra sheets welded on at joints and other strengthening features
are flavour of the season, but check they are actually structurally
useful rather than just cosmetic. Frames built to survive
the abuse of downhilling may seem the obvious strong man’s
choice, but if you’re intending to use it for general riding
watch out for slack angles, single chainring designs and suspension
so soft it’ll be impossible to pedal anywhere efficiently.
Suspension is also a point of concern for the more imposing
gentleman. As we’ve already said, settings are normally developed
for lighter riders and not the support of major mass. Rear
suspension systems with a high leverage ratio, Cannondale,
VRX, Fisher and many others already use heavyweight springs
(700-800lb +) for normal rider weights. You’ll struggle to
find springs heavier than 1,000lb unless you head down the
local truck scrapyard – just winding on more pre-load isn’t
the answer – the coil will distort and destroy the shock body.
If you’re thinking of an airshock stop now. Very few are designed
to handle pressures greater than 300lb and when they blow
there’s no bouncy, get-you-home, coil spring-only option.

Downhill
set-ups may be developed to handle bigger impact loads but,
as we’ve said before, few of them are firm enough under power
for cross-country consideration. Also, suspension will always
need bearings and as these have to provide movement they’ll
always be a point of weakness. The more bearings, the more
chance of failure, and even if they have a warranty, you won’t
be happy spending half your life waiting for them to come
back in the post.

 
Get
Set Up

Forks
fare a little better thanks to the evolution of stiffer, stronger
units for the gravity crowd and these are the ones to go for.
As a general rule, the larger the overlap the better, and
as you’re going to need to increase the spring weight, first
check you can, then check the rebound, which can be adjusted
to cope. You’ll generally find that bikes have the same components
throughout their size range, and again it’s a cost/bulk thing,
but standard componentry has beefed up considerably since
the dangerous dieting of the early 90s. It seems to last fairly
well under our larger testers and other big riders we’ve questioned.
If it isn’t up to scratch or breakages and bending are a regular
problem then it’s time to look in the drawer marked ‘downhill’
again. Downhill cranks will provide greater stiffness and
impact durability if you can find triple chainring versions,
while bigger rims and tyres will keep you rolling with confidence.
The additional stopping power of disc brakes may prove useful
for those with a habit of abusing their extra momentum, and
it takes a load of heavy braking wear off the rims. Downhill
saddles with thicker rails will fare better under heavier
haunches and… I think you should detect a theme by now.
So where does this leave the bikes we tested? All of them
have big frame sizes but componentry is the same across the
size range. Fisher and Specialized get uprated spring weights
while the ‘Smart’ damping of the K2 fork stops harsh bottom-out
under heavy strikes.

 
SIze
Matters

You’re
probably getting the idea that — with a few notable exceptions
— manufacturers aren’t expending a whole lot of energy on
designing bikes for anyone but the ‘average’ rider because,
in true chicken and egg fashion, they’ve never sold many before.
Even where frames are altered it’s rare to see the package
completed with appropriate componentry but with a little research
there are some excellent platforms out there to build on.
Read the guidelines and advice here, then find a good local
dealer who can use their experience to help you. No matter
how long it takes, don’t give up — your perfect bike is out
there whatever your size and shape — and finding it will
revolutionise your riding.

 
Parts
to Watch

If you
insist on inflicting your cast-offs on to your partner and
still expect him or her to enjoy riding, then at least do
it properly.

Frame:
It has to be within spitting distance of the right size. At
least a couple of inches of crotch clearance over the top
tube and enough seatpost still inside the frame.

Suspension:
Whatever you’ve got it needs to be readjusted to suit new
rider weight. If you’re light and you can’t find the appropriate
soft spring set, just try removing the spring stack on one
side. Lots of forks only have the spring on one side anyway
and it’ll certainly feel plusher.

Componentry:
Unless you really need shopping counselling then you probably
changed bits on your bike when they were getting tired. So
why should they suddenly work like new when you fish them
out of the cupboard/shed again? It’s that old chestnut about
beginners needing equipment that functions flawlessly as they’ve
enough other stuff to fret about. If you got rid of it because
it was pig heavy, remember you’re now expecting someone inexperienced
and with much lower fitness levels to haul it up the hills.

Saddle:
No, they won’t get used to it, you’ll just get used to them
making excuses about why they can’t go riding and it’ll all
end in tears. Buy quality and think of it as investment.

Stem:
Yes, they alter reach but they also radically affect handling.
A shorter stem may stop a big bike feeling like a torturer’s
rack, but it’ll be almost impossible to keep in a straight
line — which tends to unnerve novices. On the flipside, a
long stem makes a bike feel bigger but it’ll develop an extremely
stubborn attitude to changing direction.

Tyres:
They’re either bald or you got rid of them for a reason. Change
them now before one of your riding mates lets out the fatal
“well no wonder if you were riding those” line while he’s
popping round with the ‘get well soon’ card.

 
Big
Blokes Bikes


Schwinn: aluminium bikes available in 23in

Cannondale: oversized tubing and most models
    available in a ‘jumbo’ size

Giant: lower-end models available in 23in,
    upper end stop at 21.5in

Raleigh: lower-end models 22in

Scott: most aluminium models up to 22in

Trek: 21in (but it’s big) with 24in
    special orders on lower end steel
bikes

Klein, Fisher, Bontrager all do an XL,
    which is roughly equivalent to 22in

 
Petite
Performance


Trek: apart from the ‘hen’s teeth’ WSD bikes,
    lower-end bikes drop down to 13in

Scott: ‘Solution’ frames are specifically
    downsized for women

Schwinn: ‘Sierra’ range, again specifically
    downsized for women

GT: ‘Anatomica’ range is – guess what -
    specifically downsized for women,
    while low-end models come in 12.5in
anyway

Klein: extra light and available in extra small as well

Fisher: again available in XS but that
    long top tube counters the short stem

Cannondale Killer V: dropped top tube means
    plenty of standover height

Fuji: short top tubes make a good female fit,
    even if it’s not intended

Univega: another short-reach frame range

Kona: long in the frame but that dropped top tube
    and small sizes (12.5in hardtail,
14in suspension)
    always seempopular

Specialized: 13in bikes in the lower ranges

Haro: also start at 13in for small budget riders

 

 

 

 

 

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