Most bikes are designed for men. Here’s how to make them more suitable for women…
There are all sorts of differences between men and women, but for the purposes of making a bike fit some are more important than others. Probably the most fundamental is the proportions of the body – for a given height, women tend to have longer legs and shorter torsos than men. Also likely to prove important is that the ischial tuberosities (the pointy bony bits in the bum that you sit on) are generally further apart in women than in men (note to men: This does not mean that women have large bums. This is worth remembering).
On average, women are shorter than men too, but this means that a lot of women-specific bike stuff only comes in small sizes leaving taller women struggling a bit. But fear not, suitable corrections can be made to pretty much any bike.
Women-specific bikes tend to have smaller frames, steeper seat angles and shorter top tubes than typical men’s bikes. This is all well and good if you haven’t got a bike yet or you’re in the market for another one, but if you’ve already got a bike chances are you can make it more suitable for relatively little cost. The other thing with women-specific bikes is that different manufacturers make them different shapes as they do with men’s bikes. If you’re buying a new bike, try plenty and try men’s bikes too – often short men find that bikes intended for women fit better, so there’s no reason that a man’s bike won’t fit you best.
Our sizing article gives some handy rules of thumb for riding position and they’re as valid for women as for men. If you’re just starting riding, you may be more confident with a more upright riding position – it makes it easier to see where you’re going for a start.
The tricky part is getting the right compromise between saddle height and reach from seat to bars. A typically-proportioned woman on a typical man’s bike will often find that with the saddle height right the bars are too far away, and that a bike that feels the right length is too small to get the seat to the right height. If you’ve already got a bike that you can get a good saddle height and reasonable standover height on but feels a bit long, then try moving the saddle forward on its rails. If you’ve run out of adjustment and you’ve got a seatpost with layback (with the saddle clamped behind the line of the post) then try swapping the post for an in-line model (with the saddle clamped directly above the post). This’ll let you move the saddle further forward, neatly emulating the steeper seat angle and shorter top tube of the pukka woman’s bike.
If you still need shorter reach, try a slightly shorter stem. Don’t go mad, but most bikes will happily take a 20mm shorter stem than the one supplied without going too squirrely. If you have to put a really, really short stem on to get the reach right then the frame might just be too long, in which case your only option is to get a smaller one. Don’t worry about getting one that needs lots of seatpost sticking out. As long as the post is inserted to the maximum height line, you’ll be fine. If you’re light, you can generally run a longer seatpost (400-425mm rather than the usual 350mm) with no problems and this can be a good way to get a frame the right length.
Saddles are enormously subjective things at the best of times, and women’s saddles are even more so. Find a saddle that one rider thinks is the most comfy saddle in the world ever and you can guarantee that someone else will consider it an instrument of torture. The only upside of this is that many women you’ll encounter on the trails will have tried a bunch of saddles and will be only too happy to let you have a go on theirs or suggest alternatives.
Traditional women’s saddles are very wide (to accommodate those wider sit bones), squishy and short front to back, but that width isn’t necessarily useful off-road. For a start, an over-wide saddle can cause unpleasant chafing on the legs, and an excessively wide saddle is difficult to move over the back off for descending, which isn’t very confidence inspiring.
As they’re so subjective, it’s difficult to give recommendations but saddles that at least some women have liked include the Fi:zi’k Vitesse, most of the Terry range, WTB Laser She, Selle Italia LDY and Specialized Body Geometry. You’ll see a lot of saddles with holes in the front to relieve pressure on your tender bits, although the absence of a hole doesn’t necessarily indicate an uncomfortable saddle.
The saddle position can make a huge difference. Most women find that positioning the saddle slightly nose-down works best, to put more weight on the sit bones. This is also a reason not to have too upright a riding position – a more forward position puts more weight on the arms and correspondingly less on the seat.
There’s a host of other products available to fine tune your fit, if you need them. If you’ve got small hands, then thin grips and short-reach brake levers will be useful. Don’t run a really wide bar if you’ve got narrow shoulders – if you need a narrower bar look for one that’s got plenty of straight, unbulged bar where the grips and controls go so you’ve got room to cut it down.
There’s plenty of other stuff you can do too, although most of it applies mainly to short people of either sex – short cranks and so on.
The main thing is to experiment a bit. Bikes aren’t meant to be uncomfortable, so if yours is there’s probably something wrong somewhere. Try to think about your riding position and break it down until you can identify what’s wrong where. Don’t be afraid to change stuff – if it’s already uncomfortable you’re fairly unlikely to make it worse…