KILDARE CYCLING COLUMN: The evolution of women’s bikes

Conor McHugh gives his views

Leinster Leader Reporter

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KILDARE CYCLING COLUMN: The evolution of women’s bikes

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We must be brave enough to face orthodoxy and maybe even move past it. But we must also acknowledge that sometimes a point of view is an orthodoxy because it is true.

That was the conclusion reached in an interesting article on Cyclingtips.com, which asked the question: Where have all the women’s bikes gone?

A brief potted background — about 20 years ago, all bikes were unisex, which was an unsatisfactory position for women.

Either they were lucky enough to get one that fitted, or they contorted their bodies to make one fit.

Bikes were not, as was claimed unisex, but in fact made for men.

They about 10 to 15 years ago, a notion went around the bike industry that women needed different shaped bicycles because, (and this became the orthodoxy) it was believed that if you put a man and a woman of equal height side by side, the woman would have longer legs and the man would have a longer torso.

Apparently this came from some measurements carried out for the US military.

As a result, a thing called WSD or Women Specific Design was developed by Trek, and the notion was adopted by some of the other big manufacturers.

Generally speaking it resulted in a different geometry, generally speaing less aggressive with the handlbars closer to the rider, but with the front forks raked at more of an angle to avoid having a shorter bike.

Now, there are a couple of things to say about that. The first is that this was a very comfortable satisfactory solution for some women, and some women were perfectly comfortable on a unisex (man’s) bike.

Secondly, an approach known as ‘pink and shrink’ was adopted by some manufacturers, whose approach to female cyclists involved mainly smaller bikes and a pink paint job.

And if truth be told, in the case of some brands, it was abit of a cod, nothing more than a bit of marketing.

In more recent years, some of the biggest brands, like Trek and Specialized, who had developmed and successfully brough to market very good women’s models, have quietly dropped them from their lineup.

To be clear, that wasn’t because they had given up on the women’s market. It was because they had come to the conclusion, in their own ways, that they were unncessary.

For instance, Specialized looked at the measurements gathered by the bike fitting company Retul and concluded that the whole longer legged, shorter torsoed vision of womenhood, was in fact all nonsense.

They have decided that women are better served by women specific accessories, such as narrower handlebars, shorter reach to brake levers, shorter stems, and of course, female specific saddles.

And they’re probably not far wrong in that respect.

Meanwhile Liv, and Canyon in particular aren’t entirely on the same page as that.

Canyon had access to the measurements of all their customers (because you have to fill our a huge questionaire online when you’re buying one) and concluded that the signifcant difference between the sexes was arm length, meaning that women had shorter ones.

Hence, higher headsets and shorter stems. Fair enugh.

Liv, then, is the outlier, sticking to different geotmetry.

Their comment was that they don’t adapt a male bike, they design and build from the ground up for women. “We look at how women’s bodies are built and work while riding, and build the frame around that,” Bonnie Tu, founder of Liv Cycling explained.

If my own personal experience of spending years helping people new to cycling to get comfortable is anything to go by, the main thing missing from the conversation is height.

A tall woman, say, 5 feet 8in plus, can easily adjust a man’s bike to suit them. That’s generally achieved with a combination of a shorter stem and narrower handlerbars.

It’s when a woman is ‘petite’ that something more radical is required. A 5ft 1 inch woman is either left making do with the size 48 version of a man’s bike, or they’re going for the women’s specific geometry (which these days is usually a Liv).

The last thing is the hoary question of colour.

Most women in my experience, place a far greater emphasis on the colour of their bike than men. To many, the colour comes before either the brand or the specifications.

That’s not to say they want pink. Some women adore it, some hate it.

I don’t care either way. In the Galway Cycle we’ve put thought and work into everything that makes cycling attractive to women and we’ve come a long way towards that.

In 2006 only two out of the 64 cyclists who completed the trip were women.

In April of this year, it was 55% out of the 150 odd. Some wore pink and some didn“t, but all of them found cycling a more welcoming pursuit than they would have done 20 years ago — and that’s sounds good to this column.