Buying a road bike is a confusing process, let alone trying to understand the difference between gender-specific versions. So what defines a women’s road bike and do you need one? This article explains the key differences a good women’s road bike offers and should help you decide on whether it’s right for you.
Typically speaking, women's body shapes, dimensions and muscle composition differ significantly from men's. Not everyone fits these criteria (and the jury is still out regarding specific research into some of these areas), but the generalizations many bike manufacturers work off are that women are more flexible, shorter, have wider hips, narrower shoulders and shorter torsos comparative to leg length.
The wider hips result in an increased Q angle and wider sit bone placement. The Q angle is measured from the bony protuberance on the side of your hip (otherwise known as the Anterior Superior Iliac Spine) against a vertical straight line running through the center of the patella (knee cap).
As a result of this, a number of bigger bike companies have started to tailor frame geometry and bike design away from the traditional unisex approach. While other brands don’t do women’s specific bikes, sticking with the belief that a smaller frame, a women’s saddle and narrower handlebars are all that's needed.
To account for an average shorter height, frame sizes in women's bikes start lower and don't extend as far into larger sizes when compared to unisex frames.
To customize the bikes for shorter torsos and longer legs, many women's frames have a shorter reach, greater stack height, and lower standover height. The reach is primarily reduced by shortening the effective top tube length and reducing the stem length. This combination with a greater stack height puts riders in a more upright, comfortable position. The top tube will also slope downwards to a greater degree to allow for a lower standover height for easier straddling of the bike.
Read our How to Use Bike Geometry Charts and What They Mean article to get a better understand of frame geometry and what impact it has on your ride.
The contact points of a bike are the saddle, handlebars and pedals. While pedals are often considered an additional purchase with a road bike these days, the handlebar and saddle are supplied. A good women's bike should feature a women's specific saddle, and a handlebar with suitable dimensions.
Because of the wider sit bones and increased Q angle, women's saddles (pictured left above) generally feature wider contact points for the sit bones and a broader overall shape to account for wider hips. While this isn't unique to female saddles, many feature a cut-out channel that alleviates pressure on soft tissues, improving blood flow and preventing numbness.
Looking to the front of the bike, women's road bikes should feature handlebars that are narrower with reduced reach/drop to suit narrower shoulders and a shorter torso (pictured left above). Reach refers to the distance the bar extends forward from the clamp area and drop refers to the vertical distance from the clamp area to the lowest part of the bar. Another aspect of handlebar design is the shape of the drop section, with many women's handlebars tailored to suit shorter fingers for easier reach to the brake levers.
The final unique features are the length of the crank arms and choice of gearing. While it's not actually a contact point, crank length plays an important factor in comfort and performance, and so crank length is often on the shorter side to promote more efficient pedaling. This is not too different to unisex bikes, where smaller frames sizes come with shorter cranks too.
Brake reach: There's few things that will break your confidence quicker than not being able to reach the brake levers. In addition to handlebar shape, many women's bikes come with brake levers fitted with wedges or adjustment screws that allow the brake lever to sit closer to the handlebar, making the lever easier to reach.
Frame design: As well as changes to size and geometry, some brands change the material layup of premium frames to better suit a lower weight rider. This results in greater compliance, or comfort and in rare cases, a lighter bike too.
Style: A factor of many women’s bikes is the aesthetic design, with brighter colours being a common theme in current bikes. Women’s bikes have certainly come a long way since this aspect was the key feature.
Do I actually need a gender-specific bike?
In short, it depends. The main benefit of a women’s specific road bike is that it is ready to go off the shelf and you’re likely to get a better ride experience if you fit the generalizations listed above. Any bike can be adjusted enough to make it fit but the more you adjust, the more you move away from how the bike was intended to handle, feel and perform. When constructing a women's bike, specific geometry, unique contact points, and a tailored fit are accounted for so only minor changes are required, as opposed to wholesale changes that might be required to make a unisex bike fit and feel just as well. Read our Ultimate Guide to Buying a Road Bike article to get a comprehensive understanding of all the information to find the perfect road bike for you.