Do I really need a women’s specific road bike?

Me on my Specialized Amira Expert completing Loop the Lake in early 2011

There appears to be a little bit of conjecture about this subject so I thought I’d do a bit of research and give you my own opinion about women specific bikes or WSD (women specific design) bikes as many of the manufacturers call them.

Firstly I should tell you that I ride a women’s specific bike – a six-month old Specialized Amira Expert road bike which I love. I call it ‘Speedy’ but it’s really a bit of a joke with myself because I’m not exactly a speedy rider (although my average speed continues to increase over time so maybe one day I’ll really deserve the name).

My first bike was a Jamis road bike which was also women’s specific although probably didn’t have as many ‘women’s specific’ modifications as my Specialized.

So you could conclude that I ‘believe’ in the WSD philosophy and that would be quite true. However not every woman probably needs a WSD bike. For some, if you don’t ride a great deal then a bike that’s roughly the right size is going to suffice. Also, if you’re tall or not a ‘typical’ women’s dimensions then it may also not be necessary. On average, women have shorter torsos, shorter arms, and longer legs than a man of the same height. Women’s hands and feet are smaller, and shoulders are narrower………. and – no surprises here – women’s hips are wider. The important thing to note here is that these differences refer to averages and of course we’re not all average. I’m shortish – 160 cm or 5 foot 3 inches, and I think for that reason a WSD is for me.

So what makes a women’s specific bike different from men’s or unisex ones you may ask. The bike manufacturers that produce women’s bikes have varied approaches. Some modify a stock “unisex” frame by changing to a shorter stem, smaller handlebars, shorter cranks and a wider saddle. Others take a more comprehensive approach, actually designing women’s specific frames differently – often with a shorter top tube, a more relaxed head tube angle, a taller head tube, and perhaps a slightly steeper seat tube angle.

Besides frame geometry, there are many other modifications like narrower or smaller handlebars, the brakes and shifters can be sized for smaller hands, the saddle can be wider in the rear to accommodate a woman’s wider sit bones and perhaps have a cut-out to prevent soft tissue damage. It’s all starting to sound a bit scientific now.

I have read some comments by critics who say that WSD bikes are a just a marketing gimmick and maybe they are right, or at least partially right, so you really have to make up your own mind.

My bike is comfortable for me to ride. I never get a sore back or sore anything for that matter except on really long rides (for me that’s over 80 km) so I’d have to conclude that the WSD thing works for me.

Late last year my lovely partner Phillip, who also rides, researched and put a shortlist together of all the WSD road bikes available in Australia. My minimum specification was Shimano Ultegra, full carbon frame and it couldn’t be pink or have anything pink on it. That eliminated a few great brands like Bianchi which only does WSDs up to 105 gearing and Giant which from memory had an obscenely bubble gum pink bike in the range.

So our shortlist consisted of Trek (also later eliminated for having pale pink on the bike), Cannondale, Giant (they had another model that wasn’t pink) and Specialized. The next step was to visit a few bike shops which regrettably, other than the women’s shop at Clarence Street Cyclery rarely carry more than one or two WSDs in their shops. That means you have to buy something potentially without ever having seen it or more importantly sat on it.

Fortunately for me (and for Specialized) I had visited a ride test day at Homebush a few months earlier where Specialized had set up a ‘test’ centre with a huge range of all their road and mountain bikes and allowed people to actually ride around the roads and test them out. They had different sizes of all their bikes and that’s where I met ‘Speedy’. It was great to be able to actually test out the bikes on the roads I usually ride on including the very bumpy Hill Road. I actually had no intention of buying a bike in the near future when I visited this great marketing innovation but I certainly stored the information in the back of my mind for future reference. If you ever hear of Specialized or any other manufacturer doing something similar I’d recommend you go along.

So the rest is history, after comparing a few of the available WSDs Phillip and I found ourselves at Ashfield Cycles where we placed our order a few weeks before Christmas. Sadly I had to wait until early February to take delivery but it was well worth the wait.

In conclusion I’d recommend you talk to your local bike shop and quiz them about their views on WSDs and your suitability to one. But don’t fall for the bargain bike that is last year’s model that they really want to get rid of, particularly if it’s not the right size for you. It will only lead to pain and suffering.

I’d love to hear the views of others on this subject. What’s your own experience been?

7 comments

  • Good article. How about an article on women in bike clubs….and how to get them to race more often!

    • Good idea. I’ll put that on my list of upcoming posts. Thanks for being my first commenter. Much appreciated.

  • Nicola congratulation on your Blog, great reading and very informative, a great lead in to getting more women cycling. It is a great sport both socially and physically.

  • Thanks Les. It’s a healthy addiction I think.

  • Great Blog Nicola! Glad the Amira is working out well for you :)

  • Sherylee Overland

    Being a “newbie” to the sport I have found your article very informative. Modifying an existing bike to suit my requirements is not easy and your explanations have helped explain many issues. To me a very important concern was the safety issue. Just “plonking” a helmet on the head was not an option. I was unaware of the fact women’s heads are a different shape to men’s. Where a unisex helmet was ok it wasn’t the best option available. I have purchased a females helmet. Hopefully I will not need to put it to the test.

    • Thanks Sherylee for your feedback. I plan to tackle the issues of other female-specific gear in future posts including clothing, shoes and other stuff.