Bicycle Network: Women's Cycling
If the bike fits...
Why do so many women find it difficult to find a bike that fits well and why does it matter? Nicola Dunnicliff-Wells explores the issues around getting a good fit
Read the whole article or skip to a particular section, using the links below:
Selling to the majority
Why is fit so important anyway?
Common fit issues for women
What about 'women-specific' bikes?
What is frame geometry and why is it important?
So what's a girl to do?
Melissa Nicholls, 36, from Melbourne found it practically impossible to buy herself a new bike. At 148cm (4'11"), she wasn't able to even try many bikes because the shops simply didn't stock them in her size. Women-specific models were just entering the market in 2003 when she bought her bike and, although some were small enough for her to try, she wasn't happy with the frame geometry. In the end she decided that the only way to go was custom-made.
Read Melissa's and other women's stories
Melissa may be towards the shorter end of the height scale but she's certainly not alone when it comes to finding a bike that fits. While off-the-rack bikes fit plenty of women well (or well enough), a significant number have real trouble. Women (and men) at the shorter and taller ends of the scale have more trouble than most.
While the rise of women-specific bikes has focussed attention on women's fit issues, it's arguable as to whether they adequately address the issue. Some women need to make further adjustments to improve fit, while others look instead to custom builders to meet their needs.
Selling to the majority
The problem is that the market caters for the majority. Sydney frame builder Paul Hillbrick has built custom bikes for many women and men who have had difficulty finding an appropriate off-the-shelf model. Says Hillbrick: "If you fall into the minority, it's often not worth [the manufacturer's] while to produce your size. With anything taller or shorter [than the average], the volumes aren't as great so they're not interested. They want to stock and sell what they're going to sell the volume of."
For women, the problem is compounded by the fact that the majority are male. Bikes have, historically, been designed around the male body. However, women are more likely to be shorter and lighter than men, have proportionately longer legs and shorter torsos, longer femurs (thigh bones), shorter feet, smaller hands, wider sit bones and narrower shoulders. Given these differences, it's not surprising that so many women have difficulty finding a bike that's comfortable.
Why is fit so important anyway?
Former national champion cyclist Brigid Farrell works for Melbourne-based Kennedy Cyclefit and teaches bike handling and more advanced skills through her ladies road cycling group Pink Inc. She says: "It's three times harder for me to teach someone how to be confident on the bike, when they're not fitted properly - when all the weight's on the steering, they can't keep their head up, they're sore in groin, etc. Once they're properly set up on their bike, they'll improve out of sight, and they'll want to keep riding. Others who are not set up properly only ride a little bit because they get problems and have to go off and see the physio."
The view that poor fit is a major turnoff is echoed by Sydney-based Bike fit expert Steve Hogg in his article Sensitive Issues: "Generally the cycling experience for women can be summed up as: sore hands, stiff neck and shoulders and sore or chafed pubic area." Poor frame design, he asserts, is the reason that more women don't ride.
Hillbrick reckons that in general people are more concerned about the fit of their bike shoes than their bike, because they know what to look for in shoes but don't necessarily know what to look for in a bike fit. When it comes to checking bike fit, he says, “The normal industry standard is that the size of the bike is determined by the inseam - throw your leg over the bike and if you have clearance over the top tube it's right."
The problem, he says, is that the inseam length has nothing to do with the top tube length and the stem length. For correct bike fit, it's also important to take into account femur (thigh) length, torso, arm length and foot length.
Common fit issues for women
Women typically come up against a number of issues arising from the male-female difference in size and proportions.
Frame size: smaller women, especially those of 157cm (5'2") or less, may have difficulty finding a frame that is small enough.
Frame length: because women tend to have proportionately shorter upper bodies and longer legs than men, standard bikes may be too long in the top tube for many women. Straining to reach the handlebars can create pressure in the crotch, back, hands, shoulders and neck from placing more weight on their hands. This can be compounded by the need to set the seat further back (see seat tube angle).
Seat tube angle: the seat tube angle (and, to an extent, the amount of setback on the seat post and the fore-aft position of the saddle) determines the position of the saddle in relation to the bottom bracket (i.e. the pedal axle). This relationship has a major bearing on your comfort and stability on the bike. (See 'Why is seat tube angle so important' below).
Fit experts commonly recommend more relaxed seat angles to enable the rider to sit further behind the bottom bracket (the pedal axle), and suggest that women should sit even further behind the bracket because they (generally) have proportionally longer thighs. Nevertheless, most off-the-rack bikes have relatively steep seat tube angles. Furthermore, the smaller the frame size, the steeper the angle tends to be, which compounds the issues for women.
Crank length: most bikes come with 170mm (standard) cranks. The trouble, if you have short legs, is that you need shorter cranks in order to keep your cadence (pedalling speed) up.
Melissa Nicholls developed pain in her hip joint from using 170mm cranks: in order for her short legs to reach the bottom of the stroke, her seat was set lower than it otherwise should have been. She now uses 165mm cranks, which are available on some women-specific bikes (although anything shorter is very difficult to find).
Saddle: thankfully, women's saddles (which cater for wider sit bones) are now widely available and retailers are usually happy to change the saddle on a new bike if it's not comfortable.
Handlebars: your hands should sit shoulder-width apart on the bars, which, for many women, is narrower than the bars available on standard (men's) bikes. Apart from increasing the wind resistance, hands too wide can lead to sagging between the shoulders and eventual pain in the neck and shoulders.
Brake/gear levers: these often sit too far from the bars for small hands to reach easily. As a result, many women riding road bikes are afraid to ride in the drops (from where braking power is strongest) because they can't reach the levers. Short-reach levers are available for drop and flat bars, but are not common. More often, women adjust the standard levers to reduce the reach required.
Handlebar grips: some grips are too bulky for small hands, and can lead to aching and fatigued hands.
Suspension: shock absorbers are often designed for heavier riders, so may not work as well for lighter women riders.
Weight: Lightweight (read: high-end) components are less available on women-specific bikes; women are often encouraged (or want) to buy cheaper bikes that are, inevitably, heavier and harder to push (or lift).
What about women-specific bikes?
After decades of catering almost entirely for men (the low-end step-through frame being the tokenistic offering to women), the bike industry has woken up to the fact that there's a potentially huge market of cycling women who are not satisfied with the existing standard womens' models.
Manufacturers (if you believe the marketing) finally understand that women's bodies are different from men's and, now that the light bulbs have gone on, the industry is pumping women-specific models out there for all they're worth. In recent years, we've seen the rise of SUB (Sarah Ulmer Brand), Trek WSD (Women Specific Design), Specialized Designs for women, Fuji Women and more - in fact, look at any major brand website, and you'll find a page (if not a whole separate site) aimed at women.
The slick marketing of these companies would have you believe that they understand - indeed, have solved - every issue that women face with standard models. But have they really?
The market's acknowledgement that women have specific needs is certainly something to applaud. But don't take their word for it - a close look at specifications and geometry reveals that some women specific models are identical to the standard (or men's) model in every respect but saddle and colour.
That said, plenty offer a number of changes geared towards women, such as smaller frame sizes, women's saddles, shorter top tubes, narrower handlebars, shorter cranks, a triple chain ring or compact gearing, brake/gear levers with a shorter reach - and of course 'feminine' colours and styling.
This list of features might sound substantial - and certainly many of them can be of great help. However, despite the hype, Brigid Farrell doesn't believe women-specific bikes have changed things for women much at all. “They have a shorter top tube, different seat and bars, and a girly paint job and that's it,"she says. “They still have a very steep seat angle, etc."
Indeed, a major determinant of fit - the geometry - of women-specific bikes does not differ substantially from that of standard models.
What is frame geometry and why is it important?
The geometry of a bicycle frame is determined by the lengths of the various tubes (seat tube, top tube, head tube etc.) and the angles at which they are joined.
According to Paul Hillbrick, the critical aspects of frame geometry in relation to the fit of a bike are the seat tube angle, the head tube angle, the top tube length and the standover height (which will depend on the seat tube length, whether the top tube is horizontal or sloping and the height of the bottom bracket.) Look up the geometry of a bike on a manufacturer's website and you should find measurements for each of these aspects. Often others will be included as well.
Top tube length
Top tube length (or, on bikes with sloping top tubes, "effective top tube length') is one of the areas that manufacturers focus on with women-specific bikes. They know that women tend to be shorter in the upper body, tend to have shorter arms, and tend to complain of hand, shoulder and neck pain that they attribute to having to reach too far to the bars.
Many women-specific bikes have slightly shorter top tubes than standard models which, for some women has made a difference.
However, arguably more important than top tube length is the steepness of the seat tube angle, which has not been addressed by mass-produced women-specific frames. Indeed, some manufacturers have actually steepened the seat tube angle in order to shorten the top tube, which is the opposite of what many fit experts recommend.
Why is seat tube angle so important?
The seat tube angle determines the position of the saddle in relation to the bottom bracket (i.e. the pedal axle). Fit experts argue that this relationship is crucial to a comfortable fit.
The three points of contact on a bike are your seat, your feet and your hands. As Sheldon Brown points out in his Revisionist theory of bicycle sizing article: “Your butt and your feet are made to support weight, but your hands and wrists are not. Hand discomfort is a very common complaint among cyclists, and it is most often the result of positioning/adjustment problems."
Likewise, Steve Hogg argues that most of your weight should be on your seat. In his article Sensitive Issues, he writes: “The key to sitting on a bicycle comfortably, powerfully and above all, efficiently, is to sit in such a way that the pelvis is inherently stable...a rider's weight should be borne largely by the ischiums (sit bones) at the base of the pelvis. Correctly done, there will be no more weight on the hands than is necessary to steer and control the bike, nor will there be unnecessary pressure on the pubic area."
However, if your saddle is too far forward in relation to the bottom bracket, you won't be able to sit stably on your sit bones. Instead, your upper body will fall forward, which means you'll have to lean on your hands to support yourself. Sheldon Brown, in the above-mentioned article, illustrates this with an experiment:
- Stand in the middle of a room and lean your upper body forward into a cyclist's crouch.
- Now try the same thing, except back up against a wall before bending forward.
You'll find it impossible to get into the crouch position without holding on to something, or falling forward. This is because you cannot maintain front/rear balance while leaning forward without moving your butt back at the same time to counterbalance your upper body's forward position.
Steve Hogg gives a general rule of thumb to check saddle fore-aft and bar position in his article More sensitive issues: “Fit the bike to an indoor trainer. Change to a gear that requires significant effort to turn, yet you can maintain reasonable form. Place your hands on the drop bars or aero bars. While pedalling hard, suddenly remove hands from the bars and hold them out to the sides. Don't sit up. If you cannot support your upper body without your arms, your seat is too far forward."
In summary, a seat tube angle that is too steep puts the rider too far forward over the bottom bracket to be able to sit stably on their sit bones.
So what is a good seat tube angle?
Fit experts commonly recommend seat tube angles of around 70-73°, depending, of course, on the individual. Some in the trade argue that the tendency for women to have proportionately longer femurs, along with a higher gluteal mass (which pushes them further forward - especially when combined with a plush saddle), make it even more important for women to be able to position their seat further back.
The difficulty is that, on mass production bikes, the seat tube angle gets steeper as the frame gets smaller. This is because the industry uses standard sized parts such as forks and wheels on all models (to keep costs down), so it has to vary the seat tube angle (and/or the head tube angle) to shorten the top tube and allow for toe clearance.
This means that, even though the largest size frame of a particular model may have a seat tube angle of 72° or 73°, the smallest size is likely to have an angle of 75°. As it turns out, many women-specific models seem to have seat tube angles of 74-75°, even on the larger models.
The upshot is that there's a good chance that smaller women will be forced to sit too far forward in relation to the bottom bracket and may, as a consequence, be unable to maintain sufficient front-rear balance. It's more likely that they will have difficulty sitting stably on their sit bones; instead sitting on the sensitive pubic area and bearing too much weight on their hands.
So what's a girl to do?
Fortunately, many of us are able to get by on mass-produced bikes, in spite of the shortcomings. For those with fit difficulties, tricks like off-set seat posts and longer saddle rails may help (see Off-the-shelf); alternatively, a custom frame may be the best option.
The best way to fit a rider to a bike is the subject of wide (and often heated) debate. Nevertheless, whether you're in the market for a new bike, or your current bike feels less than ideal, fitwise, the best place to start is to get yourself fitted by someone with plenty of experience.
While some bike shops provide a good fitting service, others have woefully little knowledge in this area. Websites such as www.wrenchscience.com claim to provide the dimensions of your perfect bike, based on measurements that you type in. Perhaps a more reliable option is to engage the services of a professional bike fitter (some links are provided below), who will observe you in motion, as well as making a detailed assessment of your dimensions, flexibility and physical quirks.
Read stories of other womens' experiences
Off the shelf
What can you do to improve the fit of an off-the-shelf bike? Says Paul Hillbrick: “Basically you've really only got a couple of choices: crank length, stem length, bar width, where the seat is in relation to the bottom bracket and, obviously, saddle height."
There are ways to get the seat further back on a bike with a steep seat tube angle, for example: You can move the seat as far back on the rails as possible (obviously a seat with longer rails allows for greater adjustment); and you can fit a seatpost with greater offset, which positions the saddle further back. The drawback is that if the top tube is already on the long side, then the reach to the handlebars will be even further when the seat is put back.
In the end, you may have to compromise between fit and handling, as Hillbrick explains: “If you have to put on a super short stem to get the fit right, you have to be careful not to upset the balance of the bike. For example, if you put the seat as far back as possible and put on a short stem, you get too much weight to the rear, which makes the bike unbalanced [and] can affect the stability of the front end. The easiest way to understand it is to ride with no hands, sit back on the seat, ride over a few bumps and watch how the front wheel dances".
The best you'll get to a perfectly fitting bike is a custom or made-to-measure frame (assuming, of course, that the fit assessment on which the frame dimensions are based was accurate).
So when should you consider a custom frame? According to frame builder, Hillbrick, “If you ride a lot, you'll appreciate the comfort more. For anyone who wants to put in the kilometres, it's important to get something that fits well." Furthermore, he suggests that if you're suffering any discomfort, or you're of short stature, “the best move is to get yourself sized up - then you know what size you really are."
For 148cm (4'11") Melissa Nicholls who rides most days and races, a made-to-measure frame was the answer. She first got professionally fitted on her old bike, but wasn't all that happy: “I guess he did the best with the bike I had - it was an off-the-shelf bike that was way too big for me," she says. She looked for another bike without success, until she learned about custom-made bikes.
(Pic: courtesy Margo Conover at Luna Cycles)
What's the cost difference?
While Nicholls says she spent around double what she would have spent on an off-the-shelf bike, Hillbrick says, “Look, I think that in some cases, you'd probably find with a made-to-measure Australian-made bike, you'd probably find yourself paying around 25% extra. With made-to-measure, there's no compromise - you can get what you want or what you need. You don't need to spend money later on changing the stem etc." Perhaps by way of justification, he adds, “For the customer, we live in Australia, we work in Australia and that's why we don't work for Chinese wages. In reality, the difference might be only around $20 a week for a year, which is nothing for the extra comfort."
When you're in the market for a new bike, it pays to check the fit carefully before you buy. Here's a summary of what to look at:
- standover height
- seat and head tube angles
- top tube length
- crank length
- saddle (including length of rails)
- bars (width, plus size of drops, reach)
- levers (reach)
- shock absorbers
Web articles on bike fit and geometry
Sheldon Brown on frame sizing (bike fit)
Wikipedia - on frame geometry
Wikipedia - on handlebars
Wrench Science - find the bike size right for you
Peter White - on bike fitting
Steve Hogg's articles about fit (scroll down for links to Sensitive issues and More sensitive issues articles.)
Shecycles - on women and mtb fitting (UK-based women's cycling website)
Luna Cycles (US frame builder, Margo Conover)
Cycling Promotion Fund - bikes for women
Cyclefitcentre.com (Steve Hogg, Sydney)
Kennedy Cyclefit (John Kennedy and Brigid Farrell, Melbourne), incorporating Pink Inc.
Hillbrick Racing Frames (Paul Hillbrick, framebuilder, Sydney) - provides a fitting service and will refer to other dealers throughout Australia with the technical knowledge to provide fit advice
Bike Now (bike shop, Melbourne)
Cecil Walker Cycles (bike shop, Melbourne - uses Fit Kit)
Hendry Cycles (Ocean Grove, Victoria) - Stephen Draper is Victoria's only Serrotta USA certified bike fitter and has completed over 1000 bike fits during the last 13 years.
Bike Coach (Sunbury, Victoria) - Chris Steffanoni is a bike fit specialist recommended to us by a Member. Her back problems had led her to give up recreational road riding but following a consultation with Chris, she's now back on her road bike three days a week.
Can you recommend other fitting services? Please tell us!
Comment on this issue or this article at our Women's Cycling Forum