Women are some of our favorite customers. We think everybody should ride a bike — or at least have the opportunity to ride a bike — regardless of they way they’re plumbed or whatnot. Many (all?) forward-thinking bike companies have embraced female riders to one extent or another. Speaking as a person who spends a lot of time making sure people are on bikes that fit, I think some femme bikes hit the spot very nicely, while others just muddy the water.
Warning: my number one proofreader says that this article is dry as toast and that it would be OK to skip to the bottom.
Generally speaking, fit becomes more critical as a person occupies a single position on a bike for longer periods of time. For instance, triathletes and time trialists get into an aero position and don’t move around much. Mountain bikers, on the other hand, are often bucked out of the saddle or are otherwise moving about to put English into the bike. Triathlon bikes are extremely fit intensive, while mountain and cross are perhaps less so. This is not to say that you can’t get it completely wrong, only that fit tends to be a little bit less fussy. The things that matter a lot in bike fit are the frame and those parts that we refer to as the “touch points,” primarily the saddle and bars.
Touch points are easy for us. We stock terrific ladies saddles. We stock lots of handlebars. These are easy changes provided the geometry of the frame works… and we’re pretty good at figuring out the proper frame size.
Lately we’ve had discussion about ladies’ bikes, specifically ladies cross bikes. More specifically a lady said that she might be more inclined to purchase a ladies-specific cross bike, which is something that Pedal does not carry. So I did what nerds do; I started looking at geometery charts and putting data in a spreadsheet and the next thing you know, I had a scatter plot.
This chart may require a little bit of unpacking for those not used to modern bike geometry terminology. I use two dimensions to clarify the fit — not the handling characteristics, just the fit — of a bike, stack and reach. Stack and Reach are the Y and X coordinates of the top of the head tube with respect to the bottom bracket. Here’s a terrible picture that might illustrate these numbers.
The two crossing yellow lines represent the center of the bottom bracket of this bike. The intersection of the two magenta (?) lines represents the center of the top of the head tube. So: the distance between the horizontal yellow line and the horizontal magenta line is this bike’s Stack. The distance between the vertical yellow line and the vertical magenta line is this bike’s Reach. For the sake of completeness, this bike has a Reach of 421mm and a Stack of 630mm.
While I was doing an interview for one of the top biker dating sites around on ladies cross bikes, the cross bikes I examined included some that we sell and one in particular that we don’t. Since we’re talking ladies cross bikes, I looked at the smaller end of the scale. Frankly, this has been the historical challenge — getting a woman under about 5’5” on a cross bike in an appropriate, comfortable position.
Here’s the data. Each bike occupies two columns of data. Reach data is under the bike’s name and stack data is labeled to the immediate right. Rows represent different sizes. A sense of perspective is also important. Note that the difference in reach between the shortest bike (the smallest Dolce) and the longest (the largest Brava) is 23mm, just under an inch.
What are these bikes? The Dolce is the Dolce Evo, the ladies version of the Specialized Diverge, which is more of a gravel bike or a bigger-tired road bike than a cross bike, but it is appropriate for many of our customers. The Jake is Kona’s cross bike, with which we have had great success fitting petite women. The Liv Brava is a ladies-specific cross bike, and is basically the bike that spawned this research. The Crux is Specialized’s cross bike.
OK. Beautiful chart! What does it mean? The small Crux is very appropriate for small ladies. The reach is quite short (shorter still than the ladies-specific Liv Brava) and the stack is just fine. Our traditional go-to bike for petite ladies, the Jake, also has a very short reach, but is a bit taller than the smallest Brava. The Dolce Evo, while not technically a cross bike, has a very short reach coupled with a very low stack height. This bike might be perfect for a petite lady looking for a more aggressive position.
Stack and reach data suggests that the ladies-specific frame is very similar to the “unisex” frames from Kona and Specialized. Add a ladies-specific saddle (and BOY are companies spending a lot of money trying go get that right) and perhaps a narrower bar to a Jake or Crux, and I’d contend that the result would be every bit as compelling as the ladies-specific cross bike.
Some folks would like to say, “It’s ladies-specific, so it’s better!” Others might like to say that it doesn’t matter. Both are at least partially correct, at least as far as this selection of cross bikes goes. The ladies-specific cross bike is nice, but there’s nothing intrinsic to the fit that cannot be accomplished with other unisex frames. That said, touch points are important, and the addition of a ladies saddle and an appropriate-width bar can make the difference between pleasure and pain.