In addition to the concerns that every cyclist faces in road cycling, from buying the right bike to learning to ride in a peloton, women have a set of additional challenges. The good news is that the bike industry has come to appreciate women cyclists and in many instances does an excellent job of creating products that cater to women’s particular needs.
Professional cyclist Dotsie Bausch, a four-time National Champion and Pan-American Games Gold Medalist, offered her insight into some of the issues women face as cyclists. As both a racer and coach, Bausch knows what it means to be a serious cyclist.
Geometry and Wheel Size
Had a woman invented the road bike, it probably wouldn’t have 700C wheels. [standard industry style is no space between “700” and “C”—just 700C.]Because most women aren’t as tall as the average man, they need frame sizes that are, relatively speaking, rather small. The issue here is that as the frame size shrinks the wheelbase shrinks, decreasing the front-center and creating what is called “toe overlap.” Sometimes a frame is so small that when clipped into the pedals, a sharp turn of the handlebar can cause the tire to contact the toe of the shoe if the pedal is forward (cranks parallel to the ground).
Toe overlap really isn’t the end of the world, but it makes most riders nervous and Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) regulations require a certain minimum front-center distance to prevent it from happening. This issue becomes most acute when designing bicycles for people 5 foot 5 inches and shorter.
In fact, under normal riding circumstances, no one ever turns the bar far enough to make toe overlap occur. The only time it ever occurs is during stops and starts, because to turn the bar that far and stay upright (even without experiencing toe overlap) you need to be moving at less than 8 mph. A sharp turn of the bar as you roll out can cause it to happen on occasion, but it is no threat under normal riding circumstances.
One of the solutions to toe overlap has been to build bicycles around smaller wheels. Some bikes have used 24-inch front wheels while other bikes use 650C wheels front and rear. While either of these solutions resolves the issue with toe overlap, they both suffer two liabilities:
1. Finding high-performance tires and tubes in odd sizes can be as difficult as finding an accountant with a sense of humor. They are out there, but no sooner does one company introduce a new option than another is discontinued due to poor sales. God forbid you should have more flats than you have tubes, as the odds of another rider having your size are poorer than you’ll get at a casino.
2. Bikes with smaller wheels aren’t as stable as ones with 700C wheels. The smaller the wheel is, the less centrifugal force it generates. This means these bikes, despite the designer’s efforts to offset the effect (usually by increasing trail), means these bikes lean into turns more suddenly and don’t hold a line as well. While the bikes are plenty stable, the difference in handling between a bike with a 24-inch front wheel or 650C wheels and the other bikes in a peloton is noticeable and can unnerve both rider and peloton.
Neither of these is really enough to discount using a bike with smaller wheels; after all, one of the top priorities with any bike purchase should be to find one that fits. What it does mean is that anyone riding a bike with smaller wheels will have to put more work into learning how to hold a line and how to turn with the rest of the pack.
“If you have toe overlap because of your smaller frame, don’t stress on its effect in a race or training ride,” Bausch says. “You will never turn the wheel far enough in those situations for it to matter. You may just embarrass yourself from time to time when departing the coffee shop.”
While some manufacturers offer special women’s bikes, a purpose-built women’s bike isn’t absolutely necessary to achieve optimal fit. What is most necessary is a fitting by a technician with experience fitting women. To achieve optimal fit, women frequently need not only a shorter stem but also a smaller handlebar. Women have narrower shoulders relative to men and are usually more comfortable with a correspondingly narrower bar.
Similarly, some bars are made with a short reach to decrease the distance from the bar to the lever. This is a big help to anyone with smaller hands—not just women. And thanks to new designs from SRAM, Campagnolo, and Shimano, brake lever throw is now adjustable to bring the lever closer to the bar, eliminating the difficult reach for many riders.
Small vs. Women’s-specific
Bicycle comfort is dictated by a number of factors: frame geometry, fit, component selection, and frame stiffness. Of these, frame stiffness doesn’t usually reveal itself until you actually ride the bike. Some women face the exact opposite issue that some men face—finding a bicycle that isn’t too stiff.
Production bicycles are designed based on averages. Were a road bike manufacturer to make but one frame to fit as many people as possible, it would probably be a 56 centimeter (cm); it’s closest to the average of the height distribution. On average, women are shorter, lighter, and generate less power than men. Even when considered against men of the same height, most women are lighter and generate less power.
The issue is that as bicycle frames get smaller, the shorter tubes make them stiffer, all other factors being equal. Ideally, each frame size should have the same sensation of flex for an appropriately sized rider. With steel, aluminum, and titanium tubing, a frame builder can specify smaller-diameter and thinner-walled tubes to yield a frame of appropriate stiffness for women riders. Similarly, with carbon fiber, engineers can design a frame with smaller-diameter tubes and fewer plies of carbon fiber to result in a frame of appropriate stiffness for women riders.
Of course, this is one occasion when ordering a custom bike can really pay off. Some builders not only offer made-to-measure fitting, but a flex pattern customized to your strength and weight. Because it can be difficult to judge small changes in tubing diameter, and it’s impossible to gauge wall thickness, look for women’s-specific components on production bikes, such as saddle and handlebar. And be prepared to ask a lot of questions.