I cringe every time I hear the term “women’s-specific” in reference to bike frame design.
The case has been made over and over again—women are shorter, women have longer legs, women have shorter torsos and arms than men, and therefore, they need smaller bike frames. Well, the statistics remain debatable, which leads to the important question: Do you really need a women’s bike?
Over the past 25 years, I’ve seen nearly every setup and position imaginable. First, there was the seventies’ and eighties’ bigger-is-better fit, where having about an inch to spare between your top tube and crotch was considered a “perfect fit.” And then there were the various combinations of 650 and 700c wheels—on the same bike no less. The latter has never made for nimble bike handling. Today, even the tallest riders strive for the smallest frame that they’re able to fold themselves onto.
If you go to a custom frame builder, they don’t build a women’s or men’s frame, they design a frame for your body. Free from terminology, you’re measured and you choose exactly what fits, all without being persuaded by fabricated gender appropriateness. Now, look at various stock bikes, remove gender, name, and color, and you basically just have a bike.
But, what’re the differences touted in women’s bikes verses “unisex” bikes? First, there’s stand over height. If you’re less than 5’2″, you most likely have a short inseam. Women’s frames tend to have a sloped top tube that effectively decreases stand over height. But, they aren’t women’s frames just because of the sloped top tube. In fact, there’re plenty of men with short inseams who would be very happy to have a little extra clearance. The compact frame design of the early 2000s featured an aggressively sloped top tube, and it was the hallmark of high-end racing bikes. At one point a whole peloton of men rode bikes that looked too short for them. But a smaller bike equates to less weight, so it was considered as a means to an end.
Secondly, the head tube height on a “women’s” frame is often taller. A taller head tube equates to a more upright position. It’s worth noting, though, that many newer or less flexible riders prefer this over a more aggressive position. Notice that I didn’t say “female” riders. Less flexibility, especially in the hips, means that a rider will be more comfortable in a more upright position, regardless of their gender. Having a taller head tube, however, doesn’t solely constitute a women’s frame. In actuality, it’s easier to adjust cockpit height on a shorter head tube, as opposed to utilizing multi/reverse-angled stems that negatively affect bike handling. And for this reason, you’ll find taller head tubes on bikes that are more focused on providing long-haul-comfort.
Finally, we’ve come to the remedy. Bikes are traditionally sized using the length of the top tube as measurement. What this doesn’t take into account, though, are the two primary touch points of a cyclist—the handlebars and pedals. Instead, it only dictates how far your seatpost is from your headset. “Stack and Reach” were defined to relate to how a rider interfaces with a bike. Basically, reach is the horizontal length from the center of the crank spindle to the center-top of the head tube, and stack is the vertical height between the same two points. These two numbers may be measured across any brands and compared one-to-one. And once you know what measurements fit, you’re able to customize the bike by choosing the saddle, handlebars, and other touch points that fit your body and your style of riding.
However, the question still begs to be asked, if a “unisex” frame might fit you, why are manufacturers so quick to take you straight to the women’s frames? Well, for one, it’s easy to market them. They don’t require any extra effort on the salesman’s part—no need to show you saddle options or to explain why a different shifter may fit your hands better. In other words, it’s the easy way out.
I recommend that you ignore the gender tags on bikes. Don’t be afraid to try one, or two, or even three. Ultimately, you need to choose one that fits you. If that bike happens to be a “women’s frame,” then go for it—just don’t feel pressured to conform to any stereotypes. Instead, just go with what works.