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Women's Bike Buyer's Guide

By Olivia Kaferly

Are you just getting into cycling and buying your first bike? Or, are you searching for an addition to your bike collection after years of experience? In either case, the sheer number of bikes available today can make it difficult to narrow down the options to suit your particular needs. Plus, most of the bike-buying resources out there are geared toward men, often ignoring the questions women need answered.

Buying a bike should be exciting. This guide is intended to help women alleviate some of the stress of buying a bike, and narrow down and organize the choices so you can find the perfect bike more easily. When you find exactly what you like, the purchase will be all that more rewarding. If you’re looking to take the plunge with a new pre-owned or Certified Pre-Owned bike, this will help you get started.

The best part about buying used, especially with an option like Certified Pre-Owned bikes, is that it’s easier and more affordable than ever to get on a high-quality used bike. If you have any questions, our Ride Guides are always here to help you on your journey.

Contents

Two women on a bike ride

Rider type

This guide is intended for women in particular, but I like to think that some of these issues are universal. Hopefully, there are some guys who will find this useful as well. When you start looking for a bike, some of the first questions are: What type of rider are you? What will your goals be? What types of terrain will you want to explore?

With all the segmentation and choice in bike designs, these might be more difficult questions to answer than you think. Will you want to stick to smoothly paved roads and cityscapes? Are you hoping to head into the backcountry and off the beaten path onto some country gravel roads? Or do you want to go into the woods and hit twisting singletrack and rock gardens?

Once you answer all those questions, you may just come to the conclusion that you need more than one bike!

Nevertheless, thinking about the type of riding you want to do will help you narrow down the choices to one of the three basic bike types: Road, Gravel, or Mountain. Of course, within each category, there are multiple sub-categories. If you want to learn more about the different types of bikes available, take a look at some of our detailed buyer’s guides.

Road Bike Buyer’s Guide
Gravel / Cyclocross Bike Buyer’s Guide
Mountain Bike Buyer’s Guide

What makes a bike women’s specific?

When you first start looking to buy a bike, you’ll notice that there are generally two camps: those companies that make women’s specific bikes and those that do not. Non-women’s bikes aren’t necessarily “men’s” bikes. Generally, they are considered unisex. And often, if a brand doesn’t have women’s specific models, they will try to provide enough sizing options, especially smaller sizes, to accommodate the majority of women.

The concept of a women’s specific bike has been around for about 20 years and has been a hotly debated subject. It is not much of a secret that the cycling industry has not been all that committed to appealing to female riders, which is why before bikes started to be marketed to women, the dismissive “shrink it and pink it” notion seemed to be the best any of us could hope for.

Some brands offer women’s bikes which are essentially no different from their unisex counterparts. The only real difference is often just a color option that’s supposedly targeted at female buyers. Certain touch points like handlebars and saddles may be changed to women’s specific models.

But now, there are plenty of bike manufacturers who have actually designed women-specific frames based on data that they have gathered from previous customers. Much of this data indicates that women will often have proportionally shorter torsos and narrower shoulders than men of the same height. As a result, to create a women’s specific bike, frame reach is shortened and stack increased. Then touch points like the handlebars and saddle are sized and shaped for the generalized female anatomy.

It’s great that brands are now trying to cater to female riders. Many women are now very happy on bikes that have been designed specifically with a women’s ergonomic needs in mind. But don’t think that one of these women-specific bikes has to be the only option for you. How a bike fits is the most important thing, and your fit can be tuned and tweaked on any bike that is generally the proper size for you. Marketing hype alone can’t make a bike fit you perfectly. Don’t dismiss unisex options because they often can work just as well after the fit and touch points are adjusted for your needs.

Is a women’s specific bike right for you?

Unfortunately, that is a question that you will only be able to answer for yourself after you have experience on many different bikes with different geometry. You shouldn’t necessarily think that you have to opt for a women’s specific bike because you are a woman. Over time the answer might change as you become more experienced and knowledgeable about your needs.

This is part of the bike journey every cyclist takes, and it’s a reason why we encourage riders to save money by buying pre-owned and Certified Pre-Owned bikes. This way you can put more toward developing yourself as a rider. With helpful options like Guaranteed Buyback, it's always easy to change course and try a different bike.

Also, don’t think that a bike being women’s specific will be inferior to a unisex option. There are plenty of brands now offering high-performance options for women who are competitive racers or simply looking for a high-end bike. Specialized, for example, offers women’s bikes in most of their top-level S-Works builds.

Some riders find they fit women’s bikes better, while others do not. Ultimately, there is really no right or wrong answer here. It all comes down to your personal preferences.

If there is anything that you take away from this guide it’s that women should not allow themselves to be pushed into one direction because they are women and supposedly need a women's specific bike.

Women’s road bikes

Specialized makes a number of women's specific bikes, including the Amira road bike.

Road bikes are designed to move fast and efficiently on paved surfaces. They are a good choice for anyone looking for a bike that will make riding on the road as enjoyable as possible.

Companies like Canyon and Giant/Liv have doubled down on the idea that women, and in particular smaller riders, need models designed specifically for them. These companies claim that their designs are also based on fit data collected over decades, which indicates that women have proportionally shorter torsos and narrower shoulders than men of the same height, and thus require geometry that is tailored to fit them. Women also need touch points that are sized and shaped for the generalized female anatomy. Women’s models are thus designed from the ground up to accommodate the specific needs of women’s bodies.

Other companies, like Trek and Specialized, that have historically offered bike models with women’s specific geometry. But now they are hedging their bets to appeal to all riders, including women, with models that have category-specific geometry rather than gender-specific geometry. Specialized, for instance, claims that data gathered from bike fits over the last decade have shown that many women’s bike fits don’t deviate far from men’s fits. Thus, a women’s Tarmac will have the same geometry as a men’s Tarmac, but with certain gender-specific components swapped in like women’s saddles and handlebars, as well as a 44cm size for the shortest riders.

Whether you’re interested in commuting, fitness, or trying your hand at road racing, crits, or gran fondos, we explain all of the options in greater detail in our Road Bike Buyer’s Guide.

Women’s gravel bikes

There has been a lot of hype recently around gravel bikes, drop-bar bikes suited to ride extensively on unpaved roads. And for good reason — gravel riding is fun and can be an escape from traffic. While it has been common to ride road bikes or mountain bikes on gravel roads for generations, in the last decade, multiple manufacturers have caught on and are designing bikes specifically for off-pavement adventures.

If you are just beginning to get into cycling, and you are not certain what type of riding you prefer, a gravel bike can be perfect. Its whole raison d’être is to give you the option to ride all sorts of roads, paths, and trails. It’s all about freedom, adventure, and discovery.

Women's specific gravel bikes are not as common, but when companies offer them, they are similar to how road bikes are fitted and designed for women.

Canyon has a Grail WMN, which has been designed specifically for women. Trek has the Checkpoint Women’s, which has the same geometry as the unisex Checkpoint, but also has been kitted out with components better suited to female anatomy. Taller women will generally have more options since some companies have fewer options smaller than a size 50cm, which will perhaps not be small enough for women below 160cm tall (like me).

Whether you’re interested in exploring country roads, dabbling in bikepacking, jumping in at the deep end in a gravel event like the Dirty Kanza or Rebecca’s Private Idaho, we explain all of the options in our Gravel and Cyclocross Bike Buyer’s Guide.

Road and gravel bike touch points

Most people and brands can agree that a bike’s touch points should change to suit women’s bodies. The key touch points are the handlebars and saddle.

Traditionally, bike fitters match bar width with a rider’s shoulder width. Women’s bikes usually come with narrower handlebars since it is believed that women generally have narrower shoulders than men of the same height. While some top pros opt for extremely narrow bars to improve aerodynamics, most of us would do well to prioritize comfort. So, stick with bar widths that match your shoulders to reduce wrist and hand fatigue.

Similarly, there are only general guidelines for how long the stem should be. It comes down to your riding style and flexibility. Smaller women will typically use shorter stems because longer stems increase a bike’s reach. It is not uncommon to find women’s specific road bikes with stems as short as 80mm. It is important to understand, though, that a shorter stem might result in twitchy handling. Stems are one of the easiest and least expensive components to change on your bike. Ideally, try a number of options before settling on your size.

Stem length should be chosen to provide optimal reach: comfortable without feeling cramped or stretched out. Don’t feel bound by anyone’s rules for how long your stem should be solely based on height or gender. Only you can decide what is most comfortable, based on the rides you enjoy, your level of fitness and flexibility, as well as your natural reach. Someone with a longer torso relative to her height will likely feel more comfortable on a longer stem than would be assumed. And that’s okay — it’s all about comfort and handling.

Unlike bars and stems, saddles have become quite gender-specific to prevent discomfort, and there are a number of shapes that are designed to work for women. There is the classic saddle shape from companies like Brooks or Selle Italia. Then there are many current saddle designs that have cutouts in the middle to help relieve the pressure on your soft tissue. Triathletes have championed saddles that have the nose cut off and additional padding. Many of those types of saddles, from a range of brands like Fizik, Sitero, and ISM, can translate into comfy saddles for road riders as well.

In general, women’s saddles are wider with more padding because it is assumed that women have wider hips and generally prefer having more cushion instead of a lighter saddle. Comfort should trump weight every time, but keep in mind that the shape of a saddle is the biggest factor. Counter to conventional wisdom, I always look for the narrowest saddle I can find. I’ve found that as long as there is a little flex built into the shell of the saddle, I require minimal width or padding. But many women will likely need something different.

Ultimately, a saddle should be comfortable for long rides lasting several hours and not cause any numbness or pain. Perhaps more than anything else on a bike, saddle comfort comes down to the individual and cannot really be generalized. You just have to try a few to find the perfect one for you. Luckily, saddles are easy to switch out so you can keep trying new options until you find the right one. Some bike shops also have demo saddles available to try for a ride or two. Many fit systems, like Retul, measure sit bones to determine how wide your saddle should be. Take comfort in knowing that finding the right saddle is a journey every cyclist has to make.

Pedals are the third point where your body actually touches the bike, but they are essentially genderless. However, crank-arm length definitely plays a role in a rider’s comfort and performance. There are three primary crank lengths: 170mm, 172.5mm and 175mm. Sometimes shorter options like 165mm are available, like on that 44cm Specialized Tarmac mentioned earlier. Generally, smaller riders with shorter legs will need shorter cranks, while taller riders with longer legs will need longer cranks. There is, however, no hard and fast rule and many riders are able to switch crank lengths without much impact on their riding comfort.

Usually, the crank length is something you have less control over unless you are building a bike from scratch. Cranks can be swapped, but it’s usually more expensive compared to stems or saddles. Crank length preference is something to be aware of, as women’s specific bikes often come with shorter cranks than unisex or men’s bikes of the same size.

Women’s mountain bikes

Juliana produces a range of women's specific mountain bikes including the long-travel Strega.

Mountain bikes are designed for off-road riding, usually on mountain bike trails. Modern mountain bikes use flat bars, knobby tires, and suspension to enhance the off-road riding experience.

Just like we see with road and gravel bikes, different brands approach women’s specific mountain bikes in different ways. Either the geometry is kept the same as unisex models and touch points and colors are changed, or bikes are designed from the ground up for women.

This split could be philosophical or driven by business. Women can ride as hard and be as daring as men so there may be no need to alter geometry. But it’s also prohibitively expensive to create additional carbon fiber bike molds for women’s mountain bikes, which are usually a tiny fraction of overall sales, so there’s less financial incentive to design women’s bikes.

This is an area where companies like Trek and Specialized have been ahead of the curve as well. Trek has had women’s specific mountain bikes in their line up for nearly 20 years. In other cases, you can see how brands have eased into the women’s market. Canyon initially sold women's MTB models that simply mirrored the men’s but had different saddles and bars. Then, starting in 2017, it moved to entirely new geometries for women. On the other hand, Ibis designer Roxy Lo (who is 5’1) has been instrumental in making Ibis’s unisex offerings include XS sizes and have enough standover to accommodate smaller riders.

Again, there is no universal right answer when it comes to this topic. Finding the right fit is the goal, whether or not the frame has been designed to be women’s specific. Many mountain bikers can choose to size up or down to make a bike fit their needs. Many size down to make a bike feel less cumbersome and easier to maneuver, and size up for more stability in steep and fast terrain.

Whether you’re interested in cross country racing, trail riding, or enduro mountain bike riding, we explain all of the options in our Mountain Bike Buyer’s Guide.

Women’s suspension tunes

One of the key differences in women’s mountain bike design is suspension tune. Generally, the suspension damping and valving on a women’s specific bike will be tuned for smaller, lighter riders. That’s not perfect for every rider, since not every woman is smaller or lighter. But for those who are exceptionally light (low 100lb range or less), it can help improve the bike’s performance by providing a more usable damping range. The vast majority of novice to intermediate riders will be fine no matter the suspension tune since the air pressure/spring rate (which is easy to adjust) will have a bigger effect on how the suspension feels.

Mountain bike touch points

Generally, when shopping in the women’s specific section of a site or store, the MTB touch point differences will be in line with what you’ll find on road bikes. Saddles will be more rugged to withstand the rigors of mountain biking and they may be wider with extra padding.

The recent trend in mountain biking has been to run wider handlebars to increase control. Handlebar width will often come down to feel and personal preference, but the handlebars on women’s bikes will likely be slightly narrower than men’s bikes. Some brands like Juliana even offer handlebars that taper at the grips. This allows the use of smaller diameter grips that can be more comfortable for smaller hands. Stems will also be shorter to help keep the cockpit close and the handling responsive.

Many mountain bikes now come with a dropper post, which allows you to instantaneously lower the saddle. This gives you more room to maneuver when you venture onto rougher trails, increasing your control and safety. Being able to lower the saddle is also a nice feature for shorter riders who have difficulty mounting and standing over their bikes. Dropper posts aren’t required, but if they are within your means, they can greatly improve the riding experience.

Mountain bike wheel size

In mountain biking, there are two dominant wheel size standards at the moment: 27.5” and the 29” wheels. Women, or smaller cyclists in general, should be aware of how the wheel size will impact how their bike rides.

27.5” wheels are generally considered to be more playful than 29” wheels. Shorter riders may find the smaller 27.5” wheel size less cumbersome, giving you more room to maneuver the bike beneath you and hang off the back when it gets steep. Because the 29” wheel size is larger, it carries more momentum, rolls over obstacles on the trail better, and provides a bit more traction. When it comes to choosing wheel size, it often comes down to personal preference. Some riders simply feel more comfortable on one than the other.

There is no hard height cut-off, but some manufacturers do not make their small sizes available with 29” wheels, believing that such large wheels are just too much of a handicap for people of smaller stature in terms of weight and geometry. For example, Canyon’s Neuron trail bike is available with 29” wheels in sizes M-XL, while S and XS bikes have 27.5” wheels. Other manufacturers believe that even a small rider can get the roll-over benefits of a 29-inch wheels and have designed small and XS frames to use the bigger wheel. You will certainly see some very short pro female cross-country riders like Chloe Woodruff or Erin Huck racing on 29ers — and going super-fast.

Women’s specific gearing

Whether you are riding road, gravel, or mountain bikes, you will certainly want to pay attention to what your gearing will be. Technically there isn’t women’s specific gearing, but there are popular combinations that you will find on bikes intended for women. The reasoning is that women, even the pros, won’t be pumping out the type of power a strong male rider will. So, it makes sense to have “lighter” gears to allow a woman to spin more easily.

For road, you will typically find double cranksets with three potential combinations of chainrings in the front: a classic 53/39t, a semi-compact 52/36t, and a compact 50/34t. Though there are alternatives to these three setups, one of these will likely be what you will find on most bikes. Smaller, less powerful riders have often found the compact 50/34t chainring set up to be a great way to get more usable gear range.

Interestingly, more brands are now choosing the semi-compact 52/36t cranksets as it’s a happy medium for most riders. Canyon, for example, has started making their smallest women’s specific bikes with a 650b wheelset and 52/36t chainrings. This gear selection also helps offset the shorter distance the smaller diameter 650b wheel will cover per revolution. This is a good example of how companies are beginning to think of ways to improve the ride quality for women without compromising on speed or performance.

The rear cassette on most bikes can be easily changed to suit your gearing needs. It could be anything from an 11-25t for race day on a flat course to a 12-36t for those days where you plan on some big climbing. On mountain bikes with a 1x drivetrain, the single front chainring can be easily swapped to a smaller option (28-32t) to provide easier gearing. No matter the bike, gearing that suits your terrain and fitness will help you enjoy riding the most.

Conclusion

Comfort will always be key, and that’s something only you can discover for yourself. Just reading what the women’s winner at the Dirty Kanza favors will likely not help you much in deciding which gravel bike will suit you best.

As far as I am concerned, bike brands don’t really need to market to me, they just have to offer bike sizes that are small enough to be a potentially good fit for me. Over the years as I learned what I liked and needed, I have fine-tuned frame sizes and component choices. And my abilities increased. Your skills and needs will evolve, and so too will your bike fit. This is not just true for women, but for men as well.

In fact, if you are just getting into cycling, and learning what you do enjoy, there is almost no better way to discover what you love than by just riding, trying all sorts of options, getting to know the roads around your town, or the trails in the hills beyond.

If you have any questions or concerns about fitting one of our pre-owned bikes, our Ride Guides are available seven days a week to answer questions and help guide you in your search for the perfect bike.


1 comment


  • This was very helpful – thank you.

    P on


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