Women and Bicycles: Women-led design has arrived

“I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” ~ Susan B. Anthony

While women were riding bikes since the earliest days of bike riding, bikes were not designed with them in mind except for color. For many years, bike frames and styles were focused on improving components and power transfer, specific to male proportions.

Yet women did not sit on the sidelines. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, women’s equality established traction and today’s roots of women-specific bicycles were sewn. A norm we now take for granted, the ensuing Title IX portion of the 1972 Education Act guaranteed women full participation in sports, cementing equality in athletic sports and recreation. Women took full advantage of this change; not only did they quickly become participants in sports, they became innovators in creating product to enhance their participation in all sports.

Georgena Terry was one of the early innovators in the bicycle industry. In the early 1980s she developed the first mass-marketed bicycle designed for women. It featured a shorter top tube to accommodate women’s torsos (men typically have longer torsos and shorter legs; women have longer legs and shorter torsos), narrow handlebars to accommodate women’s shoulder widths, and a women’s-specific saddle. It had two different size wheels to allow room to help create a better bike fit.

In the meantime, Trek Bicycles took notice, and by the early ’90s had rolled their own Women’s Specific Design program. Their bikes mimicked Terry’s smaller wheel size, to create a bicycle that would provide a great fit for women. The marketplace did not embrace this design either. While Trek continued to plug away, Specialized Bikes joined the ranks, finally inventing a breakthrough women’s design in early 2000. They worked with the frames’ front-end geometry to tweak the head tube angle and the fork rake to allow an appropriate length top tube while using two 700 c sized wheels, a long-term industry standard. Trek soon followed suit with their own frame design, using 700 c wheels.

Over the past ten years, Trek and Specialized continued to improve their basic designs while other companies tried their best to copy these basic concepts. Trek explored the impact of a women’s different center of gravity in bicycle design and performance, Specialized played with improving bottom bracket compliance based on women’s average pedaling movement. Specialized has taken a very close look at the geometry of women’s bodies and designed their bike frames to match. Inside both Trek and Specialized, women are in charge of these projects and it shows.

Every year I see both refinements and major advancements in women’s product design. Of special note is the revolution happening in the design of mountain bikes for women and the refiguring of the shocks. Other areas of advancement can be seen in hand grips, width and diameter of handlebars, and even helmets.

It also seems like the goal of perfecting women’s saddle is making incredible leaps. I am almost embarrassed to say how many solid, medical-grade presentations I have heard on women’s soft tissue issues of the vulva. Impressively, even bike shorts and chamois are being designed to work in tandem with women’s saddles to assure comfort and health.

Not surprisingly, this week’s New York Times article discussed concerns that spin cycling saddles may raise sensitivity and nerve problems for women. Similar concerns came to attention many years ago for men in cycling; I wrote a brief on it here. The article seemed well-intentioned but not fully informed. The reality is that our bodies are complex and that stock material won’t always address our geometry. (Spin bikes are made to accommodate someone who’s 5’6″ and then 6’2″…)

There are options for women to be comfortable and appropriately suited on their bicycles. Issues of numbness, tingling and stamina can be addressed with women-specific shorts, saddles and other developments. We are always looking for product that meets our criteria for a great fit. It’s also why we make big investments in training our staff to be fit certified, so that we can adjust bicycles to best fit their riders.

The industry continues to advance in product development. Comfort and safety is accessible, and will continue to be even more dialed in to our individual bodies.

It is an exciting time to be at the place where cycling innovations meet the marketplace.

Charlie McCorkell
Owner and Founder, Bicycle Habitat

About bicyclehabitat

New York City's neighborhood bike store since 1978
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