Cycling for Women

Right body, wrong bike. For too long the choice for women was heavy 'ladies' bikes or ill-fitting and uncomfortable 'gents' bikes. Thankfully provision for women has moved on in leaps and bounds in recent years.

Most mass-market bikes are essentially designed for a man’s physique, since historically it is mainly men that cycle. Although men cycle, on average, three times further than women (UK figures), there is a steady rise in the number of women cycling.

Whilst traditional ‘ladies' bikes with their dropped top tube or 'loop' frame have long been available, the traditional ‘sit up and beg' style of bike is not necessarily what every female rider wants. Old-fashioned ladies bikes may be fine for a jaunt to the shops but they can make riding any distance quite uncomfortable and slow. Humans are very small engines in performance terms so anything which adds unnecessary weight or flexiness is a waste of precious effort - dropped top tube frames are simply not as efficient as the 'gents' equivalent.

[Pictured; A beautiful fast road-bike specially designed for women's proportions, the Kona Lisa R]

In the past women who wanted a performance bike had to adapt a bike which was designed and built for mens proportions and this wasn't always ideal, particularly in the smaller size options. Thankfully there are now many lightweight performance bikes available which take account of the differences between men and women. Although many of these bikes appear to be identical to the ‘male' versions, close inspection of the two bikes side by side will reveal the differences. Women tend to have longer legs and a shorter torso and arms than would a man of the same height. As a result a woman would have to stretch further to reach the handlebars of a given bike than a man would. Womens specific bikes feature shorter top-tubes, shorter stems and often spec smaller components such as brake levers, cranks and bars. The main thing though is th combination of top-tube and stem, it's what we call 'reach'.

It's well worth shopping around for a retailer who understands your needs as a woman cyclist. Some retailers are still unaware of the existence of these bikes. You should, however, be able to get good advice from a local independent bike shop. Cycle shops aren't the bastion of unreconstructed manliness that they once were, most guys are now aware of the differences, all the same it might be worth the effort of finding a shop which employs a woman cyclist.

You may of course be able to improve the comfort and fit of your existing bike by making adjustments to saddle or handlebars set up, or replacing them altogether.  Ladies' saddles are now available, some with a hole in the middle to reduce rubbing against sensitive areas and to keep you aerated and cooler.

A few tips for more enjoyable cycling.

If………….

• Your bottom is sore after a few miles ?

Check that the saddle is the correct height and is perfectly flat first of all. If your saddle still bothers you then try a different one. Many shops run saddle loan schemes so you can be sure you're buying a saddle which you can have a long term relationship with. Experiment with different underwear too, those badly placed seams can chaffe! And if you're hoping to cover longer distances we strongly recommend proper padded cycling shorts.

• You feel stretched out over the frame ? Your neck and shoulders get stiff or ache? Your wrists hurt ?

Try raising, adjusting or even replacing the handlebar stem. You could also install bars with more 'rise' or a different angle of back sweep. Modern ergonomicly shaped grips provide better support than regular round ones.

• Your feet hurt ?

Try wearing stiffer-soled shoes, preferably proper cycling shoes.

Improving your cycling skills;

To be more self-reliant consider learning the basics of bike maintenance. Ask a more experienced cyclist, consult a good book or attend an evening class. Don't be too concerned about in–depth technicalities, after all Anne Mustoe, the round the world cycletourist, says she cannot even mend a puncture!

[Pictured; A regular 'gents' bike outfitted with a womens saddle and a shorter stem fits this woman cyclist perfectly]

Can you cycle when pregnant ?

Yes, but with some safeguards.

Mothers with first-hand experience of cycling while pregnant are overwhelmingly positive. An expectant mother shouldn't be scared of cycling if it feels right, at any stage in pregnancy.

Physical balance can be affected in pregnancy. If so, then cycling may not be advisable except on traffic free paths or on a tricycle. Listen to your body and don't be too ambitious. Ride a bike with an upright position so that you are not straining abdominal and back muscles. [For more on pregnant pedaling read this Bike Culture article: Avoiding the Pregnant Pause]

Labour is just what it sounds – extremely hard work. So the fitter you are beforehand the better. Gentle, regular, inexpensive, healthy exercise like cycling raises your stamina for the final push. Perhaps only swimming and yoga are more highly recommended but you still have to get to a pool or ante-natal class. However, it's best not to take up a new sport or strenuous activity that develops, strains or trains unaccustomed muscles.

Get together

Get together with friends, make new ones, and go for a regular weekly ride. With such mutual support and encouragement you will soon be riding further and perhaps even organising the occasional weekend tour away.

[Pictured; A women's pro level, full suspension mountain bike by Trek. Reduced reach, shorter cranks and lighter springs make all the difference]

On a final note, almost every brake lever currently available has a reach adjust screw incorporated into the brake lever body. This useful adjustment feature is often ignored even by the people who assembled your bike. Turning the brake lever reach adjust screw clock-wise moves the brake lever blade closer to the handlebar, resetting the lever's resting position and, crucially, making it easier to reach for those with smaller fingers. The manufacturers rarely go to the expense of making womens specific brake levers (one size fits all), you are expected to adjust them yourself and it's definitely worth doing.