Words: Anna Schwinn
Illustration: Stephen Haynes
The cycling industry has a massive problem with women. This problem persists despite small victories including the rise in prominence of women’s racing and the increase in shops and brands that cater to female consumers.
The big issue? In this industry, men and their product needs remain the default. Products designed to serve the needs of men, which do a halfassed job of serving the same population of women, continue to be marketed as unisex. If you’re a woman and a consumer you continue to have to wait for trickle down products—items that are first developed for men then adapted for women when companies feel like it, usually with fewer features or options, and many times at a lower quality but a greater cost. And this is stunting our industry.
The biggest indicator that this remains an issue is in the core product of our industry: the stock bicycle. We are often distracted by the marketing being inappropriate or consumer experiences being negative, but at the end of the day it’s all about the bike.
The first step a person takes to becoming a cyclist is walking into a bike shop and purchasing a stock bicycle off of the shop floor. The problem is that the standard range of unisex sizes, a range that works for nearly all men, does not work for a sizeable percentage of women. If the bike isn’t there, the consumer isn’t either.
To frame this, I have to drop some numbers straight from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention*. The average adult American man is 5 feet 9 inches tall, and 90 percent of American men are in the range of 5 feet 4 inches to 6 feet 2 inches tall. Most stock bike sizes cover that range of human stature pretty well. That means that if you’re a guy in the U.S. you can expect to walk into a bike shop and find something that you can ride away on. Most bikes designed around the predominant wheel size (700c/29-inch) will have a geometry that fits you well enough and offer a consistent level of handling. You, sir, are catered to.
The average adult American woman, however, is 5 feet 4 inches tall and 90 percent of women fall between 4 feet 11 inches and 5 feet 8 inches in height (the 5th and 95th percentiles). If you fall under 5 feet 4 inches you begin to run into issues such as toe overlap with your front wheel, top tubes that are too high to stand over, uncomfortable fit and poor handling.
For you, cycling is a lower quality experience. These problems are exacerbated when fatter cyclocross or gravel tires are dropped into the mix. If you are in that 5th percentile or lower, good luck finding anything at all. Your neighborhood bike shop might even say that you are out of luck—that you need to seek out lower spec’d children’s models or make a significant investment in a custom frame.
But it doesn’t stop there. The UCI minimum bicycle weight requirements apply to all size frames, regardless of the rider, meaning that women’s race bikes have frames that are proportionally heavier to compete on. Also, UCI dimensional requirements ban different sized wheels so that frames are unable to utilize a smaller front wheel to better accommodate bike fit for those with short reach requirements.
And though these race requirements would, on their surface, appear to affect only race bikes, it is important to note that race technology largely dictates product trends and development investment in our industry. The industry standard for testing bicycles (ISO) requires that small bicycles for short people with lower weights and power outputs pass the same tests at the same loads as those designed for much larger, heavier and more powerful riders — meaning that small frames tend to be overbuilt.
Modern drivetrains have minimum chainstay length requirements to properly shift so that even if you wanted to design an appropriately handling small frame around a small wheel (26 inches or 650b or 650c), you could not utilize those drivetrains.
And then there is the pervasive problem of “down spec’ing” women’s product, where women are charged more for “women’s” bicycles that feature lower quality components. I understand that this bias towards the standard men’s bell curve also affects large and small men, but not nearly to the degree that it affects women as an overall population.
And sure, companies may extend a model line or two of their total off ering to the smaller sizes to give those riders something at all to ride, but really it’s just throwing small statured cyclists, predominantly women cyclists, a bone. Why do we not question the lack of small bicycles in stock, “unisex” size ranges?
Because it is inconvenient for the industry at large. Designing product to serve smaller (predominantly women) cyclists to the level that we serve our current male default consumers will require investment in time, testing and tooling. It will be expensive and it will take thought. Most critically, it will require that as an industry we acknowledge that our market, when considered as a whole, looks diff erent and has diff erent product needs than the group we currently serve. We must reestablish our default.
*Source: “Anthropometric Reference Data for Children and Adults: United States, 2007-2010.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. October 2012.