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A Women's World

01 February 1998

Mountain biking is a blast - enjoyable at a whole range of different levels of intensity and difficulty. Regretfully, bicycles are mostly designed and spec'd for testosterone-laden lads - generally bigger, heavier and more gung-ho than those on the other side of the gender divide. However, most brands sport models with women's specific geometry and components... and a paint job to make you feel special! It's also possible to tweak a standard bike to suit women equally well.

Looking for Mrs Right

  • Bikes are sized according to the length (height) of the seat tube, eg. 15", 17", etc. but are often referred to as simply S, M, or L. Be wary when comparing different brands as they all seem to measure their frames differently. Use the 'stand over' method to zero in on the right frame for you: when standing astride the bike there should be 7-10cm clearance between your crotch and the top tube. 
  • Equally important is the top tube length. You need to be able to stretch out comfortably while riding. Relative to their total height, women are generally shorter in the torso and have longer legs than blokes so you should seek out designs with a relatively short top tube. 
  • Being generally smaller than men, the main characteristic of a women's-specific bike is compact geometry and components to suit a smaller rider. Typically you'll get a shorter, more dramatically sloping top tube and a lower bottom bracket to provide additional standover height - while still retaining the correct angles to let you tear it up in the dirt. You could also expect: 
  • Narrower handle bars to match your shoulder width; 
  • A women's saddle; 
  • Brake levers with shorter 'reach' for smaller hands; 
  • and shocks matched to a lighter rider. If you 'weigh in' under 165cm (5'5") then choosing from the women's-specific options will almost certainly provide the best and widest choice. 
  • Women tend to be lighter and ride with more care than men, so can safely choose a lighter frame, wheels and components. Lightweight bikes lessen the puff expended on those interminable hill climbs and 'float' over closed gates... but you may have to mortgage several limbs to own one. 
  • Front suspension absorbs the big bumps and reduces vibration - increasing comfort, control and safety. A lightweight full suspension delivers the ultimate in 'arm chair' comfort. Both the front and rear shocks need to match your body weight, ie. not too firm. Air-Oil forks are light and easily tuned for lighter riders. For most women a coil dampened 'spring' shock will be heavy and next to useless.

Swapping Parts Dr Frankenstein

Before you shake hands on the price and drive your new bike out of the showroom consider a few modifications:

  • If not already fitted, exchange the saddle for a women's model. Typically they are shorter and wider at the back, to better suit a woman's pelvic shape. Some have a hollow nose that is vastly more comfortable for most women. Remember big and soft is not always better, especially with technical riding when at times you need to get your bum over and behind the saddle. 
  • If the frame is the right height but you have to stretch out a bit far to reach the handle bar then you'll want to swap your stem for a shorter one. Your handle bar should be no more than 50mm lower than the saddle, probably quite a bit higher. A bunch of spacers under the stem should see you sitting pretty. It's about right when you are sufficiently upright and your hands are not bearing excessive weight. 
  • Almost all mountain bikes (even women's models) come with standard 175mm cranks. It's being a little idealistic but for many women, particularly those with shorter legs and/or a frame with a lower-than-standard bottom bracket, a 165mm or 160mm crank will deliver better ergonomics and improved ground clearance.

Tweet Tweak

  • Invest some time in tweaking and adjusting your bike to fit. Use an iterative process, trying different combinations until you get it right for your body and riding style. 
  • Seat height. While sitting on your bike with your pelvis square on the saddle put one heel on the pedal at its lowest point. Your leg should be almost straight when your seat is at the correct height.
  • Seat angle - for most women horizontal is most comfortable, although some prefer the nose angled slightly downwards. If you find yourself constantly slipping off the front then you've over cooked it. 
  • Seat position - Adjust the saddle either backwards or forwards so that when the pedal cranks are horizontal, the back of your knee cap is directly over the ball of your foot. 
  • Brake lever reach - Women's hands are generally smaller than men's but most levers can be adjusted in to provide a comfortable reach. Numb hands are an indicator that either the reach or lever angle is incorrect. When riding along your hands and wrists should be reasonably straight. If you are inclined to drop your wrist then you probably need to angle the brake levers down a nudge. 
  • If you're under 60kg then you'll be able to get away with running softer tyres than the lads (30-35 psi) without risking snake bite punctures. This contributes to a more comfortable ride and provides better traction. 
  • Deal with a reputable bike shop - tuning the bike and getting it to fit is all part the package.

Girl Power

  • Don't underestimate the amount of fuel you need to keep trucking along. Take adequate food with you and snack regularly. Aim to drink a litre of water every hour, along with 20-50g of easily digested carbohydrate. Fatty foods, chocolate bars, or nutty mixtures are not ideal. A low tech sandwich or cold spud works pretty well. 
  • Poor circulation resulting in cold fingers and toes is an issue for most women. Always carry thermal gloves, wear decent socks and beware of over tight shoes. (Ground Effect's Chipolatas and Lucifers are the story in the winter). 
  • Men are generally stronger, faster and a bit more aggressive on the bike. Riding with other women is fun, but it's equally fun to go for a blast with the boys. A couple of tips though - push yourself by all means but be sure to travel at your own pace; and at the start of the ride, gain agreement to stop and re group regularly (at least every 30 minutes).