Bike fit for women

A proper bike fit means you'll be more comfortable, reduce the likelihood of injury and you'll ride more efficiently.
If you're shopping for a new bike for yourself or for a special woman in your life, you know proper fit is critical. In 1998 when I was writing The Female Cyclist: Gearing up a Level, it was common knowledge in popular cycling literature that women have shorter torsos than men. I didn't find a single document in cycling that was contrary to this belief.

Assuming this short-torso issue for women was fact, I thought it would be fun to include anatomical drawings of the male and female bodies in the book to display the differences. When I began searching for data to support the notion that females have shorter torsos, I found none.

What I found is that there's little difference in the ratio of torso or leg length to overall height when comparing average male and female body data. Gross data did show that given a male and female of equal heights, women have shorter arms and smaller hands.

When 64-inch male and female data is compared for arm length, women's arms are, on average, shorter by two inches. Comparing hand data of the 64-inch athletes, women tend to have hands about 0.58 inches shorter than men of the same height. This translates to concerns with reach to the hoods or drops and reach to the brake levers.

Comparing a 64-inch man and woman works well to examine the differences between the genders; however, the average male in the data is 69 inches compared to the average of female at 64 inches. When The Female Cyclist was written, the majority of stock bicycles were manufactured to meet the needs of the average user, and the average cyclist used to be an average-sized male.

Since that time, the cycling population has grown and great changes have taken place. This growth has created a demand for recreational and high-performance bicycles for people of all sizes. Because equipment is available to make cycling more comfortable, more people are attracted to cycling. This is an excellent synergistic relationship.

Finding equipment that fits

Riding a bike that's comfortable means more joyful hours of riding, reduced likelihood of injury and more power -- which translates to more speed. Finding a bike with the right fit depends on what you'll be using it for, how much you'll ride, whether it'll be your only bicycle, budget, individual anatomy and flexibility.

Obtainining the right fit requires more than just standing over the top tube and looking for a few inches of clearance. Proper fit is a complex issue, but discussion of a few key areas will get you started.

Take measurements

The first measurement to know is your inseam length. The bike shop you visit should take this measurement for you. If you'd rather do this on your own, stand in your stocking feet with your legs about pedal-width apart and snug a carpenter's level into your crotch while wearing cycling shorts. With the help of an assistant, make sure the level is parallel with the ground, then have the assistant measure from the top of the level to the ground.

A second method is to back against a wall and snug a large book in your crotch. When the book is flat against the wall, mark the top of the book in pencil on the wall. Measure the distance from the floor to the pencil mark.

Multiply your inseam measurement by 0.883. The result yields the seat-height measurement from the center of the bottom bracket to the top of the seat where the center of your crotch rests. This is a starting point for bike fit. Some shops will take more measurements and others use primarily inseam to begin the bike-fit process.

Tips:
  • Find a shop that's willing to spend time fitting a bicycle to you and your individual needs, then give them your business.
  • Pedals, shoes, crank length and current fitness all affect seat height.
  • An unbelievable deal on a used bike is only a deal if it fits you.

Flexibility

Upper-body measurements are important, but individual flexibility -- particularly in the back and hamstrings -- plays a more important role.

For example, with your feet on the floor and knees slightly bent, reach your hands toward the floor. One person can lay their hands flat on the floor and another person's finger tips are three inches from the floor. Even if the two people in the example have the same inseam measurement, their bike fit needs to be different due to individual flexibility.

Tips:
  • Some manufacturers, such as Shimano, make brake levers that have a shorter reach.
  • Several bike manufacturers have "women-specific" bicycles. Find out what features make the women-specific design different than a regular bike of the same size.
  • Don't settle for less than the best fit specifically geared to you. This may mean changing components on a stock bike.

Saddles

Saddle style is probably the most intimate and frustrating part of bike fit. No saddle is going to make up for an ill-fitting bicycle and no one wants to ride any distance if their private parts are numb or in pain.

Saddles come in various styles, lengths and widths. Whether your anatomy prefers a wide or narrow seat; minimal padding or a gel insert; solid seat or a seat with a cutout, finding the right seat will also depend on your riding style and the length of time you spend in the saddle.

The saddles touted as "women's models" tend to be wider and shorter. Due to publicity around male impotence, many men find these wider saddles suit their anatomy just fine and eliminate genital numbness. However, "women's saddles" are often limited in their fore-aft adjustment range.

Tips:
  • Unfortunately, there's no easy sizing system for saddles. It would be great if they were like shoe sizes, having length and width designations, "I'll need a size 8 in a C width." Until that happens, test different saddles to find one that's comfortable. Good bicycle shops will mount your bike on a stationary trainer and let you try a few saddles before you buy one.
  • Some riders prefer using a lubricant such as Vaseline or Bag Balm, between good cycling shorts and their skin, to keep their crotch friction-free.

Bike-fit process

This article barely scratches the surface of proper bike fit, and getting the right fit can take time. Go into the fit process with patience and find someone willing to spend time helping you get a good fit. A new bike can be a big investment, and you deserve nothing but the best.


Gale Bernhardt was the 2003 USA Triathlon Pan American Games and 2004 USA Triathlon Olympic coach for both the men's and women's teams. Her first Olympic experience was as a personal cycling coach at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Thousands of athletes have had successful training and racing experiences using Gale's pre-built, easy-to-follow training plans. For more information, click here. Let Gale and Active Trainer help you succeed.

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