HER GEAR: Best road bikes built for women

The days of having to strain to reach the handlebars on a bike designed for guys are over. And no more awkwardly pedaling oversized cranks or perching atop uncomfortable saddles, either.

Bike makers are hiring women into design teams to address the needs of female cyclists, making bikes not only more comfortable but more efficient in terms of energy and power transfer.

Here we tell you just what makes a women-specific frame different from a guy's bike, and we review four great bikes for this season.

Fit for a woman

Technically, what makes a women's bike a women's bike? Fit. Manufacturers want to address the majority of women who, proportionally, have longer legs and shorter torsos when compared to men, as well as shorter arms, smaller hands and who are lighter weight.

Bike companies responded with bikes featuring shorter top tubes to decrease the reach to the handlebars, and replaced heavy frame tubesets with thinner, lighter ones, making those uphill climbs less of a drain.

Smaller bike frames (typically in the 40 to 48 cm size range) tend to feature 650c diameter wheels instead of the more common 700c variety. A smaller diameter wheelset allows the bike to handle much better in smaller sizes, as well as eliminates the problem of front wheel overlap (i.e., your front wheel clipping your forward foot when turning).

When shopping, forget brand name. First and foremost is fit. If you're 5 foot 10, you might be able to get away with riding a standard road bike. But at 5 foot 1 with a short torso and longer legs, you should consider a women-specific design.

No matter what your size, consider a women-specific saddle that features a wider platform to accommodate women's typically wider sit bones. Your local bike shop salesperson should be able to identify your fit needs and point you toward the best bike and accessory options.

Hot frames for '05

As you can see, you've come a long way, baby. Here are our picks for some of the season's best women's bikes, made just for you:

Specialized Dolce Vita Multisport

With the growth of the triathlon segment, Specialized launches the Dolce Vita Multisport, an entry-level ride with not-so-entry-level goods, including Profile Design's AirStryke clip-on aerobars, a carbon bladed fork, silver carbon seatpost and a deep aero aluminum frameset. Specialized has even developed a small shim that attaches to the inside of the brake lever, bringing the lever closer to smaller hands. www.specialized.com

Terry Isis

New for '05, the Isis is the first titanium frame offering from the venerable women-only bike brand. With a carbon fiber fork, Shimano Ultegra 9-speed triple groupset (and of course Terry's women-specific saddle and stem), the Isis offers a smooth ride that'll turn heads on the road. And at just 18 pounds in a 48 cm size, it'll leave the competition behind on the inclines. www.terrybicycles.com

K2 Myste Road

The Myste is every bit as much the race bike as top-end competitors -- proving you can break personal records without breaking the bank. A tight aluminum compact geometry frame helps make the bike responsive, while a triple chain ring makes ascending hills a breeze. Shimano's Sora 9-speed groupset -- heavier and therefore less pricey than top-drawer components -- helps keep the price down. www.k2bike.com

Cannondale R1000 Feminine

Cannondale's top-of-the-line, superlight Optimo aluminum frameset and Slice Premium carbon fork is one of the stiffest in the racing world (meaning you'll get optimal power transfer with each pedal stroke). Add to it a particularly choice component package, including a Shimano Ultegra 10-speed groupset, Mavic Ksyrium Elite wheelset, Fi'zi:k's women-specific Vitesse saddle and a carbon fiber Truvativ crankset, and the R1000 Feminine is an outstanding race bike value.

Available in 650c and 700c to fit a range of sizes, and road or multisport use. www.cannondale.com

San Diego-based writer Jay Prasuhn writes about cycling and triathlon gear for Triathlete and other national magazines.

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