Ask a Chick :: Should I buy a women’s specific mountain bike?

Dear mtbchick,

I am a beginner rider wanting to buy a mountain bike. I’m researching bikes, and I don’t know if I should buy a women’s bike or a men’s bike. Please help!

-Confused

Dear Confused:

You are not alone in your state of wonder when it comes to whether or not you should buy a women’s specific bike.

It depends. If that sounds like an answer a financial advisor would give, it’s for good reason. As a rider I have mixed feelings about women’s specific bicycles– some fit well, some are designed by plugging numbers into a computer program. Here are the Pros and Cons of women’s bikes:

Cons:

1. Funky geometry.  Many women’s specific mountain bikes and women’s specific bikes in general (women’s specific road bikes included) have funky geometry due to being designed by an engineer who is plugging in numbers in CAD or a similar program attempting to fit a men’s bike to a woman’s body. It seems that women have never been consulted in some instances.

I’ve tested one brand’s lineup, and my friend also tested this line, and found they were awfully awkward with incorrect trail and super narrow handlebars on a 29er. This causes a floppy wheel, and can be dangerous in switchbacks or slow handling situations. Incorrect geometry can cause the bike to steer with a jerky feel, and to be unsafe in switchbacks.

There have been instances during private lessons where I have been saying the same thing over and over to my student, such as “really bend your elbows and pump the bike, dance with her, move her… ” to no avail. When I jump on the bike myself I see that it’s not the student, but the bike. Some bikes are just built incorrectly, making safe and comfortable riding impossible.

2. Weight. Manufacturers continually offer sub-par bikes for women with less than top of the line components. Is it because the geometry is sub-par, and they realize any woman who in in the know will purchase the regular bike no matter what? I wonder. A women’s cross country bike or hardtail bike that weighs over 20 pounds needs to be questioned. A women’s trail bike that weighs over 23 pounds needs to be questioned. Let’s revisit physics: a woman typically weighs less and has a lower power to weight ratio than a man, yet her bike typically weighs more as a percentage of her body weight. That means in general a woman has to be stronger than a man. If a man’s bike weighs 20 pounds, a woman’s bike needs to weigh 14 pounds, all things being equal. But factor in typical power to weight ratio, and you can subtract a pound or two.

The bottom line is that women need a lighter bike, and most women’s specific bikes are tanks. No thanks.

3. Not tested.  I’ve ridden a few women’s specific bikes that clearly were not tested on the trail. A floppy wheel is dangerous, and I find it common on women’s specific mountain bikes, even 26 inch bikes. There are plenty of women out here who are willing to test bikes, and perhaps even provide feedback without publishing their negative findings to the public domain. Call us. We can help. For the love of bikes.

Pros:

1. Smaller sizing. Santa Cruz did not make it’s original Tall Boy 29er full suspension bike in a small. I rode the medium and it was too big, but I almost would have the bike due simply to its incredible handling. What a fun bike. Alas, many women are under 5 feet tall. So there is little choice other than a women’s specific bike. Do you need stand over? Some standover is definitely necessary, but nowadays I don’t think we really need the 2-4″ we needed in the ’90s. I ride bikes just at my inseam with zero issue. The main issue is being stretched out too far in the torso and arms. At this point, do we need to look at building a 25″ bike for women? Why not? Another wheel size, another day.

2. Lighter frame.  All the talk about weight above and one thing some manufacturers are doing is creating a stiff yet light frame for women. We don’t need a bike that can hold up to a 175 pound man. So how much difference is there in weight? I have not gotten to the nitty gritty, but I can assure you we don’t need quite the tough frame. More research and riding is necessary to find actual numbers, but let’s just say women’s frames can, and should, be lighter. Even when doing drops on the double black diamond trails in Mammoth, I felt I could be on a lighter frame. In fact, I feel having a lighter bike in general would be easier to handle over drops.

Debunking a Few of The Myth of Women’s Specific Bikes

1. Narrow Handlebars. While it may have been relevant in the 90’s. Narrow handlebars are typically not the answer. Especially with a 29er. Wide handlebars lend leverage and stability. Wide handlebars also allow the rider to spread the chest for easier breathing. Make sure you can still ride switchbacks, but wide handlebars are comfortable and safer than bars which are too narrow.

2. Short Top Tube. It’s not the top tube you need to pay attention to, it’s the reach from the saddle to the bar. You absolutely cannot look at geometry charts to know whether or not a bike will fit you correctly. You need to sit on the bike, ride it, and decide if the stem that fits you allows for proper handling.

3. Upright is Better. Upright mountain bikes are squirrelly and less stable. There is a reason for the aggressive geometry. Aggressive geometry allows you to get into the correct position for technical terrain. Even if your terrain is a bike path. It’s all about your center of gravity. Higher center of gravity is going to be unstable. With a properly fitted saddle, you can ride a more aggressive position on a mountain bike. On a road bike, upright positions are downright dangerous– especially when descending. If you’ve ever experienced speed wobbles, it’s because you are not low enough (get into the drops and lower your upper body).

Bottom Line.

You’ve got to buy what feels right, and you can’t do that until you ride a few bikes. Demo bikes proliferate, and certain web sites have great return policies allowing you to buy and try and return if necessary. You may find an extra small bike fits and handles better than a small women’s specific bike.

When you try a bike at a public demo, ensure the mechanic fits the bike to you: proper stem, saddle and shock settings before you make a decision. If you find yourself trying a bike and needing feedback, contact mtbchick immediately. tonya@mtbchick.com. We will do what we can to help. No matter what, the bike needs to feel good to you, so you will ride more and be a happier person!

namaste

~mtchick

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Comments

2 Responses to “Ask a Chick :: Should I buy a women’s specific mountain bike?”
  1. mabuckley60 says:

    I am having a similar problem but for different reasons. I am an experienced MB rider but haven’t been serious for at least 5 years (I am 48 years old). I want to get back in the game and my husband is convinced I need FS. I have been very happy with my HT although I think the frame is a little big so I want to get a new bike. I started MB many years ago on a completely rigid bike but was so happy when I moved to front suspension. Will I have the same experience moving to FS. I am sure I will not be as aggressive as I was even five years ago – so is this over kill?

  2. mtbchick says:

    Hi mabuckley60!

    I am so glad you are ready to get back in the game! Mountain biking is the best exercise, therapy, and way to explore the planet, in my opinion!

    You pose a tough question. To me there are 3 key points to ponder:

    1. What type of bike does your husband and do your friends ride? Sometimes it’s best to have the same style bike.
    2. What are your trails like? Are they flat, short steep hills, long climbs with super rocky descents?
    3. How light can you go? Full suspension bikes weigh more in general, so if you have budget parameters, it may be more cost effective to go with a tricked our hard tail than a medium spec full-suspension bike.

    There are so many full-suspension bikes, I recommend riding as many bikes as possible. I personally love the Santa Cruz/Juliana bikes for full-suspension. http://www.santacruzbicycles.com Santa Cruz bikes are built for riding, and fun. I highly recommend the brand.

    I use a hard tail for cross country racing, but beyond that, I generally ride my full-suspension bike. I do love the crisp, clean feel of a hard tail. It’s light and it climbs fast. On the other hand, I ride much faster downhill on the FS bike, and I enjoy carving turns with a lowered saddle and enough cush to glide over braking bumps.

    Feel free to ask more questions, but I recommend taking a few bikes on demo. Your local bike shops should have a few models you can try. This is usually what seals the deal for me, and you can find out whether or not the geometry works for you.

    ~amaste
    ~mtbchick Tonya

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