Do women’s specific bikes offer a better ride for women, or is
the female cycling market still just a case of ‘shrink it and pink it’?
Women’s bikes have been causing controversy since the days of the sidesaddle velocipede. In the late 19th century there were warnings that women’s bikes would ‘shake feminine organs of matrimony’ and that female cyclists were ‘loose women pedalling along the path of destruction’. The creation of bikes that were comfortable and usable by women has been credited with driving feminism forward and aiding social change, but while the rides of today aren’t sparking any revolution, the issue of women’s specific bikes and kit still causes heated debate.
Wheels of change
‘The first women’s bikes were essentially just smaller versions of the men’s, with a shorter top tube and narrower handlebars,’ says Chris Garrison, who hosts seminars on women’s cycling for Trek. The story goes that the Wisconsin-based company developed its first women’s bike in response to complaints from its female staff that they were suffering from neck and back pain after their training sessions.
That was in 1999. Fast forward a few years and by the mid-Noughties both Specialized and Trek had created women’s specific road bikes – in 2002 Specialized launched the Allez Dolce and Allez Vita, and in 2003 Trek released the 2200 WSD.
The earliest models, however, almost certainly subscribed to a simplistic ‘pink it and shrink it’ mentality, a term that’s been hard for the industry to shake off. Abby Santurbane, an ex-pro from Colorado, who now heads up Liv/giant (Giant’s women’s division), joined the company in 2008. ‘When I was hired, a bunch of men were running the show and the general rule was to shorten the top tube, raise the head tube and change the colour. I took over and they were genuinely excited that they wouldn’t have to deal with women’s bikes anymore,’ she says.
Today the big manufacturers are making huge investments in developing women’s road bikes, says Amber Lucas, the first female bike engineer to work at Specialized. But while there’s clear evidence that the female specific market is growing rapidly, there are still cyclists, among them many women, who believe that the whole thing is more of a marketing revolution than a technological one. The big guns are certainly keen to develop the women’s market, but is it resulting in significantly different bikes for women, or is it mainly about getting women to part with their cash?
Wilier is the latest brand name to announce a new female model with the launch last year of its Stella, which it claims is ‘race-ready and affordable and styled specifically for women’. Look more closely and it’s not apparent what the specific benefits are for women beyond a shorter stem and a pastel paint scheme. The Stella has the same frame and fork geometry as its male counterpart, the Izoard.
Ceri Dipple, bike shop owner, is one female rider who is not convinced there are any benefits to women’s specific designs at all, saying, ‘When it comes to WSD, I’m not a huge advocate. I do feel it is marketing and, in my opinion, the US market has driven it. Personally I’ve only ridden one women’s bike,’ she continues, ‘and my position was no different because I have the same setup on all my bikes, but it did handle differently and I didn’t feel that it was an improvement.’
Santurbane at Liv/giant estimates that women make up around 25% of potential bicycle buyers, but actual sales volumes of women’s specific bikes are still relatively low. Dipple says that in 2013, sales of women’s bikes accounted for only 8% of her shop’s total bike sales.
Simple economics suggest that it doesn’t make sense for brands to invest large amounts of money in R&D for women’s bikes. So it’s perhaps understandable that many companies opt for an approach based simply on cosmetic changes and clever marketing for their women’s ranges, but does that mean on the whole that women are being given a worse deal than men?
Equality is a burning issue in the women’s bike arena, where some women feel strongly they are getting a raw deal when it comes to pricing. A so-called ‘women’s tax’ sees equally specced women’s bikes priced higher than the men’s equivalent, or the men’s versions treated to a higher spec for the same cost…