Where Have All the Women’s Bikes Gone?

Based on a quick review of bike manufacturers’ websites, women’s bikes don’t seem to have gone anywhere, but a little probing shows the industry might to be in retrograde mode. Having made so much progress in the last 25 years, it would be a shame to lose sight of the goal: bountiful offerings for all riders.  Although there are more choices than ever for female cyclists, the true distinctions between those bikes and unisex bikes are disappearing quickly.

 

 

Last month, Bicycling magazine’s annual Buyer’s Guide hit the news stands and for the first time in years, there was no mention of women’s bikes.  Poof! Gone with the wind! I haven’t been able to find the reason for this — so far, all Bicycling will say is women’s bikes will be covered in their Editor’s Choice and in individual bike reviews.  Gone, but not forgotten.

Now, add to this the fact that, with the notable exception of Specialized, in the past most smaller women’s bikes have offered 650c wheel sizes to fit the rider properly. (At Terry, we go a step further with not only 650c and 700c, but 24” wheels as well.)  But recently, 650c has been disappearing from the lineup faster than real sugar in soft drinks.  No more 650c for Cannondale, Trek, Orbea or Fuji to name just a few.

So what’s going on??? I spoke to some manufacturers — those who continue to carry 650c and those who have dropped them.  They all told me the same thing. 650c wheels are a must-have for a properly built small bicycle. But there is mounting pressure to build small bikes with 700c wheels.

Some told me the consumer herself is driving this change. Apparently there are quite a few women who would prefer to ride an ill-fitting bike with 700c wheels than a properly-fitting 650c bicycle. This may be driven by hesitancy about the availability of 650c or the need to conform.

Others think the “push back” is from those dealers who don’t really understand how a 650c wheel makes a difference in bike fit and choose to stay in the 700c comfort zone rather than educate the consumer.

Once a manufacturer has decided to embrace 700c wheels exclusively, just how will women’s bikes be differentiated from “unisex” bikes?  Expect to see a lot more of this: “…a shorter crank and stem length, along with narrower handlebars, give it a women-specific fit”.  Gee, that’s just what we did in the good old days of unisex! I can guarantee you that women on the tail of the bell curve, i.e. those very petite women are in for a rough time of it.  As 700c returns, stand over heights are rising.

Are manufacturers really reading the market correctly? Is there indeed a trade-off between the desire for a properly fitting bicycle and wheel size? What say you, dear reader?

 

Comments

  1. Kim Corcoran says

    It isn’t just size, but also drive train. Too often (it seems to me) drive trains are designed exclusively for young adults (mostly male young adults) and don’t provide gearing that will allow comfortable riding in hilly terrain for smaller, or older, or “not testosterone enhanced” people. Too often, I’ve stuggled to convince bike shops that I want smaller chainrings/bigger cogs (at least 34 teeth, thank you very much). We shouldn’t have to walk our bikes up steep hills for lack of easy enough gearing.

  2. Tabatha smith says

    Wow, interesting article. I didn’t even know they made 650c tires. I am used to riding a 52cm bike with 700c bike but I have put women specific handlebars and smalller cranks on it and that helps. But then I am a little taller than the average girl at 5’6″ . I can see how a lower standover would be helpful for small women in particular.

  3. Sharon says

    Sigh… we smaller women (5’3″ and under) are just not educating ourselves enough. Therefore we let ourselves be talked into what will make us a ‘better cyclist’, usually by someone with ONLY a vested interest in making a sale. Maybe being a scientist helps in my case (i.e. the ridiculous myth that 700c wheels are “faster”? Really??) At 5’0″, there’s a reason I’m the proud owner of two 16″ Terry’s — 24″ front wheel and all. My bikes take me as far and as fast as I will ever want to go. And when I get where I’m going, whether it’s 10 miles or 100 miles away, I can still feel my fingers and neck. Imagine that!

    • says

      My non-Terry Carbon Roadie is a WSD, and I love it. But I’m constantly baffled at how my husband who is in far lesser shape than I is able to fly up steep inclines while I”m always slowing down to a crawl. Before we purchased these well known road bikes, I kicked butt up those hills on a MTB.

      You may have just answered the question. Although my frame is a WSD, the tires are the same size. The drive train is the same as well.

      You’ve hit on a great concept. Since every Bike Shop in my near vicinity is male owned and primarily male staffed, they either have to really study cycling for women, or hire specialized staff for women.

      By the way, the only reason I came back to cycling after a 20 year hiatus is the WSD bikes! I’m 5’3″ and the popular bike shop of 20 years ago sold me a 17″ frame and swore it was a perfect fit. Finding a better fit is what brought me back. I love my bikes!

      Nancy

  4. Priscilla Ireland says

    I think we women aren’t vocal enough. Our bike shops as does our outdoor shop cater to men mainly with a few items for women. I have asked our bike shops, our Tri shop, and our outdoor store what they have for women and it is probably only 1/4 of what they have to offer. All of their rides are geared to men as evidenced by distance and speed and they have not been receptive to something different. According to them its because there is no call for it however our women’s only tri is limited to 850 and is sold out within minutes!! I think this shows that if its geared to women we will participate. If its made specifically for us we will buy -we women do have money.
    Thanks for letting me spout of

  5. Susan Hayse says

    This is really disappointing, but not unexpected. It’s all about what’s the most profitable. Thank you, Georgena, for continuing to make bikes that actually fit small riders, whether female or male.

  6. says

    I’m all for bike manufacturers to provide enough bikes with different geometries that are beyond the normal male 5’6″-6′ height (but they have different leg, torso and arm lengths).

    Sometimes, it helps to remember that not all women can afford Terry bikes or bikes above $500.00CAN. It’s just reality.

    Jean also @ http://www.velo-city2012blog.com

  7. Margaret Gutgesell says

    I love my 650c=wheeled bike. I’m 150 cm (4’11”) with short legs. Yes, I have short cranks and a compact chain ring. I’ve had the bike for greater than 10 years. If it ever ‘dies,’ I’m not sure what I will do.

  8. Ann "Spike" Toler says

    I’m now apprenticing as a mechanic at a bike shop, and while the guys that work there are great, and much more up-to-speed on the best technology and fit than most shops, they have still tried to tell me that I would fit just a well on a mens bike if I had a good bike fitter. To there credit, once I explain the differences in a men and womens’ bike, as well as the proportional difference in our legs and torso, they understand, but these men work at a bike shop? Selling bikes? To womem? and since most women don’t know what they need (as I didn’t when I first started to ride) they rely on an “educated professional” that works at a bike shop to advise them. It appears to me that the fist line of defense is the bike shops, and unless or until they are truly educated across the board they will continue to sell what they know, and what they think will work based on their knowledge (albeit only of mens bikes).

  9. Kathy Sherman says

    Well heck! I’ve noticed this for a long time now. I’m a training ride leader for the Aids Lifecycle SF to LA ride and so many of my lady riders are just not on a frame that fits them (Specialized is the exception).

    I’m tall, long legged, with a really short torso and reach. Not only is a woman’s specific frame necessary for me but my last 2 bikes had to be make custom because those pesky top tubes just stress out my back!

    I hope that Trek and Orbea keep making frames for smaller riders and short top tubes for their taller sisters!

  10. Judy Toelle says

    It is disappointing. I own an Isis- 16″ with a 24″ front tire. I have ridden in two STP rides. Seattle to Portland- 203 miles – as well as numerous other century rides. I also have a woman specific Cannondale. At my size there is no way I could ride a man size framed bike. We need to let the manufacturers know that they are making a huge mistake. I think that they are ignoring such a large share of the market. They may find that they could indeed do better if they addressed the other half of the population’s needs. Therefore I guess it does indeed boil down to education- not only the manufacturers but the public as well. Thank you Georgena for all that you do.

  11. Gretchen says

    Unfortunately, I think it’s about supply and demand and profitability. I do think we need to continue to ask for what we want/need, educating ourselves so we can go into the bike shops with confidence. So many bike shop employees are educated by the sales reps and from within the shop, and instead of expanding their inventory to carry (or at least be willing to order in) the not-so-popular parts, they talk us into getting something that’s not right for us, but available and profitable because they can make it in quantity.
    I am able to ride unisex road bikes (I’m 5’11’ with a 34″ inseam), but I have a custom Kent Eriksen Mountain bike with 650b wheels. I absolutely love this size wheel for mountain biking! Not quite the 29er (I don’t like the handling, even though I’m bigger than most women), but better than the 26er. I am running into the same issue: Minimal choices for tires and wheels for replacement. I’m in fear that this size wheel set up will be discontinued because there is not growing demand for it. I wish I could create that demand! I guess spreading the word is the best way. I’d love to see the growing technology improve and expand the choices in the 650b Mtn bike wheel market!

  12. Jane Hansen says

    24″ (520’s and 507’s) tires are available in a much wider range of widths, 19mm to 2.4″, than the 650’s. Small bikes with 650 wheels still have front tire/toe touch problem, unless the front end is designed with incredibly strange geometry. The 520 wheel allows design of a bike with reasonable standover height, front end geometry and handling, and NO toe touch. Georgena, you are to be commended on producing the 24″ (520) road bike and (507) mountain bike. There is a slight increase in rolling resistance with smaller wheels, however, the torque required to turn a 520 wheel is way less than the 700, which is especially evident when sprinting or climbing! I switched 6 years ago to a bike with 24″ (520) tires and love it. It’s a custom designed and built bike, because no manufacturer offered one. I’ve traveled extensively on it, after years of torment on 700’s and 650’s.
    To have these sizes available through Terry Bicycles is devine! Spread the word to all your small bicycling friends!!

  13. Torry Templeman says

    Having ridden both – a ‘sized down’ bike and a Terry with a 24″ wheel – I can say that there is NO comparison! You simply can not alter the geometry of the bike in the same way unless you make that wheel smaller. I think the average consumer relies a great deal on what the salesman at the bike shop tells them. Few are familiar with the 24″ wheel when you ask them about it. HOw about more articles in bike magazines on the subject?

  14. Cindy says

    Great article! I am 5’0 and have been looking for a new bike. Ive been riding an ill fitting bike for 3 years and have decided to go for a good one – but am having a bad time finding one. I rode 8 bikes at a shop and only one really came close – I had no idea why. I will start being more specific about what I’m looking for. Maybe if we all do that, more people will start carrying what we need…… doubtful but worth a try

  15. Kat says

    I am 6 feet tall, and I like a tall bike, but there is a big difference between a man’s fit and a woman’s bike. Every time I buy a bike I assume I will have to change the handlebars, the gears and the cogs. But the bike still does not fit me. I am ready to buy a woman specific bike, for the comfort and fit.

  16. Lynn Cunningham MD says

    Thanks Georgena! I’ve been wondering… I bought a Trek WSD TTS in 2006 for my first Ironman event. It has 650c wheels, I purchased 2 different Terry saddles to try and settled on the Butterfly Tri Gel ( for distance, tri riders). I’ve been very happy with the bike, thought it was about perfect, but knew that it was NOT carbon and remained hopeful for a lighter, more aero women’s bike to be found.

    Last Year, Trek came out with the Speed Concept. The triathlon and running endurance lifestyle is how I spend my free time, my non working time, my special time with my husband, and my time enjoying my world. I decided to purchase a higher end Speed Concept, as I thought it was time for me to go carbon, lighter, and faster. Besides, I was doing my 3rd Ironman and a few 1/2 ironman distances, I wanted to get faster! I must admit, it’s a pretty bike, it goes a little faster, but not as fast as I thought it would. When I asked bike store owner and my bike fitter, Jim Hogan,of Geneva bicycles, why it was coming in 700c wheels, and not the 650c wheels I expected, he didn’t have alot to say other than it was industry pressure. I asked if the bike could be fitted with the 650 wheels and shorter crank, and he said no, based on how it was set up. I have found I still prefer the subtle difference of the TTS trek bike fit over the fancier Trek speed concept. I think it’s the crank length and my lesser ability to keep up the cadence I should be holding on the bigger wheels and longer crank of the speed concept.

    I practice medicine based on medical evidence. I give my patients blood pressure and diabetes pills, antibiotics and referrals to phys therapy because that’s what the research shows.

    What do the studies, are there any studies, on bicycle geometry for women, best fit, fastest speeds, comparing 650c wheels and 700c wheels with shorter cranks? I think we are willing to pay for our hobby, our sport….the bike companies need to identify that we are, indeed, a significant part of the bike market and meet our needs.

    Any thoughts?

  17. Nadine says

    I think you are right, women´s bikes are disappearing. The European perspective on that: manufacturers do not see the need of women´s bikes with only about 10% of racing bike riders are women. In Germany I looked for a youth race bike and found an italian Concorde. Fits superbly but is not made anymore…
    To alter this bike, I can not find any crank sets with 3 chain rings in shorter than 170. I have also looked at Stevens Bikes/Germany, they have very small womens frames, but do not change handlebars/cranks etc.

  18. Georgena says

    Gretchen, I think the 650b tires will be around for a while. They have a very ardent group of supporters in the randonneurs. There are a couple of companies in the US importing these tires to their own spec. I wish I could some 559s designed as well as these tires.

  19. Georgena says

    Lynn, I can’t think of a reason why you can’t run shorter cranks. The chainrings are the same and nothing else changes other than the leverage you have (a little less because of the shorter crank arm length). There’s not one part of the bike that knows or cares how long the crankarms are. I don’t know what the ideal angle of the lower and upper leg is at the top of the pedal stroke (I’ll find out), but I know if it’s too acute, that doesn’t bode well for the knees. It is definitely easier to spin the circle if you can avoid this. Thanks for the idea — I’ll report back!

  20. Ken Hinman says

    I got a chuckle out of this line: “At Terry, we go a step further with not only 650c and 700c, but 24” wheels as well”, when in fact there were no 650c bikes in the Terry catalog until the first 20inchers appeared near the end of your first decade! But whether it was 650s or 24s that were the “step further”, I have always appreciated and respected your sticking to a design philosophy of proportional wheel sizes and consistent geometry.

    I’ve had some interesting discussions with both male and female staff at my favorite bike store. The owner’s 5’4″ wife responded with the “I won’t be able to keep up on 650’s” old wives tale, though her husband agreed that that was a gearing issue and unrelated to the wheels. The sales staff parrot the company line about how they’ve “learned how to make great handling bikes for shorter riders without having to resort to smaller wheels”. I’d love to be there with a 16″ Terry when a 5′ customer comes looking for a fast road bike!

    My perception is that almost all the big companies are committed to women’s bikes and they still offer some nicely-thought-out models across the price spectrum. But they do seem to have given up on the smallest riders. I see the disappearance of their 650c offerings not as a sudden event, though, but as the end of a long trend, whatever the market pressures that caused it. A decade ago, for instance, Trek and Cannondale offered awesome high-end 650-wheeled bikes in 3 sizes (the largest of which were roughly comparable to Terry’s smallest 650 frame, the 19″). By 2005 the 19’s were gone, and after another couple more years only the smallest (which by Terry standards should have been 24″/600c) remained, and virtually anyone else who offered a 650c woman’s bike had only this size as well.

    For my part, I own a small fleet of woman-specific bikes, with 24″, 650c, and 700c wheels, 40cm to 54cm, by Terry, Trek, Shogun, Cannondale, Aegis, Fuji, and Specialized. I use them to encourage more women (and shorter riders in general) to ride and to help them understand their options in finding a good fit on the bike. I think education is and has always been the key; I’ll keep doing my bit, and thanks to Terry for the bikes and online resources that are part of my toolbox.

  21. says

    I tried for almost 10 years to make do with a Trek almost-fit bike. It was the shortest forward reach they made – a 420, and it was actually their NEXT to the smallest frame size in that bike – the smallest one actually had a LONGER forward reach!

    With the help of Sheldon “Always Something Useful To Say” Brown, I was able to retrofit that bike with a shorter stem, narrower handlebars with an inset to bring the brakes in, “small hands” levers, a longer seat post so I could get the seat high enough for my long spider legs. Sight unseen, he walked me through everything I needed to do (including finding the first and, at that time, ONLY women’s specific saddle with the cutout that came from Japan) to get that bike as close to fitting as was humanly possible, all via telephone calls and e-mail.

    He is also the first person who ever told me about Terry bikes. However, having just bought a brand new bike, I felt obligated to continue to ride it. Ooooooh, if only I could do that all over again!

    Finally I’d had it. Neck pain, soreness, and somehow never really being able to take that thing out for more than about 10 miles at a time finally catapulted me over into the decision to dump the bike and get a Terry. All the “advice” from male riders about how I needed to replace the “ridiculous” short stem (when forward reach was already too long for me), to move my seat back, move it forward, raise the handlebars, lower the handlebars, get a BIGGER bike (because bikes obviously should be fit by standover and nothing else, and my 5’2″ frame has spider arms and legs – same length arms and legs as a female friend of mine who was 5’8 or 5’9″, LOL!) Finally I’d just had it!

    Bought a Terry Madeleine. The difference between a bike that FITS and a bike that only ALMOST fits was night and day! Suddenly I could make a turn without fearing I was about to fall over. Suddenly there was no soreness – the water-gel shorts and all the fancy stuff I’d tried to alleviate saddle soreness were no longer needed. Virtually no more neck pain – I did have to retrain myself to ACTUALLY SIT ON THE SADDLE now that that was possible, because it turned out that I had developed the VERY bad habit of kind of balancing over the nose of my saddle and leaning forward to reach the handlebars and the brake levers, putting a lot of weight on my arms and the handlebars. This not only caused me all sorts of pain, it destabilized me on the bike. It took me awhile to train myself out of that.

    And the first time I went to stop the bike, I almost went over the handlebars! Why? Because even with small hands brake levers, and even with the notch in the handlebars, those levers on the old almost-fits bike were still too far away for me and too large for me to get any real torque on them.

    With everything within reach so I could sit on the bike with proper conformation, and safe, secure stopping, I felt so much more stable on the bike that I found I was not only riding further, experiencing no pain, no soreness, but I was also riding FASTER. The potential for greater speed had always been there (not that I’m a speed demon by any stretch of the imagination), but I had felt so unstable on the old doesn’t-really-fit bike that I unconsciously was compelled to keep the speed down.

    I wish I’d had a Terry all those years ago. I’m glad I had the opportunity to ride one for as long as I was able. But as far as I’m concerned, the ONLY off-the-shelf bike for women is a Terry. Even in their “women specific” conformations, the vast majority of so-called WSD bikes have not actually been tailored to women in any significant way, ESPECIALLY at the lower end of the height scale. A 650c bike is still too big for most shorter riders. TO this day, the ONLY off the shelf bike that has an option for someone as short waisted as I am has always been, and still is, a Terry.

    And if I were going to go to a custom bike – again, it would be a Terry. I rode for one summer with a woman who had had a bike custom made for her and she had an awful time with that thing. She’d spent a fortune on it, and it was too big for her. It was also heavy and clunky (I think the guy who built it was just not very good). He had her utterly convinced it was perfect for her and it clearly was NOT. So here is an example of a woman who was willing to drop the big bucks on getting a bike to fit, paid for a custom bike, and STILL got a man’s design painted pink.

    It just seems that bike mechanics, by and large, will never learn. Size DOES matter – at least in bikes, wheels, and frame geometries.

  22. says

    Riding a Trek 43 road bike w/650 wheels – it’s for kids – at 5”1″ — not the best fit, though a light bike and it was affordable (less than $400). I’ve had to change out the handlebars for a more upright position, still playing with the saddle/seatpost to get the reach that’s most comfortable. Wish I could afford a Terry bike that’s light and fits… I’ve tried all kinds of brands, but most had 700 wheels and the standover was too high.

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