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Womens comfort

Bikes for women

There was a time when women faced stiff opposition to their right to wear bloomers for cycling. Nowadays both sexes wear similar Lycra shorts and ride the same bikes.  Equality? Yes, but there?s a major draw back. Bikes are made with a man?s build in mind. Therefore if you avoid open-framed, step through, ?women?s bikes?, which are not as strong as the classic "diamond framed bikes", you can run into problems.

Buying a Bike
The correct frame
Choosing a bike
Common Problems associated with an incorrect size frame

Buying a bike

Proportionately women tend to have shorter arms and torsos, longer legs and a wider pelvis. With some tweaking e.g. shifting the saddle forward, shortening the handlebar stem, many women can get away with a not-too-uncomfortable ride on a standard man?s bike. This often won?t be ideal, and these compromises will affect comfort and performance. Therefore before you buy a bike, consider what sort of riding you fancy getting involved with.

Road bikes have drop handlebars, narrow 700cc tyres, and a shorter wheelbase (the distance between the two points where the tyres contact the ground) for faster handling.

Touring bikes generally have drop handlebars, a longer wheelbase for stability, are tougher and have space for mudguards and panniers. Most touring bikes will have either 21 or 24 gears; these help you to climb steep hills, with a load, much easier.

Mountain bikes have straight handlebars, stronger tubing, and 26in fat, knobbly tyres. All serious ones will have a 21 or 24 speed gear systems.Hybrid/Trekking/City bikes tend to use 700cc tyres and offer a much more upright and therefore more comfortable ride for women.

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The correct frame

Frames can be made from steel, aluminium, carbon fibre or titanium. Frames made from carbon fibre and titanium are more expensive than steel or aluminium tubes frames though they can be lighter, stiffer and stronger. The majority of good quality road and touring frames are built from steel alloy tubing, such as Reynolds 531 or Columbus SLX. Mountain bike frames are readily available in most materials.

The frame material, however, is less important than correct fit. Most bike frames are designed with men in mind and therefore have top tubes that are too long for women. If the top tube is too long and you have to reach too far forward for the handlebars, the wrong part of your anatomy ? the soft tissue ? will connect with the saddle.

Women are now taller than they were in the days of our mothers and grandmothers, but taller women are more likely to be longer legged and short bodied. Taller women can normally obtain a correct fit on a man?s frame if they buy a bike that is a size smaller than a man of similar leg length would buy. The smaller sized frame should have a shorter top tube, and thus a shorter reach, although a longer seatpin and/or handlebar stem with a rise might be necessary.

If you?re shorter than 1.6m (5ft 3in), then it?s not easy getting an off-the-peg road or touring frame. You?ll need a frame sized 48cm or less (measured from the top of the seat tube to the centre of the bottom bracket), and the smallest size a standard frame can be built to is 48cm...

The problem is the 700C wheels. In order to fit 700C sized wheels into small frames, some manufacturers build the frames with higher than normal bottom bracket height, very shallow frame angles and toe clip overlap. Higher than normal bottom bracket height (about 26.5cm is high enough for a road bike) makes it more difficult to reach the ground from the saddle, and also raises the stand-over height to what it would be with a larger frame.

Very shallow frame angles give peculiar steering. And if you?re a beginner, the last thing you want is your foot or toe clip touching the front mudguard (or worse, the wheel!) when turning the bars.

For frames smaller than 48cm, 26in wheels (either mountain bike size or the racing 650C/26 x ¾) are essential.

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Choosing a bike

If you want to buy off the peg, many mountain bikes ? which have 26in wheels ? come in small sizes, and they can be adapted for other kinds of riding. If you want to buy a dedicated road or touring bike, your choices are narrower.

The alternative is to get a custom bike built. Several custom builders have had a lot of experience of building frames specifically for women.  Some can also supply 160, 162.5 and 165 mm cranks. Correct crank length is important to prevent knee pain and maximise pedalling efficiency.

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Common Problems associated with an incorrect sizes frame

Symptom Cure
Painful back, neck and wrists Too long a reach. Check length of top tube and use a shorter handlebar stem.
Chaffing Check saddle height or try different saddle.
Painful undercarriage Check if saddle is level or slightly tilting downwards; try a different saddle.
Painful knees Check saddle height and crank length.
Painful neck  Raise the handlebars, possibly shorten handlebar stem to sit more upright. But on a road bike, beginners will need to get the neck muscles accustomed to leaning forward.
Painful arms  Shorten handlebar stem and work on upper body strength.

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