Buying a road bike: A women’s guide
Women are told many things when they go to buy a road bike. Advice comes from all angles. There is Bike Riding Friend, Triathlete Colleague and Bike Shop Guru to name a few. Advice can overlap, but it can also greatly vary. Bikes are often purchased on impulse anyway, at the shop with the best salespeople, and can be often regretted once out on the road.
I’ve seen this happen all too often, and I’d like to make the process easier for you.
No matter how much you currently ride, what you ride and where you ride, there should always be room for growth. Bike riding tends to be an addictive thing, and if you’re on the correct machine, it’s highly likely you’ll end up riding further and more than you’d originally intended. Keep this in mind.
Comfort & Bike Geometry
Women are often told they need an upright road bike. “Women like to be comfortable,” Bike Shop Guru will tell you. The comfort part of this is true. But comfort doesn’t necessarily come from an upright bike.
A relaxed geometry frame will likely feel amazing in the test ride around the block, and this makes the bike an easy sell for the salesperson. However, upon taking this bike out onto the road for an actual – perhaps longer – ride, many things begin to emerge that didn’t exist on that 500m roll around the block near the shop.
Firstly, an upright bike will place your weight toward the back of the bike. This is wonderful for not going over the handlebars but terrible for other reasons. You’ll notice weight being distributed heavily on your sit bones, meaning that no matter how incredible a women’s-geometry-sit-bone-size-specific saddle you’ve purchased, your butt will always be sore after around an hour of sitting in the one place.
Secondly, being upright is terrible for aerodynamics. You may not think this is important, especially if you’re not going too quickly initially. But any amount of extra wind drag means cycling becomes more difficult, and there’s more area for the wind to play with – so on days where you face headwinds, you’ll also find yourself blown backwards more.
Thirdly, the upright position doesn’t lend itself to correct bike handling. When body weight is distributed evenly along a bicycle, the bike will turn well and descend nicely. When weight can’t be close enough to the ground, centre of gravity is all wrong, and descending becomes a scary endeavour – and cornering more so.
When you descend a large hill, it should be possible to get close to the handlebars while in the drops, with a flat back, level feet, and backside not touching the saddle but rather standing over the rear of the saddle. A bike with endurance geometry doesn’t allow this, and, as a result, it isn’t ideal for general road riding.
Riding uphill is much the same, in reverse – on steep ascents, you need toyou’re your weight onto the front wheel as much as possible. If your weight can’t be shifted far enough forward, the bike will want to do wheelies, resulting in a quick dismount and a long, uphill walk.
It’s possible, if you’re coming from a commuter bike of some description or a mountain bike or even a previous, upright women’s geometry bike, an aggressive “race” geometry will feel a little scary at the beginning. Your face may feel like it’s on top of the front wheel. But this feeling lasts all of three days, and the benefits are countless.
One point that is often excluded by the Bike Shop Guru is that everything on a bike can be changed except frame geometry. If a bike comes with something you’re not happy with but you absolutely love the frame, it can and should be changed.
Pay attention to your three points of contact.
Feet first. Get shoes with supportive footbeds, and set up your cleats in the correct position for your body. It’s never one-size-fits-all – and this is especially true when it comes to shoes and cleats.
A saddle that fits your sit bones is imperative for comfort. Men and women have extremely varying sit-bone width, and one women’s saddle isn’t right for all women. And not all men’s saddles are terrible for ladies either. If possible, get a test program for your saddle. It’s an important piece of the puzzle, and once sorted with a good place to sit, you’ll be forever grateful it.
And your hands. Many women have rather tiny hands. Even so, they’re often told by Bike Riding Friend about a groupset that may not match with their finger reach and are offered the option of shims to attempt to solve a more complex problem.
When testing a bike, make sure to get into the drops – which is what should be happening when descending – and try the brakes from there. Now try the same thing while going around a corner or while going over a bumpy surface. If the brake lever bounces away from your fingers, it’s not enough, and you’ll never be confident going down a hill. Find a groupset with hoods and brake levers that feel comfortable to hold onto as you’ll spend a lot of time doing just that.
Ergonomic bars are often a choice on women’s road bikes, and while these provide a more comfortable position to sit in whilst in the drops, they also make the distance between the handlebar and the lever further away. The old-style standard handlebars of the 80s and 90s are actually surprisingly friendlier for reach. But having a brake lever that doesn’t move sideways is more important. Look for an electronic groupset or a different brand to the standard if at all possible.
Also worth noting – if BSG suggests a shorter stem at any point, let it be a warning sign that the bike frame may be too large. Err on the side of a smaller bike rather than larger. It’s hard to fit a bike properly if it’s too large, but a smaller bike can be extended out.
Confidence & Ability
I’ve ridden many bikes. I’ve seen many ladies ride many bikes. And I ride with a great number of ladies of very varying abilities. And from what I’ve noticed over time is the women who choose bikes with a more aggressive geometry are the ones that see the biggest and quickest gains in both confidence and ability over time.
The ones who sit upright and tall are those who always drop back when the group reaches a hill and always get nervous approaching a corner. In general, women are more flexible than men. So it makes less sense for more women to be on such upright bikes when their ability to reach down further is greater than their male counterparts.
Unsure on what you look like whilst riding? Check yourself out in the windows of shops as you pass. Please don’t crash into anything whilst doing so. If you’re on an aggressive frame and you’re still upright, there’s more than likely the chance to drop your handlebars down in the weeks proceeding purchase as you get more comfortable with the bike.
And once you do have your new, shiny, wonderful machine, go new places. Test out that bike to the best of your abilities – which will always change. Have adventures. Scream when going down mountains. Scream while going up them, too. There are many places your legs and a bundle of metal, carbon and plastic can take you, so see as many as are on offer.
Most of all – have fun. It’s not fitness you’re chasing. That just happens by accident.