Where have all the women’s bikes gone? A look inside an ever-changing market
I had my first experience with the women’s specific movement in 2002. “I ride a Trek 6700 WSD,” my 12-year old self would say, smugly, to my friends. They didn’t know what on earth I was talking about, and neither did I. But I was hooked on clarifying to all who would listen that my bike was WSD (Women’s Specific Design), the label Trek applied to bikes designed with women in mind. The designation made me feel quite special. I had just gotten my first “race” bike, and I felt official.
I do remember asking myself what made my bike, of all bikes, a women’s bike. It wasn’t pink, it looked like other bikes. I knew next to nothing about geometries, fit, or what a saddle should (and shouldn’t) feel like. Was a women’s specific design exactly what I needed to launch my “racing” career, or was this all just some sort of marketing gimmick to sell more bikes? I didn’t really know.
Women’s specific bikes began surfacing in the late 90s, which included the release of “The Juliana” under the Santa Cruz brand in 1999. It was generalized that women had significantly different proportions than men; that a majority of women would have longer legs and a shorter torso (I am quite the opposite with shorter legs and a longer torso). There would also be other anatomical differences taken into consideration such as shoulder width, pelvic angles, etc., but all of these changes were made without a wealth of data.
Regardless, the demand was there. Women, myself included, wanted a bike designed specifically for them, whether that meant a full geometry redesign to include shortened top tubes and taller head tubes, or just saddles, handlebars, and grips specifically for women.
Here we are in 2019 and some of the original front runners of the women’s specific movement, companies like Trek and Specialized and Yeti, are reverting back to a unisex platform, leaving behind their women’s specific bike lines. Specialized just killed the Ruby, the world’s most popular women’s endurance road bike, and Trek has culled most of its WSD line. Is this where the industry is headed? Where are all the women’s bikes going?
My first pony
The slow disappearance of women’s-specific bikes made me curious to learn a little more about the WSD that first started it all for me. I did a quick Google search, looking for any archived information on the 2002 Trek. I didn’t find much. I did, however, come across a few online customer reviews which felt like opening a time capsule.
It’s nice to see bikes designed specifically for women.
This bike fits so much better than my old (mens frame) bike.
WSD Geometry is a perfect fit for me. (being 5’3″)
The fit is MUCH better than my previous bike and other “men’s” frames I have tried.
I think part of the reason I fell in love with mountain biking is because I started on this great bike.
There are lots of reviews like that, from women who firmly believed that this WSD model fit them better than anything had before.
It’s not about tearing down the whole concept
My burning question: Why are these companies switching away from women’s specific models, back to unisex, and will they lose loyal customers?
With all of this in mind I asked Stephanie Kaplan, Road Product Manager for Specialized, about the company’s transition away from women’s specific frames. Kaplan has been a huge driver in Specialized’s Beyond Gender movement, which is how the company has branded its pullback from women’s-specific engineering.
“We created the women’s specific movement,” Kaplan said. “It’s not about uncreating it, but it’s about changing the perception on it.”
When Kaplan began working with Specialized in the spring of 2014 as the Women’s Product Manager, she and a colleague initiated a research project with Retül, a fit company now owned by Specialized, to confirm that women’s bikes were necessary. Their goal was to bring more funding and support to larger development projects, because, as we all know, that money follows the biggest driver of sales which tends to skew towards the male demographic.
The study that Kaplan helped to conduct analyzed measurements of anatomical body parts and segments, cycling-specific proportions, and bicycle fit coordinates; data that Retül had been collecting for years. The data were used to understand the differences between men and women and their correlation to bike geometry, bike specifications, and equipment.
“We started looking at this digital database and what they were able to do,” Kaplan told me. Based on the data collected in their study, the results weren’t what they had been expecting. Body proportion ratios between men and women were far closer than common wisdom would suggest.
The old truism that women’s legs are longer and torsos shorter came from a poorly executed study by the US Military, and looks like it might not be true at all.
Based on the Retul data, a short top tube and tall head tube wouldn’t be the best design for all women. “When we presented the first studies, we thought, ‘wait a minute, there really isn’t a massive difference.’ Not only is gender not a signifier of a fit, but we were able to look at our own bike fits against the fit database and saw some deficiencies on how we were designing our bikes, from a stack and reach perspective. We presented in December 2014 and I think [Specialized] was already thinking about how we were going to balance and move forward.”
The fit differences between men and women, according to Retul’s data, are no greater than the differences found within a group of men or a group of women.
Specialized figured this out with its Retul data, but they weren’t alone. Much of the industry drew similar conclusions around the same time. What once was a market that companies couldn’t enter quick enough, is now seeing companies like Specialized, Trek, Scott, and Yeti revisiting their product lines and reverting back to a more unisex platform, with some fine-tuning, of course.
“I think that’s just kind of natural evolution for the industry,” Anders Ahlberg, Road Product Manager at Trek said. “It’s not a bad thing that women’s specific bikes were brought to the market. Trek wanted to try and cater to women, and wanted to get women more comfortable with getting into the sport. As Trek moves towards a more unisex platform, everyone gets more choice regardless of their color preference, regardless of their size, regardless of their riding style. It’s better for women, better for everyone.”
Colorado-based mountain bike brand Yeti expressed similar sentiments as they announced the discontinuation of their women’s specific Yeti Beti bike line in July. Yeti released the Yeti Beti bike line, launching with the Yeti Beti ASRc and Yeti Beti SB5c, in June of 2015. The frames weren’t different, but offered different colors, component options, and suspension tunes.
Kristi Jackson, Director of Marketing at Yeti, explained their decision to discontinue the women’s bike line. “The Yeti Beti line leveraged our existing frame platform. Our fundamental design remained, and instead, we focused on adjusting touchpoint components – crank length varied by frame size, handlebar width, smaller diameter grips, women’s specific saddle and tuning the rear suspension to achieve better performance for lighter riders.”
Having only launched the Yeti Beti bike line 4 years ago, the brand had already been researching if it was necessary anymore.
“We discussed it for quite some time and included rounds of internal testing on female and lightweight male riders to ensure the suspensions could be tuned appropriately,” Jackson said. “We tested the waters with the launch of the SB130, which did not launch with a Beti model. This bike continues to be a best seller for men and women. The final decision was made about a year ago as we finalized the 2020 line.
“What I’m gathering is that the more competitive, higher-level riders want to “ride the bikes that the guys ride,” she said. Yeti has found that variables such as body positioning and experience level have a greater impact on bike selection than gender.
I wanted to get the point of view of most of the major hitters in the industry. To be transparent, when I first learned about Juliana years ago, I didn’t understand – it’s a women’s bike, but it actually is the same frames being used in the Santa Cruz lines. How does this make sense? This must just be marketing ploy taking advantage of these poor women.
Katie Zaffke, Brand Manager for Juliana Bicycles, explained Juliana’s concept: “We don’t believe in women’s specific geometry,” she said. “We believe that women want a bike that doesn’t let theory compromise real-world handling. They want a bike that’s been refined to have the most appropriate reach, height, and overall geometry for the terrain they’re riding. And that’s what Juliana has offered from the very beginning.”
Women’s specific geometries – who is still using them and why?
There are still brands holding true to the women’s specific geometries, and insist that it’s what women are asking for.
Canyon is the new kid on the block and began their women’s line by giving a unisex frame the appearance a gender-specific finish. After collecting data entries of body measurements via their ordering system, Canyon determined that higher stacks and a shortened reach would better suit female riders. They concluded that women were generally shorter, their arm lengths were generally 2cm shorter than their given toros, and through other resources that they have greater pelvic flexibility. Canyon worked to release their women’s specific geometry road line in 2017, and their mountain bike line in 2018.
Liv and Juliana were both started with guidance from their parent companies, Giant and Santa Cruz. Juliana shares frames with Santa Cruz, albeit finished with their own colors and spec, spec-ed for women. Liv, on the other hand, launched their first women’s specific mountain bike, the Alies, in 2008. It has its own women’s specific geometry.
“I believe if women want to feel comfortable and perform well on a bike, she should try a bike that has been designed specifically for women’s geometry and anatomy,“ Bonnie Tu, founder of Liv Cycling, said. “We don’t tweak another bike to adjust for a woman, instead we look at how women’s bodies are built and work while riding, and build the frame around that.”
Zaffke, from Juliana, countered this concept. “Some people (male or female) may prefer that kind of geometry, but there is nothing that proves it to be a good fit for women in particular.”
That seems to be the key point for those brands using unisex geometry, even if they apply women’s specific componentry and branding. There are exceptions to “rules” everywhere, including that the industry must standardize what constitutes as women’s bikes.
Just because it feels correct, doesn’t always mean it is.
My Trek WSD bike was replaced about 15 years ago, and I haven’t owned another women’s specific bike. This is not because I felt they didn’t have a place in the industry, or that the marketing was trying to take advantage of the female demographic. I felt my own build didn’t find its best fit on a lot of the WSD geometries due to my long reach, and I did not understand the marketing of unisex frames with women’s branding.
It turns out that I’m not much of an anomaly. In Specialized’s research review “When to Share Product Platforms: An Anthropometric Review” the company analyzed data collected by Retül over the last 11 years with over 7,750 fits. Authors Rita Jett, Samir Chabra, and Todd Carver concluded that it is not necessary to change frame geometries for men and women, but matching components to sizes is key.
Liv disagrees, to a point.
“We knew we saw specific differences between men and women yet needed a way to get there,” Tu from Liv said. She explained how they capture their data to determine their frame designs: “Our designers began using the global body dimension database that reveals female anthropometrics. This database is by PeopleSize. PeopleSize includes nine nationalities such as American, Australian, Belgian, British, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Swedish. We also now consult NASA’s published research and other sources to round out our understanding of women’s dynamic physiology, including anatomy, sizing variations, muscle energy and output.”
Trek collects their data similar to Specialized, through their Trek Precision Fit program at certified retailers around the world. By getting the right fit for their customer base, Trek was also able to determine that their unisex bikes were fitting both men and women with the appropriate adjustments of stem, handle bar width, saddle, etc. “A different sized bar is something that’s almost more impactful than the frame size,” Ahlberg said. Plus, a unisex frame design means an increase in options. “Everyone gets more choice regardless of their color preference, regardless of their size, regardless of their riding style. It’s better for women, better for everyone.”
In a previous interview with CyclingTips, CEO of Trek, John Burke, said, “I think [women’s products] are really good to have. There are certain parts of the bike that need to be gender specific. And then there are certain parts of the bike that don’t need to be gender specific all the time. It’s really hard to put customers in a box and say you’re this or you’re that. I kind of like for the customers to make their own choices and so I think we’re going to continue to have women specific products and then we’ll continue to have more choices for women to make. I think there are different types of consumers and they want different things. And I think making sure that you satisfy those riders is a good thing.”
Retailers and marketing conspiracies
Juliana has not hidden the fact that their women’s bikes are the same as Santa Cruz’s frames, with different color ways and specs geared towards women. I’ve talked to fellow riders of both genders about this strategy. Some shake their heads, thinking that it’s an unnecessary marketing technique, where others welcome the customizations geared towards women.
Juliana’s General Manager, Elayna Caldwell, spoke with Pinkbike earlier this year about the brand’s differences between Santa Cruz. “They are the same frame, so let’s not make any mistakes about that…I would say that it gives women a chance to have their own brand, their own look, their own feel. I want women to be able to have something that they can grab onto that is their own thing, that’s not just the guy thing.”
Kaplan and I discussed my first experience of buying my Trek WSD. Could I have been swayed in the buying process, if at all, or did the WSD label make the sale? “You might’ve felt better that it said women’s on it. If they just walked up to you and said, “Oh, you want to get into mountain biking, this is the bike for you,” you probably would have been just as happy with that answer as someone saying, ‘this is women’s specific.’”
That’s not to say you should just sell for the sake of profits. “Don’t tell somebody they need it when they don’t need it,” Kaplan told me thoughtfully.
Culturally, the world has changed quite a bit since I picked out my old Trek WSD. In addition to having more data now, the move from women’s-specific bikes to unisex bikes may be a reflection of those changes.
“I think that women’s products served a really incredible purpose at the time of making cycling more welcoming for women,” Kaplan said. “It’s like, look, there’s a lot of women that feel really comfortable within the brand that’s for them. Right? And there’s nothing wrong with that either.”
“One of the comments that I hear in general [for the industry], is that brands are making these decisions strictly around the social trends and not with the consumers’ interest in mind; that it’s not authentic,” she said. “If you love it, then ride it and enjoy it. For [Specialized] this was the path we felt most authentic to take for our brand, with no slight to anybody else and how they’re approaching it at all.”
Trek is following a similar trend. “The market was calling and saying, ‘It’s an easy conversation to say that this is made for you,’” Ahlberg told me.
This suggests there could still be a place for that women’s specific branding, especially if it helps with the barrier to entry into cycling for some women.
Women and men just want to ride great bikes
Each brand I spoke with had the same end goal in mind – to not only create a great bike for women to ride, but a community that they can be a part of, and thrive in. “Our commitment to the women’s mountain bike community remains steadfast. Women and men just want to ride great bikes, creating gender specific models is no longer necessary to achieve this,” Jackson at Yeti said.
As we approach 2020, the industry is saturated with options, but companies still teeter on the fence, deciding how to market to women.
I teeter, too. What’s the point of a completely neutral frame platform when that’s only going to deprive the market of its demands? Some women do want pink. Some women prefer black. There’s no right or wrong here.
The good news is that there are plenty of companies trying to make bikes a more welcoming environment for women. Embracing the brands that give us options will help bring the community together. Women’s-specific geometries are not necessary for my personal fit and riding style, but there is a place for them in the industry for women who are not me. There are women out there right now with their own preferences and riding styles just waiting to get their next bike.
What’s it going to be?