Practical Advice for Transportation Cycling

Sometimes, all that matters is getting from Point A to Point B as cheaply, safely and efficiently as possible. You don't need a fast bike, you don't need a pretty bike, and most of all you don't need an expensive bike, you just need one that works.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Difference Between Boys and Girls

Do you think anyone who didn't know you would notice if you borrowed your significant other's car? Unless you've got a spouse who drives something... unusual, nobody would be likely to notice at all, because, for the most part, cars don't have gender-specific designs (yes, they do tend to be marketed at different demographics, including by age and gender, but you can still drive your mom's car and only your close friends will laugh at you).

Bicycles have traditionally been different. First off, because the rider is also the engine, bicycle design has to be adapted to human anatomy, and bikes usually come in different sizes to fit taller or shorter riders (yet another reason to avoid department store bikes unless you're exactly average). But bicycles have also long had different designs based on gender, as well.

Jamis Hudson, Men's Frame

Jamis Hudson, Women's Frame
Women's bicycles have long been offered in a "step-through" design, the roots of which are based more in fashion than in practicality. Back when bicycles first became popular, in the late 1800s, women were expected to wear skirts, regardless of what activity they were engaged in The step-through frame of a women's bicycles allowed them to mount the bicycle without having to swing a leg high over the saddle, and to ride without the skirt bunching on the top tube.

The bicycle, in fact, had a fairly large affect in the turn-of-the-century women's movement, as it offered both increased personal mobility for middle-class women and a reason to encourage Rational Dress over the more restrictive garments typical of the time.

Advertisement from 1897 featuring a woman in cycling costume. Notice the baggy trousers to provide a skirt-like profile. 
The role of the bicycle in women's rights is a fascinating topic, but a bit beyond the scope of today's blog post. What's important for now is that, in spite of women's hard-won right to wear bifurcated garments in public becoming accepted fact, the design of bicycles made with women in mind reflects the preference of the day.

The diamond shape of the typical men's frame is a bit simpler to make, and provides more strength and lateral stiffness than a step-through frame of the same basic design, as well as more room to mount accessories and water bottles. As the men's market for sport cycling has commonly been bigger, diamond-framed bikes also were offered at higher price points and with better components than those available on step-through bikes. Because of this, female athletic cyclists often chose to ride "standard" bikes rather than a supposedly female-specific design.

In recent decades, as the percentage of women in competitive and sport cycling has grown, and with it market demand for performance-oriented bikes for both halves of the human race, a new type of "women's-specific" bike has emerged. These bikes have a design similar to standard bicycles, but with the geometry and proportion altered slightly to take into consideration the common physical differences between men and women.

Jamis Satellite and Satellite Femme (no, I'm not paid by Jamis, I just work at a shop that sells a lot of 'em so I have access to pictures).

The assumption being that compared to a man of the same height, a woman would typically have longer legs, a shorter torso, narrower shoulders, slightly shorter arms and smaller hands. As a result, the bike would have a shorter top tube in proportion to its seat tube, narrower handlebars and sometimes smaller brake/shift levers.

Of course, this design relies on sweeping generalizations, as not all women are proportioned the same. These fit some female cyclists (and on occasion, a shorter male cyclist) very well, and others not at all. Many women are fine riding a standard bike, or a standard bike with some modifications. Still, it's a useful option for those who haven't been able to find a standard-geometry bike to suit their needs.

But back to the "boys and girls" or rather "standard and step-through" frame designs. Is there a need for modern women to ride a step-through frame, or any reason a man shouldn't? Aside from fashion, the answer is, as you may expect "do whatever you feel like." Some men might feel a bit self-conscious riding a pink, step-through bike, but fortunately, most manufacturers offer step-through frames in at least one gender-neutral color (black).

There are a few very good reasons to choose a men's (standard, diamond-frame) bike, including:

  • Greater strength and rigidity
  • More room for water bottle cages, bags and pumps inside the frame triangle
  • Easier to hang on a car-mounted bicycle rack
On the other hand, advantages of a women's (step-through) frame include:
  • You don't have to swing your leg over it like a dog over a fire hydrant, which if you've got hip problems, is nice. 
  • If you're carrying a large rear load, or have a child seat on the back of your bike, it's much easier (and safer in the case of the kid carrier) to mount a step-through frame
  • The lack of a top tube makes the bike more adjustable to fit a wider range of riders, handy if it's a "guest" bike (and the reason that most bike-share bikes are designed this way). 
There are also bikes which are designed specifically as a unisex design with a step-through or low-standover frame, called mixtes (pronounces that... however you want, it's French). Mixte bikes traditionally have a double top tube that runs at a diagonal from the head tube to the rear dropouts, a design which results in a stronger, stiffer frame than a "ladies" step-though. 

 Modern Mixte by Soma Fabrications
These types of bikes are a good choice for those who want the ease of mounting but want either a stronger frame or something a bit less "girly" looking. 

What it really comes down to, is that you have to find a bicycle that fits you, and suits your needs, regardless of fashion or tradition. There's no reason to buy a "women's" bike if you don't want one, but on the other hand, there's no reason not to if that's what you think is the most sensible option. 

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