When Liv launched as its own entity in 2010, the objective was always to create female specific bikes and riding gear to get more women cycling.
Each bike within the range is built from the ground up with a rider in mind: her goals, her riding style and her average body shape. Anecdotal evidence from female riders certainly tells us that lots of women seem to get on with their creations but with the debate around women’s bike geometry still on-going we wanted to better understand the reasons behind creating female specific bikes in the first place.
Most of us have heard the arguments – there are three broad beliefs:
- Women need bikes with a shorter reach to men and we should create bikes for this average woman
- Women need bikes with a slightly shorter reach, so we’ll create unisex frames and tweak their bikes by using shorter stems and changing the saddle
- There aren’t obvious average differences in proportions between men and women. Changes should be made at a bike fit for every individual. There is no average.
Liv believe most women need women’s bikes. Global Product Marketing Specialist Erin Lamb tells me: “Some brands take a man’s bike, make it smaller and paint it pink. But it's never been our approach. We look at who is going to be riding it, we understand the consumer, her goals and what she wants, and we build a bike for her. We build it from the ground up for our consumer."
Shrinking and pinking still happens, but in recent years we've seen more brands taking a more considered approach. What I want to understand are the facts of the situation - the numbers behind why we have women's bikes. I spoke to Lamb, and her colleague, Global Category Manage Cassandra Chou.
Lets look at the actual numbers
The data Liv show me demonstrates that women have 0.5% shorter torso in relation to their height, and 0.6% shorter arm in relation to their height, when compared to men.
Chou explains: “Women have a shorter torso and longer legs [compared to men]. Basically when women ride a men’s bike, the reach will be too far and the stack will be too low. So the rider posture will be too bent over."
Liv also send diagrams that they use in development – a man’s average body draped over a men’s bike, and then a woman’s average body over the same bike. True enough, though the percentage differences in proportions seem tiny, the woman’s body angle is reduced from 47.5 degrees to 44.1 degrees and her armpit angle increases from 71.9 degrees to 78.9 degrees. The stick woman on the bike is leaning over more than the man, and her arms are overstretched.
Lamb tells me: “We take these average body measurements, and put them on a bike and look at the angles created, and tune it that way. It’s amazing how much difference you’ll feel if you’re just half a centimetre forward."
The reach can of course be reduced by swapping the stem – but Lamb doesn’t think this is enough – she says: “[For optimum handling], there’s a precise position that you want to be in with regards to the wheel, the fork and the front hub. When you change the stem around it changes how much control you have over the bike. So if you have too long a stem, even if it puts your body in the right position it doesn’t put your handling in an optimal place."
Elaborating, she adds: "Too short a stem will make the handling twitchy – it won't be as smooth. It doesn’t feel as safe when you’re cornering. If the rider wanted to do a criterium or a technical descent, she’s not going to able to push to her limit or feel as confident."
Strength, power and stiffness
As well as having different average proportions, Liv’s data shows that whilst the average woman can produce about 70 per cent of the average man’s strength via her lower body, in the upper body such as at the biceps, most women have around 50 per cent of the strength of men. Effectively our strength is distributed differently - with a greater proportion of it coming from our legs compared to our arms.
The difference in strength distribution is another reason women need their own bike geometries in Liv’s opinion. With more power coming through our legs as opposed to our upper bodies, we’re best off sitting slightly higher up and pushing through the strongest muscles - those that are in our legs.
Lamb tells me: “It’s not only about differences in dimensions. We look at how much strength a woman has in her upper body compared to her lower body, and which muscle groups it’s more beneficial for her to be firing. We use that when tuning the geometries and the stiffness of the bikes."
Two of the important things bike reviewers always look at are weight and stiffness. Often, the stiffer a bike is, the more power it can absorb, but the more it weighs. The average woman produces less power than a man and therefore the pro-women’s-bike-theory is that she doesn’t need a bike that offers equal stiffness. If she is riding a bike offering the same qualities as an average ‘men’s bike’, she’s paying for stiffness she doesn’t need with a weight penalty she doesn’t want.
Chou tells me: “Women usually don’t need the same stiffness as men so we can make the carbon lay-up different to make it less stiff, and lighter. No matter for men or women, the lighter the better. But lighter is more expensive."
Women's comparative upper body strength is particularly important in the case of mountain bikes. All suspension can be tuned, but Liv bikes are designed with lower body weights in mind. Chou explained: "The bike works together as it was built. Making one change causes a ripple effect for how the bike rides, this is especially clear with mountain bikes and suspension."
As well as taking into account geometry, grip diameter, gearing is often altered since the average woman might want more lower gears to spin than the average man - though less so on the more race oriented models.
What do the pros do and which way is the industry going?
One of the elephants in the room is that there are many pro women riding unisex bikes. In fact, some even choose to do so when offered a choice of a women’s and a unisex bike, almost assuming the women’s option is ‘not as good’ or not as performance orientated.
Addressing this, Lamb tells me: “I think that’s largely down to tradition. People are comfortable, they recognise those bikes [unisex bikes], and I think that they’re just not educated on some of the women’s bikes out there. At Liv we make no compromise on women’s bikes, we spec them with the top spec and we make them just as fast. They would fit well in the pro peloton." They do, of course, with Rabo Liv and Liv Plantur riding on the platforms.
Discussing why more brands haven’t developed women’s bikes, Chou tells me: “To develop different geometry you have to invest a lot of money and some brands don’t see it as necessary to build up a total different frame for men and women. They save their money. For us, we think that is not right, and we should not compromise. We have a big commitment to women."
Looking to the future, her colleague added: “We’ve seen other brands start going in that direction and I do think the pattern is going to keep going."
Describing the brand created in 2010, she added: “Liv is a company that is run by women, supported by women, our engineers, our marketing – it’s a group of women driving these bikes."