Road Cycling

Fitting a Female Body to a Unisex Bike

We got set up to see if we could put an end to the female specific vs unisex bike debate...

We’ve written a lot about female specific vs unisex bikes in the past. The need, or lack of need, for bikes made with female bodies in mind is an ongoing debate.

Some brands tell us their data suggests women on average have a shorter ‘wingspan’ (torso/arms) which means they’re more suited to female specific bikes with reduced top tubes. Others tell us there is no difference in ‘average’ data between the genders, and that gender is irrelevant – every individual needs to be fitted to a bike as an individual.

The latter belief is certainly the stance taken by Sir Chris Hoy, who has worked with Evans Cycles to create HOY road, hybrid and track bikes (as well as kid’s bikes).

“Personally I’ve always been under the belief that you buy the bike that is right for your needs.” – Sir Chris Hoy

When we spoke to Sir Chris – he told us: “Personally I’ve always been under the belief that you buy the bike that is right for your needs. Then you set it up to the rider [adjusting the stem, saddle and handlebars] – no matter what gender. That goes for anyone: male, female, short, tall, experienced, racer, casual rider.”

We’ve investigated the theory behind female specific bikes vs unisex bikes fitted to the individual till we’re blue in the face. So, we decided to skip to the practical exam.

I collected my kit (TWC, obvs), shoes and camera, and went to get fitted to a unisex HOY bike. An Evans Cycles ‘Set Up’ bike fit costs just £45 and is a slimmed down version of the CycleFit service which costs £295 – so it’s certainly a good bargain. 

When fitting anyone to a bike, the fitter will usually look at saddle height, saddle fore and aft (position on the rails), saddle choice, stem length, stem height and handlebar width. Since fit is top on Sir Chris’ priority list, stem, seatpost, saddle and handlebars can all be swapped free of charge on any HOY bike.

Most women will get on better with a women’s saddle. We also, on average, will need narrower bars to cater for narrower shoulders.

Stem length is where it all becomes contentious. If the woman does have a shorter wingspan, she’ll need a shorter stem. A shorter stem makes the handling on a bike ‘twitchy’ whilst a long stem allows the rider to glide around corners and position their weight more effectively over the front wheel.  This is where we end up arguing that women with this shorter wingspan may be better with a female specific bike, that has a shorter top tube so as to allow for a ‘standard’ stem. However, since the data is all rather murky, we could say that this applies to both men and women – some people just suit shorter bikes.

Sorry – we’re back on the theory. Lets return to the practical exam – I rocked up at Evans Cycles ready to be fitted to a Sa Calobra .001 HOY bike in a size XS. Though the height range is a guide only, this bike is designed to fit a humanoid between 163 and 168 cm. Being 165.5cm, I’m bang in the middle so I decided to go with the size recommendation.

To begin the fit, I filled out a short questionnaire about my riding – disciplines, goals, longest rides, plus any history of previous injury. For me, that’s road, track (infatuation of the moment),time trials (come summer) and about 50 miles at the moment.

Questionnaire complete, fitter Thom Doggett started by taking my inside leg measurement, which would help determine saddle height.

Then, we measured my sit bones to decide what sort of width saddle I’d need, and Thom asked about my preferred riding position to determine if I’ll want a perch for someone who rests back on their sit bones, or sits forward. We concluded that I needed an aggressive position saddle, for someone with sit bones on the wider end of the scale.

How long do I sit here for?

Next up, my shoulder width was measured, to find out what sort of handle bars I’d need. As expected, I measured up as 37cm shoulder to shoulder, so we’d anticipate I’d want narrower bars than those specced on the bike.

Finally, a flexibility test was carried out. A flexible rider will be able to have a greater saddle to handle bar drop, whilst someone with limited flexibility will want to be a little more level to prevent lower back pain.

Checking out the bar tape behind me

Measurements taken, the fitting could begin. This actually started with the cleats – these needed to be in the correct position just below the ball of my foot, before anything else can happen.

Badly fitting cleats can actually be the root cause of many knee, calf, and hip injuries – they determine the pedal pedal stroke so are just as important as saddle height, which is often blamed for assorted ailments.

Cleats fitted, I could hop onto the bike and start to pedal away for Thom to examine. We started with the back of the bike, focusing on saddle height and fore/aft.

Sticky ‘target spot’ labels were placed on my knee and hip, and a video was taken as I pedalled on a rather swanky iPad, which then draws a line between the spots and calculates the knee angle.

Computers, mathematics and angles – three things I struggle with but trust implicitly

Then, Thom uses a laser to ensure that my knee sits correctly over the ball of my foot.

Lasers – always reassuring

The front end is where it all gets interesting. I’ve always ridden female specific bikes, with 90-100mm stems. Once the bars are changed over to a 38mm pair, Thom works on fitting the correct size stem to give me the perfect reach on this bike.

With the bars sitting quite high, the iPad and his measurements would have this at 80mm. With the spacers removed, to suit my riding position (can’t take the time trial attitude out of the girl, even over winter), that’s 70mm.

Michelle be like: “70mm?! Have you SEEN my cornering as it is?!”

The stem length to me sounded and looked quite short, which put me back in the ‘better with a female specific bike’ camp. I asked Thom what he thinks, and he said: “I find sometimes it is harder to fit some shorter females onto unisex bikes, purely because of the way they’ve designed them. Normally the back of the bike is fine, it’s the reach, and you don’t want to go past that point of making the bike too twitchy for them with a shorter stem.”

The stems available, however, go right down to 10mm, and Thom wouldn’t class 70 or 80mm as borderline at all. Perhaps I’m wrong to have been raised on the belief that a stem must be 90mm or more. We’d never know until I rode the bike – so that’s exactly what I did next.

The ride…

Off I tootled on my newly fitted Hoy Sa Calobra .001. I thought I’d really put it through its paces, with my local bike shop hill reps session: ups, downs, and 90 degree bends.

My initial impression when I first got on the open road was that the reach felt too short for me. I was comfortable enough, but didn’t feel exactly optimal – a bit like I was perched on top of the bike, as opposed to the two of us working like one unit.

Though it’s breaking a cardinal law of bike fitting, when I got home I messed with it, swapping the stem to a 90mm to give me the greater reach that I felt was lacking. Getting back on the bike for another spin, I immediately felt at home in the cockpit of the HOY.

Just to be sure I wasn’t imagining the improvement, I measured the Evans fitted/Michelle meddled with HOY Sa Calobra against my own bike (also professionally fitted) and found the two to be almost identical. The fit on the rear end of the Sa Calobra therefore was great, but my gut instinct on the front end had been right.

The conclusion…

There’s two things to evaluate here, really – the female vs unisex bike discussion and this particular bike fitting experience.

On the first issue, the unisex HOY felt equally comfortable when compared to the bike I’m used to.

It is worth noting there are other reasons behind female specific bikes – changes to tube weight to cater for lower body masses’ and differences in centre of gravity are also taken into account in the manufacture of female specific models.

Of course, this is a personal experience and really does depend on your own proportions, and indeed the geometry of each individual bike. But speaking as an individual riding this particular bike, I was able to find a perfectly comfortable fit.

On the fit, I went away from Evans Cycles with a bike that put me in a position that was comfortable enough, and this sort of service could guide a beginner cyclist in finding their ideal starting position, helping them to avoid injury.

At £45, the 45-60 minute fit is much less expensive than most options on the market, in fact it’s based on a two hour £295 version. They did also assure me that anyone who had a fit and felt it wasn’t perfect when they got on the road would be more than welcome to come back and discuss their concerns. Bike fit, they say, is a process.

However, I expect a cyclist looking to find the optimum position, perhaps those after a racing fit or planning to really hammer the miles, might be better off looking further up the price ladder for a fit with a more specialist service. These kind of sessions are usually closer to 2-3 hours, and upward of £150. However, if you intend to spend a lot of time on your bike, it really is money well spent.

Find out more about the Evans Cycles £45 Set Up bike fit here.

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