The typical bike buying process revolves around a shopper selecting a pre-built machine that best suits their wallet and needs, then upgrading or swapping various components over time. One of the questions many women will ask themselves during that process will be ‘do I need a female specific bike?’
But what if that question were taken away, and the components fitted to the frame were personalised to the user - would our Joanna Bloggs come out with a machine that still looked like a 'female specific bike'?
Nestled in the Kentish hills, near Tonbridge, you’ll find V02 Cycling: an establishment where the bike buying process is rather more personalised. The creation of ex-pro rider and personal trainer Jimmy George, the facility offers coaching, sports massage and other performance related services (including use of an endless pool for triathletes), as well as custom built bikes to suit rider requirement.
Custom frames are not the order of the day (yet). Instead, V02 Cycling offer three different chassis, that can be tailored to the rider’s exact needs based on detailed assessment.
Jimmy, who raced in Belgium before returning to the UK to launch V02 bikes in 2009, tells me he started off offering bike fits. Finding many customers were riding unsuitable steeds, he got more and more interested in the process before deciding to import frames to build around riders. The engineering takes place at VO2’s chosen factory, using open molds used by other manufacturers. Jimmy says: “We’re not engineers - and we think the bikes are great. They come come in five different sizes, which gives us lots of scope for adjustment. Usually we’ll see someone once or twice – that gives me two opportunities to make sure the bike fits the person – and I do think that’s more important than the frame."
I was initially invited to V02 Cycling because of the rather loud noises I’ve made in the past around the self-contained business the bike industry has made out of female specific bikes. I’ve written, well, quite a lot about it. At V02 cycling, all three frame options are unisex.
"I think a female specific bike is very general. Usually female frames are shorter – but that’s not ideal for everyone."
- Female specific bike approaches:
- No female specific bikes, buy a bike and change the relevant components yourself
- Brands that offer a unisex frame with female specific components (Ridley, Genesis, Storck, Juliana, Canyon, Colnago)
- Brands that build a bike from the 'ground up' just for women, the frame is engineered to suit female requirements (Liv, Specialized, Trek, Scott)
Jimmy said: “If [women’s specific bikes] get someone confident enough to go out, buy a bike and ride, great. But once we get into more sportive riding, triathlon, and racing – I don’t think it’s needed. I think a female specific bike is very general. Usually female frames are shorter – but that’s not ideal for everyone. Some males have short bodies and long legs – so do they need a female specific bike?"
Brands who build frames 'from the ground up for women' usually offer a slightly shorter top tube with a taller head tube. We can't recreate that here. Others provide a unisex frame with a women’s saddle, narrow handlebars, shorter stem and shorter cranks. My question is: if Jimmy fits me to a unisex frame, designed to fit my exact requirements – will it follow the conventions of a typical female specific build? Will it look like a 'female specific bike'?
The V02 Cycling Bike Assessment: Stage One
I rock up at V02 cycling with full kit and cycling shoes, expecting a bike fit of some description. I suppose it is a bike fit of some description – but I won’t be doing any pedalling.
I do change into my kit, and Jimmy assess my mobility via a number of movements that will be familiar to anyone who has had a session with a physiotherapist – he looks at my shoulder, hamstring and ankle movement, making notes. The conclusion is that I’m a tad hypermobile. That tells him we don’t need to worry about any lack of flexibility holding back my ideal bike fit.
Next: strength. This process sees Jimmy asses what happens when I squat – using both legs and then single leg varieties. Whilst my quads and calves are fairly strong, he concludes that my core and glutes are lacking. So my bike fit will need to take this into account. I've actually been working quite hard on this for the last six months - so heaven knows how bad it was before that...
Women are notoriously more flexible than men, and on average have a lower percentage of muscle mass, especially around the upper body. Jimmy says that he likes to treat each individual as exactly that – so won’t generalise. I would hypothesise that the majority of amateur women will display similar characteristics, to varying extent.
Next up, my inseam, shoulders, wingspan and feet are measured, to help ascertain a frame size, ideal handlebar width and crank length. Then we move on to the less active portion of the consultation: bike component geekery.
V02 Cycling offer set-up on three frames: the top end race frame the V:PRO:CARBON, the more endurance focused VESP and the VERSUS time trial rig. We’re setting me up 0n the VESP - and judging by my height and inseam length, Jimmy selects a 52cm frame – largely what I’d expect. As a standard customer, I’d be able to select colour accents, which we do virtually:
Then we go through each of the components, right down to the tyres. With our focus being on fit, in reality we keep the spec much lower, and Jimmy ensures the key size specific components are as discussed.
The V02 Cycling Bike Assessment: Stage Two
A week or so later, I arrive back at V02 Cycling to be set up on my new VESP. Upon inspection, the endurance focused machine is actually still pretty aggressive – my 52cm frame has a reach of 384mm and stack height of 522.5mm. In the interest of comparison, that’s more aggressive than the racey Ridley Jane SL I tested recently, that came in at 374/527.
Jimmy has fitted the bike with 38cm handlebars, this will keep my hands in line with my shoulders. It’s exactly what I’d expect, and pretty much any women’s bike I’ve ridden has had the same bar width fitted.
I jump onto the bike. The saddle height (set using my height and inseam length) feels absolutely spot on. Because I sit quite far back on the saddle, he shifts it forward to allow for the correct angle over the pedal spindle.
The new saddle position does result in a perch that's pushed very far forwards on the rails - not ideal for the seat pin or saddle rail over time. Considering we're using a layback seat post, in an ideal world I'd expect to see this swapped for an inline version, and I'd also change the shape of the bar drop: but since we're using a demo model with available components I'd expect a customer would have these items tweaked. Regardless, saddle height and offset are spot on.
What does feel off is the reach: it immediately feels short and scrunched up to me. Bearing in mind this is a unisex frame, Jimmy seems surprised that this would be my gut reaction. However, he’s fitted a 90mm stem, and explains that this is because of my lack of core stability. Go longer, and my back will be more inclined to ‘drop’ – putting pressure in all the wrong places. Though my flexibility might allow for a longer stem, my strength doesn’t.
"If the core isn’t strong enough to have that longer stem then the better handling achieved will throw it out anyway."
The fitter explains: “Stem length is about how the person holds themselves. If a longer stem causes the back to slouch, then we’d go for a shorter stem. Stem length does of course impact handling [too short can be twitchy, longer is generally nicer to ride, to a point]. But for me if the core isn’t strong enough to have that longer stem then the better handling achieved will throw it out anyway."
We stick with 90mm – and Jimmy shows me some activation exercises to do before every ride, to help me build some essential strength. We also talk a lot about position, and I'm given pointers on how I can improve my on-bike posture with focused intervals during my warm-ups.
It’s common for manufacturers to opt for shorter cranks on smaller women’s bikes, but at my height, I find most come specced with 170mm levers. Jimmy’s gone for 165mm.
“Crank length can change a lot about how the rider will feel on the bike."
Crank length is a major interest for the fitter. He says: “Crank length can change a lot about how the rider will feel on the bike. When the knee comes over the crank, we’re trying to make sure it isn’t going too high and closing your hip causing congestion – that will really tighten your quad. If the crank is shorter, the knee won’t come up too high - but a long crank provides a larger leaver with which to administer power. On a time trial bike, you can get away with a bigger crank – the rider will likely get a big gear rolling over a dual carriageway and be able to hold it. On a road bike for crit races a shorter crank allows for quicker accelerations. Even foot size can impact the ideal crank length - if you’ve got a longer foot that can create a bigger lever."
My unisex frame is fitting in with the generalisations bike brands make when speccing a women’s version, so far. The gearing, however, is different. In my original consultation, I told Jimmy I’d expect the number one use for this bike was criterium racing – where long climbs are rare and you want to be able to hit big speeds. So he’s gone for a standard 53/39 chainset, and we agree I can put on a big cassette for training rides or road races if I feel I need to. It is quite a big step, but I'm keen to give it a go.
I’ve brought a preferred saddle, and will fit my own wheels when we get home. All of the service that I’ve had so far would be built into the overall price for a customer, and VO2 offer wheels, saddles and finishing kits from a selection of suppliers.
The V02 VESP: The Ride
Well, that’s several hours of consultation and a couple of weeks of waiting – so what is the bike actually like when I get out and ride?
The feeling of being too short dissipates quickly, perhaps testing bikes on a regular basis does make my body somewhat more malleable to change. The saddle height and offset is spot on – in fact the knee niggle I’ve been feeling of late disappeared after a few rides – a sure sign something was awry with my own set up.
The frame is, for an endurance focused version of the top end race bike, pretty damn stiff. With a pair of lightweight carbon hoops applied, this machine is quick to accelerate and fast in the bends. With an entry level alloy clincher set the stiffness results in a ride quality that becomes a bit laboured over rough roads – though that would suit the intended use of crit races. The stiffness is achieved by the beefy downtube, whilst skinny chainstays maybe provide some comfort.
The geometry is pretty aggressive and the stem is far from slammed, leaving plenty of room for a greater drop - a rider after a race ready monster machine could make this bike pretty angry with ease.
In terms of the initial question: does my ‘ideal’ set-up look like a women’s specific bike? In many respects, yes. It conforms to the conventional specifications applied to bikes provided by manufacturers offering a women’s set up with a unisex frame. With the correctly sized components fitted, the unisex frame suits me: I don't think I'd feel any more at one with a frame built 'from the ground up' for a woman.
All of this said, I'm around 5 ft 5: shorter women can often benefit more from a women's bike where the fork angles and wheelbase has been altered to suit a much smaller frame.
VO2’s founder Jimmy isn’t keen to make generalisations about what women need in a bike, vs what men need. And rightly so: his business is in catering for each individual. And in an ideal world, every buyer would approach the bike shopping process in the same way.
Want to read more about the differences between unisex and female specific bikes? Take a look at some of our past articles here.
Interested in V02 Cycling and the services they provide? Find out more here.