There’s an ever increasing number of cyclists on the road, and there’s a growing amount of cycling kit, clothes, bicycles and accessories available to fulfill their every cycling need.
Most of the differences between men’s and women’s cycling kit is based on differences in body shape and anatomy, with the general assumption in simple terms that women are on average shorter and less broad than men. As with any generalisation, there are exceptions, which means for example that a shorter man might actually find a ‘women’s specific’ bike fits better as they often go down to smaller sizes than ‘unisex’ models. We’ve broken down the main differences between clothes and bicycles designed for men and women.
With all of the following, don’t forget different brands will have their own approach too. It’s a bit like shopping for jeans; you’ll probably find a brand or a couple of brands whose fit really suits you, and others that don’t at all.
Don’t be ruled by the labels. Ultimately, it’s what fits you best and you find most comfortable that is the right choice.
What’s the Difference Between Men’s and Women’s Cycle Clothing?
In general, most women's specific cycling gear will have a feminine cut. In short, this means it will be cut in at the waist and out at the chest, in addition to the usual cycle-specific design features.
There isn’t the range of women’s kit out there yet to give us as many options at the men, and of course the female form varies greatly from person to person. Issues like jackets that don’t have room for bigger breasts, jerseys that aren’t cut for tall thin women, or bib shorts that don’t work on big thighs are regular issues, so if you can’t try it on, a review will give you an idea on cut and sizing.
Different types of cycling all have their own variations on cut and styling, so check out our guide to the Differences Between Road, Mountain Bike and Commuter Cycling Kit to get to the bottom of it.
Mens kit will usually come in mens sizing, and women’s in women’s sizing, which annoyingly doesn’t usually conform to high street sizing in either case.
For women, it may be in UK dress sizes (eg 12, 14, 16 etc), general sizes (small, medium, large, etc), or european sizes (28, 30, 34 etc). As a very general rule, a cycling medium equates to a UK12. Some brands, typically continental road cycling clothing brands, are well known for sizing up small in women's specific cycling gear.
Choice is improving all the time, and there are thankfully more options for plus size cyclists than there were before too, with new brands like Fat Lass At The Back.
One of the most important physiological differences, arguably THE most important when it comes to cycling, is what’s going on in the undercarriage region. Men and women have different structures which require padding and support in different places.
Chamois pads are designed to provide cushioning where it’s needed, and to work in conjunction with the saddle - an equally important part of the equation. Cyclists typically spend a lot of time sitting so it’s crucial to get this right.
What’s the Difference Between Men’s and Women’s Road Bikes?
Geometry and Sizing
Different brands will each have their own take on this. Some say their research has shown that women drive force from a lower point in their bodies than men, so will design frames specifically to make use of this, doing things like placing the bottom bracket slightly more forward.
Others take the approach that similar frames work well for males and females, and it’s the contact points like saddles and handlebars that make the biggest difference. Going back to the jeans analogy, what will work perfectly for some won’t at all for others, so it’s important to get a test ride and a bike fit.
Handlebars and Brake Levers
On women’s specific models, these will tend to be narrower to suit narrower shoulders, and have a shallower drop which means the rider doesn’t have to bend as far forward and down.
To accommodate smaller hands and therefore less reach, some women’s road bikes come with brake levers fitted closer to the bars. It’s an easy adjustment to make on most brake levers though, and is one of the adjustments that is often made as part of a bike fit.
Some women’s specific bikes come with lighter gearing, with a bigger cassette on the rear which makes it easier for climbing. Certain brands, such as some of the direct sell brands like Canyon, allow riders to choose what gearing the bike comes specc’d with, so the rider (male or female) can choose gearing to suit their level of skill, fitness or environment.
The other part of the comfort equation of cycling, when combined with a good chamois pad. Road cyclists ride in a bent forward position, and road saddles are designed to accommodate and support the riders undercarriage when doing so.
The differences between men's and women’s saddles will be things like the amount and location of cushioning, the inclusion of a hole or depression to make sure there’s minimal pressure on certain parts of the female anatomy, and nose length.
What’s the Difference Between Men’s and Women’s Mountain Bikes?
Frames and Geometry
Since mountain biking requires a lot of time up and out of the saddle, and less of the repetitive steady motion of road cycling which can lead to injury if the sizing and fit isn’t just right, geometry between unisex and female specific mountain bikes is generally not as different as it is between unisex and female specific road bikes.
Standover height, which is how low the top tube sits above the ground, used to be a factor as a low standover was a selling point for women’s mountain bikes. However, most MTBs are now being designed with a lower standover anyway. Women’s MTB models will tend to run to smaller frame sizes than the unisex equivalents.
For both men and women, the saddle will be designed to cushion the bum when the rider is sitting in a more upright position. As with road saddles though, the exact shape, areas of cushioning, holes and depressions will be different between saddles for men and women to accommodate those different anatomical features.
As with road bikes, these will tend to be the same on both unisex and female specific bikes. However, many women opt to adjust them to sit closer to the handlebars as it’s much more comfortable and easier to control your braking like this if you have smaller hands.
For some brands, where they offer a 29 inch wheel range of women’s specific bikes, they may spec the smallest size frame with a corresponding smaller wheel size. This is partly because those big wheels can be hard to find in a small frame, and also because it’s thought that smaller riders won’t feel the benefit of larger wheels, though other brands disagree and improvements in design are being made all the time.