Choosing a Women's Bike
Women's bikes are often just pink versions of the men's models. Even if it's a bike actually designed for females, take them for extensive test rides, and compare many models to avoid buying a bike that is not designed for your body. As one example, the lower center of gravity and less upper-body weight means that a more forward riding posture is needed on ascents. There are a lot of poorly designed bikes targeted at women riders, and the only way to know what is a lemon is to take lots of quality test rides on lots of different bikes.
Get Dropped Handlebars
If you ride mostly on roads, get dropped handlebars. If you ride trails, get a low straight bar -- never get a hybrid handle-bar riser which forces you to sit upright.
Women riders will find dropped handlebrs even more of a godsend than do men. The multiple hand positions add to comfort and efficiency, control is improved and the back is extended, improving posture and relieving tension on spine ligaments to absorb shock and help the bulk of back problems, but in the same way as it does for men. In addition to this, the weight and bumps are moved from the seat region to the arms, reducing the common female problem of saddle discomfort.
Consider the instinctive breathing position taken by the asthmatic or pooped marathon runner. The person leans forward in their chair, and rests their weight on their arms, giving them significantly more breathing capacity (try it). This, of course, is exactly the posture offered by dropped handlebars, which, coupled with much improved aerodynamics, can make up the gender performance gap when riding with men on mountain clunkers.
Further, strength tends to be more concentrated in the lower body in women, but powerful riding, especially when out of the saddle, demands upper body strength to meet the torque action of the legs. Abdominal strength is also especially important due to the size and shape of the women's pelvis. To start with, the dropped bars let you use the muscle you do have more efficiently and more powerfully. The main advantage is that upper body strength (arm, shoulder, back, abdominal) is greatly encouraged by dropped bars, and is not encouraged by straight bars.
Read about why dropped handlebars make the ride more comfortable, and how you can get where you're going faster and without wasted exertion.
Find the Right Seat
Just because the seat is coloured pink and has an anatomical cutout does not mean it will be comfortable. Finding a seat that fits in a number of pedalling positions requires trying out a whole bunch of saddles, and definately requires buying one designed especially for women. Seats are such an individual choice that I can only say that there are lots of riders out there who have found a women's saddle that fits. Be sure to buy a solid, thin racing saddle -- fat zellars saddles with visible springs (an evil gimmick to beware) are not only guaranteed some poorly-designed unisex model, but are less efficient and less comfortable than a proper racing saddle.
An article specifically about picking a women's saddle is also in this section. Also, read our article explaining why softer doesn't mean comfortable.
Use a Normal Frame
Those pink K-Mart frames with the slanted "women's" top tube are a funtionless carryover from the days of Victorian skirts. Come on! Are women really incapable of lifting their leg up over the seat? Low top tubes are functionless and make the bike heavier and weaker. Get a straight top tube.
Fit your Bike
Women are made differently than men, so a buying a bike fitted for a man's geometry hardly makes sense, does it? There are some key distinctions to make, and some definately not to change.
Just as with a men's bike, the distance along the seat tube, from the top of the saddle to the extended pedal, should be exactly 1.09 times the distance from the floor to the crotch in bare feet. This measurement is very important; being off by 4% can cut efficiency by 5%, adding a minute and a half to a 15 km time trial (roughly the difference made by expensive aero wheels!). Similarly, the frame should be easily straddled with both feet flat, with perhaps an inch of clearance. As men have shorter legs than do women, your frame and seat will usually be higher than a man of the same height.
The headset (vertical) should be higher and the stem (horizontal) should be shorter on a women's bike than on one for a male of the same height. This is because of the disproportionately longer arms on men. While the headset's vertical height can be adjusted, the length of your stem is fixed, so buy one of the correct size the first time. Or buy the adjustable stem made by Cunningham. While the lower and farther that you are able to comfortably reach, the better in terms of aerodynamics, don't get stuck with handlebars in the wrong spot just because you're a girl.
Also, the rails on a seat allow you to set it closer or further from the saddle, which is a complex optimisation. The further back the saddle, the more aerodynamically efficient and the better for your back and breathing in the same way that dropped handlebars do. The best way to achieve this may be to lower your headset and get one which extends farther, however, as sliding the seat back this can mess up your leg geometry. The farther forward your are, the more total power output you have available -- hence the steep seat-tube angle on racing or sprinting bikes -- and farther back allows you to "ankle" more effectively and is condusive to long-haul output. Older riders generally prefer seats towards the back of the usual 1 3/4" to 2 1/2" range from the nose of the saddle to a vertical line through the crankset, which also depends on body size.
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