July 18, 2010

What’s the big deal? Women’s Specific Design

Women’s Specific Design (WSD) hasn’t always existed; it is here with us now, but what does it all mean? WSD has been introduced onto the market by companies like Trek, Cannondale, Scott and Giant (among others) to cater for the growing numbers of female cyclists and our different needs. The theory is that women have shorter torsos and longer legs than men, which means they require a bike with different geometry and different parts.

The bike companies have isolated four key points that they believe define a women’s specific bike. Let’s take a look at each one:

1. Handle bar width

The logic is that women require a narrower handle bar width as women have narrower shoulders.

Whilst I agree that the majority of women have narrower shoulders, the theory is that a narrower handle bar will keep the hands in a more natural position for greater control and less shoulder pain.

In actual fact, handle bars are unique to each and every rider; the handle bars should run the width of your shoulders and as a woman, you can also have very wide or narrow shoulders, or you may be somewhere in between.

2. Women’s Specific Design Seats

There are a lot of WSD seats on the market, and a lot of companies have different fit systems to figure out which saddle is going to work for you. Usually you won’t be advised to struggle with a saddle that hurts for too long; nobody really wants to have pain in those areas. From my experience I can confidently say that there will be some slight discomfort on your sit bones if you haven’t ridden a bike in a long time, and are simply not used to it, however there should not be considerable pain that it stops you from riding.

Getting the right saddle can be an expensive experiment; the experience will be worthwhile when you find that perfect fit. Some companies have trial saddles in store, so you can try it before you buy it, and Selle Italia is one of these companies. Specialized are also on board and they’ve developed a system that measures your sit bones to determine which sized saddle you need, not surprising people are calling this device the ass-o-meter.

3. Shorter-Reach Levers

The third key point that the industry has introduced is that women need shorter-reach levers and smaller diameter grips, i.e. sized for the smaller hands of a women. Whilst I think this is important, I’m aware that it’s not an issue that is specific to women, there are many men that also experience this issue.

4. Shorter Cranks

Last but not least are shorter crank arms which apparently improve leverage for a more effective pedal stroke. I discussed this with a mathematician who informed me that this is not the case. It is basic physics; the shorter the lever the less leverage there is, regardless of whether you’re a man or women.

WSD: Science or Hype?

Whilst I can’t deny that there is room for women’s specific designed bikes in the market, I find the rationale behind the WSD concept to be flimsy. You only have to read through the bike forums or chat amongst your cycling friends to know that the problems that are being labeled as WSD are also applicable to men as well.

When purchasing your first bike, its best to talk to as many bike shops as possible. If you need to, take a list of questions with you and write down the answers. When you think of more, return and ask them again, it’s the best way to find out what will work for you.

Go back to the bike shop that answers your questions properly and the shop that avoids rushing you into a purchase. If they remember you when you come back in to ask more questions it’s a good sign that you’re going to build a good relationship with them. Even when faced with special deals and offers - usually a more considered purchase will give you a lasting benefit.

When you have your bike fitted, if something feels ‘funny’ explain that feeling. A good bike fit is paramount to your riding experience and a good and attentive bike shop knows this. They should also try and translate that feeling that you have into an answer and solution so that you can understand more about the fit and feel.

Female cyclists have to be aware that they are not only a women, they are also very individual, they need to look for their own personalized bike, professional cyclists get their bikes made for them, have yours made for you, choose the parts that fit you and make you comfortable, a good bike shop will help you.

Women Specific Design is not necessarily bad because of the marketing behind it - in fact, ergonomically; WSD is an attempt to match equipment to women’s body, it’s all about what works for you, don’t think that if the label doesn’t say ‘for her’ that you can’t have it or that it won’t work for you.

Coming up, Bicycles Network Australia will be taking a closer look at women’s geometry and the benefits. Stay tuned.


  1. Have to agree. WSD is more about marketing than anything, but none the less is still valid.
    But the same can be said for males. Everyone is different male or female and no bike will ever be perfect for everyone.
    A good bike fit is worth its weight in gold.

  2. I like the idea of people specific bikes, but if the label of women specific bikes puts more women on bikes then its not a bad thing... I can't wait to talk about Women's Specific Frames!