Women as Outcasts In Cycling Industry


One of the things I find most disappointing about the bike industry is how it just does not understand women.

For all the “women-specific” bikes (which are nothing more than men’s bikes with shorter stems and short-reach levers) there just isn’t enough of an understanding of a women’s cycling needs in the biz. Take any new-to-cycling woman or even an advanced amateur and throw them into a bike shop that carries a few women-specific frames and generally they come out more confused than satisfied.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that most of the local bike shops out there aren’t selling a custom fit, they’re selling a commodity. Carbon, steel, aluminum–the bikes on the rack are pre-ordered before a season starts and then they are offloaded before the end of the season. Women’s bikes just add to the SKUs that a bike store has to carry, which means that instead of being able to carry fewer models and then tweak the build for the customer shops buy the complete bikes and make fewer part swaps.

That adds an economy of scale to a bike shop but it removes the subtle configuration tweaks that individually address the needs of the customers. This is more like purchasing a car than a truly fit item. Imagine going into a store and picking your “size” for clothes and buying the complete wardrobe only in one size. Medium pants would mean medium shirts, size nine shoes and medium socks. What happens if you have big feet or a wide torso? Well you end up fitting your clothes like the Hulk fits his.

The second reason that women are underserved is a bit more difficult to address, it’s the de-facto stereotyping that occurs because most shop and industry folks are men. I love my wife, but there’s just no way I can ever understand exactly how she feels riding a saddle that presses on her sensitive woman parts.

For years my wife had tried various bikes in order to get a perfect fit. We tried women-specific models from the the big brands, and tried to tweak men’s frames. Finally exasperated we started working with Natalie at Sweetpea in order to get a perfectly fit bike. Flights to Portland for consultations and fittings, returning a year later to pick up the bike. Complete-process took more than eighteen months thanks to Natalie’s waiting list.

Natalie’s tried to address this backorder issue by outsourcing the welding of her most popular models to create a semi-custom build, which she fits with the same level of detail as her completely custom bikes. She’s just taken the sizes that most of her orders are for and made a frame that fits those dimensions, but at a lower price point and with a shorter turn around. But if the customer got that without Natalie’s individual attention to the needs of her clients, this wouldn’t be any better than buying a Cannondale or a Specialized from a shop that doesn’t pay attention. So you still end up having to go to a specialist to get a bike.

[Author note – I wrote the above paragraph and didn’t realize that the original published version sounded like Natalie’s outsourced bikes were a bad idea. I was actually trying to say that the process, since it’s still got her personal attention is a great idea, but it would not work for the large brands. I’ve edited the paragraph accordingly.]

Now my wife has a bike that fits perfectly, and it was worth the wait, but there shouldn’t be a wait. It’s only the better local bike stores that even bother to measure a customer. I can’t tell you how many bikes I’ve seen sold with nary more than a circle around the parking lot.

So maybe the problem is the industry’s business model. Volume over individual attention for all customers works when most people are buying bikes just to ride the mile to the grocery store, but not so good when someone’s planning to log big miles on their randoneur.

I’d like to suggest the idea that shops dedicate a person to be a custom fit guru, regardless of the gender of the client. Think of it like the Genius Bar, but about fit. You come in and this specific genius helps you from selection to delivery and the end product is a bike that fits you perfectly. Some shops do this already, but it would be great to see this everywhere. It’s the sort of thing that could elevate the experience of buying a bike from something analogous to shopping at Target to something like shopping at Nordstrom. And then maybe people wouldn’t have to fly across the globe just to get a bike that keeps their naughty bits from hurting.