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In the 1980s and 1990s, the barriers for women who wanted to ride bikes were literally insurmountable. Mass market bicycles weren’t made small enough for many women, who, according to the CDC, average 5 foot, 4 inches versus 5 foot, 9 inches for men.
In 1982, Georgena Terry, a 5-foot-2-inch mechanical engineer and founder of Terry Bicycles, made the first women’s bike for herself. “Friends who couldn’t straddle a top tube saw it and asked me to build them one too,” Terry said. She brazed a fleet to display at a regional bike show and sold all before her booth was set up.
Soon after, Specialized built its first women’s bikes, and other big brands followed suit. In the 1990s women’s-specific cycling kits started to trickle into the market with gendered cuts, sizes, and chamois design. Women were invited to, “Ride Like a Girl.”
It was a huge market opportunity, and one that cycling companies nearly missed by basing women’s bike gear and apparel design on sweeping generalizations about female physiology. When the cycling industry looked at data and listened to customers, really good women’s gear, which was sometimes gender-specific and sometimes not, got women off the sidelines of the sport, and into the peloton.
Where’s the gear?
In 2000, Trek introduced women’s apparel and started experimenting with gendered bikes, including 26-inch wheel road bikes with shorter cranks. Female-led brands, including Terry Bicycles, were founded on frustration and desperation. Big brands got on board because they saw an opportunity to double their customer base.
Brands saw the women’s market was growing, but projections weren’t lining up with purchases. Inviting women to throw a leg over a top tube didn’t mean they would drop $8,000 on a bike. So hard goods and soft goods skewed toward newbies. Terry sold 13,000 cycling skorts (shorts that resemble a skirt) a year, but performance shirts were too short, and chamois too low cut in the waist, with gripper elastic that made all but the most slender legs look like Lycra-cased sausages. Shorts lacked usable pockets. Larger women had to buy men’s clothing.
Early women’s gear was at times just as wrong as “unisex.” Shrink-it-and-pink-it product design considered women en masse, not by what kind of cyclist they were or by body type. In general, women were one line in a spreadsheet. Design started with a men’s product color change, and then designers attempted to build in room for hips and breasts.
Brands and shops were having a hard time defining what women value and how they shop. “Men are concerned with technology and performance,” said Bonnie Tu, Giant CFO and founder of Liv Cycling. “Females take technology for granted, and we believe we are entitled to something beautiful and distinct. We care about the total package.”
In an attempt to speak to women and make cycling seem welcoming, brand messaging was condescending, almost universally featuring girlfriends on fitness rides, not athletes in inspiring locations or champions winning races.
And the shopping experience was, for too many women, a familiar and disappointing tale: go to the local shop to buy a bike, get ignored, then get told by shop staff — almost always male — what that woman needed without asking about skills, goals, or budget. The story usually ends with that woman going to the shop with a male friend and to get the service and the bike needed.
So, with poor options to choose from and a negative purchasing experience, the obstacles only seemed to be building.
Modern riders, modernizing fit
Bike companies were using 1950s data from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base — which dictated that women have longer legs and shorter torsos — to guide their design decisions. “If we were going to get after serving women riders, we thought we needed specific bikes,” said Dani Morshead, Specialized global PR coordinator.
The market was growing, and as women became better riders, a lot of them preferred men’s bikes. Why wasn’t women’s gear selection growing too?
The answers from manufacturers were consistent. Women are too hard to fit. Women won’t spend money. The market isn’t big enough. Meanwhile, other industries demonstrated what women will spend on shoes, makeup, cars, and most anything else that made them look and feel good. Cycling brands, however, weren’t just trying to make great gear, but also trying to create the category they were outfitting.
“Gender was easy messaging,” Sprague said. “But it wasn’t the right messaging. The Specialized-lululemon team all wanted men’s bikes. We have to listen to the customer, and the customer was telling us women’s-specific bikes weren’t as important as we thought they were.”
At the same time, Specialized equipped dealers with its Retül Fit System and observed a disturbing pattern. According to Beth Welliver, Specialized’s rider journey strategy leader, as more retailers collected data, “we saw we were making bikes that didn’t fit women at all.”
Trek had the same aha moment. “We realized it doesn’t work to pigeonhole women into a certain geometry or bike model,” said Ross Rushin, a marketing manager at Trek. “Individual riders want to choose the bike that matches how they want to ride.” Both brands phased out women’s models, and made all their bikes in a wider range of sizes and colors.
The Specialized-lululemon partnership was a key moment for women’s cycling gear. By collaborating with an expensive, premium, women-focused fitness brand, Specialized showed that women were willing to pay for expensive gear when it’s attractive and versatile. “We understood that many women wanted to do multiple sports,” Sprague said. “They were cyclists, but also yogis, runners, and more.”
Bike manufacturers recalibrated their thinking and revised marketing strategies, looking at where women-specific gear mattered, and where it was simply marketing. The best women’s bikes became the best bikes. Gear that was gendered became universally unisex, from helmets to saddles. And in some cases, features that were originally women’s-specific features made all bikes and gear better, including Specialized’s “Hairport” ponytail compatible helmet harness, Terry Saddles’ pressure-relieving cutouts, and Trek’s lower standover heights.
“We’re proud of our willingness to be wrong, to evolve and to listen to riders,” said Michael Mayer, Trek’s director of product marketing. “We learned we don’t need women’s bikes. But what we do need is women’s advocacy, including equality in hiring, competitive pay, and a cycling industry inclusive to women.”
Best is best regardless of sex
Most brands agree with Morshead from Specialized when she said, “women’s bikes are done.” Liv is the only major brand still making bikes with “women’s” geometry. As riders get more refined in the experience they want to have, brands strive to get the right bike under every rider.
“More choices equals more fun,” said Brook Hopper of Liv’s global marketing department. “The industry wants to pretend that there is a catfight between the women’s-specific and other bike brands. But we’re all working together to get more women on bikes, which is a winning strategy for all.”
Three women’s-specific products that get it right by addressing actual female riding needs.
Liv Langma Advanced Pro 0 Disc Force $6,000
A stellar components package and aerodynamic frame design make the Langma a missile on the racecourse. Liv’s geometry and design focuses exclusively on women riders to get it right, from touchpoints to power transfer and beyond.
Terry Trixie Skort $100
Terry describes it as feminine but fierce. It looks great on and off the bike, but more importantly, it functions exceptionally well as a piece of actual riding gear.
Specialized Women’s Power Saddle with Mimic $175
Designed from the ground-up for women, this saddle comprises soft material where there’s soft tissue on the body — it “mimics” the body’s design, in other words. This helps reduce labial numbness and discomfort.