I’m looking to get a mountain bike for my daughter. I originally thought I’d just give her my old bike, but as I look around at MTBs I started wondering:
Is there a difference between men’s and women’s mountain bikes?
There are no real universal differences between men’s and women’s mountain bikes since body geometries vary among all humans. There are some common adjustments that some women might require, such as frame size (height and reach), wheel size, saddle type, stem length and handlebar dimensions.
Is the bike gender difference just hype?
To say that a certain bike is better for all women is just like saying a certain bike is better for all men. And that’s just not true. I’m a man, and I don’t like all the bikes I see out there. So why do manufacturers sell women specific bikes?
Some might say it’s a marketing ploy. Others applaud the effort to get more women involved in the sport. But I want to move beyond these arguments and do my best to help women find the right bike.
What the industry says about women specific mountain bikes
Bike manufacturers generally make several assumptions when setting up female specific bike packages. They assume women:
- Have proportionally longer legs compared to their torso
- Are generally lighter than men
- Require a wider saddle
For these reasons, they set up packages that respect these assumptions. Some of them might be awesome bikes. You might find one that fits you perfectly. Then again, you might not. That’s what this article is all about – getting the right fit and components.
Sadly, there are still some brands out there that equip women specific bikes with inferior components. When you go shopping, watch out for this and upgrade if necessary.
It’s all about fit for women
If a person is 5 feet tall and weighs 110 pounds, the best bike for them differs a lot from the 6 foot tall, 200 pound rider. There are women and men that fit both descriptions. Even though I’ll address some general anatomic differences commonly seen in women, these are by no means universal.
The main point is that every body type is different, and it takes a personalized touch to get the best fit.
Should I buy a women’s specific mountain bike?
This is kind of like asking, “Should I buy the red one?” Just because a bike is designated as women specific, that doesn’t mean it will fit you. Now it might fit, but you have to try it first.
Don’t get tricked by any marketing ploy. Try multiple bikes, listen to your body and take the time to make adjustments.
Can a woman ride a man’s mountain bike?
Yes, I know it’s a silly question, but it’s out there. Anybody can ride any bike they like. As long as it’s theirs or they have permission to ride it.
Women ride just as hard, or harder, than men
I’ve been on plenty of mixed rides where women outpaced the men. Except at the pro level, it’s all pretty much relative. A couch potato is slower than a cheetah, no matter what the sex.
Frame sizing for women
MTB frame size for women generally depends on two factors: height and reach. For measuring height, you straddle the bike while standing. You want about 2 inches of clearance between the top tube and your body. Lift the bike while standing over it and see how high the tires go to check clearance.
Some women have shorter torsos, so the reach might have to be shorter. Here’s a rule of thumb: while in a relaxed riding position, the handlebar should hide the front hub from your view. Remember, this rule is just a starting point, so don’t obsess over it.
Odd shaped frames
Some frames do not have the traditional top tube so standover clearance means nothing. Some might have a steep tube angle or no top tube at all. Still, the frame probably has an inch sizing or S-M-L designation.
One way to assess your size on odd shaped frames is to first find your size on a bike with a traditional frame. Use that size as a reference for choosing the exotic frame size.
Test, test, test
Before making any purchase, test ride as many bikes as you can. This is the best advice I can give, so even if you forget everything else, remember to test ride.
Lots of shops and company demo days are out there that make test riding easier. You can rack your brain all day about sizing, adjustments, components, etc., but until you ride the bike, you’ll never be 100% sure.
Check out our MTB test riding guide for more details.
How you can adjust height and reach
Height can be adjusted in two ways: by changing the frame size or changing the wheel size.
Even though 29-inch wheels are pretty much the standard these days, if you are less than 5’5” tall, you might consider a 26-inch wheel bike. Trying to cram 29-inch wheels into a small frame might end up distorting the geometry and the ride.
Reach varies from frame to frame. If the frame you like is close to your ideal reach, remember you can make adjustments. You can either swap out the handlebar stem or change the seat position. Both of these can fine tune your reach.
The stem angle can affect the reach length and height too. Some riders like a lower, more aggressive angle while others prefer a more upright, relaxed position.
Seat adjustment caveat – keep knee/pedal position in mind
If you’re going to move the seat forward or back, make sure you check your knee-foot relationship. While sitting on the bike, move the pedal into the 3 o’clock position. From there, the front of your knee should be in line with the ball of your forefoot and the center of the pedal.
Yeah, I know, it’s kind of complicated, but your shop sales person should be able to help you set this up right.
How about the right bike weight for women?
It’s the same for everyone, the lighter the better if you ask me. That being said, lighter usually means either more expensive or less strong. I remember an old Bontrager ad that said, “STRONG, LIGHT, CHEAP – PICK TWO”. That’s pretty much true now.
For lighter women with small body frames, a less heavy bike is preferred. This will improve your ability to handle the bike, especially if you like to catch air. Lighter bike frame materials are aluminum, carbon fiber and titanium. Again, see the Bontrager quote.
In general, aluminum will offer a stiffer ride. However, this can easily be balanced by purchasing a bike with front +/- rear suspension. Expert frame builders can make aluminum more plush, but it costs more.
Mountain bike saddles for women
If there’s any place where bikers are more picky than ever, it’s with MTB saddle choice – for obvious reasons. In very general terms, women have wider pelvic sit bones than men, so a wider saddle might be more comfortable.
Still, plenty of competitive female riders do just fine on lean, thin saddles. Some complain that wider saddles interfere with pedalling.
Saddles are like shoes. A lot of it is just simply trying out different models until you find one that fits your body.
Speaking of shoes…
Mountain bike shoes and clothing can also be female specific. Okay, I accept the award for Mister Obvious.
I’m not going to go into much depth here except to say women’s shoes might have a narrower toe box. If you have wider feet, you might choose a men’s style. Tight toe boxes will make your feet fall asleep. Plus, if you ride in the cold, cramped toes get colder faster.
When it comes to clothes, women and men have different codes. Still, most brands offer great gear for both sexes.
Mountain bike handlebars for women
Again, body geometry determines handlebar characteristics – for anyone. If you have narrow shoulders, you might opt for a shorter handlebar. Be careful not to go too short though as it could affect handling.
You should have plenty of room to maneuver with your arms slightly bent. The handlebar length should be a bit wider than your shoulder width. If you plan to ride some nasty downhill sections, go wider.
If you have small hands, you might look for a handlebar with a smaller diameter. Since this can compromise strength, you may need to consider choosing special material such as carbon fiber. Another trick is to find thinner handlebar grips to fit your hands.
One last trick for smaller hands – go with gloves that don’t have much palm padding. A good front suspension fork should take care of vibration instead of depending on glove padding.
Brake levers for female mountain bikers
Like the handlebar, hand size matters for brake levers too. In general, the levers don’t come with a choice of distance to the handlebar. Still, you can use the adjustment screw to pull the levers in closer.
I remember during one race I crashed and bent my brake lever. My mechanic pulled out a lighter, heated up the metal and bent it back into place. So pro.
Could the flame trick be used to adjust the lever distance? I wouldn’t do it. It might affect the leverage mechanics and reduce braking efficiency. Instead, if you have really small hands, try different brake lever models and find the one that sits closest to the handlebar.
Should women use dual suspension or only a front fork?
For everyone, it depends on the kind of riding you do. If you like rocks and roots, you’ll probably prefer a dualie. If you are mostly on rail trails, then a front fork is fine.
One exception might be the lighter female rider that prioritizes comfort. In this case, a bike without rear suspension (hardtail) might not be comfy enough. These days, there are plenty of lightweight dual suspension models out there. They can be more expensive, but with a light dualie you can go almost anywhere.
Does wheel choice matter for female mountain bikers?
Besides smaller wheel size for shorter riders, wheel weight matters too. If you are light, then moving a heavier wheel requires more energy. Plus, being light means you can get away with a lighter wheel set without fear of them folding under you.
Getting rid of rotational weight is one of the best ways to make your bike faster. The same goes for tires to a point. You don’t want to go too thin or fragile as a thorn might poke through easily. Still, lighter tires are another place to shave off a few grams.
How about brake choice for women – rim or disc?
Again, not at all dependent on being a male or female rider. I prefer disc brakes. They are more powerful, work better in the wet and don’t weigh much more than rim brakes.
Buy with the future in mind
If you are getting somewhat serious about cycling, consider getting a bike for a performance level above where you are now. This lets you grow into the machine instead of it holding you back in the future.
What about unisex bikes?
This is a pure marketing ploy if you ask me. What is a unisex bike? It’s a bike.
Does crank length make a difference for female riders? It’s a mystery.
Some women specific models might include shorter cranks. The standard MTB crank length is 175 mm. Choosing the right crank length can be an arcane science. Some experts say it depends on your femur and foot length. In general, shorter riders may need shorter cranks.
Also your leg position while pedaling can have an effect on the best crank size. Finally, if you go for a shorter crank, you may lose leverage. To compensate, you might need to change the gearing on your bike.
It’s all really confusing, if you ask me. What I would recommend to any rider is go with the standard 175 mm size. If you notice problems with knee, calf of back pain, you might need a different length.
Shop for a bike, not a package
When you go to buy a new bike, it’s like a romance. You’ll know it when you feel it. Still, that doesn’t mean you should spend money without thinking. Take your time, and don’t choose a bike just because it says it’s a women’s version.
Even though the bike’s appearance matters, you should almost try to choose with your eyes closed. The color you like isn’t going to solve a poor riding experience. And if you really love the bike, but hate the color, you can always get it painted.
Bottom line: the ideal mountain bike for women
My idea of an ideal mountain bike for women is a sturdy but lightweight dual suspension bike. It has geometry that makes tight trail-riding easier, but it’s comfortable enough on long stretches of rail trails. I’d also choose dual hydraulic disc brakes and top of the line components or the next level down.
Wait a minute. This sounds a lot like the ideal mountain bike I would like. Go figure!