Ever since you were a little kid, you’ve probably wondered: what’s the deal with men’s bikes being shaped differently than women’s bikes? And, if you’re a little more observant, you’ve probably also wondered: why is that men’s bikes have a top tube that’s parallel to the ground and women’s bikes DON’T have that top tube, when the fact is… if men fall on that top tube, they’re going to be in extreme pain? Wouldn’t it make more sense for men’s bikes to have a lower top tube?
In this post, we’ll look at the odd history of bikes, why traditional men’s bikes are different than traditional women’s bikes, and why there’s really no reason at all for men’s bikes to shaped dramatically different than women’s bikes. Hopefully by the end, we’ll answer the question, “Why are women’s bikes shaped differently than men’s bikes?”
We’ll also throw in some fascinating historical facts, like how bikes are tied to women’s suffrage, why “shrink it and pink it” was a stupid and offensive marketing tactic, and what to look for if you’re a female who’s in the market for a bicycle.
The Quick Explanation
You’re in a rush; we get it. Here’s the boiled-down, “just-the-facts” explanation:
Men’s bike frames traditionally include a “top tube” that runs horizontal to the ground. That top tube connects the front of the bike to the seat. Women’s bikes traditionally had a top tube that does not run horizontal to the ground, and is instead sloped downward as it extends towards the back of the bike. A bike frame with a top-tube that slopes down and back—as traditional women’s bike frames often did—is called a “step-through” frame.
When bikes first became popular—decades after they were actually invented—women were basically required to wear traditional dresses and long skirts, and those dresses and long skirts were impossible to wear when riding a bike with a horizontal top tube. The step-through frame allowed them to get onto and ride bikes safely and easily. It has nothing to do with women’s bodies or men’s bodies—the bicycle was designed solely because women were required to wear dresses at the time bicycles became popular.
That’s the short of it, but here’s some fascinating history behind the men’s/women’s bike idea—and a lot of hokum, as well. Well-made men’s bikes do differ from well-made women’s bikes, but a lot of what we refer to as “men’s bikes” or “women’s bikes” is just marketing (or, in simpler language, “lies”).
Here’s the full(er) story.
The Longer Explanation
To understand the full story, we’ll need to start with…
Bicycle Frames and Frame Shapes
If you’re an inventor or an engineer or a manufacturer of bicycles, you’re first goal is to make a bicycle that is sturdy—or, at the very least, something that’s not going to fall apart underneath a rider’s legs. So, among other things, bike manufacturers make frames so that they are:
Constructed of tubes, instead of full-metal bars. Tubes feature a more aggressive strength-to-weight ratio that full-weight beams, and they’re an obvious choice for frames; and
Geometrically sound. The most sturdy and strong shape a bicycle frame can take is what’s called a “diamond frame,” which is two triangle shapes (or, shapes that are almost triangles) put together. If you look at the bike below, you’ll see those two triangle shapes—one connecting to the back wheel, and one connecting to the head tube:
As you can see, they’re not perfect triangles, but the diamond shape creates a solid base around which to build a bike. This is the frame on a traditional “men’s bike.” It’s strong and durable, and it’s the strongest type of frame to cycle on.
(Keep in mind, there’s some variation on this shape in the bike world—mountain bikes, for example, don’t typically utilize a diamond frame, as they have other components that provide strength and stability—but as a general rule of thumb, the diamond-shape frame is one of the strongest way to create a bike frame.)
So diamond frames are stronger than step-through frames. They have other advantages over step-through frames, as well, and we’ll discuss that later. But first, we should look at the question:
Why Didn’t Women Just Wear Pants?
If diamond frames are better than step-through frames, why didn’t women in the late 1800s just wear pants and jump on a men’s bike with a diamond frame? For this answer, we’ll need to take a closer look at history.
Bikes experienced a boom in popularity during the late 1800s, and what was once a novelty for the super-super-rich, became a common means of transportation and recreation for the super-rich and the merely well-to-do. Gender roles during this time were pretty severe (read: extremely severe) and not only were women not allowed out and about without chaperones—doing so would cause the sort of scandal where your friends and family would turn their backs and ignore the woman brazen enough to do so—but standards of dress were pretty harsh, as well. Women wore long, heavy, ankle-length dresses made from reams and reams of fabric. The idea of women wearing pants was basically unthinkable, and “bloomers”—loose, ankle-length pants worn under a shorter dress—were a shocking development when they were created in 1851. It wasn’t until 50 years later that pants would start showing up in the female fashion scene, when in 1913 Vogue magazine featured a cover with a woman wearing pants. It took half-a-century for American culture to soften to the idea of women wearing pants, and even then, in 1913 with that Vogue cover, it was still pretty scandalous.
This is all to say: in the 1800s, when bikes were becoming popular, women weren’t getting on them, because restrictive social norms dictated that they couldn’t wear all that clothing and do so. Mounting a bike with all the clothing was difficult, and riding a bike with all that clothing was dangerous. So women didn’t really ride bikes until a bike was invented that would allow women to wear long dresses on a bike.
Think about that for a second: it was so unthinkable for a woman to wear something other than a long dress, that instead of simply putting on pants, women waited until a bicycle manufacturer created and sold a bicycle that could be worn by women wearing traditional dress. It was scandalous that women would wear man-ish clothing to ride bikes, so a very clever bicycle-maker created bicycles that would allow women to adhere to absurd rules about women and wardrobe, and still use and enjoy bicycles. Pretty smart.
And, according to Susan B. Anthony—one of the activists who helped secure voting rights for women—whoever it was who designed a bicycle for women did more to further women’s rights than most other folks. She’s quoted as saying, “I think that the bicycle has done more to emancipate women than any other thing in the world. I rejoice each time I see a woman riding by on a bicycle. It creates for her a feeling of self-reliance, and of independence, the moment she gets in the seat.” Work hard, engineers, because your inventions can help shape the world!
So, that’s the deal with step-through bikes frames, and how they came to be the go-to bike frame for women. But you may be wondering: if women are no longer socially required to wear long dresses and pants are not really scandalous anymore…
Why Are There Still Step-Through Bike Frames?
Believe it or not, while the birth of the step-through frame has its origin in oppressive gender norms, there are some pros—and some cons—associated with the step-through bicycle frame. We’ll start with the pros.
Advantages of Step-Through Frames
There are fewer pros, so they’re easier to list:
They’re easy to mount and dismount. This is, far and away, this biggest advantage of a bicycle with a step-through frame, and it’s why they’re still used today: they’re a great option for people who don’t have a full range of motion. If you’re an older rider, or if you have difficult lifting your leg over a horizontal top tube, a step-through frame is a god-send. For riders with limited ranges of motions, it’s literally the difference between being able to bike and not being able to bike.
They’re a great option for folks riding with parcels and stop-and-then-go traffic. If you’ve got your bike loaded up with bags and boxes and the like, it can be a great advantage to hop off the seat and put your feet steadily on the ground.
They have their advantages! And, finally—they really are a better option for people wearing skirts! That’s why they were originally made, and if you’re in long, flowing robes, a step-through bike is that way to go! You’ll notice that a lot of bikes in bike shares (like Divvy Bikes in Chicago) have step-through frames, and that’s a great feature, because many of the riders using these bikes will be in skirts or dresses or otherwise-restrictive business-wear.
Disadvantages of Step-Through Frames
There are three main advantages to step-through, but there are a lot of disadvantages.
They usually heavier. Remember above, when we mentioned that the diamond-shaped frame is the sturdiest type of bike frame? Because step-through bikes aren’t as “integrally sturdy,” they need to be manufactured from more, and heavier, materials. That’s not a great thing if you’re looking for speed, and that makes them a bad option for racing bikes, which are designed to as light as possible, and not weigh a gram more than they need to do. Bike weight in a race is a big deal.
They’re not a good fit for races, but they’re also not a good fit for hills. When bikers pedal uphill, they pull a lot of pressure on the frame, and the frames “flexes” a little bit. In a diamond frame, that “flex” is absorbed throughout the frame (although not fully—you can still feel a diamond frame flex if you charge up a hill). The structure of a step-through isn’t durable enough for that flexing, and it can feel very wobbly—and unsafe—when used on hills.
They’re difficult to accessorize. If you want to bike without a backpack or any kind of baggage, you’ll still want to bring a water bottle and perhaps a small pump. Step-throughs have fewer locations to add accessories, and that’s a drawback for many bikers.
They’re harder to transport via car. Most bikes racks built for cars are designed to carry bicycles that feature a horizontal frame, and not a step-through frame, and that can make transporting a step-through, whether to a race or a pleasure ride in a state park, a difficult ordeal. There are “frame adapters” available, and they’re a low-cost fix, but they can be a hassle. You can also use a roof rack for step-throughs, but they’re usually on the expensive side.
They’re a pain to keep upright if you use the top tube to balance the bikes between your legs when you’re stopped. It’s a small consideration, but it’s something a lot of people do.
The bottom line is that step-throughs are a very, very bad option for high-performance bikes. If you’re interested in racing, or touring, or commuting to work on a route that features hills, a step-through isn’t a great idea. However, for comfort rides or leisure rides—a carefree roll to the beach or to a near neighbor’s house—they can be great. Lots of cruisers feature step-through frames, and that’s part of their appeal. If you’re considering a new bike purchase, know what you’ll need the bike for, and that’ll help you decide on what kind of bike frame you’ll need.
While we’re here and while we’re discussing bicycle frames, there’s one type of frame we should probably mention: it’s called the mixte frame (pronounced “mix-tee”), and it looks like this:
The mixte frame is kind of a hybrid between the diamond frame and the step-through frame. These are a little more sturdy (although not sturdy enough for racing), and while they’re not really manufactured anymore, we’re seeing them pop up because of their vintage appeal (plus, they look pretty rad). You may see these on bikes that have been around and survived for decades, or you might see these on newer city bikes, where they’re a good fit for relaxed urban cycling.
So How Do Modern Men’s and Women’s Bikes Differ?
So, the historical reason for the difference between men’s and women’s bikes was based on antiquated social norms and restrictive clothing, and not on any sort of logic about what would be a good frame design for women vs. what would be a good frame design for men. So now that we’ve made some strides in terms of gender equality, how are modern bikes created for the different physical structures between men and women? How did bicycle companies create “women’s bikes” with the comfort and capability of real women in mind?
At first, they didn’t. Manufacturers simply made men’s bikes in smaller sizes and marketed them as women’s bikes, in what was coined the “shrink it and pink it” marketing strategy. This was, of course, a really stupid and boorish idea, and it didn’t do anyone any good. Female cyclists wanted high-performance bicycles that were capable of high-speed, high-intensity cycling, and the shrunken bikes they made were uncomfortable and ill-suited for the female form. Marketers eventually took feedback from their female customers and wised up, and came up with the modern “women’s bike.” It features a frame geometry that is more suited to the female form, by featuring:
A slightly different frame geometry, including shorter top tubes, to account for the average woman having longer leg-length-to-torso-length ratio than men and also shorter arms;
Narrower handlebars, as women tend to have slimmer shoulders than men;
Thinner grips and smaller gears and brake levers, as women’s hands are typically smaller than men’s hands;
A broader saddle to account for wider hips (although many competitive female cyclists use a much narrower saddle—one that is very similar to men’s saddles).
These are all generalizations, of course—there are plenty of tall women, thin-hipped women, women with big hands, women with short legs, and so on, and they choose to ride “men’s” bikes—and we’re putting “men’s” in air quotes—because that’s what works for their bodies. Each biker, regardless of their gender, has to personalize his/her own ride and find something that fits. If you have a “non-standard” body type, try not to get stuck on “gendered” bicycles, and keep looking until you find a model that works for your physique. Many people go with “standard” models—that is, unisex models—and ditch the whole “men’s and women’s” issue completely.
There You Have It
The initial differences between men’s and women’s bikes were not based on differences on the male and female physique, and were instead based on ridiculous gender requirements. Modern men’s and women’s bikes look very, very similar—in fact, many new bikers actually have a difficult time telling them apart—but they each have unique design characteristics to account for the differences between the male and female body. And, many people ditch the “gendered” bike idea entirely, and buy a standard/unisex bike and simply get it sized properly. Now you know!