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When I met my friend, Chris, five years ago, he was in the middle of building a bike for his wife, Brooke. I don’t mean that Chris was building out a bike from a purchased frame. He was building the frame with his own hands and tools.
That night, I decided that I would one day commission Chris to build me a bike of my own.
Once Dave and I decided to take on a life of cycle touring nomads, I approached Chris and popped the question. He said yes.
Before I knew it, Chris and I began the process of measurement, discussing my riding style, and esthetic preferences. We poured over frame options like disc brakes, braze-ons, and style choices like whether I preferred lugged tubes and decorative dropouts.
As Chris worked on my frame, Dave and I voraciously purchased components to complete the build out.
We attended the Cascade Bicycle Club Bike Swap looking to score a deal on my components. After tearing through the booths for hours and bargaining with vendors, we emerged from the event with a giant Ikea bag filled with bike parts.
Just a few weeks later, Chris handed me the naked steel frame. Unfinished and rustic, dotted with stamps from Chris’s labor, I took her in to be powder coated and Dave prepared for her build out.
Dave and Chris spent many long, dedicated hours building out my bike. Two weeks later, Grete came to life. I had my touring bike and she was ready to take me around the world.
My only homework was to put as many miles into Grete before take off.
Along with Brooke and Chris, we took Grete on her maiden voyage – 50 miles from our house to Sauvie Island and back.
I paid acute attention to the way she rode, how the components worked, how I felt clipped in to the pedals.
I knew straight away that she didn’t feel comfortable.
The handlebars were too wide, the distance between them and my saddle too far. Switching gears on my bar-end shifters felt like a death sentence, as I precariously stretched to make the reach.
I scheduled an appointment with Tony, my bike fitter, and learned that nearly every component we had purchased for my dear Grete did not match the ergonomics of my body. You see, I’m a lady, and most bike parts are made for dudes.
Tony delivered the unfortunate news that if I wanted to ride in comfort, then we would have to go back out and buy new parts. This included new handlebars, a new stem, and new brake levers, better suited for a woman’s body.
And so, ladies, I offer you our advice on how to build a women’s touring bike so that you may not make the same mistakes as I did – purchasing man parts for a lady ride. Below, I lay out the changes we made and the reasons why purchasing each component to your unique size makes the difference between loving your bike and wanting to toss it into a ditch.
Building a Woman’s Touring Bike
Saddle comfort is absolutely individual preference, so while one person chooses a particular seat, it may not work well for your bum. The best way to determine a best saddle fit is to find a local bike shop that offers saddle testing. Then get out and ride for at least 100 miles.
After testing a variety of saddles, I ultimately went with a Terry Liberator X Gel. Even after all the cycling we’ve done, I’m not confident this was the best choice for me. I wished that I had had more time to test saddles, so be sure to start that process as early as possible.
The most important piece for tailoring my bike for my body was getting appropriate handlebars. Since the majority of handlebars are designed for men, the distances and hand placements mean awkward and discomforting angles for women.
Begin the process by asking your local bike shop (LBS) to measure the width of your shoulders. Once you determine this, consider your bike and style of riding. Because Grete is equipped with bar-end shifters, we opted for compact handlebars, which have a shorter drop and reach. This eliminates the danger of stretching to reach to shift gears and also ensures my knees don’t hit the ends of the handlebars while riding. In handlebar language, I required a 40cm width 120 drop 75 reach.
Full Speed Ahead (FSA) provides a great FAQ page on drop, reach, and width.
Many manufacturers design compact drop bars, but don’t label them specifically for women (i.e. A Google search for “women’s handlebars” may not help you find you what you need). We chose to go with a RavX Tempo, simply because our LBS (River City Outlet) carried the size I needed in stock. I recommend calling your LBS with the specs and asking for compacts.
Petitebikefit.com provides a great post on determining correct handlebar fit for women. Some of their recommended manufacturers are a bit outdated, but trusty Google can direct you to the most recent models.
Lastly, BikeRumor.Net has more information than you ever want to know on the subject of handlebar fit.
To accommodate women’s shorter torsos, ladies should opt for a shorter stem. For my torso length and arm reach, we selected a fairly short stem – an 80mm Fuji with a six degree rise. This took a few tests to get just right.
Neck, shoulder, and wrist soreness during and after rides, inability to maintain bent elbows while riding, or constant shifting from front to back of your seat all indicate incorrect stem length.
Brake Levers/STI Shifters
Newsflash, ladies – our hands are much smaller than a dude’s, so where their longer fingers can extend to reach the brakes, we have much more difficultly gripping the levers correctly, which can be dangerous and/or painful when we need to make a sudden stop or when bombing downhill.
Fortunately, for those of us riding with bar-end shifters, you can install the Tektro R341 Ergo Brake Levers. Designed specifically for women these brake levers are angled for smaller wrists and shorter fingers, which allow for easier braking. The difference between the giant man-hands brake levers I had previously and these made a significant impact in my cycling comfort. At $15.99 a pair, they’re a steal.
If you use Shimano STI or SRAM shifters, it seems that there aren’t yet interchangeable women’s versions. I have read there are some Shimano STI newer models designed for shorter reach, however. As I don’t have personal experience with these shifters, I can’t speak to the quality, fit, or design.
In addition to building my frame, Chris also constructed my wheels. Being a woman traveling around the world with my bike, choosing 26” wheels was a simple decision for me. While the US tends towards 700c wheels, 26” wheels are more common internationally.
Twenty-six-inch wheels are about 10% smaller than 700c, which provides a few advantages:
- They’re 10% lighter due to smaller tires, spokes, and wheel diameter.
- A smaller wheel drops the gearing of your bike ten percent. This means that your lower granny gear (I affectionately call mine Margie) helps you up and over those mountain passes more easily than your 700c bike companions.
- Shorter spokes and a smaller wheel diameter equal a stronger wheel that can withstand your heavy touring load better than a 700c.
- With more clearance between wheel and frame, 26” wheels allow for more choice when it comes to tire size. I went with 26X1.75” Schwalbe Marathon Plus in order to easily tackle most surfaces. This is equivalent to around a 40mm width tire on a 700c.
To help further guide your decision between 26” wheels and 700c, visit BretonBikes.com, which describes why 26” wheels make sense.
Gearing & Drive Train
Since I knew I’d be taking on a large portion of our gear in exchange for Dave towing Sora in her trailer, we made certain to equip Grete with the easiest gearing possible – a 36-tooth rear cassette. The higher the number of teeth, the easier it is to ride.
It is important to note that a 36t rear cassette requires a long cage rear derailleur in order for the chain to fit easily over the gear. Before purchasing a 36t cassette, be sure to look up the specs on your rear derailleur to confirm the range of gears it can accommodate.
Switching to the front crankset, we went with a 48.36.26t combination with a 170mm crank arm length (170 is shorter and more ideal for women who have shorter legs than men). Contrary to the rear cassette, the fewer number of teeth in the front, the easier it is to climb.
There you have it!
Building a woman’s touring bike is simple, it just takes a bit of time to obtain measurements and do the research to find correct parts. Switching components made the a pronounced difference in my ride.
Before you run out to overhaul your bike, consider scheduling an appointment with a local bike fitter. They will do all the measurements and give you exact or ballpark figures for sizing you should look for.
Ladies, have you designed your touring bike with our smaller bodies in mind? Are there other components you adjusted or any tips you might add?