Women Specific Bikes (part 2)

A while ago ago I read a blog post (which, perhaps for the best, I can no longer find) that talked about boys’ and girls’ bikes from the 1970s. These children’s bicycles came with a top-tube that could be removed to convert the bike from a “boy’s” bike to a “girl’s” bike. The author of the blog argued that these advertisements demonstrate that there is no need for a top-tube, which is just not the case. Children’s bikes are not the same as adult bikes, so it’s not a fair comparison.


The handle on my mixte frame (which could use a wash).


I love my mixte-frame bike, but it’s also my heaviest, most cumbersome bike. It’s hard for me to carry up stairs, for example, despite its “pick-me-up” handle. On the other end of the spectrum, I have my carbon fiber Silque that weighs less than twenty pounds. Granted, it’s hardly a fair comparison, given that I use them for very different types of riding. The former is my favorite commuter/ casual bike and it allows me to sit upright in pretty much any outfit. When I ride the Silque, I always wear spandex and my road shoes and I only use it for recreational rides.


My Trek Silque.


Both bikes, plus my hardtail mountain bike, are women specific design, but what exactly does that mean? The Silque looks like a typical road bike, as does my mountain bike. Only the mixte-frame bike looks like a “women’s” bike.

As explained by an article in Cycling Weekly, women specific design bikes typically have different angles (longer head and shorter top-tubes) that are meant to work better for the average woman who typically has longer legs and a shorter torso relative to height. These averages are just that, though. Anecdotally, I know a couple where the man has relatively long legs and prefers “women’s” bikes and the woman is the opposite.

I should say that women specific design bicycles actually work really well for me. I’m 5’4″, with long legs and a very short torso. I also have tiny hands (thanks 4’11” grandma!). However, my proportions don’t represent the average woman, so a lot of women might be fine without a women specific design bike.

Dana MT Eaton, and one of the women interviewed in Cycling Weekly argue against the designation of Women’s Specific Design. Eaton points out that when someone buys a custom bike, it is designed based on their measurements, not their sex. I am inclined to agree that the designation of Women’s Specific Design is less than helpful, particularly given the assumption that men’s bikes are normal and women’s bikes are specialized. I am very happy that bikes exist that work for my proportions, however, I would love to see bike companies rebrand their bikes based on fit. That way, for example, a shorter guy with long legs will know he can buy the same bike as a woman with similar proportions. For the time being, though, I can live with Women’s Specific Design if it means I can find bikes that fit me.





Cycling in Munich, Salzburg, and Vienna

This post should be prefaced by stating that, due to poor planning and general bike pickiness, I only had the experience of cycling in Vienna and that even there I only biked for about an hour and a half. However, I observed the impressive infrastructure and many cyclists (in all kinds of apparel) in Munich and Salzburg.

A cycle path adjacent to a sidewalk in Munich near the English Garden


My husband, M. and I went to Austria and Germany for two weeks this fall. This tale would be more impressive if we were cycle touring, but wandering through cities we observed a lot of other cyclists, dressed in everything from suits to spandex to dirndls. And yes, you see a fair amount of dirndls and lederhosen on every day people. I particularly enjoyed seeing fashionable women riding to work, with the woman in dirndl (pictured) being the highlight. Sadly, I didn’t get nearly enough photos of the range of styles people rode in, but plenty of people commute slowly to work and don’t need to change upon arrival.


Cycling in a dirndl in Salzburg


The infrastructure in all three cities is truly impressive. Munich and Vienna both have over a million people, but even smaller Salzburg (at 146,000) has a large number of off-road bike paths and bike lanes. Additionally, the drivers are so much more considerate of pedestrians and cyclists than American drivers, even in Minneapolis. As far as I could see, they stopped at all crosswalks where there were pedestrians. When we biked in Vienna on the road, drivers politely drove at our pace until it was safe to pass and gave us a wide berth. We saw parents biking with little kids on their own bikes on the road, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in Minneapolis, except maybe on a side street.


Parent and child cycling on the road outside of Salzburg.


We noticed that cyclists on road bikes rode, well, on the rode and did not race along urban paths. The bike traffic on paths moved relatively slowly, as did we on our heavy rented bikes. I will say that we didn’t ride outside of the city, where less bicycle traffic might make it safe for road cyclists to ride on paths. Additionally, unlike, say, Minneapolis’ Greenway, which is relatively wide and allows for safe passing, the urban paths usually were too narrow to make it feasible for a cyclist to easily race along passing people (although we were politely passed by a few slightly faster cyclists that were unfortunate enough to get stuck behind us).

We were too jetlagged to feel up to biking in Munich, but we saw bike paths leading everywhere and will certainly bike there the next time we’re there. In Salzburg, the small farm/pension we were staying at had a small bike shop just across the street, but, like many stores in Austria, it closed early on Saturday and was closed Sunday, which was the day we were leaving. We also found a beautiful little shop, which didn’t rent bikes, that had presumably costly commuter bikes and accessories. M. is understandably particular about saddles, so city bikes and cruisers with wide saddles, both of which were easily available, were out of the question.


My rental bike.


In Vienna we found a Trek store, which rented bikes, and finally managed to get out and ride a bit. They only had hybrids in two sizes 50 cm and 55 cm. M. is 6’2″, so he ended up stuck on a bike that was quite a bit too small, but given that he’s done almost 50 miles on the same size bike, a cruise around town was fine. The former was the largest (or rather the highest off the ground) 50 cm I’d ever seen, and was far too large for me, so I ended up with a step-through frame. Unfortunately, despite having handbrakes, it also had coaster brakes, which I loathe because it’s impossible to get the pedals in the right position.


M. in Vienna.


We ended up riding without helmets, as they only had mediums. I need a small and M. needs and XXL, so given that we were riding about 8 miles an hour, off we went. We biked to Schönbrunn Palace, which is about 8 km southwest of the store. I find riding a bike I’m not used to in a new place to be a little unnerving, so I was a bit nervous in both directions, but I wish we’d had a chance to bike more. I mean, really, I barely biked enough to have formed an opinion. Mostly, I came to the conclusion that bikes with couplers might be worth it to make it easier to explore by bike on future trips.


Back in the Saddle

To the surprise of no one, finishing my dissertation took up absolutely all of my writing energy. So now that I’ve done with my Ph.D. (a day that seemed unreachable), I now can return to exploring this topic in a more accessible way.

For my research, the written sources I used were written for a public audience. Most of the articles and all of the cycling guides were didactic. That is, most writers were attempting to teach their readers about cycling, which frequently included advice on how to dress. Granted, I was looking for information on women, which may have biased my methods, but I found much more advice on how women should dress as compared to how men should dress. In the future, I would like to dig more deeply into men’s dress in order to have a more complete understanding.

My project really wasn’t focused on what the average woman wore or how she might have experienced dressing for cycling. It’s true that I could have analyzed articles for this information, but given the performative aspect of writing for the public (and late 19th century mores), I wasn’t comfortable reading that much into their personal experiences. Franky, just writing about what styles were recommended was a huge undertaking and certainly enough for one dissertation. As interesting as it might be to get at the identity of these women, that’s another project entirely. I’d love to look at diaries and letters, but I have no idea what I’d find.

I am, however, planning to talk to cyclists living in the Twin Cities to learn about how cycling impacts/ relates to their personal style. The styles of dress have obviously changed greatly since the 19th century, but it will be interesting to learn how much the conversation has changed. Up next will be a description of an exemplary 1890s cycling costume.

The safety bicycle

The safety bicycle, or what most people think of simply as a bicycle, is one of the most thoroughly discussed aspects of bicycle history. I have over half a dozen books that discuss its development in great detail. More books continue to be written, and it appears that there is still more to be said on the subject. Given the sheer amount of information available, I am barely going to scratch the surface here.


The high-wheel clearly was not safe, although its danger was part of its appeal. Still, some bicycle designers were interested in making a safer bicycle and came up with a number of different designs. Unlike modern bicycles, the earliest safety bicycle still did not have equally sized wheels, although they were much closer in size than a high-wheels two wheels. None of these early designs were as elegant as the high-wheel, but they demonstrate the experimentation that occurred on the way to modern bicycles.

In 1885, British cycling manufacturers debuted the first “diamond frame” bicycles. Of course, as Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing showed in Bicycle Deisgn: An Illustrated History, they are not truly diamond shaped, but it’s fairly clear why we call them that. These bicycles still did not have equally sized wheels, but it did not take long for manufacturers to make this change. Unlike the high-wheel and the velocipede, these bicycles are rear-driven. Rear-driven bicycles typically are chain driven.


“King of Scorchers,” c. 1894. Via oldbike.eu


Proponents of the high-wheel did not immediately adopt the safety bicycle, which some men thought unmasculine. As David V. Herlihy described in Bicycle, when safety bicycle technology improved it became apparent that the high-wheel’s heyday was coming to a close. One of the most important improvements was the pneumatic tire, which increased both comfort and speed. As racers found that they could ride faster on the safety bicycle than on the high-wheel, they quickly switched over. By the early 1890s, the safety bicycle had become the norm. The height of the bicycle boom occurred between 1895 and 1897, but bicycling culture was important throughout the 1890s.


Two women with bicycles, c. 1895. Via oldbike.eu


The safety bicycle was also better adapted for use by women, although riding a diamond frame in long skirts was not exactly feasible. Drop-frame (or step through) bicycles made it possible for women to give up their tricycles in favor of less cumbersome bicycles. The first drop-frame bicycles designed particularly for women were introduced in both Britain and the United States in 1887. Interestingly, many American women adopted the bicycle before their British counterparts, some of whom continued to ride tricycles into the 1890s.

In 1889, the first mass-produced women’s bicycle, known as the Pscyho ladies’ bicycle (yes, that’s its real name), was introduced in Britain and soon imported to the United States. The drop-frame bicycle, like the tricycle, made it possible for women to ride in conventional clothing. However, it was not without flaws. For one thing, drop-frame bicycles were heavier and had less structural integrity. In addition, women’s skirts were still a hazard, so the bicycles tended to be equipped with a chain guard, a skirt guard, and fenders. All of these accouterments made them even heavier.

Some people probably thought women’s heavier bicycles were for the best, it was frowned upon for women to ride too quickly (known as scorching). Even a heavy bicycle was less cumbersome than a tricycle– and less expensive, and women took to it in scores. There are no precise numbers, but Ross Petty estimated that by 1896 there were between 1.3 and 3.25 million women riding bicycles in Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. David V. Herlihy wrote that women purchased about one third of bicycles in the United States. So, women were a significant percentage of the market in the 1890s.


Marshall “Major” Taylor, c. 1900.


Women faced obstacles to becoming bicyclists, but it was easier for Anglo women of means to be accepted than it was for black cyclists such as the bicycle champion Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor. Major Taylor was not allowed to race against white cyclists in the Southern United states. In 1892,  The League of American Wheelmen (LAW) stated that men of all races could join, but in 1894 black individuals were banned from joining, partially due to pressure from southern members. This topic, like the topic of gender in bicycling, is too important to be addressed in one paragraph (or one post). Jesse Gant’s post “Whites on Bikes” addresses racial exclusivity during the nineteenth century, although of course racism continues to be an issue in modern bicycling.



Ladies don’t “scorch”

From the Norman Batho Collection, thewheelman.org
From the Norman Batho Collection, thewheelman.org

Even disregarding my appalling spandex and the mysterious plastic and foam object on my head,  I bike in a way that would have horrified most late-nineteenth century lady cyclists. They would have looked askance at how I tend to hunch over my handlebars and called me a “scorcher” as they shook their heads. Many people disapproved of men scorching, but it was generally considered completely unacceptable for women to hunch over their handlebars.

During the 1880s and 1890s, men’s bicycles tended to have lower handlebars than women’s.  Racing bikes, which were generally men’s bicycles, had particularly low bars, known as drop bars, which are still used today. Some women, even those who did not race, no doubt preferred to lean over their handlebars for increased speed and wind resistance, but they were roundly criticized. Fast riding was for men who rode seriously, while a woman was meant to ride in a stately manner at all times. Of course, some women did race bicycles and preferred drop bars, but racing for women was largely discouraged.

Women riding bicycles, circa late 1880s to to circa early 1890s, Courtesy of freewebs.com
Women riding bicycles, circa late 1880s to to circa early 1890s, Note their posture, Courtesy of freewebs.com

Women who rode tricycles and bicycles were encouraged to sit up straight. For women, good posture was associated with appearing feminine and elegant while cycling.  In 1898, one writer wrote in the British magazine The Wheelwoman:

We are sorry. . . to notice an increase in the number of wheelwomen who ride with a pronounced bicycle stoop. This is a matter for regret, not merely because it is fatal to dignity and good looks, but because it indicates a desire of the part of a few woman to use the bicycle for speed, which is likely to turn it from an instrument of health to a means of peril.

That is, it was not only unappealing, it was bad for women’s health to exert themselves too much!

At least today, women are not as likely to be criticized for riding fast and even racing, although women’s racing does not receive nearly as much attention as men’s. Still, it is generally understood that the most “feminine” way to ride is in a dress while sitting up very straight. I am a bit conflicted about this as I sometimes ride in dresses because sometimes I am riding dressed up for my destination.

My nine speed Chelsea District, which allows me to get a better view of the city
My nine speed Chelsea District, which allows me to get a better view of the city

Up until quite recently, I didn’t have a bike that was really meant to be ridden while wearing a skirt, and my only women specific bike was a hardtail mountain bike, which I use for riding trails almost exclusively. Then suddenly, I acquired a Trek Chelsea District*, which has a mixte frame. Public Bikes offers a handy guide on different frame types. Both men and women can and do ride mixte frames, but mine is sold as a women’s specific design, so it is designed to better fit women’s proportions (more on women’s specific design in a future post).

Both of my other commuter bikes (a Salsa Casseroll and Trek Earl) have a more aggressive geometry, which means the bike has lower handlebars. Neither bikes are in any way meant for racing, but they are a bit more aerodynamic than the Chelsea. I never had much interest in a women specific city bike. Really, it is my husband’s fault for getting a similar bike for his very short commute and then deciding that I should have one too.

As it turns out, though, the Chelsea is an excellent city bike. It has a basket with a place to hang a U-lock! I sit up straight so it is easier on my back. Also, I can sit up and look around much more easily, making cityscapes quite enjoyable. Now, I have no intention of giving up on other types of bikes, but there is something pleasant about riding upright on occasion, as it turns out. However, I prefer to think of myself as stately– a gender neutral term– rather than lady-like.

*Full disclosure: My brother-in-law works for Trek, but I have no affiliation to Trek and this bike was purchased at a local bike shop.