Part 3: Five Things I Knew About Women & Bikes*

14 Aug

*But was afraid to write about without data to back me up. The is the third post in the series.

Last week the League of American Bicyclists released their Women on a Roll research report on women and bicycling. The report breaks down results into five key areas: comfort, convenience, consumer products, confidence and community. Here’s my take on consumer products based on my personal experience.

What I knew about CONSUMER PRODUCTS: Women are willing to spend when retailers sell what they want.

Steph Buys a Bike

Some Statistics from the Women on a Roll report:

  • Women accounted for 37% of the bicycle market in 2011, spending $2.3 billion.
  • Just 1/3 of women said it’s “no problem” to find clothing and gear that fits their personal style.
  • 89% of bike shop owners are male, but 33% of shops are run by a husband/wife team.
  • 57% of women bicycle owners reported not visiting a bike shop in the past year.

My Personal Experience: I really should love bike shops. They’re filled with beautiful bikes (which I love) and handsome fellas (including the one I married). But with a few notable exceptions I don’t have much in common with shop staff, and I don’t expect them to understand what I want or need. Probably because 95% of them are men and the few women who work in shops often have more in common with the guys than with me.

It’s experiences like my friend Steph had when she asked about lower gearing and the sales guy said “just ride more and you’ll get stronger” even though she had been riding for years. All that was available at the time were standard doubles with a 39×23 low gear. No fun for climbing the long steep hills that ring the Bay Area.

The good news is that in the past 10 years the bike industry has made enormous strides in offering road and mountain bikes designed and marketed for women. Big brands like Trek, Specialized and Giant now do extensive research that goes beyond simply fitting women’s bodies to include exploring the riding experience women desire. The bad news is that the local shops don’t always get the message.

YMK Jerseys

For me, the lack of appropriate gear hit hardest in the clothing department. I was going on road bike dates every Sunday with my now-husband and wanted to look my best. Even at race weight, my curves don’t look good in jerseys that aren’t designed for women. So I was walking past racks of men’s jerseys in shops to find a single rack for women and flipping through 35 pages of men’s clothing in catalogs to find five pages for women in the back. Only when I found women-run online retailers like Team Estrogen and Terry did I find what I wanted.

Women’s taste in clothing ranges far wider than men’s, whether it’s bike wear or street clothes. What’s fun and cute to one woman is something another woman wouldn’t be caught dead wearing. And we want our clothes to look good AND be fully functional, say with pockets that can hold a jacket, arm warmers, wallet, phone and sports bar, even in a size XS. That makes it a lot harder for manufacturers and retailers to please us.

Stuffed Pockets

The Impact: While it’s great that we now have more bikes and jerseys designed to fit women better, it means women are treated as a niche market. The big bike brands have women’s sections on their web sites, but women rarely make the home page except in images labeled “women’s products” that lead to the women’s section. That’s better than being ignored, but it says that women aren’t mainstream cyclists.

The result is that the cycling is defined by masculine values of riding harder, faster and longer. So we get stories and images of sweat, dirt, and suffering, and slogans like “too hard to die” instead of the more universally appealing “the adventure begins here.” That’s hardly a way to attract new female riders to the sport, nor to sell new bikes and equipment to the existing riders. Georgena Terry wrote about it on her blog and I agree 100%.

The good news for retailers is that women rely on word of mouth more than men. Shops that hire or train staff to be responsive to women’s preferences sell more. Sometimes all it takes are small things like putting women’s clothing out in front of the men’s (and not because you’re having a Breast Cancer Month promotion). It makes women feel instantly welcome. One little-recognized upside for retailers is that women who ride not only buy gear themselves, they’re more likely to approve expensive bike purchases of husbands and significant others.

Ladies, are you finding the gear that works for you? Was it hard to find a shop that had what you need? What would you like to see changed in the bicycle industry to suit your needs better?



Posted by on August 14, 2013 in Issues & Infrastructure, Women & Bikes


28 responses to “Part 3: Five Things I Knew About Women & Bikes*

  1. Christine Holmes

    August 14, 2013 at 7:27 pm

    Thank you for this series. Informative, insightful and on the mark. Much appreciated. I buy almost all my clothing from Team Estrogen. Stores still seem to stock a lot more clothing for men than for women. A few years ago, I wanted a jersey from the Tour of California store website and I had to buy a size (S) male because for women, all they had were t-shirts. Hello? One could also argue that the entire market is geared towards fit, financially secure white males. I have felt welcome and understood by Mike’s Bikes and from The Sports Basement. I hope this is the norm not the exception, especially for novice cyclists.

    • ladyfleur

      August 14, 2013 at 10:23 pm

      I had so many problems with event jerseys. I could never tell whether the sizing was for men or women. I ordered a medium jersey for Tierra Bella one year because the site made it look like women’s sizing. I got a club cut men’s medium that would probably fit Dick. Fortunately, they let me return it.

  2. Brian

    August 14, 2013 at 8:00 pm

    > But with a few notable exceptions I don’t have much in common with shop staff,
    > and I don’t expect them to understand what I want or need. Probably because
    > 95% of them are men and the few women who work in shops often have more
    > in common with the guys than with me

    This is tricky, from the shop staff side, too. On any given day, there is going to be someone who knows more about commuting bikes than someone else knows about clothing. Some employees just ask better questions instead of making assumptions based on what someone looks like. Customers should ask and not assume, too. Asking “who should I ask about this?” is the only way to know who is the most excited and knowledgeable about selling you clothing or commuting gear or a road bike, and it may or may not be the person who has other things in common with the customer, especially the easily seen things.

    Most men who work in bike shops have in fact learned a lot from and offered good advice to female customers, or they wouldn’t last very long. We used to have a summer employee who mostly just ran the register because she really didn’t care for the long process of selling a bike. Yet some women insisted on having a woman help them, even when she tried to pass them along to someone more qualified for that kind of sale. And people also pass over the young full time staffers who are up on everything in favor of older part timers. People used to think I was an owner and then I had to tell them that I was just a part-timer.

    In other words, you will not likely find someone who has everything in common with you, but there is usually someone who can do a great job with whatever brought you in that day, and that’s a more realistic approach.

    • ladyfleur

      August 14, 2013 at 10:18 pm

      Brian, you worked at a shop where the owner gets it. He gets that it’s about the customer’s dream, not his. That trickled down to the sales manager (aka my hubby) and the sales staff (aka you). That’s why the shop had a disproportionate number of female customers. I was referred there by a woman who said “go to Chain Reaction and ask for Dick.”

      I think a big part of the problem is that women go into shops knowing that the industry is focused on hardcore men (as evidenced by all the marketing) and expect that the overwhelmingly male staff is more hardcore than they are. And having unqualified women working in stores in really annoying. Especially if you suspect they got the job because they were cute. Oh wait, that’s Interbike. 😦

      I’ve certainly had great service from men at bike shops. If I didn’t I probably wouldn’t be riding since that pretty much the only service I’ve had a bike shops (except for Patty at Passion Trails).

      • Brian

        August 14, 2013 at 11:20 pm

        Men also think the staff is more hardcore than they are. I was intimidated by bike shops when I first started riding. I was nervous about my interview with Dick! The industry-wide focus on racing is not a rational decision that benefits men (or anybody else, really)–it’s because they do need the exposure of pro racing to some extent, and it’s way more cool to hang out with and listen to the race team than with normal people who ride their bikes to work or on 45 minute rides along Cañada Road. So that’s what they do.

        There is also the phenomenon of catching the racing bug while working in a bike shop, so even a guy who was just a commuter and weekend rider like me ends up racing (or a crazy distance ride or a tri or whatever). But by the time that happens, it doesn’t seem like an intimidating thing at all. Hardly anyone gets out of trying it at least once. You can try to avoid mentioning racing to customers who don’t bring it up, but it’s hard to enjoy racing at all (not falling off the back/drowning) without looking a little bit like the guys who used to intimidate me.

      • ladyfleur

        August 15, 2013 at 6:34 am

        So if you were intimidated in bike shops when you were starting out as a 20-something tall fit man can you imagine how a middle aged slightly out of shape woman feels? Especially if she’s looking for a bike to ride 10 miles on a bike path? I think you’re proving my point that the constant hardcore message inhibits large segments of riders and potential riders.

      • Brian

        August 15, 2013 at 5:24 pm

        Yes, I am supporting your point.

        I wasn’t fit before I bought my bike. My peak waist size and weight was when I was 22. I was the last kid picked in elementary school, and the only “sport” I played in high school was a summer in the church softball league where at least I could run faster than the dads on the team.
        Anything involving a sport was intimidating to me. I bought the bike because I couldn’t afford parking in grad school. Getting in shape was a total accident. Fortunately, guys in their 20s can accidentally get into shape.

      • Elizabeth

        August 15, 2013 at 10:13 pm

        I am a slightly out of shape middle age woman, but am not intimidated by bike shops. For the most part, most sales staff has been helpful, but it’s true they are mostly men. Every once in a while I’ve been slightly annoyed. One man was more interested in bragging about his long distance rides and insisted that swapping out the men’s handle bars for women’s narrower bars was not necessary. I bought my Specialized Roubaix elsewhere. One young woman helping me with gloves admitted to not using gloves and therefore had no opinion beyond some script she’d been taught. She also appeared bored and impatient with how long I was taking trying them on. So, I thanked her politely, and said I would continue looking on my own. The next time in the shop, I marched right past her and approached a young man that had been previously very helpful with questions about horns, bells, and so on.

  3. Dena

    August 14, 2013 at 8:25 pm

    Having raced for 22 years and having met literally thousands of riders…I think one of biggest misconceptions is that there needs to be “women’s specific” bikes. Bikes need to come in a larger range of sizes-not genders. For example, I work with several guys who would much better fit a women’s XS frame than anything they size for “unisex/men”…but they aren’t about to ride a frame with aqua, pink or anything that denotes its being marketed for women. One a frame size is appropriate, touch points are easily modified with handlebars/stems/saddles etc. Shoes…don’t get me started. Years ago I walked into a shop to buy new shoes…the guy asked me if they were for spin class. I replied no, I’d like the “brand x carbon in a 41” (the highest end men’s shoe they sold). He just looked at me and I nicely quipped: “there ARE women who want the best shoes out there-too bad the industry makes women shoes sub-standard and covered in flowers.” …I think at least one shoe company has stepped up to the plate.

    • ladyfleur

      August 14, 2013 at 9:49 pm

      I once had a sales guy ask me if I was buying my cycling shoes for spin class too! I said, “No, I’m riding them on the road.” I was wearing a suit vs tomboy clothes and I think that confused him.

      As for the WSD bikes, I am 5’6″ and have a 29″ inseam. Not exactly women’s geometry. Fortunately I can clear the top tube on a 49/50cm standard bike, although the high bottom bracket on my cross bike made it tough. << see how I said standard = mens. Sigh at myself.

      But I know women with short torsos and long legs that need the WSD proportions. They're over 5'10" which used to put them out of the typical WSD range, but I now see that the Trek 6.2 WSD comes in a 64 cm frame. Wow!

    • Brian

      August 14, 2013 at 11:49 pm

      Pink bikes are evil.

      Who shops for cycling shoes without a bike, cleats or old shoes?

      People buying spin shoes or their fifth pair of cycling shoes (and many of those people are showrooming).

      It’s simpler to get a quick “no” to the spin class question from a non spin class person than to get out of the conversation that results when you ask a spin class customer what kind of bike or pedal they have. They do not know that the answer is, “I’m taking a spin class.” They panic and think we need to know the brand of bike at their gym and they forgot to copy down some magic numbers to give us so they start to describe the bike or the gym or their friend who was in the shop last week, blah, blah, blah. The people who are insulted about being asked if they are taking a spin class usually keep that to themselves, which in the short term anyway is less uncomfortable.

      • ladyfleur

        August 15, 2013 at 6:44 am

        So you’re saying that it’s in the sales persons best interest to ask a question that might put off an experienced rider rather than embarrass a new rider? Perhaps so. Maybe the better solution is to find a new way of asking the question. In my case I ran into the store, grabbed the shoes I already knew I wanted and was at the register when he asked it.

      • Brian

        August 15, 2013 at 5:48 pm

        Also, the spin class customer is far more likely to be close to buying their first bicycle and will need and value the help of a friendly bike shop. That kind of customer is very valuable to most bike shops because they will need to buy everything and their trust can be won. It’s fun introducing new people to (the non-spin kind of) cycling.

        Customers with a lot of cycling experience often believe (often justifiably) that they know more than the staff of the shop and so paying retail prices doesn’t make sense. They are used to getting deals through their teams or industry connections and shopping online and buy mostly on price and sometimes immediate availability. Bringing your shoes to the register pretty clearly demonstrates that you just want a product, not expertise.

      • Elizabeth

        August 16, 2013 at 5:48 pm

        You know Brian, you seem like a nice guy, and although I might not be offended by someone asking me if I take spin class, I would likely find it a bit odd. Whether or not it would put me off would depend on the rest of the conversation, but it would probably but me on my guard. However, you are right that I wouldn’t say anything. I just might not come back if things seemed a bit off.

        Although i’ve ridden bicycles for over 40 years, I only recently started buying new bicycles – one was fairly expensive and the other one not. Plus, I’m refurbishing an older mountain bike, might buy a step through bike, and am adding lights, panniers, baskets, as well as needing gloves, helmets, and so on. Overall, I’m a good customer to have. So, I hope you get some thought to how your words might be perceived. Perhaps asking, “Do you ride a road or mountain bike, or take a step class?” might cover all the bases but not confuse or put anyone off.

        I’ve never taken a spin class, but cannot resist asking why would anyone need special shoes for that?

      • Brian

        August 17, 2013 at 8:42 am

        I don’t think I’ve ever guessed wrong with the spin class question, but I have freaked out spin students by asking them what kind of bike they have. The other clues are that they come in right after work (or class) on weeknights, and there is often a wave of them the week a new session starts. 90% of the time, their instructors have told them to tell the folks at the bike shop that they need shoes for a spin class, so there is no problem.

        Spin class shoes are mountain bike (recessed cleat) shoes with softer soles than other cycling shoes so they are more comfortable to walk in. I do not understand why you are not allowed to change your shoes in the spin studio or apparently anywhere in the building where your spin class is conducted, but walking to and from the parking lot (!) in your spin shoes is a requirement. They look more like sneakers or hiking shoes than cycling shoes, so nobody accidentally mistakes you for a racer. They would be suitable for commuting, too.

        Also, spin shoes are the least expensive shoes in a bike shop. So you can save up your extra money for your very own bicycle!

    • Elizabeth

      August 15, 2013 at 10:18 pm

      When I was looking for a road bike, a lot of bike shops tried to steer me towards the Specialized Ruby rather than the Roubaix. However, my legs are short and my torso very long (my family has extra vertebra), so women’s bikes designed for short torsos and long legs don’t suit me. I’m glad that I went to many different places to try out what felt best for me, so that I did not feel intimidated into something that was not quite right.

      • ladyfleur

        August 15, 2013 at 10:59 pm

        I have a long torso and short legs. To the point where when I’m sitting down and people think I’m like 5’9″ and I’m 5’6″. So the women’s geometry bikes don’t fit me at all.

        I did, however, have my brakes shimmed and put narrower bars on. I also run lower gears than most men. Climbing is not my strength.

      • Elizabeth

        August 16, 2013 at 6:06 pm

        Ladyfleur- My best friend laughed when she noticed that I seemed taller than her 6″ tall brother when we were both sitting down.

        I had to look up break shims and running lower gears. Brake shims make it quieter, right? My commuter bike has very squeaky brakes. It’s due for maintenance, so may ask about the shims. Still not sure what running lower gearing means. I thought that you get the gears that come with the bike. Is that something you can change? My Roubaix zooms up the hills easier than any other bike that I’ve tried but I’m still not super fast. However, I’m afraid to take that bike to San Francisco and leave it anywhere, so I use my refurbished mountain bike. I just got the gears fixed on that bike, but it’s still not as good as the Roubaix.

  4. Adina Levin

    August 15, 2013 at 8:27 am

    One issue I have run into is that tops are designed to fit the flat-chested, and lines of bicycle-friendly street clothing are available only smaller sizes (10 or below). I shop in the regular-size section of stores, so my body size is not particularly hard to fit. The assumption is that women who cycle are all athletes with very low body fat, rather than people with a range of sizes and shapes.

    Re: bicycle friendly street clothing – off the shelf pants wear out very quickly if you ride a bike for transportation. I am hoping one of the specialty products will last longer.

    • ladyfleur

      August 15, 2013 at 8:51 am

      I’ve heard that complaint from a lot from women. For men they have “race cut” and “club cut” sizing to accommodate the difference in the skinny racers and the average Joe rider who may have a beer gut.

      If you haven’t shopped at Team Estrogen I’d take a look. They have an enormous selection and give fit tips. The owner is not a skinny racer either so I’m sure she’s got clothing for curvy girls if it’s made somewhere, anywhere.

  5. Matt

    August 15, 2013 at 2:16 pm

    Some thoughts:

    1. I’m just a casual rider/commuter, and to me, a step-through frame makes practical sense for everybody, regardless of sex.

    2. Hyland Bikes on Meridian (San Jose) is a good place for non-racers. Their storefront is inviting; they always have unusual looking bikes by the sidewalk and plenty of one-speeds and cruisers in front of the store window. The staff generally does not ask race- or spin- specific questions. Mostly open ended, “What kind of riding do you do?” One time, they dissuaded me from buying a bike that was “close” to my son’s size. They recommended waiting a few weeks until they a frame that was more his size.

    3. There is a huge opportunity for someone to step in and claim the women cyclists market..

  6. ampyali

    August 19, 2013 at 5:02 pm

    I knew I had found my favorite bike shop when I told the mechanic I was planning to change my own brake cable and he didn’t bat an eyelash. He waited for me to tell him what information and supplies I needed rather than making assumptions, and he did it with a lot of respect.

  7. echo

    August 26, 2013 at 11:32 pm

    I wish I could ‘like’ this post 10 times! This has been such a struggle for me, especially because when I started cycling I was in a relatively small town. All the bike shops were white male-dominated and I never fit it…or had many options. I also hate buying clothes online because of my body shape. I HAVE to try everything on. And dealing with return shipping is just a pain…so that leaves out a lot of Terry and Team Estrogen clothes that I would love to try on and buy!

    And don’t even get me started on saddles…

  8. Nadiamac

    August 29, 2013 at 9:23 am

    on the gear front, I have a tough time with shoes, since there seems to be a great shortage of small women’s shoes (road or mtb) that are wide. My feet are too small for men’s shoes, where you can find wide sizing. I am looking for performance type gear, not spin type shoes where the diversity seems greater.

    In addition, can I just say that I hate flowers and pink and pastel colors, which seem to be the mandatory design elements that are included in women gear/women’s gear versions (even my old road shoes have little flowers embossed on them– this with carbon sole high end road shoes. why?). Would love to find jerseys that fit/look good on my curves but lack the girly design elements.

  9. Susan Rubinsky

    May 15, 2014 at 11:49 am

    As far as bike shops are concerned, I’ve basically given up on finding one where the staff will listen to my needs rather than push a male solution/product at me.

    On gear: I just buy yoga clothes. Way nicer fit and styles. Danskin makes some nice yoga pants that aren’t flared and sometimes you can find some with zippers that you just zip up at the ankle for riding. I’ve been known to wear flared yoga pants with bandannas tied around the ankles when cycling too. I also wear skorts. There is some nice golf gear too that doubles up nicely for cycling and is feminine. But, hey, I also wear dresses and heels on my bike. I’m sort of a lifestyle biker rather than some tough gritty gear-head type.


    May 26, 2014 at 1:49 pm

    “Women’s taste in clothing ranges far wider than men’s”

    Of all the places to find a ridiculous, sexist. unsubstantiated stereotype, this article would have been low on my list…but there it is.


    • ladyfleur

      May 26, 2014 at 5:11 pm

      Of all the opinions to take exception to in this piece (and there are plenty), I’m surprised this is the one you find ridiculous and sexist. Feel free to give more detail than a simple condemnation.

      I’m basing my observation on the wide variety of women’s clothing generally available, from bright colors to subdued, from dresses and frills to menswear-inspired trousers and shirts. I see this translate into bicycle clothing where many women gravitate toward girly colors like pink and purple with flowers or bold prints, while just as many women run screaming from those styles. It’s not that men all choose the same styles of cycling jerseys, I just don’t see the same broad range I see from women.


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