Karen Parnell

Can you buy a man’s bike if you are a female triathlete?

October 12, 2021

womens bike chilitri karen parnell blog triathlon coach

By Karen Parnell

Why would a female triathlete buy a man’s bike?

As a coach I get asked this a lot when one of my female athletes who is just starting out gets offered a bike from a friend or see’s a great deal on a bike, but it happens to be a man’s bike.

In the past the differences were obvious. I collect bikes and the photo below shows my Raleigh Ebony that I bought to do an Eroica event that stated I needed to have a bike built up to 1987 with vintage features such as shift levers on the down tube. This was the same model I used to use to ride to work the first year of my engineering apprenticeship before it got stolen!

As you can see the top tube is angled downwards so a lady did not have to cock her leg to get on or even wear a skirt maybe?

My bike at chilitri karen parnell triathlon coach blog

These days male and female bikes are remarkably similar with the same specification brakes, drive chain, shifters, frame material and wheels.

The difference between women’s and men’s bikes 

Bike makers have a lot of fit data that goes into frame geometry. Women, on average, are shorter than men, so women’s bike models generally have shorter stack heights. On average, women also have shorter torso lengths, so women’s bike models tend to have shorter reach lengths.

Plenty of women can often get a better ride on a man’s bike (aka unisex bike). A good bike shop will ignore marketing and concentrate on bikes that fit your body proportions. And the final word on fit isn’t what happens when you roll out of the store. It takes a few weeks of riding to assess things. After that, you should return to the bike shop to discuss what is and is not working. They can make adjustments, swap out components or, if need be, put you on a different-size model.

To learn some fundamentals about a bike fit this is a great video from GTN: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1iXAG9FYZq8

The major considerations for me are the points where my body touches the bike, and this may sound obvious, but many people just use the saddle, handlebars, pedals and crank arms that came with the bike. A good bike fitter will pay attention to these areas, and they are not just trying to sell you expensive parts but the ones that will make your cycling experience as comfortable and aerodynamic you can be within the bounds of your flexibility and body geometry. I won’t discuss pedals here but you can read about the latest types including magnetic ones here: https://www.tri247.com/triathlon-gear/bike-gear/chilitri-beginners-guide-bike-pedals

Other components that influence bike fit 

The size or adjustments on key bike components also help it synch better with rider physiology: The stem, seat, handlebar, pedals and brake levers can all affect a bike’s overall fit and comfort.

The following components in women’s bikes also affect how well they fit:

Stem: This is the component most likely to get swapped out before you leave the store. A shorter or longer stem offers a simple way to fine-tune a bike frame’s reach for you. A different stem style might also put the handlebar at a higher position that’s more comfortable for riding. Handlebar geometry also comes into play, so bike shops will consider both stem and handlebar choice together during a fit assessment.

Seat: Generally, women’s saddles are shorter and wider. Women performance riders, though, often prefer narrow saddles that free up their pedalling motion. In addition, bike makers know that the saddle is one of the first components riders will change to match their preferences, so don’t get too hung up on the saddle if you like everything else about a bike.

Cut outs and relief channels were initially designed to meet men's needs. However, the industry noticed that women tended to prefer them so now the majority of women's saddles come with some sort of gap or groove. The ideal shape is very much down to personal preference.

Good bike shops will have loan saddles which you can borrow for a few weeks to try before you buy as sometimes it take a few long rides to see if it’s the one for you.

Selle italia saddle chilitri karen parnell blog triathlon coach

This is the saddle I use on long training rides the Selle Italia lady gel flow women's saddle which is a favourite for women cyclists

Handlebar: On average, women have narrower shoulders than men, so having narrower bars might suit you. Sore shoulders are one tipoff. If that’s happening after you get home, tell your bike shop when you go back in.

Brake levers: shorter riders often have smaller hands, making it hard to comfortably reach and operate brake levers. Some levers have adjustment screws that let you reduce lever reach; short-reach levers or junior levers are another option. On one of my bikes the fitter put shims into my brake lever cavity to decrease the initial reach but I’m not sure this is necessary anymore with a lot of levers having adjustment screws built in.

brake levers chilitri karen parnell triathlon coach

Adjusting the reach on brake levers


A female triathlete can purchase and ride a man’s bike without a doubt and hopefully in the future there will just be road bikes and tri bikes of varying sizes to choose from to suit every shape and size. This does however assume that everyone will have a bike fit and be able to swap in women’s specific saddles for example. Some bike brands may transition to gender-neutral bikes (bikes for all). Instead of having, for example, four “men’s” sizes and four “women’s” sizes in a model, a bike model can come in five or six sizes. That offers a greater fit range for all riders, and smaller incremental changes between sizes provides a more precise fit for any single rider.

Right now, you will need to ask yourself why you want to buy a man’s bike? If it’s to save money then you may need to add in the cost of a women’s specific saddle, narrower handlebars, shorter handlebar stem and other adjustments you may need. You may also need to factor in the price of a good bike fit. I would always recommend a bike fit regardless to ensure you are comfortable for those long miles in the saddle. It’s always a good idea to return to your fitter after a couple of weeks to check the position and feedback any minor adjustments you will need to make.

So, depending on your physical size and geometry you could start from a men’s bike and adjust or from a women’s specific bike and get a bike fit from there. Either way a bike fit whether DIY or from your local bike shop is a must.

Karen Parnell is British Triathlon Federation (BTF) Level 3 High Performing Coach and Tutor and ASA Open Water Swimming Coach. She is also a qualified NASM Personal Trainer, Nivel 3 Técnicos Federados FATRI España and IRONMAN® Certified Coach as well as being a Stryd running with power coach. Karen’s training plans are available on TrainingPeaks, Final Surgeand Training Tilt. Karen is based near Malaga in Southern Spain where she runs ChiliTricoaching and camps.

 la herradura chilitri karen parnell blog triathlon coach


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