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On Balance  

Not designed for women

A question that often comes up, and probably should come up a lot more often, is whether there are bikes that are designed, or better suited, for female riders. The short answer is no, not something specifically designed for women. There are bikes that tend to be marketed more to women, but that’s not really the point.

The point is that some people – who often, but not always, are women – are poorly served by products designed and manufactured with a person in mind who is 5-foot-10 and weighs 180 to 200 pounds. Yeah, I’m that old, and there’s a calculator around here that will do the metric conversions, but you get what I’m saying.

Actually, I’m an old cyclist, and in that role I spent a good deal of time helping women find a fit in the bicycling world. This was made far easier when Georgena Terry came onto the scene in the late 1980s, introducing the concept of “women-specific design” as it related to bikes and bike saddles.

Terry noticed, and actually did something about, what everyone else was either ignoring, or trying to put up with: lots of women, particularly the smaller ones, were horribly uncomfortable even on bikes that were, according to the standards of the day, “properly fitted” to them. 

In a nutshell, her thesis was that there are patterned differences between the standard physiques of men and women, and those differences needed to be addressed in the actual design of bikes, rather than masked or accommodated by messing with the components (stems, handlebars, crank arms) after the fact.

The science that describes and documents the differences, both in gender-typical physique, and in proportioning of musculature, can be found in such places as PeopleSize and NASA. It’s also somewhat controversial, depending on who’s selling you what.

Terry started building bikes that were configured to better fit women’s shorter torsos, narrower shoulders, and wider pelvic bone structures. Terry Precision Bicycles began the women-specific design “thing” that has risen and fallen in the cycling world ever since; right now it’s been largely abandoned by the big manufacturers that are happiest selling generic products, but still very much in play with the smaller producers and custom builders.

OK, this is supposed to be about motorcycling and rider safety, isn’t it? Well, I’ve spent the last decade or so watching women trying to deal with motorcycles, and feel safe; they were experiencing many of the same “bike fit” issues. Some of those issues I share, being a buck short of the full adult male admission. 

My observations are these:

  • People who are struggling to control devices that don’t fit them, or to use controls that are cumbersome or poorly fitted, are at risk. Those risks increase dramatically in user contexts that entail high power, high speeds, critical response thresholds, and high impact vulnerabilities. Like motorcycling.
  • Efforts to adjust the fit of devices by changing the position and configuration of the control interfaces (like handlebars and levers) can create more comfort, but introduce limitations or dangerous changes to the device response characteristics (like handling and braking).
  • “Getting used to it,” as in learning how to manage around the problem, is not the same as getting proper service, value, or safety from what you’re using, and paid for. When that’s a motorcycle being ridden at speed in the stream of traffic, this is a very critical difference.
  • Size, weight, and power are not the only important elements in the “fit” of motorcycle to person. Rider positioning, and their ease of access/use of the controls are equally, if not more, crucial.

In this time of #MeToo, after so many decades of the Women’s Movement, and with so much long-overdue attention to issues of gender-based inequalities, I’m flatly dismayed when I see yet another woman bravely struggling to manage a motorcycle that’s obviously been designed, built, and marketed for someone completely other than her.

I’ve also heard too many stories of women who have had that “close call,” or crash, and decided that the problem was them, when the selection, the adjustment, and the servicing of their motorcycle were all handled by some “expert” twice their size with a completely different physique.

Women could be much better served by a motorcycling world that lived by an appreciation of the value of genuine fit, rather than just offering lessons in “getting used to it.”

Some thoughts: when you’re choosing and setting up your bike, look for help from someone who looks like you. Someone who has the same ratio of lower and upper body strength. Same hand size and shoulder width. If you can’t find that person, then try for someone who starts by listening to you, instead of prescribing to you.

Look for a bike that fits you as well as possible without having to make significant changes to the bars and seat height, so the thing handles the way it was engineered to in the first place.

Find some female riding friends, like Women on Wheels, Motoress, or WomenRidersNow

And ride on International Female Riders Day – Aug. 22. 

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About the Author

Bill Downey is a retired professional social worker in support programs for people with congenital or acquired physical and cognitive challenges, who was also a volunteer firefighter and a BCGEU health and safety advocate.

For many years, he has been a motorcycle riding coach/instructor with Kelowna Safety Council who spends too much time studying international traffic safety research and not enough time doing all the outdoor things a boy from the Okanagan should be doing.

He has lived a very large portion of his life on two wheels as a commuting and travelling cyclist, but, for the extra challenge, he is also as a motorcycle commuter.

By nature, he has a balanced approach to all things.

[email protected]https://kdsc.bc.ca



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The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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