Are you sitting comfortably?
Women’s anatomy is different to men’s so choose a saddle, bars and shoes that will offer proper support and long-term comfort
Getting a good bike-fit is vital to ensuring the perfect set-up on your bike, and in order to really dial your ride it’s crucial to focus on the three touch points: hands, backside and feet. While most bike components are gender-free, selecting a women-specific saddle, handlebars and shoes could be the key to unlocking your performance by reducing numb hands and feet, dead legs and aching backs.
Anatomically speaking, the area in contact with the saddle is the biggest difference between men and women. That’s not to say that one size fits all, and indeed picking a saddle can often be an expensive and arduous process.
“There are some fundamental anatomical differences between the male and female pelvis,” says Janina Haas, sport scientist and chief ergonomist at Ergon Bike Ergonomics. “We spent two years researching and developing the latest Ergon SL and SM Women road saddles. Using X-rays and CT scans, as well as working with the Canyon-sram professional team, plus intense testing with amateur riders, we’ve been able to verify that, statistically, most women have wider pubic bones than men, as well as a lower pubic symphysis and higher flexibility.”
Lee Prescott, director of Velo Atelier and expert bike-fitter, agrees and adds: “Many women are sitting too upright on the saddle, and most would find a more comfortable position by rotating their pelvis forward and spreading the load across the wider pubic area.
“This also pre-tensions the glutes, allowing riders to get power down earlier in the pedal stroke.”
Haas and Prescott both agree that, once in the correct riding position, many women would benefit from a wider relief opening further toward the front of the saddle to spread pressure more evenly.
Both also agree that wider-nosed saddles may help reduce pressure points, although Prescott points out: “It isn’t a hard and fast rule, and it’s important to remember that while there is a correlation between hip and sit bone sizes, there isn’t with hip measurement. For example, if you carry more muscle or fat around the middle, you may still find a narrow saddle more comfortable.
“The same is true for a saddle with lots of padding. It's easy to think that you need more padding if you are heavier, but the weight of the pelvis on a saddle with lots of padding will immediately compress and incorrectly redistribute it, making contact with areas such as soft tissue, which will be incredibly uncomfortable.
“The ideal way to shop for a saddle is by getting pressure-mapped, which will highlight issues such as pelvis torsion, which is often more common in women, especially after childbirth or carrying small children on a hip. The best way to counter the latter is to alternate hip carrying so it balances out."
However, if you’re not in a position to get saddle mapped any time soon, there are some generalisations that normally ring true.
If you sit in an aggressive position, with your hands often on the drops, then you will probably suffer more with soft-tissue discomfort. Such riders often get on well with saddles that have a large pressure relief area — the Selle Italia SLR Lady Flow is an example. The Specialized Power also suits this type of rider well, as do ISM saddles.
Cobb Saddles did some very interesting research where they found correlations between the (self-assessed!) physical appearance of women’s anatomy, and the type of saddle they liked. Yes, really. In short, they found that ‘innies’ tended to like saddles with a narrow nose and narrow relief channel, whilst ‘outies’ liked those with a wider nose and larger relief channel.
If you do tend to sit in a more relaxed, endurance position, your pain will often be in the sit bone area. For you, saddle width is imperative, so make sure you visit a local bike shop that offers a sit bone measuring tool (Selle Royal, Selle Italia, Fizik and Specialized all have these tools to be used by their dealers).
“Women have wider pubic bones than men, a lower pubic symphysis and higher flexibility”
Remember, wider doesn’t necessarily mean more comfortable.
Finally, if saddle sores are preventing you from finding comfort in the saddle, then it could be down to hair removal. The hair around your genitals acts as a natural sweat soaker and protective layer. Removing hair also means regrowth, and thus the risk of ingrown hairs and infection of the follicle.
Talk to any decent bike-fitter and they will tell you that the most common cyclist faux pas is riding with handlebars that are too wide. The ideal width is as wide as the rider’s shoulders, measured from the knobbly bit of the AC joint on each side.
“Everyone could do with downsizing,” Prescott says. “But it can be especially hard for women, who tend to have narrower shoulders then men, to find anything in a sub-40cm category. FSA and Deda brands are currently the best, especially if the rider is looking for highend carbon.”
The more your shoulders are in line with the handlebars, the more in tune you’ll feel with your bike and the better control you’ll have. That said, unless the whole anatomy of a handlebar suits the rider, the fit will still be uncomfortable, and potentially dangerous.
Statistically speaking, women generally have smaller hands then men, and it can make reaching the brake levers (and shifters), from both the hood and drop position, impossible. Many groupsets will have an element of adjustability built in, but this is often not enough by itself. Women-specific or shallow-drop and shallow/blunted-bend handlebars will allow you to curl your index and middle finger round the brake lever when either in the hoods or drops, allowing you to remain totally in control of speed moderation.
Like saddles and handlebars, there are no ultimate answers to what works best for women when it comes to shoes. However, there are generalisations that mean women-specific shoes will work best for female riders.
“It’s important to have a foot-up approach to bike fitting,” says Prescott, “and 90 per cent of shoes on the market have the bare minimum of foot support. This can have a knock-on effect with collapsed arches, causing knees to bend in when pedalling. As a higher number of women have higher arches, this often affects them the most.”
Ideally, every pair of shoes should have professionally moulded insoles and feature plenty of adjustability. “Sidi provides one of the best shoes on the market for this,” explains Prescott. “It’s women-specific last has less volume on the instep area, ensuring the arch is nicely supported, and then, depending on model, there are often several adjustment points to deliver a bespoke fit.
“If you’re wondering if a shoe is a good fit, remove the inner sole and stand on it to see if it matches your foot.”
Shallow-drop bars allow easy access to shifters for small hands
Good arch support is crucial