For you to get the most out of your cycling, there are a few factors to consider that will add greatly to your comfort while on the bicycle:
1. Get the right bicycle
Many women start cycling with a hand-me-down bicycle from another family member or a friend. As long as the bicycle fits you well, this is fine. If not, look at the various women’s specific bicycles available on the market.
For instance, two people who stand next to one another may be the same height, but that does not mean they will ride the same size bicycle; a person with short legs and a long upper body will ride a different bike to one with long legs and short upper body.
It generally is best to buy your bicycle from a reputable and knowledgeable cycle dealer who can help you to set up the bike correctly for your particular shape and size. Ask them about the following:
- Is the top tube length correct for your upper body length? (You do not want to be too stretched out on the bicycle. Some bikes have longer top tubes than others – and be warned, not all manufacturers measure the frame in the same way: Some measure centre-to-centre, while others measure centre-to-top)
- Is the top tube too short, though? Is there ‘toe-overlap’? In other words, does your toes hit the front wheel when you turn the bike, which could potentially cause a crash?
- Is the top tube height correct for your leg length? (You should be able to stand comfortably over the top tube, with enough ‘standover clearance’)
- Is the handlebar stem extension the correct length for your upper body and arm length? Do you, for instance, need one with a higher rise and shorter reach? Can you add or take away spacers?
- Will changing the stem extensions perhaps change the way the bike handles? For instance, putting an extra-short stem on the bike often makes it difficult to control as there is a very short distance between the handlebars and the steering axis which will make the bike repond too much to any input from the rider, making it very ‘twitchy’
- Are the brake levers the correct size for your hands? Can you reach the brakes comfortably, or should you get smaller levers? Can the levers be adjusted to be closer to the handlebars, so that you can reach them without having to take your hands off the handlebars? Can you brake comfortably while riding with your hands “on the hoods”?
- Are the handlebars the correct width for your shoulders, or should you get narrower handlebars?
- Ask them to explain the bike’s angles to you to make sure you get the frame geometry you want: Some bicycles have relaxed geometry which makes for a more comfortable ride especially on long rides; other bikes will allow you to sit more upright and place less strain on the lower back; while others have sharper angles that sprint and/or climb better, but are more ‘twitchy’ on descents and corners
- Are the cranks the correct length for your leg length, or do you need shorter or longer ones?
2. Get the right accessories
Always wear gloves when you cycle: In the unhappy event of a fall, your hands often make contact with the ground first, and a good pair of gloves will go a long way to protect your hands. Make sure you get gloves that fit your hands without creating folds anywhere. For road cycling, most cyclists prefer gloves with cut-off fingers, while full gloves are often preferred for off-road cycling. Some gloves have gel inserts in the palm pressure areas. These generally make for very comfortable riding, but make sure the gel inserts do not interfere negatively with being able to “feel the bike”. Try out different pairs at your local cycle dealer – somewhere will be one that is just perfect. PS: If you buy gloves with a cut-out on the top/back of the hand, remember to put sunblock on that section…
It became South African law in 2004 that you must wear a helmet whenever you ride your bicycle. Make sure the helmet fits properly, and buy the most expensive helmet you can afford provided the helmet conforms to minimum safety standards (“If you have a R50 head, buy a R50 helmet“). The helmet should fit securely when you shake your head from side to side, or up/down.
Women’s cycling shirts are generally a bit shorter and more fitted than men’s shirts, and sometimes lack the elastic bands on the sleeves and bottom seam. Shop around until you find a shirt that fits comfortably, wicks away sweat/moisture and is highly visible. Make sure the shirt is long enough so that your lower back is not exposed when you lean forward, and wide enough that it does not pull across the shoulders when you lean forward and ride with your hands on the handlebars.
It is important to wear cycling shorts with padded inserts (called “chamois”). Chamois are padded to a lesser or larger degree; the amount of padding being a personal choice. The amount of padding is of less importance – rather make sure the chamois does not have a seam running down the middle which could cause chafing. Make sure the legs are not too tight and will not cut any circulation. Never wear underwear underneath your cycling pants – the chamois is made to be worn next to the skin to as to effectively wick away moisture. On long rides, a bit of petroleum cream or chamois cream works wonders.
If you feel self-conscious wearing just a pair of lycra shorts, have a look at the various off-road cycling shorts that are available nowadays. These shorts have a padded inner made from a light lycra while the outer looks like a pair of boardshorts, constructed in such a way so as to prevent seams in the crotch area – great for touring.
Make sure you wash your cycling shorts after each ride.
Manufacturers nowadays offer narrower cycling shoes made specifically to fit the female foot.
If you intend riding with a hydration pack, look around for one that fits comfortably – you nowadays get narrower, lighter ones made specifically for women.
3. Make sure your bike is set up correctly
Women’s specific bicycle frame or men’s frame?
There is no right or wrong answer: Some women are perfectly comfortable on a men’s bike, especially if the bike is ‘tweaked’ with small changes like a different saddle and handlebar stem extension.
Ask a hundred women which bicycle saddle they prefer and you’ll get a hundred different answers. You’ll have to try out a few different saddles until you get one that feels comfortable.
In general, women are more comfortable on the specific, wider women’s saddles as these allow the pelvis “sit” bones to rest comfortably on the saddle, while the “cut-out” portion in the nose assists to relieve pressure. If your pelvis is fairly narrow, a men’s saddle may be perfectly comfortable for you.
However, if your saddle is not set-up correctly, it can be the most expensive saddle money can buy – yet it will still be uncomfortable.
Soft saddle or hard? In general you’ll find that competitive female cyclists prefer a harder saddle as it allows you to move/slide back on the saddle, especially while climbing.
Many beginners make the mistake of riding with the saddle too low, and end up with knee pain. Some cycle dealers offer a bike fit when you buy a bicycle from them and this is an excellent place to start. In particular, ask them to look out for the following:
- Make sure the saddle position is high enough, so that you get maximum power out of each stroke. The saddle should never be so high that your knee straightens out completely when you pedal – one of the ways in which you’ll see that this is the case, is when you start rocking from side to side when pedalling. A very loose rule of thumb is that your leg should be stretched out comfortably if you put your heel on the pedal with the crank parallel to the downtube so that your leg is straight
- Make sure the saddle is in the correct fore-aft position
- Make sure the saddle is as near to horizontal as you can get it. A saddle that is tilted up at the front can cause crotch pain; one that is tilted down can cause you to slide towards your handlebars, placing unnecessary strain on your hands and wrists and interfering with the correct pedal stroke
- Make sure you are not too stretched out on the bike, which could lead to lower back pain
- Sitting more upright generally relieves neck pain