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Women’s MTB tips

More and more women are nowadays taking to off-road cycling, viewing the traffic on the roads as being too much of a deterrent. While I often take a bicycle out on the road to do some solid miles for fitness, off-road riding remains my first love. I love the scenery, and will often stop to take a photograph or to look at a raptor gliding above. I love the smells, and will often stop to smell some of the local fynbos. And I love the fact that it’s considered acceptable to get off and push your MTB up a steep hill!

Being a woman, is there anything different that you should know or try?

The skills needed for off-road riding is the same for men and women. You’ll be amazed at, for instance, how easy it is to bunny-hop your bicycle – and how much more confidence you have out on the trail if you can do it. While you can always get off and walk your bike across technical sections, being able to ride them is really a lot of fun – and quite doable.

Do you need special women’s related MTB equipment?

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:
a) Get the right bicycle
b) Get the right accessories
c) Make sure your bike is set up correctly

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?
– 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?
– 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?
– Are the handlebars the correct width for your shoulders, or should you get narrower handlebars?

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 (pointing up or down instead of being level), it can be the most expensive saddle money can buy – yet it will still be uncomfortable.

Should you get a soft or hard saddle? 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. Again, there is no right or wrong answer – get one that’s comfortable for you.

Bike set-up
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,  look out for the following:

  • Make sure the saddle position is high enough, so that you get maximum power out of each stroke. (Once you start riding technical stuff, you may want to drop your saddle for those sections)
  • 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.
  • Make sure you are not too stretched out on the bike, which could lead to lower back pain. If needs be, change the handlebar stem extension.
  • Chat to your dealer about the right pedals, as there are numerous kinds available for off-road riding. Some platform-type pedals allow you to ride while unclipped (if you are using cleats), while others are really small and work fantastically in technical, narrow trails or when riding in a lot of mud. All we can tell you at this stage is that there are many options available – ask to see them, and chat to fellow riders.

Shocks set-up
The factory settings on most MTB shocks cater for men. Make sure that the shocks are set for your weight.

a) Gloves
Always wear female-specific 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 – specifically look for gloves made for female hands. PS: If you buy gloves with a cut-out on the top/back of the hand, remember to put sunblock on that little round section, unless you like funny tan marks!

b) Helmet
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. Most off-road cyclists prefer helmets with peaks to keep the sun out of your eyes – the little bit of potential wind resistance is negligible, as speeds are generally much lower than for road cycling.

c) Cycling shirts
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. While skimpy, cut-away tops are very sexy, do remember that it also leaves more skin exposed in the event of a fall. Make sure you get a top with a back pocket with a zip so that you can carry some sunblock, lip-ice and your car keys in there.

d) Cycling shorts
It is important to wear cycling shorts with padded inserts (called “chamois”). Shorts 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 padded insert 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. You can either ride with lycra shorts, or go for MTB-specific shorts. 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.

There are several female-specific cycling shorts on the market – look around until you find one that fits your body perfectly.

e) Cycling shoes
Manufacturers nowadays offer narrower cycling shoes made specifically to fit the female foot. If you opt to ride with running shoes, make sure you tie the shoe laces securely so that they don’t inadvertently get caught in the chain.

f) Hydration packs
I prefer riding off-road with a hydration pack, as water bottles often fall out on bumpy downhills – plus they often get covered in mud! Look around for one that fits comfortably – you nowadays get narrower, lighter hydration packs made specifically for women.


Q: What do I do about saddle sores?
A: For saddle sores, prevention is better than cure. Make sure your bike is set-up correctly, with the saddle at the correct height and tilt, and in the correct fore-aft position. Do not wear undies underneath your cycling shorts, and use petroleum jelly or chamois cream to prevent chafing. Wash immediately after a ride, and if possible, wash before a ride, ensuring that you dry-off properly before putting on your cycling pants. Do not increase your mileage suddenly – your bum needs to get used to sitting on the saddle! Watch wear you shave, so that hair follicles do not get blocked. Minimise moisture on a ride, so if you need to have a pit stop, dry off properly afterwards. If you still end up with blocked or infected glands or vaginal problems, seek medical advice.

Q: Can I cycle while pregnant?
A: This is a question best asked of your gynaecologist or obstetrician, but in general, healthy, active women benefit from mild regular exercise and that includes pregnant ones. More than one PPA member cycled until fairly late in the pregnancy with no ill effects (it is too soon to tell if the kid will be a better cyclist because of the training in the womb! However, caution should be exercised as far as safety is concerned: Generally you should not ride in a race pr big group where there is a chance that you may fall. Never ride alone, and do not attempt to ride routes and distances that you could not easily complete before you fell pregnant. Consider putting wider, more stable tyres on your bicycle (or change to a mountain bike). Consider using a stationary bicycle or doing modified spinning classes.

Have fun!