This article was produced in association with Specialized.
It’s a debate that has been rumbling for years. An issue that furiously splits opinions of bike manufacturers and cyclists and one that may never be universally resolved. The topic in question: do we still need gender-specific bikes? And are unisex bikes really unisex? Is there a real difference between men’s and women’s bikes? Can one be comfortable on the other? In the early 2000s, more and more bike brands began to add women’s specific models to their ranges. It was a departure from the ‘shrink it and pink it’ attitude that had once been rife in the industry and a move towards brands making some real investments in women’s products.
Women-specific geometry generally resulted in shorter reach, narrower handlebars, lower standover height and women-specific contact points such as saddles. Industry giants Specialized Bicycles used to offer models such as the Ruby instead of the Roubaix as an endurance option for women and the Amira instead of the world-famous Tarmac as a more race-focused choice. Anna van der Breggen rode the Amira when she was part of the world-beating Boels-Dolmans women’s professional team, proving it was every bit the high-performance machine. However, as time went on, Specialized spotted a trend: it was becoming more and more common for female riders to request to use models of bikes that were actually marketed towards men.
Stewart Thompson, Road Category Leader at Specialized, explains: “Some of the pro racer women were asking to ride the Tarmac instead of the Amira, so we started digging in a little further and saw there were a lot of women who were in the market buying men’s bikes as well.”
Thompson says that Specialized noticed that prospective female customers believed that the men’s bikes were higher performance, while the women’s options left some things on the table. “Some women were saying, I want the Tarmac because it’s lighter and stiffer, or I want the Stumpjumper because the suspension is better, or the specs are different. We had to think: are we serving women better with the women’s products we have?”
Those who have followed its history will be aware that Specialized is not a brand to make decisions based on assumptions, or without meticulous research to back up its choices. The same principle applied when considering the way forward for the brand’s women-specific bike offerings. In order to decide the next steps, they turned to looking at hard, concrete evidence and data.
In 2012 Specialized acquired Retül, some of the most technically advanced bike fitting and product matching technology available. Since then, Specialized has been able to amass an enormous amount of data, using a huge range of rider measurements, to inform its decisions on product development.
“From around 28,000 fits from men and women globally and a lot of professional athletes, we started digging in,” says Thompson. “We found that the reality was actually a bigger difference between any given men than there were between men and women in general. We realised we were onto something and thought about how we could make one platform that’s better than before, and serves all of these riders better.”
The ‘Beyond Gender’ philosophy was launched by Specialized in 2019, accompanied with an extensive white paper which outlined the research and data-driven decisions that had gone into making the choice to gradually phase out its women-specific models. According to this anthropometric review, Specialized’s research found that one of the biggest variables between male and female cyclists was the width and positioning of the saddle, discovering that this part of the bike can make the biggest difference to each person’s comfort on the bike, rather than fully gender-specific geometry.
In the same report, Specialized also analysed sit bone measurements and found that, on average, the majority of women require 155mm width saddles, while men require 143mm. This led the American company to – rather than having women-specific bikes – spec its models with multiple saddle widths across the size range, with wider saddles on the smaller sizes, making it easier for retailers to swap them if needed.
Specialized also started to offer more inclusive sizing for all models, with a much broader range of frame sizes and componentry for its customers to choose from. Thompson explains that largely the feedback from customers to this was positive, with competitive and professional riders being especially happy with the new protocol.
“Some of the professional riders were actually secretly riding a Tarmac painted as an Amira,” admits Thompson. “Almost universally, racers, performance-wise, wanted the men’s bike to begin with, so I think the switch for them was even easier than some customers or riders who were buying products and really attached to the names [of the previous women-specific Specialized models].”
There is an argument that offering women-specific products can make female cyclists more comfortable shopping for bikes since there is a particular area dedicated to them. Both Thompson and his colleague, Ashley Sult (a senior product developer at Specialized) strongly refute this based on the feedback they have received from customers.
“I think the reality is that women could feel like women’s sections that were in bike shops were gratuitous and it was kind of demeaning, just saying we have some bikes for you in the corner in the back,” says Thompson. “I think the industry’s attempt to something special for women really came across wrong and almost universally, women seemed to appreciate the fact that now everything was for them.”
“I think there’s a bike shop culture that also comes into play,” adds Sult. “It was easier for the bike shop culture and the staff to just take every woman who came into the shop directly to the women’s section, when maybe it wasn’t necessarily even going to be appropriate. It was really powerful to eliminate that.”
Thompson is quick to point out that making the move to the ‘Beyond Gender’ philosophy has been beneficial across the board, not just for female riders. He notes that the traditional models of women’s city or urban bikes have curved or slanted top tubes, but often male riders can find this comfortable too, while women can find straight top tubes more suited to them as well.
“We had women’s bikes with a step-through top tube and there were guys that really liked that too,” says Thompson. “Then there were women who were like, ‘I’m okay with this horizontal bar,’ so then we just made them gender neutral and that spoke to all people and more people. I think men have benefited from a lot of this insight. It is an interesting byproduct.”
In the wider industry, some key competitors to Specialized still offer women-specific models. The argument for this is often that a woman’s proportion of lower body to upper body strength is greater than that of a man’s. This means data on strength differences are used to tailor the stiffness and compliance of frames to meet a woman’s power demands, without sacrificing the strength and durability of the frame. Sult explains she sees a clear fault in this logic: “You can’t tell anything about a rider based just on their bike size – that’s true both within genders and between genders. Me riding a 52cm frame doesn’t say anything about how I pedal a bike or where I’m stronger than someone else comparatively,” she says. “On Team SD Worx, we have a lot of women who ride 52cm frames and they’re really different riders. So the idea that you can make assumptions about a rider based on their frame size feels wrong.”
Thompson points out that women-specific brands often offer products that are marketed as for women, but actually don’t greatly differ from the men’s version. “I think it’s more cultivated to create an emotional response, rather than claiming the product is different in a lot of cases,” he says. “I think it ends up being somewhat patronising saying that someone is smaller so they are not as strong and we’re going to make this a little less powerful, or something like that. The feedback that we heard, by and large, is that women want the same and the real thing. There’s a tonne of power in the women’s community, and I think we can create that as a brand within Specialized without having a separate brand or separate product.”
With shared platforms among bike models as well as shoes and helmets, Thompson and Sult explain that female professional riders are now involved in the testing and development of all key high-performance road and gravel products that Specialized produces across the board. “Now we have non-gendered bikes, everybody is testing them and giving their feedback and insights. Instead of working with the pro women’s team on just the Amira, they are part of the Tarmac development now as well,” says Thompson. “Everything just morphed together and we suddenly had more insights and feedback on a collective product rather than separately.”
Thompson points to Demi Vollering of Team SD Worx, winner of Strade Bianche, Amstel Gold Race, La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège this season alone, as a key tester for Specialized products, offering feedback early in development processes for new bike models. When it comes to the testing of prototype Specialized shoes, Sult explains that it is a similar story. “I take feedback from every pro rider and write it in enormously long emails to the rest of my team to make sure that all voices are heard,” she says. “We happen to support more men’s teams than we do women’s teams but this doesn’t diminish the voice of the women’s teams at all. I’m really keyed in on making sure that they are happy and we’re meeting their needs as professional riders because I really do think that if we’re making the pro happy then that’s just going to make the average consumer happy. The pros are super users.”
Specialized’s ethos is clear: its products are designed for each individual rider without making a difference where there simply doesn’t need to be one. When users call for particular products to be made for a specific gender or anatomy, then Specialized is prepared to invest heavily in that particular area. One clear example of this is in the extensive research and development they have put into making saddles in recent years to try to solve the issues that many women had been suffering from when it came to saddle discomfort.
“We haven’t just gone away from women’s products or women’s insights unilaterally,” says Thompson. “Where there is a difference, we will make a different product and where there is not a difference, we don’t make one up. So saddles are an area where we have seen very different anatomical things and solutions for that. Our Power saddle came out of a women’s issue, and then the Mimic saddle with the different densities of foam came from that as well. We are inspired daily by unique challenges that men and women have. What we sometimes find, though, is that the solution ends up working well for a lot of people. The Power saddle ended up being liked by men as well, so everybody can benefit. But we are still absolutely willing to make women’s products if we find and there is a difference and a demand that we need to cater to.”
What shines through from speaking to both Thompson and Sult is that Specialized is a company which is constantly challenging itself to make better products. This comes from being extremely data-driven, with Retül’s bike-fitting processes proving to be key in decision making and development within the company. The data that backs up Specialized’s ‘Beyond Gender’ philosophy makes a convincing argument that there are differences which need to be accounted for across humankind, rather than just between men and women. Specialized’s current off erings reflect that, without needing to put labels on things where they aren’t really required.
“The reality is when we had the women’s Amira, for example, there were three models, then we had a Tarmac, and there were six models. Now, the entire platform is developed with women and men in mind,” says Thompson. “We have top-to-bottom offerings that women can choose from, so we feel like we’re serving women better, and maybe more authentically.”