Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Women's bikes

This is a Giant Avail Advanced 2, a very handsome road bike with a compact frame as is typical of all Giant bicycles. Its main characteristic is that it has been designed specifically for women. For me, at least, the visible signs that this is really a bike for women are so subtle as to be almost invisible. Yes, perhaps the top tube slopes just a little more than that for men’s bikes, but that could be just my initial impression.

I used to be able to recognize women’s bikes very easily, because the top tube was parallel to the down tube. The explanation parents gave me was that it made it possible for women wearing skirts to ride their bikes without having their clothes fluttering over the handlebar. They thought that it would be inappropriate. This configuration made the bike convenient and comfortable but not very fast: it was the kind of bike that would have a basket over the front wheel.
We now have entered the very treacherous territory of market segmentation, where
minimal differences in materials, construction, and components target specific requirements, demographics, economics, gender, or even national characteristics. Since we’d like to think that we are immune to marketing ploys, we should ask ourselves whether such differences really justify buying bikes that are different for women and for men.
Let’s start with the color. Do women like pastel colors more than men? If so, this preference explains the designers’ choice of colors and slightly subdued graphics. But I think that color preference is something very subjective and don’t see why all women should like such colors.
Are women’s bicycles built with different materials than men’s? No, actually, they employ exactly the same materials and construction methods. In the case of this Giant Avail Advanced 2, these materials and techniques are called Advanced-Grade Technology. This means that all of the tubes are made with optimized methods of construction, just the minimum amount of layers of carbon fiber—oriented in such a way as to resist strain in the best possible way—making certain that each of them is as light as possible and responds appropriately to the power conveyed by the pedals. The head tube and bottom bracket remain as stiff as possible, while the seat stays absorb the bumps of the road.

As for the bicycle components, The Avail Advanced 2, like the other bikes designed specifically for women, employs the same components as the men’s bikes do. These things—wheels, drivetrain, brakes, and pedals—are not gender specific.

Avail Advanced Geometry

Defy Advanced Geometry. This is the men's version.
What’s left? The only feature that makes this truly a bike for women is the frame geometry. Comparing the women’s bikes with the men’s, as can be done from the two diagrams I have downloaded from the Giant website, we see that there are indeed some differences, however small. In the men’s bikes, the top tube is generally a quarter of an inch longer, to account for the men’s torso being generally slightly longer than that of women’s. Other dimensions vary just about this little. Thus, if a woman with a slightly longer torso wanted to ride a man’s bike, she would be perfectly capable of doing so, or viceversa.
Are such dimensions insignificant? Not at all. For example, when I was fitted a couple of months ago, I discovered that even smaller changes made a huge difference in my riding.
The Avail Advanced 2 is not really a bicycle for fast and furious competitions. The manufacturer describes it as a bike designed and built for endurance, long rides, when comfort, rather than twitchiness, is an important factor.  The weight of the components is less of a factor. Even in this case, not much changes between the  top-of-the-line bike, TCR Advanced 1 W, and the Avail Advanced 2 model. The only significant difference is that the Avail has slightly longer chain stays and therefore a longer wheel base. This difference makes the bike more stable and easier to ride over longer distances.

Are all these minute differences detectable by common mortals? Perhaps. It depends on experience and expectations. More experienced riders would what riding qualities they want; less experienced riders would probably adapt to the bike. More experienced riders would expect know what to expect from their bike in certain situations—climbing hills, fast descents, fast acceleration, and so forth. Perhaps the most relevant differences in women’s and men’s cycling is that men will probably insist in learning everything by themselves. Women will be not so hesitant to ask for advice.

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