The UK has seen massive growth in women’s cycling in recent years. There are plenty of clubs and groups welcoming women at all levels to ride together.
At the grassroots level, British Cycling has exceeded its goal of getting one million more women on bikes by 2020, thanks in no small part to their entirely volunteer-led Breeze rides. The organisation also reports an increase of 25.5% in the number of women (influenced by British Cycling) cycling at least weekly.
However, there is still work to do. The number of women riding their bikes regularly compared to men is still disproportionately low according to recent studies by Sustrans and Cycling UK. Women also ride shorter distances and less often.
If you can't remember when you last rode a bike, it can feel quite daunting to get back in the saddle but it doesn't have to.
I’m convinced that if you don’t ride already, you’re going to love it. Here are a few things that I’ve learned through experience.
You don’t need a women’s-specific bike
The number one rule when you buy a bike? Make sure it's right for you!
In the old days, bike manufacturers would market frames with a low top-tube to women because it was assumed that they would be wearing a skirt.
Fast-forward to 2020 and the question of whether women need different bikes becomes a little more complicated. The old assumptions that women have a shorter body and longer legs are up for debate and there are always exceptions and outliers. A number of the key manufactures have done away with separate ranges for women altogether whilst others have set up whole new female dedicated brands.
I asked Ben Marvin, one of the Design Engineers over at Vitus, what the difference is between the unisex and women's bikes in their range.
'At Vitus, we offer women's options in the Mythique, Sentier, Nucleus, Razor and Zenium ranges. Although the frame geometry is the same as the unisex models, the women's bikes are available in a smaller size curve.
'We know that women generally have narrower shoulders so we fit narrower bars and a shorter stem. The shorter stem-length isn't just to do with the reach - narrow bars with a longer stem would make the steering feel twitchy on a smaller bike. We also know that a women's pelvis has a different shape to men's so we fit a women's saddle which has a different cut.'
Having said all that, it's fine if the bike you have set your heart on is a unisex model. Just make sure that the key measurements of inside leg and height are correct. If the bike fits, it's easy to fine-tune the details by swapping out things like saddles and bars.
From a personal point of view, if you buy the bike you love rather than the bike you think you're supposed to buy you'll be far more excited to take it out.
You don’t have to get saddle-sore
Cycling really shouldn't feel like a pain in the a**. If you get your saddle and shorts right, you'll find your rides will be so much more enjoyable.
Do I need to change my saddle?
If your saddle is hurting you, it's not the right one.
Women's sit-bones are, on average, further apart than men's. If you're using a men's saddle, you might want to consider changing it. A saddle made for women will be wider at the back to accommodate the wider sit-bones. There might also be a cut-out channel in the middle to alleviate pressure on sensitive areas.
Everybody has different sit bones and riding position can vary between individuals so don't be surprised if the saddle your friend swears by isn't right for you.
In addition, different styles are more suited to different kinds of riding. For example, a racing saddle might be more lightweight and less cushioned, whilst other styles are optimised to be comfortable over distance. A big, plush saddle with lots of cushioning might be great for short trips in your regular clothes, but it can lead to rubbing, chafing and general soreness if you use it for longer rides.
Counter to what common-sense might tell you if you're thinking about cycling regularly or over distances of ten miles or more, you'll be far more comfortable with a saddle that is supportive and slightly firm. Good quality, padded cycling shorts are far more effective than an overly padded saddle.
What should I look for in a pair of cycling shorts?
A decent pair of shorts will have a 'chamois' or pad that is designed specifically for the female anatomy so don't be tempted to settle for a pair of men's shorts. In addition, the cut and fit will be slightly different from the men's equivalent.
Just like with your saddle, your choice of shorts will depend on the riding you intend to do. For example, shorts intended for high-intensity road cycling will be designed to be aerodynamic and lightweight whilst mountain bike shorts are more durable. For a more detailed look at the different types of cycling shorts, check out our comprehensive guide.
You'll also need to think about whether or not you want shorts with straps (bib-shorts), or without (waist shorts). Waist shorts are great for shorter rides, especially if you're planning on stopping a while. A lot of riders prefer them because they make 'nature breaks' a lot easier.
However, over longer distances or for intense efforts, bib-shorts can feel more comfortable. The waist is generally softer and higher because it doesn't need a lot of elastic - the straps hold the shorts up. In the riding position, they're less likely to feel like they're digging in and they're not going to fall down either.
One last thing about shorts and sorry if this feels like too much information, but we really need to mention it. If you're wearing cycling shorts, please skip the undies.
Good quality cycling shorts are designed with minimal flat-lock stitching, positioned where it's not likely to chafe. If you wear pants underneath, you're adding seams and an extra layer of fabric that will rub against your skin as you pedal. Ouch.
It's easier than ever to find riding buddies
Cycling can be a great way to enjoy some 'me' time and have some thinking space. It's also an excellent way to meet people and socialise but, like with anything new, finding the starting point can feel intimidating.
Will I be too fast, too slow, do I have the right kit? We've all been beginners at some stage so we all know what it's like.
The good news is, it's never been easier to find people to ride with, whether you just want a weekly cafe ride and a chat or your long term goal is to race.
Take a look at the Let's Ride pages on the British Cycling website. There are guided rides, regular group rides and the Breeze women-only rides up and down the country. The listings are clearly marked up with all the vital info including pace, distance, bike type and even whether you can bring the kids, so it's easy to find something suitable for you.
Facebook groups are another way to find out about rides and discover like-minded people nearby. The Wiggle Facebook Group has almost 10,000 members from all over the country. It's a friendly community where you can find out about what's available in your area and get the inside scoop on what the local clubs are really like.
Cycling isn’t that scary
One of the main barriers to cycling for many people is the perception of risk. According to Cycling UK, 59% of non-cyclists in Britain feel it's too dangerous for them to cycle on the roads. However, statistics have demonstrated that per billion miles travelled, pedestrians were more likely than cyclists to be killed.
Although the prospect of sharing the roads with other vehicles can feel pretty offputting, the benefits far outweigh the risks. The NHS recommend cycling as a way to reduce the risk of chronic illnesses like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke. It can also boost your mood and keep your weight under control.
If it's been a while since you last rode on the roads, a Bikeability course will teach you practical skills and help you build your confidence. You could also check out the guidance from British Cycling on road positioning - learning how to position yourself correctly can help you to avoid hazards and stay safe.
If you're not sure about the best places to ride, take a look at the National Cycle Network. It's a UK-wide network of signed, safe and accessible routes that connect our cities, towns and countryside. You could also join a group so you can take advantage of some local knowledge. You'll have the added benefit of 'safety in numbers' - a group is much easier to spot than an individual.
Whatever you do, make sure that your bike is well-maintained so that there's less chance of an accident caused by a mechanical - the M-Check is easy to remember and can help you spot any problems early.
You should also make sure your bike and kit are appropriate to the riding conditions and meet the legal requirements of the country you're in. In the UK you need front and rear lights after dark. The Highway Code also recommends you wear a helmet, light coloured clothing and something reflective.
So we'll see you out there?
If you're still not convinced, here's how just a few of those million more women were inspired to overcome their obstacles and rediscover the simple pleasure of riding a bike.