It’s no secret that having your bike set up properly can make or break a ride. However, there are a lot of conflicting ideas out there about bike set up; women’s specific set ups and professional fitting sessions are just two of the many debated areas of bike fit. If you’re someone who is new to riding, or someone who has never paid attention to the finer details of “bike set up”, the idea can seem pretty overwhelming. So, I decided to write this post to (hopefully) simplify some of the decisions with respect to bike set up and offer my perspective as a professional female racer.
What bike set up really boils down to is quite simple: does your bike feel good? Are you comfortable? Do you feel like the bike is an extension of yourself? You might not notice a good bike set up, but a bad bike set up can be painfully obvious.
Despite what you might guess, my bike set up is not significantly different from the guys'. In fact, I'd say that my set up is a function of weight, height, and riding style (all which don't really have anything to do with gender).
There is a lot of biased information on this topic out there, but the bottom line is that every single body, male or female, is different. The best way to figure out your own set up is to ride your bike. The more you ride, the more you will notice what is comfortable and what isn’t. In the rest of this post, I’ll run you through my bike set up as a 5’7” elite female mountain bike racer to give you an idea of what women are running. Hopefully, this will help dispel some of the confusion that women face with respect to bike fit.
BIKES: Norco Revolver FS and HT, 27.5 inch wheels.
FRAME: I ride a medium, which in Norco sizing equates to about a 17” frame. I truly don’t believe that women need a women’s specific frame. I ride just as aggressively on the same trails as my male counterparts – and any fit modifications I want to make can be accomplished with componentry rather than a “women’s specific” frame. Sure, my shoulders are narrower and my hands are smaller, but that doesn't mean I need a women's frame - just that I could potentially opt for a narrower bar and smaller grips.
WHEEL SIZE: I currently ride a 27.5 inch wheel, and love it. However, different wheel sizes each have their place for specific terrain. I am not married to either wheel size and think both 27.5 and 29 make for great bikes. However, if you’re an exceptionally small rider, I would opt for the smaller wheel size. Right now, my teammates (Peter and Quinton) ride the 29" wheel size.
BAR: I ride a 720mm bar with a 6° backsweep and a gentle rise. I love it – perfect steering control and confidence descending. Plus, the backsweep puts my hands in a more comfortable position. The only difference between the guys and I here is that they may run a 740mm bar (a typical stock length for XC).
STEM: on both my FS and HT, I ride a -6°, 90mm stem. I also run it with a very low stack. This is to put me a bit lower on the front end – great for climbing aggressively on steep single track and putting my centre of gravity (COG) a bit lower. Again, no real difference between the guys' bikes and mine here.
SADDLE: I tend to like a wider saddle, however, that’s not the best for mountain biking (the seat needs to be narrow enough to move forward through your legs when descending). My favourite saddle for MTB is the WTB Silverado. I run the saddle slammed forward on the seat post (forward enough that when my pedals are at “9 and 3”, my forward knee is even with my toes) and tilted down* at about 4°. This is probably the area of greatest difference between my set up and the guys' - they tend to run their saddles at 0° tilt and a little farther back on the post.
*This is a seriously overlooked area of bike fit for women. Unlike men, we have to sit on our “soft tissues”, so having the saddle tilted slightly down can alleviate discomfort by shifting weight elsewhere.
SADDLE TO BAR DROP: my saddle to bar drop height is about 1cm. I find it gives the perfect balance of weight on the front end for climbing and low COG for descending.
CRANK LENGTH: I run a shorter crank and narrower Q factor than a lot of the guys – 170mm crank arm and 158 Q factor (I'll let you in on a secret - I have short legs).
SUSPENSION SAG: on my hardtail, I run my fork at about 15% sag. On my FS, I run my shock at 20% sag and fork at 15% sag. Again, no difference to the guys here.
TIRES AND PRESSURE: obviously, I run different tires in different conditions. However, my favourite tire right now is the Kenda Honey Badger XC Pro in 2.2 (the width). I love the high volume of the tire and the tread pattern is a great ballance of fast rolling and tacky traction. Tire pressure is dependent on rider weight, terrain, and riding style, but to give you a reference, I run 18psi in the front and 19psi in the rear when I race these high volume tires.
Hopefully my set up shows you that, often, women aren't running drastically different set ups than men. Despite some of the info out there, I would argue that set up is dependent on rider height and style - and not at all dependent on gender. And remember, the best way to find your set up is to just ride your bike!