For a long time, the world of cycling was dominated by men. Everything from racing opportunities and professional contracts to cycling apparel and equipment was designed solely with men in mind.
The tide has finally turned with increased female participation in the sport and the emergence of more female-centric initiatives and communities across the UK and Ireland.
The cycling industry has adapted to become a more inclusive space for women designing women-specific cycling apparel and equipment.
If you’re new to cycling and wondering what to wear on your bike, here is a breakdown of some of the basics.
On the bottom, you can choose from padded waist shorts or bib shorts (the ones with braces to hold them up). You can wear regular shorts, but we highly recommend getting cycling-specific chamois shorts.
On the top, opt for a regular sweat-wicking sports top or a cycling-specific jersey. Cycling-specific jerseys tend to be longer at the back to prevent them from riding up and exposing your bare skin. They also have built-in pockets to keep everything you need within reach while you ride. They are made to be tight-fitting to reduce chafing and improve aerodynamics.
Getting a wind-proof jacket and gloves for the wind chill you get on a bike is a good idea. Depending on the weather and climate you’re cycling in, additional gear such as a waterproof jacket, booties to cover your shoes, arm warmers and leg warmers can also be handy but aren’t essential when just starting out. Finally, depending on whether you use flat pedals or clip-ins, you will want trainers or cycling cleats.
Now that’s the overview, read on for a more detailed breakdown of exactly what type of gear you should consider.
Cycling gear is different for men and women. We’re not simply talking colour-ways here with girls in pink and boys in blue jerseys. Rather, it comes down to the technical design of the clothing specific to the differences in male and female anatomy. In the past, women were forced to wear men’s cycling clothing because they had no other options. Women’s cycling kit did not exist. Way back in the day, one of women cyclists’ earliest advocates, Kittie Knox disrupted the Victorian dress-code ideals for women by cycling in men’s bloomers—much more practical than a long skirt! Nowadays, brands have developed gender specific ranges that differ in five key areas:
Women’s jerseys have a more curved shape, wider chest area, and a narrower waist than men’s. Likewise, women’s shorts have narrower waistbands that taper upwards from the hip.
Women’s cycling shorts tend to be a little shorter at the thigh than men’s but this can vary depending on the model and the range.
Women’s sizes tend to be smaller than men’s. However, sizes can vary per brand, so taking your own body measurements and comparing them to the brand-specific size chart is always a good idea.
The shape and style of the chamois (pronounced shammy) pad is the main difference between women’s and men’s shorts. To put it bluntly, men and women have dramatically different genital anatomy. The different chamois pads have been designed to divert pressure from the specific areas of sensitivity. Women’s chamois pads tend to be wider to accommodate their wider sit bones, shorter in length, without a middle channel and with a thicker padded area.
Both men and women can wear bib shorts, although the traditional design with straight-down suspenders caused discomfort with the female anatomy, leading to more women opting for the non-bibs style.
Now, however, cycling clothing brands have designed bib shorts with suspenders that fit the shape of a female chest.
Cycling clothes for a road bike are supposed to be tight-fitting. The key is to balance being tight enough to prevent any slippage or movement of the chamois pad or jersey whilst remaining comfortable and unrestrictive. Road cycling gear is usually made from an elastic, often lyrca, fabric designed to hug your body and stretch as you move.
Mountain biking clothes tend to be a looser fit because aerodynamics is less important. However, at the same time, you don’t want gear that’s too loose that it might catch on something as you ride. Mountain bikers are constantly moving up and down in the saddle, so having clothing that moves with your body and that’s sweat-wicking is critical. Many mountain bikers wear a looser pair of shorts over their fitted chamois.
The right cycling gear that fits well and is comfortable can make or break your cycling experience. Cycling in a jersey made of the right sweat-wicking material that fits you properly—where you don’t have to worry about it riding up or snagging on anything and with pockets for easy access to snacks and equipment—will allow you to enjoy the ride more.
From a performance perspective, having the correct fitted gear ensures a smoother, more aerodynamic ride. Having the wrong cycling kit not only jeopardises your performance but also your health. An ill-fitted chamois can cause chafing, saddle sores and in severe cases, nerve damage—not something anyone wants down below. Try different shapes and styles to see which works for you, and invest in protecting your body from sweat and friction.
In the past, women’s bikes had a low, step-thru frame so they could easily mount and dismount whilst wearing long skirts and dresses. Later, bike companies marketed women’s bikes that were in fact, the same as men’s, just smaller and in “girly” colours.
Nowadays, some companies have worked to design bikes that match the average female anatomy. Generally, women tend to be shorter, with smaller torsos and hands and narrower shoulders. As such, bikes designed as women-specific account for this with smaller frames, a shorter top tube, narrower handlebars, female saddles, shorter crank arms, stem, and brake lever reach.
While these adjustments can be helpful for some women, the only real difference in men’s and women’s bikes relates to the size and fit. In reality, all bikes are unisex and can be adjusted to suit the anatomy of the individual in question. The differentiation made by companies selling men’s versus women’s is based on an average or generalisation of gender-specific anatomy. These will not fit every person.
If you are a women with longer arms than average, you might swap out for a longer stem. Likewise, if your shoulders are wider, you might opt for wider handlebars. All of these are customisations that can be made to any bike be it a women’s, men’s or unisex model.
To put it bluntly, focus less on whether the bike is marketed as a men’s or women’s model and more on whether it fits or can be adjusted to your specific anatomy.
For the same reason that chamois pads have been designed for the female anatomy, so too have female saddles. Women’s saddles are typically wider than means to accommodate for wider sit-bones and more pelvic rotation. They also tend to have a cut-out section to relieve pressure on soft tissues. However, at the end of the day, the best saddle will be whichever is the most comfortable, whether it’s women-specific or not. Most bike shops will let you test out saddles to figure out your fit.
Although shops sell both women’s and men’s helmet, helmets are actually unisex, and the most important thing is to get the right size for your head. You should fit two fingers under the strap at your chin, which should fit snugly, covering almost half of your forehead.
The better helmets will have a mechanism to tighten it at the back.
It’s important to remember that gender labels are simply a guide. Not all women are the same size and shape, and while it’s fantastic to see some of the big cycling apparel brands making women-specific clothing, their designs are ultimately based on broad generalisations about gendered body types.
The women’s cycling clothing ranges are a good place to start. You’ll quickly see how the women’s range differs in design and sizing, but the best cycling clothing will be the one that feels right for you and your body. Whether men’s or women’s, prioritise comfort and utility and find a cycling kit that matches your measurements. Consider the riding you’re going to be doing and consider getting a proper bike fit, particularly if you’re taking on longer, more intense cycling.
It’s worth investing in a good pair of shorts with a padded chamois. If you haven’t used one before when cycling, you’ll quickly realise why everyone does! The longer and more often you ride, the better quality shorts you’ll need. If you’re going to invest in one piece of women’s cycling kit, then definitely opt for the more expensive pair of shorts. Check out Castelli, POC’s and Sportful’s women’s range for bib shorts with female-specific adaptions but remember you can always try men’s bib shorts too!
Men have it easy but women usually have to remove their jersey first. Cycling in Ireland or the UK usually means you have to peel off layer after layer, which can be a real nuisance at times. Thankfully, some of the leading cycling apparel brands, Castelli, POC and Sportful have designed bib shorts with special zips, buttons and super stretchy suspenders to allow women to pee while keeping their layers on. If you really don’t feel comfortable going for a “wild pee”, it’s a good idea to plan ahead and schedule a toilet and coffee stop at a café.
Nope. Go commando all the way. Wearing underwear creates an extra layer between your skin and your chamois, and with that comes more friction and chafing!
The most common way is to use a tampon and plan for stops on your ride. This works, but it can be stressful to manage. Another great option is to use a menstrual cup. It’s great for longer rides because you can use it for longer, it holds more volume and you don’t have to worry about how to dispose of it while riding as it’s easy to clean and reusable, so it’s environmentally friendly too! How you manage period pain and discomfort while cycling comes down to understanding your body, your cycle and how you react to painkillers. It’s worth taking the time to figure out what works best for you.
If you’re just starting out or not so confident with your bike handling skills, then starting with flat pedals and trainers is a good idea. As you progress and gain more confidence on the bike or start to take on longer distances, you can switch to clip-in pedals and bike shoes. These come in two forms—road and mountain biking. If you’re learning to clip in, whether it’s on a road bike, hybrid or mountain bike, we suggest starting by installing mountain-biking pedals and using mountain-biking cleats. These are easier to get in and out of than road pedals and provide the same benefits! Top tip: practice clipping in and out on the grass so you have a soft landing.