Welcome to Further Details, a series dedicated to ubiquitous but overlooked elements hidden on your favorite products. This week: a gender-based contrast more than a century old.
Growing up, I always found it odd how different boys’ and girls’ bikes were. Mostly because I slid off the seat a few times trying to jump homemade ramps, and that little tube of padding on my BMX-style ride didn’t offer much protection for the family jewels. At those moments, I wished my bike had a step-through frame like the ones some of the girls in the neighborhood rode, rather than a crossbar.
This difference is reflected in pop culture, too, as bicycle scenes in everything from The Sound of Music to The Wedding Crashers showcase very different sets of wheels for men and women. Recently, I put out some feelers to learn why. The responses I got from male and female sources across the bicycling spectrum were very much in agreement. The reason, it turns out, originates with... fashion.
“The step-through feature is a relic of the past when female attire consisted of either skirts or dresses — no pants, and certainly no cycling shorts!” explains Patricia Johnson, the avid cyclist who runs Pedal Lovers, an online resource for all things bike-related. “The construction allows women to mount the bike without getting their skirts tangled up.”
Eric Krzystofiak, general manager of two Chicagoland locations of the Wheel & Sprocket bike shops, adds some thoughts about the bike’s sociopolitical role and modern bike terminology.
“Ironically, bicycles are freedom machines and always have been,” he points out. “The bicycle helped spark the women’s movement, which led to women wearing bloomers. Now the top tube bikes are called unisex. Bikes with step-through frames are trending more unisex as it relates to bike-share bicycles. It’s easier to get on a step-through frame when there is a rack or load on the back of the bicycle.”
The always-colorful Andrew Laws, a cycle blogger and former editor of the bike news site VeloBalls.com, chips in with his trademark Brit-speak and an insightful way to look at modern bikes.
“Now everyone gets on their bikes in much the same way and no ‘serious’ cyclist would head out for a bimble while wearing a frock,” he opines. “To spot the difference between ladies and gents bikes these days, you’ll have to look a lot closer. An anatomically sympathetic seat has a far more positive impact on enjoyment of cycling than a lowered crossbar ever did.”
Of course, if we have indeed progressed from these sexist designations, no one told the internet. A basic Google search of “mens bikes” and “womens bikes” turned up the following “popular products."
You probably don’t need us to tell you, but ride what you want, people. Just ride often, ride well and above all, ride safe.