Ladies' Frames – elegant solution to a problem or blot on the progress of equality for women?

There are a million different types of bikes out there, but one division splits many of those bikes in to two distinct groups – the provision of ladies' and gents' frames.

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Isn't this interesting – you don't get ladies' and gents' canoes, or cars, or sailing boats, so why the distinction? What is the history behind it? And what are the implications today and in the future.

So first the history, it's important because the existence of ladies' frames is almost entirely down to historical prejudice, fashion and misogynism dating back over 100 years.

A History Lesson

The history of the bicycle is long and its effect on society cannot be overstated. 200 years ago most people – especially in the countryside (where most lived) never travelled more than few miles from home. People married near neighbours, the longest trip was to the nearest market and the idea of travelling 50 miles was as much an event as for us to fly across the world. Stagecoaches were slow, uncomfortable, dangerous and expensive and something few could use. Leisure horses (as opposed to 'working') were a luxury item of the rich.

To this scenario came the revolution of the railways. Suddenly even relatively poor people could travel – even if that travel, for most, was rare.

But this huge revolution was overshadowed by the introduction of practical bicycles that many could afford. Suddenly if you wanted to travel 50 miles in a day – you could... Not only that, but unlike the railways you could travel when and where you wanted and at effectively zero cost. Want to visit a sweetheart 20 miles away? No problem at all, and you could be back for tea. Need to travel 10 miles to get to work that otherwise you couldn't do? No problem, an hour each way and you were done. Need to get to school 5 miles away? Again no problem and so education became available for many that simply couldn't have reached it before. At a stroke the 'common man' was almost infinitely mobile in the country – the crushing limitations of how far you could walk in a day were swept away and social networks, job mobility, even (and quite importantly) genetic and cultural mixing was possible throughout the land. It could easily be argued that this bicycling revolution was more important to the development of mankind in the UK than the coming of the railways – and yet this massive change is now largely forgotten.

But note one thing – I use the words 'mankind' and 'common man' advisedly – because this revolution initially only applied to men – women stayed in their tiny radius of travel essentially unchanged – the world (and men) had to come to them.

Why so?

There were several reasons why the bicycle was a 'men-only' device. Certainly the idea of women taking vigorous exercise was frowned upon in polite society and the idea of them taking part in sport of any kind totally beyond the pale. It took the dawn of the new century and the Edwardian era to begin the emancipation of women to the point where they could compete in the Olympics, play amateur (and even professional) sports like tennis and be seen to 'sweat'!

The one exception to this was the sport of horseriding. Why women managed to slip past this one is a bit of a mystery, but perhaps the practicalities of being able to move without a carriage and indulge in that most fundamental sport of the ruling classes – hunting – tipped the balance. But there was a caveat. These women could ride, but only if they adopted a side-saddle style – the idea of a woman straddling her horse, and so inevitably exposing those legs normally covered by voluminous skirts was unthinkable. Of course side-saddle wasn't as good, as fast, as safe or even as comfortable as a 'man's' riding position, but there was no alternative – a woman in trousers was scandalous. If we imagine the furore over Muslim women and their attire in current times you will understand the power of social norms of the time.

Outside of the landed gentry, women 'sweated' – in fields, in factories, down mines, but still were seen to be too fragile for 'sport' – I assume 'irony' wasn't in common parlance in those days;-) And in those working classes, 'sport' as a leisure activity was something few of either sex could indulge in. And yet here too women were excluded from cycling and the main reason was the impossibility of riding a cycle wearing a full skirt. This led to some extremely bizarre designs of tricycle – especially tandem trikes (so the man could be in charge...).

The Ladies being looked after...
Two things changed this – the introduction of chain drive (circa 1870) made it possible to cut-down a frame so that it could accommodate a skirt - something impossible with 'Ordinaries' (sometimes known as Penny-farthings) or other cycle designs. The second and most controversial was that some women – tired of corsetry and volumous skirts decided that 'bloomers' – or large loose trousers were the answer.

Now again we see the bicycle as a revolutionary act because the sheer desirability of cycling attracted some women (and this late Victorian/early Edwardian period was an age when some women of means began to be seriously adventurous) to become increasingly independent. How could men possibly be so mobile whilst women could not? But to ride a bicycle you needed to discard your skirts. How important was this? Well there's a very good case to be made that the rise of the suffragette movement, of the generation of (generally upper-class) women who really did things was as least partly accelerated by the shift in attitudes, attire and expectation of women that cycling brought. Of course polite society was appalled

extracts from an 1896 newspaper
"...these loose women are pedalling along the path of destruction". And "...Doctors warned that the unusual physical exertion, combined with the perilous lack of corsetry, would damage the feminine organs of matrimonial necessity and shake them loose..."

But sadly such adventurous attitudes were restricted to a minority – the huge majority of women would still refuse to wear trousers and at almost the same time a solution to the conundrum came to market. The advent of the chain-driven cycle meant that bike frame could be 'dropped' and thus a lady could retain her skirt and still demurely ride a bicycle. Of course the resultant cycle would be heavier and less stable, require covers for the rear wheel and overall be inferior to a gentlemens' cycle but at least it allowed women to ride a bicycle and gain the freedom that it offered. The parallel with women being forced to ride a horse 'side-saddle' is striking.

So just in case the point has been missed – ladies' frames are a product of fashion and social restrictions imposed on women at the turn of 20th century over 100 years ago and yet they are still very much with us.

Why not.

The conventional bicycle frame is based on the form of a main triangle with a separate rear triangle to support the wheel. As any engineer will tell you, a triangle is one of the strongest forms known and placing two triangles back-to-back so that one supports the other is stronger still. Just look at an old metal bridge and see the criss-crossed girders – all forming triangles to show what a fundamental engineering form it is.

Now look at a Lady's frame...

In order to clear your volumous skirts the horisontal bar that ties the whole frame to the rear triangle has to go. Now if you simply hacksawed out the top-tube of a gentleman's frame and got on it, the bike would just fold in two... I doesn't work.

So a Ladies' frame has to be engineered in quite a different way to stop the handlebars folding up to meet the saddle - but there are many solutions to the problem.

The first and most common is rather than eliminate the top-tube you angle it downwards so that the (self-explanitory) step-over height is reduced. The lower down the top-tube joins the seat-tube the better the clearance, but also the weaker the frame as the forces transferred from the rear-triangle continually try to fold the bike in half. So let's compromise it and just bring it half way down. If you look at the result the seat-tube is totally unsupported for its length above the lowered top-tube. The rear-triangle is trying to bend that tube, and you can imagine that the forces involved with a heavy rider, a loaded tourer or over bumps are high. The only way to stop that tube from folding is to make it thicker and heavier. But even then the tube (unless it's VERY thick) will bend and spring every time a load is applied in a way that a gentleman's frame doesn't allow. So the frame is heavier but less stable in the vertical plane.

A Typical Ladies Bike

It's also less resistant to twisting. Hold a broomstick in two hands and ask someone to twist it out of your grip. If your hands are close together the other person will find it very easy. If your hands are further apart it's much more difficult. A lady's frame is exactly the same. The seat tube is supported by the down-tube and the 'dropped' top-tube with the two close together. On a gentleman's frame the points of support are much further apart, and the top-tube is doubly supported by the triangulated rear-triangle with the seat-stays meeting at the top – a lady's frame has no support at this point at all.

To counter this the only answer is to make the seat-tube, down-tube and dropped top-tube stronger – and that means heavier. BUT no matter what you do (this side of box girders) the frame will always have more flex when you try to twist the frame – which of course you do every time you pedal, and doubly so if you are standing on the pedals and pulling the bars!

There are two other common ways of making a lady's frame. One is to use not two, but one, much larger diameter tube to join the head-tube to the pedals. You see a lot of these (sometimes with a very short supporting tube as in the example below) and they give the lowest step-over of all. Some even curve down to increase this further which compounds the crime of cutting the frame triangle with putting the single tube at the wrong angle for maximum strength! This large diameter tube is designed to better resist the twisting and bending of the frame, but in the end it still has to do it without any support and so must 'spring'.

The last type of frame is the 'Mixte' design. This is rather more clever and replaces the conventional dropped top-tube with two thinner tubes that run continuously down and past either side of the seat-tube to form part of the rear triangle – a far more satisfactory design – except that these thin tubes, although they offer some vertical support are very poor at resisting twist.

In the final analysis nothing you can do with a conventional frame will disguise the weakness produced when you slice a triangle apart. The result will be heavier and weaker, the lower the top-tube the weaker it'll be.

So what are the consequences in the real world?

If you are pottering down to the shops, cycling with the kids along a cyclepath or just a bit of gentle leisure cycling you'll be just fine. The limitations are going to show when you take that bike out and do more serious stuff.

Many years ago I tried a lady's frame designed by Orbit cycles (who make all our touring frames). It used a large diameter single tube design and I thought it could be an option for our business. If felt fine and then I turned up a hill, and as I was in the wrong gear had to 'honk' – the whole frame whipped one way and back in a single movement that nearly threw me off... That single tube may have looked tough enough but no. The bike was already 5 lbs heavier than the BB Specials and needed a lot more meat in that tube.

The other major worry is the effect on the resonance frequency of the frame. All frames – because they all flex to a certain extent – will have a frequency where they begin to shake and that shake becomes worse and worse – the dreaded 'shimmy' where the bike wobbles more and more at a certain frequency. The more weight you put on the more likely this shimmy is to develop, but the stiffer the frame the higher the speed this shimmy starts and the smaller its amplitude. A frame which is heavily compromised in stiffness will develop this shimmy earlier and it will be more severe to the point of losing control. And the circumstance most likely to provoke this is coming down a steep hill at high speed and carrying a touring load – it's something that happens often without warning and can result in total loss of control...

Now before I get letters, let me say that there are some beautifully designed and built ladies' frames out there that have travelled many a mile of cycletour – but they are generally expensive, frequently carrying lighter women and in the end ALL are compromised. This is why you will never see any serious competition bike using a lady's frame.

So why on Earth are they still around?

When my little girl was 4 year-old I bought her her first bike. It was, of course, pink. But looking back I also realise that it was, unlike the bikes I had bought for my boys at the same age, a lady's frame with a dropped top-tube. And I now also realise that whereas my 4-year-old sons threw their legs over the saddle, Rosie 'stepped-through' her new bike. Inadvertently I was perpetuating the tradition that girls simply step-through onto their bike and boys don't – shame on me... At 8 she got he second bike – little basket, you know the thing... Then at 11 she got her first proper touring bike, and I was shocked to see she didn't know how to get on it!

And that is the problem. Many, many women have spent their whole lives just stepping onto their bike and when faced with what I can only call a 'proper' bike they are at a loss. I've had several customers view our BB Specials with dismay when they first see them and struggle to get aboard and now I sympathise with them. They are victims of a 100 year-old conspiracy to keep women 'in-their-place' – the product of which is that they have been given second-best for a very long time and never learnt how to ride a real bike. And, in the end, it's not difficult. Women are more flexible than men, and generally have longer legs for a given height so if anything it's men than need the ladies' frames! The single most important thing to remember is to put the brakes on and lean on the bike – then it isn't going anywhere – then just kick that leg over the saddle. You'll never look back I promise...

So... Who needs them?

The problem is in the name – ladies' or women's frames. What they are are a good option for people who through physical problems or sheer lack of confidence cannot put their leg high enough to get it over a saddle. For those people, both men and women they are obviously a convenient and widely available alternative and that is why at Breton Bikes we do stock half-a-dozen step-through frames. We've chosen the Dawes Sonorum cycles. These use a quality Aluminium frame with large diameter tubes to give the required stiffness, and the top-tube is still quite high. Normally we will provide the standard frame version of the same bike for those riding along so there is continuity in tyres and the like. Make no mistake, they are nice bikes that will cope with gentle touring – but they are heavier and less stable than the full-frame version and even heavier than the BB Specials we use for most touring customers.

However all is not lost as there is another way to lower the top-tube to give something you can put your foot over, though not as low as a 'proper' step-through. On our smaller BB Specials we've gone for a 'compact' frame design where the top-tube slopes considerably but meets the seat stays of the rear triangle to retain the strength of a double-triangle.This makes for an immensely strong and light frame with a lower stand-over height.

Other Options?

There are other ways to get a relatively low stand over height but most rely on the extra clearance offered by small wheels. Cycles like the Bike Friday which uses a large, straight main tube, and the space-framed Moulton's have a fairly low stand-over height, but the small wheels need suspension to make them less harsh to ride and some unconventional components to get reasonable gearing. This non-standard approach isn't ideal for cycletouring in particular where you need to ride something simple, light and easy to repair.

The other interesting option is the flexibility offered by monocoque frames made of composites like carbon-fibre. These have so much stiffness built in, and by laying up different fibres in different orientations almost any shape can be made with stiffness to spare. The snags are that currently such designs are hideously expensive and vulnerable to damage such as deep scratches which can then cause the frame to fail.

At a more mainstream level the use of forming techniques on large-diameter Aluminium frame tubes does mean that by orientating the oval tubes in the correct angle that some stiffness can be recovered – this is what our Dawes Sonoran ladies' bikes use. It's better, but still a compromise.

So in conclusion...

If you've been riding ladies' frames all your life then to move over to a proper bike frame seems daunting and unnatural. But very soon, unless you have some physical problem, you'll find it second nature and you will benefit from riding a much better bike in every respect.