Riding the short bike.
July 28, 2007 12:36 PM   Subscribe

I may be in the market for a bike in the next few years. I'm 19 and 4'8" and I do not want some cupcake little girl's bike from Target (which is basically what my last one was way back in 8th grade). What specs should I be looking for in women's bikes to accomodate me?

I would prefer to get this thing used, but I'm doubtful as to how easy it will be to find a frame that fits me in an older, non-mountain sort of bike (I live in Chicago, so I want something made for roads, not terrain.) I'd be using it for trips to the library/grocery store/around the neighboring areas. Some of these neighboring areas are somewhat high-crime, and it is a college campus, so the less flashy, the less likely it is to be stolen.

Basically, I'd just like to have in mind what size I should be looking for, and what kinds of extras or adjustments might be necessary on top of the basic bike. If this is going to be as hard as I think it will be to find, I'd like to keep an eye out in case anything cheap and suitable came up on craigslist/classifieds/campus postings.

If anybody has specific personal recommendations as to models or brands that work well for short people, that'd be great too.
posted by rhoticity to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Riding position is important. So you may want to consider a hybrid, which is a road bike that has flat mountain bike style handlebars, if you don't want to be leaned over on the grips all of the time. Another thing you may end up thinking about getting is a seat shock. This can increase your riding comfort a lot.

Find a good local bike shop that carries a good range of bikes. If you end up spending $300 at a reputable shop, you'll get a quality bike and they will make sure it fits you. It shouldn't be hard to find a good "townie" (aka a bike just made for cruising around town) bike that will work for you in that range. Once you get an actual quality bike, istead of the Target/WalMart specials, you'll understand why people are willing to pay the extra money.
posted by azpenguin at 12:51 PM on July 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm short (4'11") and I ride a Trek 7500fx, which is a good city bike (and a hybrid as azpenguin mentions). I can't recall the frame size right now and I'm too lazy to get dressed + go to the garage. But any bike dealer will be able to tell you your size. If you're going to buy used, go to a bike shop first and get "fitted," then shop around the classifieds. I actually got mine new for a decent price at an annual bike sale in Milwaukee (every April), which might benefit you because a lot of the smaller frames don't sell well.

There are various adjustments that can be made once the frame size is determined. The seatpost can be raised/lowered, the saddle can be moved forward/back, and the handlebars can also be moved forward/backward by swapping out the stem. (Bike anatomy)
posted by desjardins at 12:56 PM on July 28, 2007

Well if you are going to buy used, you are going to need to find out the right size that will fit you. I don't know how standardized the different manufactures are but one good way would be to get yourself to a good bike shop and find out what sizes work best for you. There you can take some test drives and get some price points that you should compare against the used prices that you see in CL et al.
posted by mmascolino at 1:01 PM on July 28, 2007

I meant to say in my second paragraph that the frame size isn't necessarily the final determiner of whether or not a bike will work. The general rule of thumb is that you should be able to straddle the top bar with your feet flat on the ground and have an inch or two between the bar and your privates. It's going to be an uncomfortable ride if you can't straddle it standing, especially since in the city you'll be stopping a lot. However, if you can do that, then the other adjustments I mentioned will fine-tune the fit.
posted by desjardins at 1:01 PM on July 28, 2007

And as far as bike theft goes: besides the obvious advice of good locks, you can always make your bike unattractive with stickers, paint, etc.
posted by desjardins at 1:03 PM on July 28, 2007

2nd Trek bikes. Even they're so-called 'youth' bikes are good bikes, can be adjusted etc. and don't look cupcakey. Even if it's not what you get, they'd give you something to compare off of.
posted by kch at 1:04 PM on July 28, 2007

I'm not sure what to say about the proper fit, other than to echo the suggestion to get fitted at a good bike shop (and actually to establish a relationship with a local bike shop).

Actually, I do have a suggestion that I just thought of! Not sure how much time or inclination you have, but check out West Town Bikes - http://westtownbikes.org/ - they offer "Build Your Own Bike" workshops and I bet they would help you find parts to put together something that fits your frame really well. (er, no pun intended)

I live in Chicago too and primarily get around on my bike. My dad used to be a bike mechanic, so he put together a cross type bike for me to use around the city (beer runs, errands, commuting), and one that I won't be heart broken if it gets stolen/beat up by the crazy motorists. I really like this because it allows me to leave my bike overnight at the el stop or something without spending the whole evening worrying about it. Also, come by Critical Mass and ride with us, it’s the best thing to do on two wheels in the city! And watch out for buses…one pushed me into a parked car a while ago. Stupid CTA..
posted by gleea at 1:13 PM on July 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm 5'3" and my bike is a Marin with a 15" frame. From what I could tell while I was shopping, some companies make adult bikes with 13" or smaller frames, but some don't. (desjardins is right, though, about frame size not being everything.) It looks like folding bikes are more adjustable for shorter people - like these, which look awesome but are OMG expensive.

I see Chicago has a bike co-op, so you might try buying from there. No telling what they'll have on any given day, but if you find something good, it'll be cheap. Maybe try for a vintage-y old one in a little boy size, which would be likely to be both decently made and non-cupcakeish?

Extras for riding around the city: Lights, so cars can see you at night, are good to have. They can be had for cheap, no problem. You'll want a rack if you'll be carrying groceries and stuff; from there, you can either rig up a milk crate with a bungee cord or buy bags/a basket/whatever to attach to it. (I've also got fenders; those are arguably nonessential, but they sure keep a lot of dirt off my back.)
posted by clavicle at 1:15 PM on July 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

Proper bike fit is about much more than just the clearance between your crotch and the top-tube. A big thing that people overlook is the length of the top tube vs the length of their torso.

The longer the top tube, the more you have to bend forward, and the more of your weight you have to carry on your arms/pecs. This can be exhausting on even moderate rides, like holding yourself in a partial sit-up. Elevating the bars and bringing them closer with a tall stem with shorter than usual forward extension can help with this, but only to a degree. Smaller wheels allows for a frame with a shorter top tube, but there are other approaches designers can take as well, though I will say, the two shortest dedicated cyclists I knew were happiest once they were on bikes designed around smaller wheels.

I think a lot of hybrids use mountain bike frames, which often have a longer than usual top-tube to provide a longer wheelbase for stability, so choosing one may only make the problem worse.
posted by Good Brain at 1:33 PM on July 28, 2007

Sheldon Brown has a good essay about bike fit that you ought to read. Especially if you're buying from a bike store that will fit it and tune it responsibly, a used bike will save you a huge amount of money. Don't worry about type/style/brand, etc. -- the only important thing about a bike is whether you like it enough to ride around on it -- no matter how silly the reasons -- so keep looking until you find one that makes you feel that way.
posted by gum at 4:19 PM on July 28, 2007

Best answer: >a college campus, so the less flashy, the less likely it is to be stolen.

No matter how crappy, a bike left in Hyde Park *will* get stolen. I went through four pieces of junk when I was in grad school. All were stolen or destroyed by theft attempts.

Buy whatever is cheap and don't get too attached. Or buy expensive but make sure it is covered by your insurance. Either way, it will be gone in a year.
posted by mrbugsentry at 6:39 PM on July 28, 2007

just from a point of view of bikes:
- dont buy second hand
- keep riding bikes until you are happy one feels comforatble
- buy from a shop where they are approachable and knowledgable
posted by edtut at 7:59 PM on July 28, 2007

Chicago Cycling Club (www.chicagocyclingclub.org) or Chicagoland Bicycle Federation (biketraffic.org) also may be of help. Sometimes bike clubs' websites have ads or links where you can buy a good used vehicle, plus specs on height, tube length, etc.

If you could afford it, I'd recommend a bike custom made by Georgena Terry, who's been designing women's bikes for 20-plus years. I don't know what Chicago bike shops carry her line (I'm in Texas). Her website also has posts from buyers and sellers of used Terry bikes. You might try there (www.terrybicycles.com/trade/index.html). Also, she has the most amazingly comfortable saddles!

Whatever you do, take Good Brain's advice regarding length of the top tube -- definitely get a bike where you're comfortable in that stretch from saddle to handlebars. The first guy I bought a bike from didn't measure that; I dumped that bike after a year because I was constantly aching. When I was fitted for a Trek by a former racer, she took incredibly precise measurements -- 15 years later, I'm still riding that Trek because it's so comfortable (although I lust after a Terry bike).
posted by Smalltown Girl at 8:10 PM on July 28, 2007

I can't address your question with too many specifics, because I just don't know, but I will offer my standard advice for smaller riders..

Weight is much more important for small people than large. You need to be able to manhandle the thing - up and down stairs, out of traffic at a stop light, and etc. Unfortunately, it means more money (and believe me, I understand financial constraints), but it will make you a more able and comfortable cyclist - you don't have to feel like the bike is some enormous burden to move around.

On the bright side, and something worth keeping in back of mind, you don't have to spend money (or weight) on extra durability/reliability.
posted by Chuckles at 10:41 PM on July 28, 2007

Nthing the recommendation to visit a reputable bike shop, and just spend some time test riding bikes and looking at the bikes in the store.

I was recently in the market for a commuter bike and ended up buying a Trek 7.3 FX, a model which I hadn't known about but caught my eye once in the bike store (BTW I am 5' 3" and got the 15" size, after trying out the 13" and finding it cramped). Some considerations were whether it had mounts for fenders and front and back racks. The more expensive models in that line did not have front rack mounts. Previously I had tried riding a mountain bike as a commuter bike, with a milk crate attached to the back rack with bungee cords. I ended up getting rid of the milk crate because it made it hard for me to mount and dismount from the bicycle. And even outfitted with slick tires instead of the knobby mountain ones, the mountain bike just did not make a good running errands / commuting type bike for me.

Finding a bike that fits, especially used, will be hard. Back when I bought my first grown-up bike, the smallest frame I could find was 19", and it was almost too big for me. Note this was a 10-speed with drop down handlebars and a straight top tube. So that's another thing, frame size numbers will mean different things depending on the style of the bike. That said, I would keep an eye out for bicycles with women's / step-through / mixte frames. I think it more likely for there to be a used bicycle in this style that fits you than the men's frames.
posted by needled at 6:19 AM on July 29, 2007

Instead of buying big box store bikes (target, walmart etc) , get bikes from reputable bike manufacturers such as trek, giant, ironhorse. Some even have woman specific bikes with a more comfortable seats and other enhancements for a better ride

posted by radsqd at 2:55 PM on July 29, 2007

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