Why Have No Control Levers Been Made for Women’s Hands?

Why Have No Control Levers Been Made for Women’s Hands?

The combination of Shimano’s recent announcement of its new gravel-oriented GRX group and a witty, but insightful, while seething-with-outrage essay written by climber Melanie Hamlett for Glamour regarding how the entire world has been built for a man’s average dimensions as default, got me to thinking about an aspect of bicycle design that has nagged at me for ages.

Before I get there, I need to lay some groundwork, though, so settle in while I try to make this fun.

There’s an animated show called Archer that satirizes—on its surface—the double-naught spy genre, most specifically, the sexist, macho, action-hero-yet-dapper James Bond vein of spy movies. The title character, Sterling Archer, is educated yet clueless, thoughtful but inconsiderate and mission-oriented, but only after the effluent has hit the—you get the idea. He’s an alcoholic with ADHD, or maybe it’s the other way around, but I wouldn’t say he struggles with either. In fact, Archer satirizes mother/son relationships, senior-citizen relationships, hookup culture, workplace hostility, HR departments in general and anything else that can produce comic sexual innuendo or a just a good pun.

If there’s a funnier show being produced for television, I haven’t run across it.

One of the characters on the show is Archer’s one-time girlfriend, Lana Kane, an African American woman born to college professors who might be derisively termed a social justice warrior, at least, until she decided to go to work for a private spy agency. One of the many dimensions of her character is that she has unusually large hands, hands that have been referred to on the show as man-ish, cricket bats and steam shovels.

For that particular joke to work, it depends on the tacit understanding that with few exceptions, men’s hands are larger and stronger than a woman’s hands. It has to be true at such an obvious level that like Wile E. Coyote momentarily suspended in thin air, everyone watching knows that gravity is going to take over.

Which is why Lana Kane’s bar-fight-sized hands are hilarious. We know that—on average—women are shorter than men, have narrower waists, wider hips, more curves, higher-pitched voices, finer bones, a proportionally longer inseam, shorter torso and, yes, smaller hands.

Now let’s consider for a moment how many areas the cycling industry has produced women’s-specific products: we’ve got shorts, bib shorts, jerseys, athletic bras, saddles, shoes, eyewear, bicycle frames, hydration packs and … gloves. In each of these examples there are products currently on the market where the manufacturer has done more than the industry condescension of shrink-it-and-pink-it. They’ve designed products appropriate to a woman’s proportions. A size small road frame will differ between men and women; the woman’s frame will have a shorter top tube, a slacker head tube angle to push the front wheel out away from the rider’s feet to avoid toe overlap and will feature lighter tubing or a different fiber layup to account for the typical difference in weight.

Over the years, I’ve directed women friends to every one of those categories of products. More often than not, I’ve gotten feedback about how much their riding experience improved by having a product designed specific to their needs.

But what about control levers? Why is it that lever reach has only been adjustable for the last 10-12 years? Why is it that spring tension has rarely ever been adjustable in a way to accommodate the reduced strength inherent to a small hand?

Most of the products I mentioned above have improved a rider’s experience by improving their comfort. In some instances the improvement is significant enough to actually increase the rider’s control, which is terrific.

Exercising control over a bicycle’s direction and velocity isn’t optional; it’s truly non-negotiable. If you don’t feel in control of a bike, you’re not going to enjoy the experience of riding that bicycle, full stop.

I have a hand of average size. I can say this because when I studied piano, I had no difficulty reaching an octave, which is a prerequisite for being able to play most piano music. Even so, I prefer to adjust brake levers so that the reach from the bar to the lever is short enough that I can wrap my index fingers around the brake levers without adjusting my hand position in the drops. Reach is affected by which bar bend you use, but shallow drop “ergo” bars can increase the reach from the bar to the lever, so the position of the lever on the bar is important; the higher the lever position, the longer the reach. I make sure not to position the lever too high on the bar.

Again, I have what I can objectively assert is a hand of average size, and I must exercise some care in setting up control levers.

It’s fair to ask what could change and here are the things I’m aware of that could make a difference for riders with smaller hands:

  • Shorter lever bodies to help reduce the reach from the drop to the lever; longer lever bodies come with the added challenge of increasing overall reach to the hoods, thereby increasing the need for a short-reach bar.
  • Lever bodies with a smaller circumference, making them easier to grip with a smaller hand.
  • Adjustable return spring tension at the levers to decrease hand force necessary to brake with rim calipers.
  • Moving the brake lever pivot point higher in the body so that it is easier to brake from the hoods; the higher the pivot, the shorter the reach.
  • Shorten the reach to the small, rear lever/button on Shimano STI/Di2 bodies.

Given that I’m not an engineer, I suspect that an organization with sufficient talent and institutional will could come up with additional opportunities to make that better mouse trap. To me, though, the question isn’t the how, the what, as much as it is the why, and the why is easy: Every other innovation introduced in the last dozen years from disc brakes to better tire compounds has been done to improve the rider’s experience. Would a lever body bring more women into cycling? I don’t think it would have that kind of effect, but if we set the bar so high as that, all it really does is to confirm that the bike industry remains dedicated to women’s ridership as long as it doesn’t take too much work.


Images courtesy SRAM, Shimano, FX Networks and Flickr Creative Commons

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    1. Noah

      My girlfriend (5’0”) has a pair of the R7025 levers and loves them. They fit her hands well, the throw for shifting works for her, and I believe the levers could be adjusted even closer to the bars.

    2. Author

      It’s nice to see that Shimano has begun offering a shorter lever with a group, but the fact that it is only in 105 goes to the heart of so many women’s complaints about being condescended to. There are a lot of women who want Dura-Ace and don’t want it in pink.

  1. Lorri Lee Lown

    Patrick, there have been a number of small-reach, short-reach levers over the years. There are also bars that make it easier to reach the levers. We used to shim road levers. Now, most have reach adjustment screws. You can also adjust the reach and throw to modify the feel for any rider’s hands. The answers are out there. As a bike fitter for the past 18 years, I think we’re in a better place now than we ever were.

    1. Author

      Hi Lorri, thanks for being a part of the conversation. Let me say that I totally agree with you: fitters have way more options today than 25 years ago. However, adjusting the reach to the lever really is just one piece of the puzzle. Component manufacturers can and should do better.

  2. scott g

    STI mechanical, another issue is lever throw, awkward hand movement to shift.
    A woman rider in the club bought her new bike with Di2 & hydro discs, to address reach and hand
    strength issues.
    700c wheels are an issue for shorter riders, resulting in goofy seat angles and odd steering geometry.

    1. Author

      Had women been designing bikes from the outset, I rather suspect we’d have settled on 650B as the prevailing wheel size.

  3. Lyford

    I’m also amazed at the tiny range of available crank lengths compared to the variation in rider size. Shorter cranks in a frame with bottom bracket drop designed to match would be huge win for small riders.

    My wife is 5’0″ with short legs and small hands. I had to build up the outside of her levers to make the shift throw easier. I just replaced her 165mm compact with a 150 subcompact and she reports being much more comfortable.

  4. Robert

    Ultimately this might get solved by DI2 and disc brakes. Shorter lever pull on discs, lighter action, plus with DI2 the lever does not swing away just as you try to grab it. (could they have not ever made a textured grip? really?)

    I can never get a good grip on them as my index is shorter than even my third finger, I had to go on eBay and get longer set screws to fit into the ultegra 6800 body to increase the reach adjust. R8000 eliminated the std. M4 thread and now there is some cheap plastic coarse thread screw in there and I back to square one. (anyone help on that? what is that screw?) It shocks me that it has been so bad for so long, on such an important piece of equipment. I really don’t know what they are thinking, surely their data tells them these things don’t fit more than half the population?

    1. Author

      Like you, my ring finger is longer than my index finger; that definitely contributes to brake lever reach issues. You’ve just illustrated the problems perfectly. FWIW, the new GRX group put a textured finish on the levers so they are easier to grip as you shift. That combined with the higher pivot may be to your liking.

  5. Author

    It’s nice to hear that there are people out there who are satisfied with what Shimano and SRAM have offered; if they are satisfied, that’s terrific. Now, that said, the five bullet-point items I raised simply haven’t been addressed in any significant way, except that with GRX the pivot point for the brake lever has been moved up, but that’s not a lever specifically made for smaller hands.

  6. Mark

    I was going to rebut this with some examples. I was sure I’d heard that Terry bikes used smaller levers, but as I was looking them up, I saw that as recently as 2016, Georgena Terry herself was bemoaning the fact that there were still no smaller road brake levers. Even “junior” levers still had the same reach to the bar as others. Though one hopes that at least the lever shape (grip area?) may be designed for smaller fingers to grip them better.

    One of the commenters there made the point that just decreasing reach adds a host of other problems. Obviously, shorter reach means shorter stroke, so if you have the same mechanical advantage (pull ratio, as they like to say in the shifter world), you’ll bottom out easier.

    Decrease the mechanical advantage and though the brakes don’t bottom out as easily, they feel weaker, like using linear pull brake levers with cantilevers or sidepulls. Maybe you can rationalize that it’ll be a lighter weight rider, so they don’t need as much power, but that’s a risky thing to do.

    Run the pads closer to the rim an you’ll get more rubbing.

    So for sidepull brakes, I think most manufacturers didn’t even try making shorter reach levers just from a liability point of view.

    Maybe this can be ameliorated by the use of variable mechanical advantage (ServoWave) and discs, but again, given a short stroke, that mechanical advantage has to come on quick, and that’ll feel weird, almost notchy, like pressing on a keyboard button has a sudden break to it.

    Back to my “shorter reach means shorter stroke” comment: there might be ways to get a shorter reach and the same stroke: indented or smaller diameter bars where the levers would normally hit, or- like many flared bars are trending now- having the levers graze the sides of the bars instead. Though that may take a little getting used to.

    Finally, if a rider is mostly braking from the tops of the hoods, how does hand size relate to that? Right now, it seems that the brake lever pivot is between the second and third joint of my index finger. I can see how Shimano bringing the pivot point up would help overall (I’m not too sure whether it would be better to move it forward or back), which helps with smaller hands too. I think some consideration needs to be made for where a lever is gripped from the hoods and from the drops for its overall shape for a given hand size, but I’ve gone on long enough.

    So yea Shimano. Boo that it’s only on the top end gravel part.

  7. Lyford

    Well, there is physics to consider. You’re asking for a lever that requires less work(force x distance) as an input but doesn’t result in less work being done at the calipers. I can imagine ways around that — maybe going up in disk size? — but there’s going to be a tradeoff somewhere. It is true that smaller/lighter people require less braking power, but I suspect manufacturers would be reluctant to downsize braking systems for liability reasons if nothing else.

  8. Ron

    After trying a friend’s bike with them and being intensely impressed, this small-handed rider recently switched to a Campagnolo drivetrain for the first time. The 12-speed disc ‘brifters’ are probably the most small-hand friendly units on the market (although I haven’t tried the Shimano shifters mentioned above) and the braking is astonishing; amazingly sweet. While shifting quality is always enormously subjective, I also love the way they work and feel in that regard – a tactile sense of connection to the derailleur that is unique and very pleasant.

    1. Neil Winkelmann

      Campagnolo stands as making the most “human-hand-shaped” lever bodies. Unfortunately, the use of the smaller “inside” levers for shifting against the spring to bigger chain-rings and sprockets means the forces are higher and do require a bit more hand strength compared to Shimano. But the curvy, snug lever bodies and steeper backs of the “jesus stops” make them my favourite by far.

  9. Rob M.

    Completely agree there’s a market for these, but, having replaced my Ultegra rear shift cable 3 times, opening up these current STI mechanical levers…. hard to see how they make the bodies any more compact. Maybe this can help the market move towards electronic? Would the cost of electronic come down if everything from 105 upward no longer offered mechanical, but *did* offer sizing? I love new technology, but am not thrilled with the trend towards stuff a home mechanic is no longer able to support.

  10. Ken

    Completely agree. Just test rode a bike with the new SRAM AXS everything worked great except the level hoods are much wider than my Di2. I wear extra large, size 8 gloves and even for me it was a stretch to comfortably rest big my hands around the hoods.

  11. chup

    I also wear XL gloves and love the SRAM eTap/AXS levers. Very comfortable, easy single-finger braking bombing downhill. Maybe I got long fingers, I’m not sure how I compare to the others. I like them more than Di2 levers. They are too small too me and not as smooth as SRAM’s.

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