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