21 May 2016

The Long And Short Of Women's Bikes: Terry

Smaller and cuter, preferably in pink.

I can remember when that was a pretty fair summation of bicycles and other sports equipment made for women.  It was assumed that girls wouldn't pedal, swim, run, climb or whatever as hard or as long as men did--and, most likely, would do so in the (possibly grudging) company of a husband, boyfriend or other male in her life.   Thus, she wanted to look good, or at least cute, by his side--or so the thinking of manufacturers and marketers seemed to be.  

Most bike manufacturers offered "ladies'" versions of one or two models in their lineups.  At first glance, they seemed the same as their men's counterparts, except for the dropped top tube on the frame.  This makes a "ladies'" bike less stiff and stable than its male peer, though how much less is a matter of debate.

1898 Cygnet "Swan" 

Anyway, some bike makers seemed to use this trait as an excuse for making sluggish machines with imprecise handling.  Granted, a bike with less torsional stiffness will not respond as quickly or efficiently to a rider's pedal strokes.  Still, there have been any number of diamond-frame (a.k.a. "men's") bikes with relatively slack angles and long wheelbases that nonetheless offered a sprightly ride.  So, it seemed disingenous--at least to me--to, in essence, say that someone who buys a women's bike shouldn't expect much.

Mind you, for most of my life I wasn't interested in having a really nice women's bike.  I did own a couple of inexpensive women's bikes that I got for little or nothing and  used as commuters and "beaters".  But on such bikes, which I didn't ride long distances, I wasn't as concerened with performance as I was on my "good" bikes.  If it fit well enough (which wasn't always to say "well"), or could be made to do so for little or no money, I was happy.

Perhaps it was working in bike shops and for American Youth Hostels, and thus having the opportunity to meet discerning female riders and try a number of bikes, that made me aware of what I've described.  Also, even though I was of average height for a male (which makes me taller than 90% of other women), I have a few abnormalities, namely somewhat longer-than-average legs and considerably shorter-than-average arms for a man (or even a woman) of my height.  

So, while I had little trouble finding a bike that was the "right" size (i.e., height or seat tube length) for me, it wasn't until I got a custom frame that I would ride something that truly fit me.  For years, I rode bikes with 55 or 56 cm (depending on whether they were measured center-to-center or center-to-top) seat tubes--and top tubes of the same length, or longer.  That meant riding stems with short extensions--sometimes as little as 8 cm--which made racing bikes handle (at least for me) like shopping carts.

Even though I had a harder time than most other men I knew in obtaining a good fit, I knew the situation was much worse for most women, a few of whom I rode with. For example, Tammy, who was about 8 cm (a little more than three inches) taller than me, had shorter arms and smaller hands than mine!

During the past couple of decades, various bike companies have tried equally varying methods of tailoring their offerings to women, particularly those who are more petite than the likes of Tammy or me.  Some tweak their geometries to make shorter top tubes; others have tried varying the shapes of both traditional diamond as well as mixte and step-through frames to accomodate the proportions of smaller women.  A few have even offered bikes with smaller wheels.  For extremely small women (and men) this could make sense; after all, it's hard to build a bike with 700 C wheels on which someone who's less than five feet tall can clear the frame while standing.

Perhaps one of the most interesting solutions was tried by one of the first bike-makers to really try to re-configure women's bikes.  From about thirty to about twenty years ago, I would see one of those bikes--usually ridden by someone on a club ride--during one of my weekend road rides.    You've probably seen at least one:

Terry road bicycle, circa 1990

From 1985 until 1994, Terry Bicycles offered road bikes with 700C rear and 24 inch front wheels.  Their quality was actually quite good:  During the first few years they were made in Japan.  I am guessing that Panasonic or Bridgestone made them, as their lugwork and finishes, as well as other details, looked much like those of bikes from those companies, or companies (like Schwinn and Bianchi) that had bikes made for them by those companies.  Likewise, the details on later models, which were made in Taiwan, lead me to believe they were made by Giant, who also made bikes for Schwinn and other companies.

I have never tried one of those Terry bikes with the small front wheels.  The accounts I heard about them varied:  Some women said that their Terrys were the first bikes that felt "right" to them, while others thought the bikes' handling was "weird" or unresponsive.  There were claims--which I suspect were exaggerated-- that the front wheel slowed the bike down, as was the inconvenience of having to carry more than one spare inner tube on a ride (or tire on a long tour).

In time, I saw fewer and fewer of those early Terry bikes.  Ironically, one of the last people I saw riding one was a man:  a very short (for a man, anyway) Latino.  These days, those bikes can be found relatively inexpensively on eBay and in other venues.


  1. In marketing jargon, "Shrink it and pink it".

    One might also mention little stickers with pictures of flowers. I one time saw a set of tools intended for a woman managing a household on her own, and everything had little flowers all over it. Didn't know rather to laugh or cry.

    I also saw a furniture and house moving company in NYC in the late 60's run by a bunch of tough looking woman. They called themselves "The Mother Truckers". The was nothing pink in sight.


  2. Leo--"Shrink it and pink it." That sounds like marketing-ese, all right.

    I would have loved to have seen "The Mother Truckers." I remember when L'eggs pantyhose came into the market during the late '60's. They had a fleet of delivery trucks emblazoned with their logos, and all of the drivers were female. I saw one who looked as if she wouldn't wear a pair of L'eggs--or any other pair of pantyhose, or a skirt or dress--if her life depended on it!

  3. My wife bought a Terry a few years ago, with its 2 tyre sizes and a better fit than any other production bike she tried. i believe that particular model is still in production, but hard to find. i believe Panasonic had a similar bike- maybe built in the same factory. i think the bike's handling seems a bit twitchy due to the wheel size and angles involved, but she loves that bike.

  4. Mike--Some women swear by those Terrys. If she likes it, well, she should ride it.

    I wouldn't be surprised if Panasonic had a similar bike, as it seems likely they built bikes for Terry.

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