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Monday, September 30, 2019

Liv Makes a Strong Case for Women's-Specific Bikes

One morning last month in East Burke, Vermont, mechanics at Liv were polishing up a fleet of the most razzle-dazzle mountain bikes the company has ever offered. The full-carbon Pique Advanced Pro 29 that I was about to test retails for a whopping $12,300—quite a bit more than the accessibly priced models this company has become known for. It’s also, unapologetically, a women’s bike, designed from anatomical and physiological data specific to women. So before I could throw a leg over Liv’s sparkling new rig, I first sat down to hear the case for women’s-specific bike design.

A brand video laid out the evidence. Using data from PeopleSize (a global anthropometric database) and NASA, Liv has learned that women have narrower shoulders, shorter arms, and shorter crotch heights, among other differences. Those trends become more pronounced among shorter men and women, meaning that women are less likely to achieve an ideal fit on smaller-size frames built for men. Women’s muscle activity also reveals distinctive patterns: ladies activate their rectus femoris (one of the thigh’s quad muscles) more than men, so Liv’s steeper seat-tube angles put the rider in a position to favor that muscle. Because women’s ratio of lower-body to upper-body strength is higher than men’s, Liv adjusts the stiffness of its bikes accordingly, making some regions (Liv declined to disclose specifics on which ones) softer and others more rigid to compensate for women’s powerful pedal strokes.

“We build bikes from the ground up, using data points from women,” says Cassondra Spring, Liv’s global marketing communications specialist. “It’s something we’re really proud of. We think it sets us apart.” That commitment to women’s bike design seems more distinctive every year.

Back in the late 1990s, Trek rolled out the first line of bikes built using women’s-specific design (WSD). These weren’t just fitted with different saddles to accommodate women’s typically broader hips. Instead, women’s-specific geometries promised to cater to female proportions (which often mean longer legs and shorter torso lengths relative to overall height). More companies followed, until women’s bikes became a well-established category. Liv, a subsidiary of Giant, joined the party in 2008.

However, some brands never embraced the women’s-design trend. For example, Juliana may be a women’s brand, but its bikes’ geometries are identical to the men’s versions made by Santa Cruz, Juliana’s parent company. 

And in recent years, many of the cycling brands that touted women’s bike design have been, well, backpedaling. In 2018, Trek announced that it would phase out its WSD models in favor of unisex geometries. In 2020, Specialized will discontinue its women’s models, and Yeti will no longer offer its Beti line of women’s mountain bikes.

Liv, meanwhile, remains committed to women’s design. “We don’t just make a women’s bike,” says Spring. “We make a lot of them.” In fact, the $12,300 version of the Pique Advanced Pro 29 appeals to uncompromising experts seeking top technology. Many gear companies (not just bike brands) have long assumed that this kind of customer is exclusively male. But Liv is betting that women—some of them, at least—will open their wallets for a brilliant mountain bike.

Bike - Liv Pique Advanced Pro 29
(Photo: Courtesy Liv)

And yes, the Pique Advanced Pro 29 is a marvelous bike. Top-end builds come with Fox’s latest innovation, the Live Valve, which electronically and automatically adjusts the fork and shock settings to adapt to terrain changes within three milliseconds of sensing them, meaning the suspension optimization is practically immediate.

All versions of the bike (aluminum Pique 29 frames start at $2,050) overcome most—and maybe all—of the challenges associated with fitting 29-inch wheels to small and extrasmall frames. I’m five feet tall, and I’ve personally experienced those downsides: the 29ers I’ve tested felt sluggish when I accelerated, and their long wheelbase lacked agility in tight corners. But Liv racer Kaysee Armstrong (who is also petite) wanted a 29er, so the company’s designers set out to solve the conundrum of big wheels on small bikes.

“It’s really hard,” laughs Sophia Shih, Liv’s advanced engineer. She started with a computer simulation of an ideal woman-specific riding position. Then, using more computer-aided engineering, Shih tweaked the frame’s geometry and construction to preserve that ideal position on the bike.

The resulting frame has a very short rear center (the distance from the bottom bracket to the rear axle) for agility and a superstiff bottom-bracket linkage for snappy acceleration. “It was a challenge to get it stiff enough,” says Shih, who persisted in adjusting the carbon layups and frame angles until she achieved the target numbers that would yield the desired stiffness.

Then Liv worked closely with Fox to tune the Pique 29’s suspension. During a week of riding in Sedona, Arizona, a large team of female testers rode prototypes of the aluminum Pique 29 and carbon Pique Advanced Pro. They delivered their feedback to on-site engineers from Fox, who incorporated tester responses into recalculations for the forks and shocks. Consumers still have to set their own sag and rebound based on their weight and ride preferences, but the women’s-specific tune aims to optimize the bike’s performance by calibrating the suspension components to the rider’s anticipated inputs.

When it came time for me to ride the Pique Advanced Pro, the afternoon sun blazed above Vermont’s Kingdom Trails. But riding this bike felt effortless. The fit was perfect from the get-go, requiring no adjustments to the stem or cranks for me to feel at home on the extrasmall size. I appreciated the pedaling efficiency as soon as I started climbing: the bike accelerates with ego-stroking immediacy and seems to translate every watt of energy into forward propulsion. I loved its ability to zoom out of corners and thrust me up hills—quite unlike what I’ve felt on other 29ers.

As expected, the big hoops smoothed out the roots I frequently encountered while riding among Vermont’s maples. But I also loved the bike’s surprising stability on ledgy descents. With 100 millimeters of front and rear suspension, it’s built for cross-country trails and races, yet I hardly felt pummeled by the occasional ruts, drops, and rock gardens I negotiated.

So do women need a women’s-specific bike? Maybe not. Many women have achieved good fit and performance from mainline, gender-neutral bikes. But there’s nothing dumbed down about Liv’s 29er, which manages to fit an impressively wide range of women—and that hardly deserves to go out of style.

from Outside Magazine: All

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