We rode six of the most intriguing women's trail bikes up and down the mountains of Nevada and California. We pushed these bikes to the limits to find the key ride characteristics and more subtle intricacies of each bicycle. Most of the test bikes feature shocks tuned for lighter riders. To be honest, though, we've ridden more innovative and exciting unisex models. Companies offer significantly fewer women's-specific models. This leaves ladies thinking they have fewer options. The takeaway? Don't pigeonhole yourself. Women's bikes can be a viable option, but certainly not the only one. If you'd like to survey a wider variety of bikes, check out our full trail bike rundown.
The Best Trail Mountain Bikes for Women of 2018
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Best Women's Specific Trail Bike
Juliana Joplin S Carbon C 2018
Read Review: Juliana Joplin S Carbon C 2018
Top Pick For The 27.5 Crowd
Liv Pique SX 1 2018
Read Review: Yeti SB5 Beti XT/SLX 2018
Women's Versus Unisex Bikes
You can ride any mountain bike out there. The majority of bikes are considered unisex models. That said, the mountain bike population skews male. As a result, the forks and rear shocks on unisex bikes are tuned to accommodate the weight of the average male rider. Juliana/Santa Cruz found that the average male weighs about 30 pounds more than a woman of similar height, according to their own study and US anthropometric data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
When a 130-pound rider gets on a bike tuned for a 160-pound rider, she or he will struggle to find an air pressure that allows the suspension to deliver nice small bump compliance and deep-stroke support. For example, our hardest-charging tester weighs 100-pounds. In the past, she has had to run her fork with so little air that it doesn't have enough pressure to extend back to its full travel after it cycles.
Luckily, more women are out on the trails than ever before. As a result, the industry is trying to figure out how to make bikes that work for women.
Women's mountain bikes are part fluff and part substance, with a steady march towards the latter. It's also a large dose of marketing, but that's not such a bad thing. People are more likely to enter a sport where they see themselves represented. Showing more women on bikes — fixing bikes, shredding bikes — makes it obvious that this is a space that women are welcome to occupy. Jen Audia, US Marketing Manager for Liv, puts it this way, providing women's bikes helps ladies look up at trail strewn mountainsides and say, "this is my treehouse."
Brass tacks. Almost all women's bikes have women specific contact points — i.e., women's saddles for wider sit bones, shorter cranks for shorter riders, grips for smaller hands, and narrower handlebars for narrower shoulders. It's nice to have a more female-friendly bike out of the box, but the saddles are still subpar stock versions, shorter cranks seem unnecessary, handlebars are easy to cut down and grips are inexpensive. These are nice but fluffy, usually pink or purple fluff.
Looking for more bang for your buck on your women's specific mountain bike? Take a look at the chart below to see how each bike in our test stands up to the competition in Price vs. Overall Performance. Award winners are highlighted by blue dots, and the lower and further right a bike lands, the better value it represents.
It's All About Small Sizes and Shock Tunes
The most helpful steps a manufacturer can take to get a smaller, lighter rider on the right bike is to make more bikes in small frame sizes and with lighter shock tunes. (The same goes for the bigger, heavier riders. They need big frames and burly tunes.) Right now, women's specific brands are one of the easiest places to find softer tunes. Our women testers range from 5'3 to 5'5 and 100 to 135 pounds. They all found it easier to dial in shock pressures on these women's mountain bikes than the unisex models that they own. This allowed for better small bump compliance and use of the full sock stroke.
Aside from women's specific brands (e.g., Juliana and Liv) and big brands that make women's bikes (e.g., Specialized), a few other companies consciously make space for smaller riders. Trek makes women's bikes but only offers different contact points. The shock tunes are the same for women and men. Ibis offers a Roxy Tune for lighter riders on the Mojo 3, but only on that bike. Pivot offers an excellent array of small and extra small frames but no women's specific shock tuning. This brings us to, the rub.
There aren't as many women's mountain bikes as there are unisex bikes. To enjoy a wider range of bike innovation as a smaller rider, you're still going to have to deal with shocks that are incorrectly tuned for you. In addition, not all manufacturers offer extra small frames. Some 29ers aren't available in smaller sizes.
Women's Specific Geometry
While women's mountain bikes used to offer unique geometry, most companies shifted to providing unisex frame geometry with women's specific components. Santa Cruz, Juliana's parent company, and Juliana use the same frames with different names, colorways, and components. (Note, a men's small is exactly the same as a women's small. A small is small. A medium is a medium, and so forth.) One holdout from this overall trend is Liv/Giant.
Liv's website and US Marketing Manager, Jen Audia, explain that a global body dimension database shows that women have longer legs, shorter torsos, a lower center of gravity, and more leg strength than arm strength when compared to men. (In contrast, Juliana's website notes that the CDC data shows no discernable body pattern difference between the sexes.) As a result, Liv makes bikes with shorter reaches, more upright cockpits, and higher bottom brackets. They claim this is to reduce back and neck pressure caused by stretching over a longer cockpit and to decrease pedal strikes, reasoning that women have lower centers of gravity and won't benefit as much from a lowered bottom bracket.
To us, this looks like regressive geometry, resisting the trend of longer, lower, slacker bikes that we've become accustomed to. It is important to note that the 2018 Pique SX is slacker than its 2017 predecessor. They made this change in response to user feedback. This is a good sign.
That said, the Liv Pique SX cockpit is pretty darn comfortable, and the bike performs well. Still, all the women we know like the planted and stable feel of a lower bottom bracket.
Analysis and Test Results
We've put high-end enduro, trail bikes, and hardtails through their paces. Recently we took a good hard look at consumer direct MTB options. Now we're checking out three women's mountain bikes. We got our hands on some of the most compelling women's bikes and put them through the paces. We rode these for two summers and rated them on fun-factory (worth 35%), their climbing and descending skills (25% each), and the quality of their build kit (15%). See the summary of results in the table below. Keep reading to find out how they perform out on the trail.
How We Test
We rounded up a team of four bike-obsessed women to ride these bikes for six weeks. Testers took the bikes on 10-mile rides and ran them through benchmarking time trials to get quantifiable speed data. Then we compared our riding experiences against the hard-data to bring a new perspective to our opinions.
Mountain biking is usually pretty fun. Some bikes are more fun than others. Only the Joplin and Beti SB5 elevate the experience with their performance. The Norco Optic 650b and Pique SX provide more normal fun-levels. This metric count for 35% of the final scoring.
The Juliana Joplin came out gunning for the top spot in the party category. The bike shows up to every occasion with a hard-working attitude and handles pressure with grace. It's also ready to let loose at times. The Joplin handles well at all speeds and is confident on a huge range of terrain. The balanced geometry allows the rider to get aggressive on the descents. However, given its trail bike geometry and travel numbers, the Joplin does have an obvious limit on steeper and technical terrain. This bike blends excellent climbing with its downhill prowess. Well-rounded is fun.
The Yeti Beti 5 is a fun bike in its own right. The SB5 has a bit more travel and more relaxed geometry than the Joplin. As a result, this bike is quite fun on burlier and steeper rock gardens. The slacker geometry and additional length of this bike do detract from its fun-factor a bit as it prefers life on the ground.
The Liv Pique SX doesn't handle speed or the steeps as well as the Joplin or the Yeti Beti. When rolling along at a comfortable clip, the Pique SX likes to bounce and hop around the trail. Instead of charging as hard as you can, the Liv likes a playful pilot who prefers to boost off obstacles at lower speeds. The Pique SX is more beginner friendly, with a cockpit setup that makes the bike exceptionally easy to steer and slap around. It also has plus, high-end, suspension. Just don't try to ride it too fast.
The Juliana Joplin won the fun competition with a 10 out of 10. The Beti SB5 comes in just a couple steps below with an 8 out of 10. The Liv Pique SX earns an 8 out of 10 while the Norco Optic scored a meek 6 out of 10 for average fun levels.
Trail bikes are built to balance downhill skills with climbing abilities. These bikes do their jobs, but the Joplin offers the most balanced, aggressive, and confident performance on the descents. The Beti SB5 is respectable and handles small bumps beautifully, but doesn't react as well deep in the travel. The Liv Pique SX is a noble descender, but it is limited by awkward geometry.
The Joplin's wagon wheels dialed geometry and fantastic suspension design afford you the confidence to push the speed limit. Despite having only 110mm of rear wheel travel, this bike stands up to surprisingly burly lines. The Virtual Pivot Point (VPP) suspension design sacrifices a bit of small bump compliance for deep stroke support. The stock 120mm Fox Float 34 was nice, but boosting it up to 130mm could make for a meaner front end. While the Maxxis Ardent rear tire is weak, the Maxxis Minion DHF 2.3-inch front tire is aggressive and very confident.
The Beti SB5 has the angles to get rad. While the geometry is more aggressive than the other women's bikes, the suspension design prefers motoring over small-mid size chunder. The Switch Infinity system is nice and calm on chatter and braking bumps. That said, this bike doesn't handle big impacts as well as the VPP design on the Juliana. Still, this bike has the angles and the suspension to feel respectably confident.
The Pique SX picked up more downhill focused design features in 2018. The 140mm RockShox Pike RC fork and a burly shock. Still, the funky geometry can't back up the suspension and this heavily detracts from downhill confidence.
The Optic 650b is not a confident descender. The steeper angles really kill downhill performance. This bike is capable enough zipping down flowy strips of singletrack. That said, it is very easily overwhelmed in rougher terrain. Smart line choice is critical for this bike.
Downhill Handling and Cornering
The Joplin has the most consistent handling in the test. The aggressive front tire and moderate geometry help this bike respond quickly. Riders should be confident that this bike will respond to minimal rider input and the front tire will back it up. Despite the larger wheels, this bike dips into turns effectively. The shorter wheelbase is definitely beneficial and it pulls through corners nicely. Pumping through rolls and dips in the trails is fun. Handling can get a little funky when you push this bike beyond its limits. If you're charging a little too hard, you're going to need to reign it in quickly to avoid disaster.
The SB5 offers respectable handling despite the poor tire specification. The Maxxis Ardent tires handle well enough on true hardpack or rock. That said, they are miserable in loose or loose over hard conditions. One false move and or a heavy application of the brake and you will lose control in a hurry. If we look beyond the tire specification, the Beti SB5 operates pretty well at speed. Given the slacker geometry, it takes a small dose of speed to get this bike to feel comfortable. Still, the 650b wheels and work through corners nicely. A combination of Maxxis Minion DHF/DHRII tires would go a long way to drastically improving handling.
Handling is sharp enough aboard the Pique to feel skittish at times. Low-speed handling remains excellent, but once you start going faster, the twitchy handling becomes apparent. The Optic C2 handles sharply enough but doesn't offer much in the way of personality. In addition, the 800mm bars are far too wide for a small frame. Most ladies should opt for a 740-760mm bar.
We scored the Joplin an 8 of 10 on the descents for its ready and willing nature. The Pique SX and Beti SB5 both record 7 out of 10 for their differing approaches. The Yeti is better for higher speeds, but the Liv is a good option for less aggressive riders. The cross-country focused Norco Optic scored a 6 out of 10 for its one-dimensional experience.
None of these nimble machines are piggish on the climbs. All of them have an efficient feel when headed uphill.
The Joplin matches its descending prowess with its climbing proficiency. The comfortable cockpit makes climbing quite pleasant. Standing or seated this bike has an efficient feel with little energy lost into the suspension. No need to use the climb switch on this red rocket. Given its larger, 29-inch wheels, and poor engagement on the hub, the Juliana is not a zippy accelerator. Once you've got momentum, it's a straightforward matter to keep it going. The 30:50-tooth climbing gear is breezy. When you're tired, you can relax in the Eagle ring. When you feel like hammering, shift up a ring or two. Uphill handling is respectable. The Maxxis Crossmark rear tire loses traction instantly in loose conditions. As a result, you need to be very careful on steep sandy pitches. This bike tracks well over technical terrain and the wagon wheels really pay dividends over roots and rocks. When you stall out, that lack of acceleration comes into play again. Your best play is to just keep the momentum moving at all costs.
The Norco climbs very well. The geometry that detracts from downhill performance lends itself to swift uphill abilities. The cross-country inspiration really shines on the climb. The Eagle 12-speed drivetrain paired with the low 27 lb 3 oz weight minimizes rider effort. The four-bar suspension design provides nice amounts of traction with the climb switch wide open. When you use the climb switch, climbing efficiency improves drastically. The upright geometry allows this bike to steer very well on tight uphill maneuvers. The Optic is a great option for the rider who loves climbing and doesn't want to push it on the downhill.
The Yeti Beti SB5 is a solid climber in its own right. Despite poor traction from the poor tire choice, this bike is effective. The Switch Infinity design is super active and provides excellent traction on uneven surfaces. Active suspension can feel inefficient as there is a lot of movement under pedaling loads. While this is true, having an active suspension design does a better job of keeping the rear wheel glued to the ground. When you use the climb switch, it largely mutes out this slightly inefficient feel. The Beti climbs very well and while we love Eagle drivetrains, the 46-tooth climbing gear on the Shimano XT/SLX drivetrain works just fine. You can scale any climb no matter how steep. When you get out of the saddle to put the power down, pay attention to make sure you have plenty of weight over the rear tire. If you ignore the rear end, the tire will spin out far too easily.
The Juliana Joplin and the Norco Optic were the best climbers in the test. They both recorded a 9 out of 10 with their different approaches. The Norco is lighter and more upright making for supreme efficiency. The Juliana rolls over obstacles very well and has an excellent suspension design for climbing. The Beti SB5 posted an 8 out of 10 while the Liv recorded a 7 out of 10.
The Liv and Juliana builds both give you bang for your buck. We found the women's tuning on all three bikes easier to dial in for our female testers than the stiffer tunes on unisex bikes.
At $3,700 the Pique SX 1 is the least expensive bike in the test and has the best components by far. It also has the only fully aluminum frame in the test, which likely frees up some budget for all the high-end parts. The bike doesn't suffer from an overwhelming lack of stiffness or extra heft. A 140mm RockShox Pike RC fork and RockShox Super Deluxe RCT rear shock offer a plush suspension system. The much-lauded SRAM GX Eagle 12-speed drivetrain speaks for itself. Hub engagement on the Giant XC-1 Disc wheels isn't stellar, and we could use rims wider than 23mm. The 2.4/2.3-inch Maxxis High Roller tires front and rear are fine. SRAM Guide RS brakes with 180mm rotors are excellent.
The Beti SB5 XT/SLX carries a $4799 price tag. While this is expensive, the build kit is largely solid. Aside from our huge tire complaint, the build kit was solid. The Fox Transfer dropper post works very well and the Shimano SLX brakes are pretty darn good for an inexpensive brake. The 150mm Fox 34 Performance is confident and smooth. The Shimano XT drivetrain can't match the range of the Eagle offerings, that said, it shifts better. The 11-speed drivetrain is crisper and a little easier to work with less mechanically-gifted folks.
The Juliana Joplin retails for $4799 and ticks all of the boxes. Eagle drivetrain, Maxxis Minion DHF front tire, and Fox suspension. The SRAM Level TL brakes provide adequate stopping power. We would recommend throwing some wider rubber on this bike. A 2.5-inch Maxxis Minion DHF front tire and 2.4-inch Maxxis Minion DHR in the rear would make for an even more confident ride. In addition, you can run a lower tire pressure and enjoy some extra damping.
The Optic Women's C2 features a pretty nice build kit too. A GX Eagle drivetrain, Fox Performance Elite suspension, and SRAM Level TL brakes are a nice build. In addition, the DT 350 hubs are the best in the test. You can upgrade these hubs easily with the star ratchet upgrade to improve your engagement drastically. The Fox Performance Elite suspension is also the most adjustable out of all of the test bikes.
Finding your bike among the rows of shiny new machines can feel like a paralyzing task. There is no denying that the wrong choice can be costly. With the Juliana Joplin you can rest assured that you aren't missing out on any aspect of trail performance. A light and snappy feel will satisfy both well-trailed riders and beginners. The Yeti Beti SB5 is a versatile and well-rounded bicycle that feels excellent over small bumps. The Liv Pique SX is a bit more of a risk, as it's a bit of a puzzle to unlock its descending skills. If you're up for a unique feel or likely to keep things mellow, it could suit you well.
Our testers are bike shop mechanics, racers and lifelong lovers of all things bi-wheeled. Racing backgrounds help moderate speeds for time trails, mechanic skills help us dial in the bikes perfectly for each rider, and trail crushers have a way of sorting the wheat from the chaff. These ladies put in all the hard work to help you find your ride.
Height and Weight: 5'4" and 100lbs, prefers small frames.
Height and Weight: 5'4" and 110lbs, prefers small frames.
— Tasha Thomas, Lani Raspen, Pat Donahue