Back in 2005, bike messenger Natalie Ramsland noticed many Portland women riding all wrong—not that it was their fault. The average woman in the US is about five-foot-four, built for a rare extra-small bike frame.
“It robs you of a lot of your power,” Ramsland says of an ill-fitting bike. “It makes you think that you’re not quite as strong as you actually are.”
So she launched Sweetpea Bicycles, a frame shop where she focuses on building bikes for women. Her Northeast Portland business is thriving, as are those of two other highly specialized female gearheads. And yes, they can totally build you your dream bike.
Ramsland is the first to admit that her bike selection lacks razzle-dazzle. That’s because she builds each bike like a custom tailor, with one rider’s body in mind—leg-to-pedal ratio, stance, hand size, etc.
Sweetpea’s custom-build clients are 90 percent female (“It can be a bit of a difficult conversation with a woman to talk about her body,” Ramsland says of why women seek her out), drawn to models with such names as “The Little Black Dress” (light touring) and “Trouble Maker’ (with a custom carbon frame and Enve fork).
In 2009 Jude Gerace opened Sugar Wheel Works on North Williams Avenue just as new rim and hub technology pushed demand for custom wheels beyond the racing set. Gerace helps everyone from mountain bikers to all-weather commuters.
“The wheels change what’s possible with your bike,” she says. “It’s like changing your shoes—the more stable you feel, the more power you can put into your turn.”
Gerace says she’s Portland’s only wheel woman to date, and that comes with challenges. “Sometimes you threaten people just by knowing stuff,” she says. “I’ve worked hard not to make it the focal point of my work, while still enjoying being a woman.”
Started in 2013, Leah Benson’s Gladys Bikes is a full-service shop. But the real gem here is the “saddle library,” a lendable inventory of seats that customers can try out till they find just the right fit.
“Having a saddle that feels like it’s murdering you isn’t exactly going to inspire you to get out and ride,” Benson says. “Everyone’s body is so different.”
Gladys Bikes offers regular female-friendly classes in basic maintenance and programs like a “Cross Curious” club, aimed at getting women into the local cyclocross racing scene, as well as bike fittings and semicustom builds from Sweetpea’s Ramsland.