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How do women's bikes differ from men's styles?

Experts say that women don't necessarily need to buy a female-specific mountain bike, which are usually referred to as WSD designs. Many women ride unisex bikes with no problems, and taller women may find women's mountain bikes too cramped. In addition, most of the top-rated mountain bikes come in multiple sizes, which makes it easier for women to find a good fit.

However, there can be advantages to choosing a women's mountain bike. These bikes have a specific geometry that reflects a woman's shorter torso and arms and lower center of gravity. Most have saddles designed to be more comfortable for a woman's body, and female-specific grips accommodate smaller hands. Women's mountain bikes are also a good choice for smaller women who may have trouble getting a good fit on a unisex bike. The best way to determine if you need a women's mountain bike is to visit a bike shop for a fitting. Unfortunately, few reviewers test women's mountain bikes, especially the latest 2011 models.

For beginners on a budget, the Specialized Myka HT (MSRP: $420) is a good value. It is a basic hardtail mountain bike, so the bike doesn't have any suspension in the rear. The aluminum frame is outfitted with linear-pull V brakes, a SRAM X-4 rear derailleur, a SR Suntour fork and female-specific saddle and grips. The frame is covered by a limited lifetime warranty.

BikeRadar.com gives the Specialized Myka HT an excellent review, saying it is a great starting point for new riders. "The Myka is a decent entry route into the world of off-road riding, with a quality frame that's ripe for upgrading," says Jenn Hopkins. Testers say it's a good fit for petite women -- four frame sizes are available -- since the top tube is shorter than that of most regular mountain bikes. V brakes don't offer the best stopping power, but it is hard to find disc brakes at this price range.

Specialized also gets high marks for the Myka FSR Comp (MSRP: $1,550), which is recommended for women ready to graduate from a beginner's bike. The Myka FSR Comp is a full-suspension mountain bike, so it has travel over the front and rear wheels. The RockShox Tora Le Femme fork has 4 inches of travel with a lockout so you can fine-tune the suspension for climbing. Other components include Tektro Draco hydraulic disc brakes, a Shimano SLX front derailleur, Shimano Alivio rear derailleur and shifters, RLX rims and Specialized stock tires. Three frame sizes are available with a limited lifetime warranty.

Reviewers have yet to test the new 2011 model, but last year's model earned high ratings from BikeRadar.com and a nod from Bicycling magazine. BikeRadar.com says the Specialized Myka FSR Comp is a great first full-suspension bike for women, thanks to its female-specific suspension that offers better response for lighter riders. Bicycling magazine praises the variety of female-specific components for creating a ride that inspires confidence in new riders. The Independent, a U.K.-based newspaper, selects the Specialized Myka FSR Comp as one of the 50 best bikes of the year. The editors here also think it's a great fit for new women riders, and their testers say the Myka FSR Comp is comfortable enough for marathon rides. 

For serious riders, reviews point to the GT Sensor 2.0 GTw (MSRP: $2,670). This full-suspension bike has an aluminum frame with 4.75 inches of rear-wheel travel. It is stocked mainly with Shimano SLX components, in addition to a Rockshox Recon Gold fork and Avid Elixir 3 disc brakes.

Women's Adventure magazine is one of the few sources that conducts a group test of women's mountain bikes, and the 2010 GT GTW Sensor 2.0 takes the top spot. Although the site hasn't reviewed the 2011 model, many of its most praised features have remained the same from last year's model. Testers appreciate the upright riding position, which offers plenty of stability and comfort while still providing enough aggressiveness to attack the trail. "Testers loved the lightweight aluminum frame; the cushy suspension anchored by a new easy-to-maintain pivot system GT introduced this year; and all 120 mm of rear-wheel travel, which more than one tester appreciated on tough trails," the editors write.

BikeRadar.com reviews the men's version, the GT Sensor 2.0 (MSRP: $2,670). In terms of components, the two bikes are nearly identical, although the GTw version has female-specific frame sizes. Guy Kesteven praises the Fox Float RP rear shock for providing a stable, bump-smoothing ride. "The back end copes with big stuff better than you'd expect of a 120mm-travel (4.7in) bike," he says. The GT Sensor 2.0 is also a capable climber for a full-suspension bike. Most mountain bikes don't get very high ratings for their stock tires, but BikeRadar.com says the Maxxis Aspen tires are excellent for fast riding. However, Kesteven is disappointed in the Recon Gold fork, which fails to hold up to rocky terrain; he recommends upgrading if your budget allows. 

The best all-around mountain bike, the Trek Fuel EX 8, also comes in a women's version, the Trek Fuel EX 8 WSD (MSRP: $2,470). This bike sports Trek's Alpha Red aluminum frame, a Shimano SLX drivetrain, Avid Elixir 5 hydraulic disc brakes and a women's specific saddle. Four women's sizes are available, and Trek's frames come with a limited lifetime warranty.

Although we haven't seen any reviews of the 2011 women's model, the non-WSD version earns a number of recommendations, so the Trek Fuel EX 8 WSD is certainly worth a look for serious riders. Reviewers rave about the suspension and handling, which helps the Trek mountain bike power comfortably over a variety of terrain.

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