Most people assume that crossbars were dropped on women’s bikes to make it possible to ride with dresses. However, the primary reason was more scandalous than that! This post traces the design history of bikes with dropped crossbars, and reveals the surprising recent change in the gendered association of the dropped crossbar.
I have previously written for Average Joe Cyclist about how the bicycle became a symbol for women’s emancipation. In that post, I said that the sport of cycling opened to women in about 1885, with the invention of the “safety” bicycle. The safety quickly triumphed over the penny-farthing, with its distinctive oversized front wheel, because it was more efficient, more practical, more affordable, and more stable, but as women began to ride bicycles, the standard design of the safety bike (not significantly different from a modern bicycle frame, at least structurally) presented one major hurdle.
A Woman getting onto a Bike with a Crossbar Bordered on Scandal
In order to bestride and mount a bicycle, a lady would need to part her legs over the horizontal crossbar of the frame. The notion that a lady’s legs might be suggested to be separable was risqué beyond imagining, and the impropriety of it all bordered on scandal. It seems excessive in retrospect, but, around the turn of the twentieth century, it was a serious enough issue that a practical solution was devised in the form of a slight redesign of the frame for ladies’ bicycles.
Dropping the Crossbar on Women’s Bikes
A woman’s bike was expected to have a dropped, or diagonal, cross-support, rather than the horizontal one of a man’s bike, in order to mitigate the issue of the raised leg. This came with the secondary, if dubious, benefit of allowing a lady to ride more easily in a full dress.
The redesign was not without its drawbacks, however. The horizontal crossbar was significantly more stable, so a bicycle with the diagonal (or often bent) crossbar sacrificed a good deal of structural integrity in the name of propriety. This structural flaw could present a serious problem, given the flimsiness of the materials of the era. Indeed, it wasn’t unheard of for bicycle frames to be made of a variety of unlikely materials, including wood. However, there was the general consensus that a lady would never ride her bicycle as roughly as a man would, so a weaker frame wouldn’t present a practical issue.
This conceit obviously wasn’t valid. As time went on, bicycles with the dropped crossbar began to be made of stronger materials to make up for the structural failures, but this added considerable mass, thereby making them harder to ride.
Why Does a Dropped Crossbar Increase Weight?
Generally speaking, engineering is all about compromise. A well-designed bicycle needs to be strong enough to withstand the impact and torsion stresses that come with use, but it needs also to be light enough to be ridden comfortably. This balance is tricky enough in the modern era, but in the 19th century, before super-strong, ultra-light materials like carbon fiber or aluminum, it was even more difficult.
Another major principle of structural engineering is that there are usually multiple ways to achieve the same goal. Say, for instance, that you want the strongest possible bike frame. If the materials are strong enough, the shape doesn’t really matter. A solid titanium bike frame, for instance, would be all but unbreakable regardless of shape, but it wouldn’t exactly be practical.
If you build with lighter (and weaker) materials, like wood or steel, the design of the frame becomes significantly more important. The horizontal crossbar of a bicycle is well suited to spreading out and absorbing the impact and torsion stresses that the bike needs to deal with. In effect, a good design can make it possible to build a stronger bicycle with weaker materials.
The Modern Era of Bike Frame Design
With modern materials, the design choice of the crossbar is purely aesthetic for most cyclists. However, there are certain groups for whom it still makes a very real, practical difference.
The horizontal crossbar is still a more efficient design, so it’s often used in racing bikes. When designing a racing bike, even a few ounces can make a major difference. When designing a bicycle to be as light as is physically possible, the added structural integrity of the crossbar can open up avenues for engineering that the dropped crossbar would prohibit.
On the other hand, the dropped, or even omitted, crossbar design is still very much alive in the BMX and stunt bike community, since it allows one’s legs to move more freely across the frame, making a number of stunts possible that couldn’t be performed with the horizontal crossbar in the way. Stunt bikes are expected to withstand significantly harder, sharper impacts than racing bikes, so, having forgone the crossbar that would add strength to the design, stunt bikes tend to be thicker and heavier.
In some circles, these heavier bikes are seen as being more manly than the more svelte racing or road bikes, and so the gendered association of the dropped crossbar has come full circle. Where the dropped crossbar once tacitly indicated frailty and propriety, it’s now become a symbol of skill, endurance, and strength.
About our Guest Poster, Andrew McLoughlin
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