When I zipped up my mountain bike jersey earlier this year, I felt an all-too-familiar sense of disappointment. It was tight in the shoulders and too short. When I leaned over, parts of my skin on my lower back were exposed. When I raised my hands over my head, my midriff showed. The size was the same as every other shirt I’d bought from this reputable outdoor company, so it wasn’t a sizing thing. The issue was the fit and the design.
Much has been written about the woes women have when it comes to finding outdoor gear that fits and functions. So why does poor fit persist, especially when it comes to outdoor gear for women? Journalist Hannah Weinberger dug into this question in an exposé published on Medium about women’s outdoor gear for the outdoors. She writes: “When companies have made adjustments between their men’s and women’s offerings, it has often been to the detriment of female consumers, specifically when it comes to hard goods and high-performance clothing, experts say. That’s because historically, some manufacturers have conflated 'women’s gear’ with ‘gear for beginners.’”
Thankfully, this is starting to change. One company that is doing women’s mountain bike apparel right is Wild Rye, named one of the bike industry’s hottest designers by Bicycling Magazine. Several years ago, co-founders Katy Hover-Smoot and Cassie Abel bonded over the need for well-designed ski and mountain bike apparel for women—and not just for super athletes, but for women who have desk jobs and ride bikes recreationally with their friends. In response, they launched Wild Rye in 2016. Their specialties are ski base layers and mountain bike chamois and shorts. (Many mountain bikers wear spandex chamois underneath a long pair of shorts.) They mix fun prints with technical, durable materials, like the Freel bike shorts, which come in dinosaur and cactus prints with four-way-stretch, abrasion-resistant nylon. Most importantly, Wild Rye’s fit addresses the qualms women like me have been griping about for years. Their shorts are long and loose through the legs. And their Sandia jersey is long-sleeved with mesh panels for cooling. It’s a snug fit that wicks sweat, but it’s still long enough that you don’t have to worry about exposing your backside.
So how did Wild Rye dial in such a good fit? I met Hover-Smoot at her office in Squaw Valley, California, to learn more about her process. (Abel lives and works in Sun Valley, Idaho.)
“We always fit on three different women, minimum,” said Hover-Smoot.
Wild Rye’s fit models are all a size 6, but they range in height from six feet tall to five-feet-four-inches. “And they all have very different bodies,” said Hover-Smoot. “We want to make sure that if we’re making an adjustment on one of those bodies, it fits all of them.”
Designing on three different fit models is an untraditional strategy, said Hover-Smoot. But it’s made a huge difference for Wild Rye to fine-tune a fit that accommodates a wide range of sizes and body shapes, especially on materials that are harder to work with like the nylon in their bike shorts. All three models and product testers live in Lake Tahoe and are avid mountain bikers and skiers. They are not professional athletes. They’re just women that Hover-Smoot has met by living, skiing and mountain biking in the mountains.
Hover-Smoot starts by fitting the garment to the woman who is of middle height. Then she fits on the tallest of her models. Then the shortest. The whole time, she is taking photos and recording precise measurements to find a middle ground that all three women will be happy with.
Hover-Smoot never set out to be a designer. She has a PhD in art history, and teaches classes in the art department at local and regional community colleges. After she graduated, she took a break from academia to work for a major bike company in the Bay Area, which led her to start Wild Rye. Her office is one room in the back corner of a real estate building, across the street from Squaw Valley Ski Resort. She has a view of the ski area’s iconic peaks, though with single-pane windows, her space gets cold in the middle of winter. Behind her desk, a wall of plastic bins store the company’s inventory. Hover-Smoot ships every order.
“This is the whole operation,” said Hover-Smoot. “It’s so small. You name it, it’s an in-house job.”
Even with the extra fit models, Wild Rye’s fit doesn’t accommodate everyone. Their sizing runs from 0 to 12. Entirely self-funded, Wild Rye’s operations are limited by available cash and time. Both Abel and Hover-Smoot work second jobs, and they are currently putting all the money they make back into the company. They’d like to make clothing up to a size 18 or 20, with long and petite variations, but expanding their line by that much would increase their expenses by 50 percent, says Hover-Smoot. Abel adds that fitting a wider range of sizes is an ongoing conversation and something they’d like to do when their budget allows.
“We’re pouring everything we have into the company,” says Abel. “We’re so passionate about making this work—and getting to the point where we can accommodate every woman. Every dollar that we have goes into this thing.”
How to Dial in the Fit
When I called up Abel in Sun Valley to talk about Wild Rye, we spoke about some tips for women who are looking for mountain bike apparel that will fit them well.
First Thing Is First: The Chamois
If you are going on a mountain bike ride for longer than 45 minutes, your bum will thank you for wearing the right chamois (or chammy).
A padded layer you wear underneath your bike shorts, the chammy should be padded all the way across your pelvis bones. “Women generally have wider sit bones,” said Abel.
“Make sure you have a seat that actually fits your anatomy.”
Another crucial point of fit with chammies is the rise.
“Honestly, most women love their yoga pants because they hold them in,” says Abel. “The last thing that you want is a chammy that cuts across your lower stomach area. I personally hate it when shorts ride lower and then you have something hanging out, especially since you’re leaning forward on your bike. So we decided to go with a yoga-style band that is high-waisted.”
Abel also recommends that you not wear underwear with your chammy. “The chammy is designed to be worn against your skin,” said Abel. As such, she emphasized how important it is to invest in a quality chammy, made with antimicrobial lining, that will last. Wild Rye sources their chammy pads from a manufacturer in Italy that specializes in “bacteriostatic” material to stop bacteria from growing.
How Long Should Your Bike Shorts Be?
“Right above the knee,” said Hover-Smoot.
Abel agrees, but said that it’s also a matter of individual preference. Some of her friends wear knee pads, and want that longer length to avoid a skin gap between the knee pad and the hem of the shorts. But others want a shorter length.
“Our length hits just above the knee,” said Abel. “It’s the most asked-for fit. We polled a lot of women about what they want and we settled on this length.”
Avoiding metal sounds obvious, but a lot of women are wearing chammies that are bibs these days. And those bibs often have clasps on the backside, to allow for easy access to a drop seat for when you have to go to the bathroom. Those clasps may cause chaffing on your back, especially when you wear a backpack, says Abel.
As for jerseys, you’re going to be bent over on your bike. So find a jersey that’s loose in the shoulders and long, but not so baggy that it can’t wick the sweat away from your skin.
Some women like to wear long sleeves for the added protection when you’re riding a bike down skinny trails through the forest. “I’m personally a tank top girl,” said Abel. “But long sleeves help you avoid getting scratches from bushes and trees.”
Always, Always Wear a Helmet
And if you crash, make sure you replace your helmet, says Abel, who used to work for Smith Optics, which makes some of the best helmets in mountain biking.
“You should have a helmet that’s not more than three to five years old, because the plastic becomes brittle,” said Abel. “Your head is the most important piece of your body. A helmet that becomes brittle isn’t going to perform the way it’s supposed to.”