There is huge chunk of womenfolk that are under 5’5”. I am one of those at 5’1”. In my opinion, under 5’5” is when it gets to be a pain in the ass to find a frame that fits. I mean really fits. Not just something you can live with, but something that doesn’t make your back sore, and you can stand over with both feet on the ground without the top tube going into no-mans-land (or should I say sometimes-a-select-man’s-land?).
For people in that height range I want to sing the praises of bikes with 650c wheels. I rode the smallest 700c frames I could find for years, but because of how big the wheels are compared to the frame they turn like a mac truck. I am tempted to put a “beware wide turns” on the rear of my remaining 700c bike. On the other hand, my 650c wheel bikes are so wonderfully responsive. I can actually stand over my bike comfortably, and don’t have to stand on my tiptoes to keep the top-tube from invading my private places. Also, because the frame doesn’t have to compensate for big wheels, my top half feels less uncomfortably stretched out. Plus toe-overlap, when you make a turn and your toe scrapes the wheel, a common occurrence with scrunched up frames with normal sized wheels, is gone from my life. There was a time I’d learned to live with it, but I am telling you: there is a better life for the fronts of your shoes.
So where do you start? Luckily there are a few thoughtful companies out there that make production bikes/frames built specifically for 650c wheels. In my searches for bikes these are some of the frames/companies that I’ve come across that I think are great.
Fixed Gear / Track
The Fuji Classic is a great track bike with a classic look that comes in 43cm and 46cm sizes, both with 650c wheels. I have a 43cm that I love (although I bought it used with the older style graphics; it made a trip to the powdercoater before it ever hit the road).
IRO also has a great 650c-based fixed gear frame, the Heidi/HD. The HD only comes in 46cm, but this would still work for a lot of gals.
Felt was the best modern “roadie” bike that I found in 43cm. They even have multiple builds, which is rare with such a small size (I have the ZW75 from a few years ago which is what I am riding in the top picture). I heard the designer had two shorties for daughters and decided it was silly that his line didn’t have any bikes they could ride, so they created some really great small bikes.
Fuji also has some great small road bikes.
Surly Long Haul Trucker is the best that I found for a good small touring bike frame. They don’t come with 650c wheels, but all LHT’s 54cm or less come with 26′ inch wheels. These have the benefits of small wheels, but with a wider width for a comfortable long ass ride with gear.
That’s great and all, but…
I know what you’re thinking. “650c wheels?!!??? My 700s are just fine thank you!” Trust me, I said it too. I thought I would never go to 650c no matter how much smarter people tried to convince me. I had all the excuses. I don’t want to have to be scrounging at shops for some weird tube size. In reality I can’t think of one bike store I have been to recently that didn’t carry 650c tubes. They are becoming more and more available, partly due to more people realizing that 650 wheels are the best for small frames and partly thanks to the short-lived trend of fixed-gear bikes with the smaller 650 up front for tricks. Either way I am not going to argue. If you are off on a ride, make sure you have a tube or a patch kit because the option of borrowing a tube from someone is pretty non-existent, but really you should have one anyway to avoid being “that guy”. Some also avoid smaller wheels because they have heard or would guess they roll slower. Well, in practice, this is crap for two reasons; one, you can just change the gearing on your bike to compensate for that, and two, being smaller they are generally lighter and have less rotating weight.
Are you already riding 650c bikes? Be sure to post a photo of you and your bike in the comments, and tell us how you like it.