"Woman's 100-year search for performance has ended." So claimed the brochure for Terry Precision Bicycles for Women Inc. The bikes certainly sounded good, but I had just begun my own hunt for one and was skeptical enough to doubt that it could end this quickly. I was in my first bike shop, with my first brochure, about to take my first test ride on the first general-production bicycle to address the anatomical differences between me and the guy trying to sell it to me.
I faced the hills outside City Cycle of San Francisco on a 21½-inch Terry Despatch, at that time the only production model carried by the store, which specializes in high-priced, handmade bicycles. As far as I could tell, this particular number had only a couple of things going for it: two standard wheels and the lowest price—$569—of any bicycle in the place. But once I was on it, the bike's stability, response and superb fit surprised me. I got up the first few hills easily and began tooling around, feeling very comfortable and in control.
A subsequent tour of Bay Area bike shops convinced me that the pleasure of that first test ride was the difference between riding a Terry and anything else. I tried the hottest Japanese import, the slickest American machine, the latest offerings from Italy and France—nothing was right. Time after time I was pummeled by my knees as I groped for brake levers I could barely reach.
Bicycle maker Georgena Terry was among the first to acknowledge a fact that most other bike manufacturers had long ignored: Women are not built like men. Accordingly, she based her innovative bike design on observations that are well documented in medical and anthropological journals: Women generally have longer legs, shorter torsos, shorter arms, wider pelvises, narrower shoulders and smaller hands and feet than men of the same height. Most bikes, even so-called women's (those lacking a horizontal top tube), are designed for a man's body. Because their proportions are wrong, these bikes can leave women riders in pain over long distances. For the average woman, a "correctly sized" bike (one she can straddle comfortably) will rarely fit properly overall.
At present Terry is the only manufacturer who exclusively addresses the bicycle fit requirements of female riders. Her frame sizes range from 16 to 23 inches, which will accommodate women between 4'10" and 5'10". (Standard frame sizes range from 18½ to 25 inches.) Her corresponding top tubes, which are horizontal like those on traditional men's bikes, are 1-to-1½-inches shorter than those on other frames, which is important to women who must otherwise dive to grab brakes. In addition, Terry has chosen components like handlebars, brake levers, crank arms and toe clips to fit smaller people.
Although Terry, 37, stands 5'3" and weighs 100 pounds, it was not her own riding discomfort that led to Terry Precision Bicycles for Women Inc. Possessed of what she calls "gorilla arms," she never had trouble reaching brake levers. In fact, she was perfectly happy with the Schwinn Super Sport she was riding 650 miles a month in 1981 when she first descended to her basement in Rochester, N.Y., to tinker with some tubing. She was then a project engineer at Xerox. In her spare time, she grabbed a hacksaw and an oxyacetylene torch, read a few books and—voilà!—she was a frame builder. Although she maintains that just about anybody could do it—"it's not like brain surgery or anything," she says—she did have the benefit of five years of cycling experience and a degree in mechanical engineering, which she earned from Carnegie Mellon University after she scrapped a career as a stockbroker.
She had started cycling in 1975 when she was working in the financial world. Biking was a social sport, but it also represented a certain independence to Terry, whose mobility is otherwise slightly hampered by the effects of a childhood bout with polio.
Terry's first basement-built frame was unremarkable—"poorly made," she says. Even so, it did inspire a friend to ask for one, and soon Terry had many women customers, several of whom would reel off complaints about their old bikes. "More and more women were coming to me with tales of neck, shoulder and seat pain," she says. In building frames to alleviate these problems, she started to gather knowledge that would later lead to her revolutionary line of bicycles.
For one petite female customer, she borrowed the idea of a smaller front wheel from another bike maker, Bill Boston. On her bikes with frames smaller than 20 inches, she uses a 24-inch wheel in the front and the standard 27-inch item in the back to allow for optimal maneuverability and stability and no toe-clip overlap with the front wheel. The unusual look of this arrangement has been legitimized by the presence of smaller front wheels in track racing and time trials.
In 1982, Terry left Xerox to build frames full-time. Three years later she started making bikes exclusively for women, changing the name of her business from Terry Framesets to Terry Precision Bicycles for Women. Three years ago she had three employees and marketed one model only, the Precision, a handmade sports bike that she offered in five sizes. Now, with factories in Japan and Rochester, she is offering eight models, including a mountain bike, two racing bikes, three sports bikes, and a traveling or touring bike, available in up to seven women's sizes. Prices range from approximately $460 for the lower-end production Gambit to about $1,500 for the handmade Crescendo.
While several manufacturers now imitate Terry, making "proportional bikes" or "Terry-akis," as they've been dubbed by dealers, Terry says she is "very much unconcerned" about the competition. Most major manufacturers have put out bikes with a 24-inch front wheel, but typically they are available in only a few sizes on one or two models. Properly proportioned bikes for taller women are still few and far between. Terry is flattered by her imitators and views the advent of their spin-offs as a positive sign. "It looks like we're doing something right," she says.
Terry's love of riding led to designing, adjusting and, finally, manufacturing bikes.
Terry's bicycles now come in eight different models.
Kelli Anderson is currently touring Bangkok by tricycle taxi.