What is a Step-Through Bike?

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Since the invention of bicycles over 200 years ago, there have been numerous evolutions, designs, styles and purposes for these fun, practical, simple machines.

Casual hobbyists or those new to cycling might not have a clear sense of what all these styles are, their names, or their specific purposes.

One of them is the step-through bike, and this article aims to give you a clearer sense of what it is, its structural integrity and its common uses.

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Step-through vs. step-over

What is a step-through bicycle?

A step-through bike has a frame with no horizontal top tube. The tube may be curved instead, and will certainly be much lower than it is on a traditional bike, making it possible for the rider to ‘step through’ the frame when mounting and dismounting the bicycle.

It’s also known as an open-frame or low-step bike. When you compare its step-through frame to that of a traditional bike which has a step-over frame, it becomes easier to understand the difference.

Step-over bikes are designed with a diamond-shaped frame consisting of a top tube, bottom tube, head tube and a seat tube that runs through the middle, joining the seat stay and chain stay. This creates a sturdy diamond shape—two triangles joined by the seat tube.

Bike with a traditional frame leaning against a wall mural showing other traditional bikes

The geometry of step-over bikes makes them durable because pressure is distributed evenly. The traditional diamond frame design increases the longevity of the frame and makes them ideal for all types of terrain. Because the structure is so sound, step-over bikes can use lightweight frame materials, helping the rider pick up speed while exerting less energy.

A step-through frame lacks that horizontal top tube. Instead, it may curve or angle low toward the bottom bracket, or it may not be added to the frame at all.

Step-through bikes leaning against a rail above a canal in Amsterdame
If you ever visit Amsterdam, a cycling mecca, you’ll see plenty of step-through bikes.

Many types of bikes fall under the category of step-through bicycles. Cruiser bikes and comfort bikes are the most popular. More recently, electric bikes are being built with a similar easy-to-mount frame.

What’s the point of a step-through bike?

Now that you know the difference between a step-through frame and a step-over frame, you’re probably wondering what difference they make.

Advantages of a step-through bike

The biggest advantage of a step-through bike is its ease of mounting and dismounting. Because there’s no top tube, the rider doesn’t have to worry about swinging a leg over top while trying to maintain balance. One can simply—you guessed it—step through.

The absence of a top tube reduces the rider’s risk of ripping their clothes. It also gives the rider the option of cycling in more free-flowing clothing like a dress or a skirt, without having to worry about it riding up.

Woman in a skirt mounting a step-through bike
A step-through bike allows clothing options that a step-over bike does not. (© Richard Masoner | Creative Commons)

The positioning of the pedals and handlebars allows the rider of a step-through bike to assume a much more comfortable, upright riding position that takes less of a toll on their body.

Since the rider is able to comfortably place both feet on the ground on either side, step-through bikes are also considered a little safer if you happen to lose your balance.

Disadvantages of a step-through bike

Unfortunately, step-through bikes are heavier than conventional bikes. Because they are built without a top tube, the frame is not as structurally sound. To compensate for this and make the frame a little sturdier, manufacturers use a thicker, more durable material.

The lack of a top tube also makes them more difficult to mount on a bike rack on the back of your car. You’ll almost certainly have to buy a bike frame adapter bar, which acts as a temporary top tube for transporting your bike.

These bikes are not meant for speed. The weight of the material and pressure put on the frame when trying to tackle a slope is not ideal. Step-through bikes do not perform well on hilly terrain.

And if you’re a cyclist who likes accessories, step-through bikes offer less space for mounting them than a conventional bike does.

Are step-through frames weaker?

Step-through frames are considered weaker than traditional bike frames. The frame’s design creates uneven distribution of pressure, so even though the material is usually sturdier, there is still more potential for the frame to bend.

There are makes and models to fit every kind of person, so if you’re in the market for a step-through bike, make sure the frame and wheels are a good fit for your body type and the terrain you plan to ride on.

Are step-through frames worse?

Step-through frames are not necessarily worse than conventional frames. They are just different. For some riding purposes, they may even be better. Step-through frames are excellent for casual rides through the city, down the boardwalk, commuting to work, or grocery runs in your neighborhood. The lower center of gravity makes it easier to balance groceries and other cargo.

How do you carry a step-through bike?

Carrying a step-through bike can be more challenging because they don’t have an easily accessible top tube, which often acts as the “handle” on a traditional bike frame. It’s best to grip them closer to the ground, because they are heavier than traditional step-over bikes and most of the weight is low in the frame.

Electric bicycles can get particularly heavy, because they pair a step-through frame with the weight of a battery and motor.

Use safe lifting practices whenever possible. Bend your knees and keep your back straight as you reach down to pick up your bike.

Who are step-through bikes for?

Step-through bikes are for everyone! Step-through frames were invented in the late 1800s and were called safety bicycles. The drop bar was developed to accommodate women’s formal attire of the era, consisting mainly of long skirts and dresses. That’s why this bike design has long been associated with female riders.

However, this type of bike has proven advantages in many more situations.

The step-through design is ideal for delivery workers who traditionally delivered newspapers and milk. Nowadays they’re food couriers, and they have to hop on and off their transportation frequently. Folks putting up posters on telephone poles will enjoy the ease of being able to keep feet firmly planted on the ground as they work, without having to dismount at all.

A postman's bike in Italy, with a step-through frame
A step-through frame comes in handy when you have to make frequent stops for deliveries. (© Monica Arellano-Ongpin | Creative Commons)

Step-through bikes are also the best option for older folks who want to keep riding bikes but be in a more comfortable position. They’re also good for people with a smaller range of motion who wouldn’t be able to swing a leg over a bike, but can step through and pedal just fine.

Step-through bikes have been around for a long time and have come a long way. The design has overcome sex and class connotations to become the go-to option for active lifestyle vacationers and low-mobility cyclists.

Personally, I’m glad to see there are options for folks who still want to stay active in their later years—like my mother, who recently got her first step-through cruiser. I’m looking forward to seeing her gain confidence on two wheels so we can explore together. Hopefully not on hilly terrain!

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