You usually don't need a handmade bike, or a super expensive bike if you can get a bike off the shelf that has been carefully fitted to your unique build. Women often have short torsos and long legs, compared to men of the same height. That means a cursory stand over test may give a woman a bike that seems fine for the lower half of her, but presumes she's much longer in the waist.
To get a good fit, you need to be your own best advocate, and try not to be in a rush to buy a bike. Without testing several bikes, you can't get a "vocabulary" of things to look, and to feel for when test riding.
Before even test riding bikes, borrow a friend's bike, with the understanding you'll pay for all things that go awry between the time your hands touch the handlebars to take possession of the thing, until you remove it (or a gas station overhead removes it) from your car's bike rack upon giving it back. This is a protection for the friend. Once you become a Mountain Bike Owner (most of you in the club are) you join the nervous subset of Bicycle Lenders who pray their machines return intact, with no new problems. How many times have I seen someone test ride a bike, only to crash and return the thing with a newly shredded saddle? Burn and perhaps never learn...
Back to the fit. The other kind of fit, done indoors, at the shop. The one you do by standing over the bike, and ascertaining that, yep, there are a good 2-4 inches of clearance between you and the top tube. If anyone else wants to "look at the clearance" (= your crotch) pick the bike up,one hand in front, one in back to create "clearance" down on the ground, where it is permissible for well-meaning salespeople to stare.
Seat should be just high enough to nearly straighten your leg. Set the saddle tilt at either dead-level, or daintily upturned, which keeps your butt bones where they belong. A downhill tilted saddle is a sore topic indeed. Often just changing this can effect a miraculous change in comfort.We do not recommend "Bonetraitor" (not their real name) saddles. They are ultra narrow, and torture a huge percentage of the population, and only you know what's comfy. Holding onto a wall, and grabbing the brakes,climb aboard and back pedal. When pedalling along, your hips should bestill, not tilting side to side in an effort to reach the pedals (that's a symptom of a too-tall saddle). A too-low saddle can, over time, give an active rider knee twinges, and even chondromalacia (crunchy kneecaps),so start the saddle too high, ask a friend to observe your hips, and lower the saddle until the hip rocking stops. This you can do en roulant, aswell as at the shop.
Your saddle's fore-aft adjustment can be modified. Pushing the nose of the saddle toward the handlebars gets you closer to the stem, but tends to put too much of your weight over the front wheel. With the saddle in the center of its fore-aft range (usually only a couple of inches), put your feet at "quarter to three" --pedals even, with the forward foot being the one you're going to test. Hang a plumb line (a rock hanging from a four-foot length of dental floss works as well as a real plumb bob) from the hinge of your knee. This is located about an inch behind the point of your knee in this position. There's a dimple there. Hold the plumb line against the dimple, and look at where the line intersects the pedal axle.It falls through some part of pedal near the circular spindle (axle). "Spinners"and sprinters, both being road riders, like their plumb line to land in front of or in the middle of the axle. "Mashers" --mountain bikers-- usually prefer being a bit behind this, putting the line behind the center of the spindle, as much as an inch. Naturally, you move the saddle a bit to arrive at this, and it's pretty important for you (or the fit-ee) to be seated comfortably in the saddle. Just shifting position in the saddle makes dramatic plumb line changes, you'll see.
Last, assuming you're happy enough to try riding with the saddle where it is, hop off the bike, put your arm flat, touch the back of your elbow at the nose of the saddle, and wiggle your fingers, trying to reach the handlebar. Your fingertips will be some inches from the handlebar. Hopefully it's between two and four inches. Farther, and you're reaching painfully far to grab the brakes and hold the bars. If you finish your rides steering with your fingernails (or the tips of your fingers) you need a shorter stem. To get precisely the right stem fit have the shop order a FIT FINDER adjustable stem from Wilderness Trail Bikes. When it comes, the shop puts it on your bike and you fiddle with it until the position feels just right.Then you either have a stem brazed or find a close-enough fit off the shelf.Either way, you don't try three different lengths, only to wish you could remember how the first stem felt to compare again.
I am partial to toeclips and ordinary pedals. Clipless pedals are heavy, expensive, difficult to learn, mechanically complex and thus liable to let you down sometime in the life of the pedal (they don't last forever,like ordinary pedals). They've resulted in many a downfall that takes a rider out for a whole season. If it can happen to a World Champion, I think there's a design flaw. On the other hand, plenty of people swear by (and at) them. Tough call, but I need to be on the record as a "nay" vote.
Take your test bike out for a spin, and swerve a bit, jam on the brakes,careful there! Shift through all the gears (no peeking! We do it blind,because parked cars, ruts, tombstone rocks always materialize in front of you, the instant they know your head's down, the minute you get fascinated with Some Strange Sound). This belief is a form of Wombat Fatalism. Never look down, for any reason. Until you know the coast is really and truly clear. Would you turn your back on the ocean?
Gosh, I didn't intend to run on so, but there you have some basic rules to guide you and your friends in shopping for a bike. Remember, any self-respecting bike shop employee will need to assert their know-how, and if it jibes with the Wombat Wisdom, all the better. All this stuff is opinion mixed with old husband's tales, poured over ancient tenets of the two wheeled cult. Keep in mind that raising the saddle will move you further to the rear of the bike (cause the seat tube's at an angle). Change the fore-aft and you may need to modify the height. It's all connected, with comfort being the goal. You get to use what suits you, and bottle the rest.
Keeping a notebook with the correct distance of your seat height, from bottom dead center to top p' saddle is very useful when you get a new bike, or rent one. The notebook can be the beginning of a love affair between you and the bike, and you can recount all your rides in shorthand, your injuries, your period, your anything you wish you had a record of when someone says, "when did you start noticing that?" I've listed the number of hours I was in the saddle (miles never seemed to matter) since 1981, thinking some day I could turn it in to some future coach who could make an athlete out of me. But the traditional training journals were so darn intimidating, I just saved them -- they were wall calendars with appointments and saddle-hours -- now they're priceless.