Many fat cyclists experience discrimination, and that is just plain wrong. Everyone has the right to ride a bike; and fat cyclists should not feel pressured to lose weight, or be made to feel that they don’t belong on the bike path. That said, there are some extra challenges for plus-sized cyclists, such as finding an appropriate bike and clothing. This post is about how to deal with those challenges, so you can enjoy cycling, regardless of what your scale has to say. Many people (myself included) spend their entire lives being fat, and this may be healthier than frequent strict dieting and a weight that yo-yos up and down.
Exercise is More Important for Health than the Number on the Scale
Most importantly, research has shown that it is not so much the number on the scale that matters, but whether or not you exercise. A fat person who gets a lot of exercise may be healthier than a thin person who gets no exercise.
“What we’re learning is that a body that exercises regularly is generally a healthy body, whether that body is fat or thin,” says Glenn Gaesser, PhD, a professor of exercise and wellness at Arizona State. “The message should really be that if you are exercising regularly, you shouldn’t necessarily be looking at the scale to determine how healthy or fit you are.” (Source: Can you be fat but fit?)
Another cycling blogger, who calls herself Fat Broad on a Bike, says: “Being overweight and being a cyclist is not contradictory. I’ve been both for 22 years. Too many women are psyched out by those lean bodies dancing on the pedals up the Gatineau Hills. Cycling does not require a skinny body, it helps if you want to go fast, but it’s not necessary to enjoy cycling.” (Source: Fat Broad On A Bike: Don’t Hide – Ride!“) This woman is extremely inspirational – a few months ago she inspired me to write: “Yes We Can! Inspiration to Get Fit and Do a Gran Fondo.”
So if you are fat, don’t focus on the number on the scale, and think that you are too big to get out on a bike. Get out and cycle, and have fun. Whether you lose weight or not, you will still be getting healthier!
I am speaking from personal experience. I have been overweight almost my entire life, with many fluctuations. As a kid I was always the last one chosen for any athletic team (repeated humiliations that I have never forgotten). I wasn’t the weakest athlete, but reality didn’t alter the other kids’ perceptions that I must be useless because I was fat. People who knew me then are astonished when they find out I now write a cycling blog! If we are face-to-face when I mention this, I believe I can see them thinking, “Then WHY are you still fat?” Well, I just am. And sometimes I am fatter than other times. The only things certain in my life are death, taxes … and fat. Oh, and cycling!
However, I have also been cycling and hiking consistently for the last 15 years, with the result that I am very healthy and fit, despite my weight being considerably higher than what the weight tables say it should be. I like to remind myself that, based on the Body Mass Index, Arnold Schwarzenegger would have been classified as “Obese” throughout the four years he was winning the Mr. Universe title (although to be honest, that title is incredibly safe from me!)
Cycle for Fun, not to Lose Weight
Cycling is great for heavy people because it puts less impact stress on your joints and bones. Even more important, it is the perfect exercise because it is fun. I can easily enjoy cycling for two hours – but I am bored out of my mind after five minutes on a stationery bike. Think of cycling as fun, not as exercise. Don’t think of it as something that should be used to lose weight. Dr. Charlotte Cooper has written a Guide for Fat Cyclists, and she writes:
“If you are fat it’s likely that the only time cycling is presented to you in a positive light is as a means to lose weight. This has bound the act of getting on a bicycle with notions of duty, poor self-image, body anxiety and more – could there be a more depressing prospect? (Source: How to Ride a Bike)
— Charlotte Cooper (@thebeefer) December 24, 2015
Discrimination against Fat Cyclists
Sadly, there is discrimination against fat people in cycling, just as everywhere else. Dr. Cooper resigned from the London Cycling Campaign over their commitment to eradicate obesity, which she sees as a commitment to eradicate her, and people like her. She writes:
“Some members of the cycling community can be very judgmental about weight and body size. Pay them no mind and remember that you have just as much of a right to ride as anyone. … Make cycling fun, go for a ride with a friend.”
With all of that said, there are in fact some extra challenges facing fat cyclists, including finding the right bike, and finding appropriate clothing that fits. So here are some ideas to help.
Bikes for Fat Cyclists
If you are planning to start cycling, bear in mind that most bikes are designed for people who weigh less than 220 pounds. The warranties on many bikes are actually voided if the rider is too heavy. If you are significantly heavier than 220 pounds, think about getting a bike designed for heavier people. If you have the money, speak to a bike shop about getting a custom built bike made out of chromoly, with thicker-walled, larger-diameter tubes.
If you don’t have that kind of money, at least buy a good quality bike, and check that there is no weight limit on the warranty. Your bike shop may have to call the manufacturer’s rep to check this.
Get the Right Kind of Bike
Bikes come in many different types. Some are better for fat cyclists than others. For example, race or road bikes require being hunched forward over a cross bar. These may be uncomfortable. Some cyclists find that upright bikes are more comfortable, as they allow for a more natural posture. If required, they also allow more space for a larger belly. So, a Dutch-stye, step-through, upright bike might be a good choice.
Another alternative: mountain bikes are usually stronger than other bikes, because they are designed for rough use. And for more inspiration, you might want to take a look at the Clydesdale Cyclist’s Blog – he writes a blog with cycling tips, including many tips for heavier cyclists. He describes himself as not just bigger than the average cyclist, but bigger than the average person.
Avoid Department Store Bikes!
Finally, whatever you do, do NOT buy one of those shiny, cheap bikes from a department store. Those are usually complete garbage, hence their low price. I have also heard of them falling apart on their very first ride, probably because they were assembled by people who know nothing about bikes. Also, many bike shops won’t even work on them, so you won’t be able to get the components beefed up.
Upgrade the Components on Your Bike
Don’t just take your new bike home off the shelf. Talk to the bike shop salesman about beefing up the parts. For example, most bikes come with poor quality pedals. They may even be plastic. Switch them out for good quality pedals. I have had a pedal break on me while standing up in the pedals, and it is NOT an experience you ever want to have – trust me on that one! Also, a broken pedal can leave you stranded, because it is pretty much impossible to pedal with one pedal – trust me on that one, too, because I have tried!
If you have the technical skills, think about upgrading your bike yourself. Denver’s Bob Seible did this. He started with a heavy duty bike he bought on eBay, and then upgraded many of the components. He also added a motor to help him with the hills.
Strong Wheels are Essential
The most important thing to do is make sure that your wheels are strong enough. These are the weakest point for heavier cyclists. Almost any good bike shop can build you a couple of custom wheels with good quality rims and plenty of strong spokes, preferably double-butted, stainless steel. Make sure that they use a good quality hub, such as Shimano or Campagnolo.
— clydesdalecyclist (@ClydesdaleCyc) November 8, 2015
Breaking a wheel while riding can be very dangerous. So, whatever bike you get, keep an eye on the wheels. If you see any cracks, if there are loose or broken spokes, or if the wheel seems to be out of true or wobbling – replace it or have it repaired right away.
Also make sure your tires are robust and have a high thread count.
Get a Comfy Saddle
And of course, make sure you have a comfy bike saddle. I splashed out on a Selle Anatomica saddle after experiencing a lot of discomfort. It was expensive, but I am glad I bought it. It wears in a whole lot faster than Brooks saddles, and is more forgiving as well. Saddle sores can completely stop you from cycling, while you heal up.
If that is more than you want to spend, you might want to ensure a softer ride with an inexpensive comfort saddle.
Get as Many Gears as Possible
Some bikes have 3 chain rings on the front derailleur (instead of 2). This extra chain ring is sometimes called a “granny ring” because it makes cycling easier. Nothing wrong with that! I always choose a bike with as many gears as possible. I want to make cycling easier, not harder, so I can have fun with it.
Consider Getting an Electric Bike
If you live in a hilly area and the thought of cycling uphill is intimidating, consider getting an electric bike. This will turn an intimidating ride into a fun ride! An electric bike will make you feel like an Olympic athlete, and will flatten out hills. So consider starting out on an electric bike if you are just getting started cycling, or if you live in an area where the hills are just plain impossible. It’s amazingly fun to feel like superman when you bike!
Also, you can still get a whole lot of healthy exercise on an electric bike. This is proven by the fact that you can burn almost as many calories on an electric bike as a regular bike. If you are burning calories, clearly you are exercising. Read about how many calories you can burn on an electric bike here. Also, research shows that most people who buy electric bikes end up cycling MUCH more than people who buy regular bikes. This is especially true for women. Read more about that research here.
The Ampere bike below could be an ideal electric bike for a plus-sized person starting to cycle. It is very strong, and has a Dutch-style step-through frame for easy mounting and dismounting. The riding position on this bike is a relaxed, almost upright position.
For much more information on finding an appropriate electric bike, check out this great post on the best electric bike for heavier riders, on the excellent Electric Bike Review blog.
Get the Right Cycling Clothes
There is a big move towards wearing regular clothing while cycling. If you have some regular clothes that you feel comfortable cycling in, then just go ahead and wear those. Although bear in mind that if you cycle for more than half an hour without padded shorts, your body will probably not thank you.
If you want to wear dedicated cycling clothes, that can be more challenging. Although I carry many extra pounds, I can easily buy regular clothes off-the-peg from any store. But at times I have had difficulty finding cycling clothes that fit. They just seem to all be sized tiny. I would try on cycling pants size XL and find I couldn’t pull them past my knees! Also, you have to be in almost perfect physical shape to look good in most of them. How I hate looking like sausage meat stuffed into Lycra!
However, there are now some manufacturers catering to plus-sized athletes. Check out Athleta.com (women), and the Zella brand at Nordstrom (men and women). Moving Comfort makes plus-sized sports bras. And somewhat surprisingly, a search on the term Plus Sized Athletic Wear on Amazon.com brings up a wide range of results..
Get out there and ride! Don’t let your size stop you, no matter what it is. Start off on quiet off-road tracks if you need time to build your confidence. Stay there if you find you like it! Or go out cycling on the roads, and don’t ever let anyone make you feel you have any less right to be there than they do. And whether you cycle for five minutes or five hours, the point is to have fun. Don’t feel you have to cycle to meet any else’s standards. Remember that even five minutes of exercise is good for you. Oh, and I have always maintained that there is no shame in pushing a bike up a hill!
Finally, if you have a photo of yourself cycling, think about sharing it in this post. Just contact me and I can add it to the post. I would like our Average Joe Cyclist blog to help to show the world that you do NOT have to look like a stick insect in order to ride a bike. Most photos in all media show lean cyclists. It’s time to show the world that cycling is not only for the lean!
Finally, to quote Dr. Cooper one more time:
“If you see another fat cyclist, be sure to ring your bell in solidarity!”
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