Biking while fat: 4 things I wish I had known when I started riding

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I know the word ‘fat’ makes some of you uncomfortable, but that is what I am: a fat woman who loves bikes. As such, my past four years of falling in love with two-wheeled adventures has come with its own challenges on and off the bike. And so I’ve decided to share my bits of wisdom with all of you, my fellow fatties, chubby people and plus size cyclists.

Whatever you want to call yourself, there are some specific things to keep in mind when it comes to two-wheeled adventures, including picking a bike, figuring out what clothes to wear and finding your people. And I’d like to spare you all some of the hassle and share my Four Things I Wish I had Known When I Started Riding Bikes with you.

No, this is not another weight-loss story. I don’t ride to lose weight. Full stop. I ride for fun, transportation, adventure, and exercise. So if you’re reading this looking for advice on how to lose weight by riding a bike, I can’t help you. In fact, if you ever go on a ride with me, I will likely make sure you’re well-fed and in no danger of bonking mid-ride. That means stopping for snacks, listening to our bodies, and checking in. Also eating ice cream.

1. Find a bike that works for you.

These CyclingTips pages are filled with sleek, sexy bikes. Feathery light and wicked fast. And while they’re fun to look at, they may not be the right bike for you.

I did not do that and it’s been quite a process to discover what I actually wanted. It started off with a totally cool Nishiki. I absolutely loved it, but it didn’t fit me. Then I got myself a fast little road bike because I thought I wanted to be a road biker. I learned that I didn’t love that and destroyed the crap out of that bike as I took it on gravel rides, and single track until I had gone through so many sets of tires that I finally landed on the adventure bike I have now.
I take it everywhere and it’s up to the task.

So ask yourself this:

A. What kind of riding do you plan on doing?

– Commuting to from/work
– Carrying groceries or running other errands
– Riding for exercise every now and again
– Going on adventures, such as touring or camping
– Racing/serious fitness riding

Sure there are bikes that could in theory do all of the above, but you’ll be a lot happier with a purpose-built bike.

B. What surfaces do you plan on riding?

– Road only
– Mixed road, trail, gravel
– Anything and everything!

C. Does bike material matter to you?

Modern bikes are primarily made out of three materials – steel, aluminum and carbon (some really expensive bikes are made out of titanium, too.)

Most entry-level and budget bikes are aluminum, but I would caution heavier riders to do their research and perhaps look into steel, as they tend to have higher weight limits. This especially becomes a factor if you plan on carrying cargo.

If you are shy about how much you weigh, do this research before you go to the bike shop. Most manufacturers have their weight limits listed online, and in my experience, many bike shop employees are not experienced at working with bigger people and won’t know the weight limits for the bikes.

Bike weight limit diagram from Specialized’s Bike Manual.

Other things to think about when choosing a bike:

Wheel strength – All wheels are created equal, right? I thought so too and for a long time, I couldn’t figure out why I kept breaking spokes on my road bike. Finally, a bike mechanic whom I trust dearly told me that I needed stronger wheels for the type of riding and stress I was putting my bike under. Talk to an experienced wheel builder (oh hey Sugar Wheel Works!) or local shop about what kind of wheels you need to support your weight.

Tire width – Take a look at the tires on the bike you plan on buying. The wider the tire, the more cushion-y the ride will be (in most cases.) Wider tires also give you more flexibility to run them at lower pressures, without risking a pinch flat. As a heavier rider, I urge you to invest in a good pump for your house and check your tires before every ride. Fill your tires to the recommended PSI on the tire and you’ll run less risk of flatting out.

E-bike? – A great option if you want to get on a bike, but maybe want to work your fitness up to a longer commute or ride, or if you’re carry cargo (like kids!).

Don’t forget that you can change things on your bike after you buy it, such as the saddle, pedals, handle bars, etc. A little change can make a big difference in comfort!

In short, figure out what kind of riding you want to do, research before you go into a bike store, and try out lots of bikes before you buy!

2. Wear clothes that make you feel good

When I first started riding, I thought that in order to be taken seriously, I needed to wear the right clothes. This meant lycra, clip-in shoes and those tiny little bike hats. Not only did that get real expensive real fast, it also became an exercise in frustration as I was constantly searching for “bike clothing” in my size.

(To be fully transparent, I usually wear between a 16-18 dress size, size 18 jeans, and an XL in women’s tops. I can squeeze into an XXL yoga pant from Target or Old Navy, but most standard size athletic brands are off the table.)

Now that I’ve logged a few thousand more miles, I’ve come to realize that I can ride my bike in anything, but the key factor is comfort. If I don’t feel confident and comfortable, I’m not going to want to ride, no matter the distance.

This is not to say that bike clothes don’t work for bigger people. Many people swear by them for the sports performance factor, and I will often wear cycling bibs for my longer rides as I love the built-in chamois. But for everyday riding, I stick to wool layers in the winter, dresses and leggings in the spring/fall, and tank tops in the summer. My absolute saving grace has been a rain cape– it keeps me dry but not too sweaty, and it fits no matter what size I am!

Some athletic brands are getting better about expanded size ranges, and sometimes all it takes is someone to be blunt and courageous enough to reach out to those brands and ask for better sizing.

So wear what makes you feel good. End of story.

3. Find your people. They are out there.

No matter what kind of riding you want to do, there is somebody else who is looking for it, too or who is already doing it. From organized group rides at your local bicycle club to training rides to get in shape for a charity ride to Kidical Mass rides, there are literally cycling groups for every single interest out there.

Recommended places to start include, your local bike club and Facebook. And while it might be intimidating to go for your first ride, remember that we all started somewhere.

4. You don’t owe anybody anything

As a larger bodied person riding a bicycle, you might find yourself subject to stares and comments from people on the street. If your life is anything like mine, this is nothing outside the normal.

Just remember that you don’t owe them a response, you don’t owe them acknowledgment, you do not owe them anything.

You have every right to enjoy your time on your bicycle and they can just mind their own damn business.

So, there you have it. What else would you add to this list?

Marley Blonsky is a Seattle based environmental manager, bike advocate and women’s ride leader. She’s the person behind the With These Thighs stickers, and she refuses to let our image-conscious culture interfere with her love of riding bikes.

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