In this guest post, the gorgeous Genny Stevens (Agile Team Facilitator at Xero) shares some top tips for happy everyday biking when you have a few Xs in front of the L on the label of your favourite cycling frock… 

We all know there are lots of perceived barriers to getting back on our bikes; traffic, helmets, lycra – but the size of our thighs should not be one. I’m a fat woman who has been fully cycle-dependent for three years and I have no plan to ever going back to owning a car.

I’d wasted most of my life worrying about weight, weight loss, diets, food, being bad and good, but luckily I found freedom from that through the fat positive, Health at Every Size, and body acceptance movements. I’ve got better things to think about now, and I’m happier and fitter than when I was ‘smaller’. Having said that, it still took a bit of courage to literally put myself out there on my bike.

If you are also a bodaciously big-bodied person who wants to majestically traverse the city via two wheels, then let me enable you. NB The focus here is on cycling for fun and getting from A to B, not about cycling to change your body.

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The Bike

There’s lots of articles about how to choose a bike, so I’m going to talk about things specific to big bodied biking.

The type of bike most likely to be comfortable for a large body new to cycling is an upright bike. Road and mountain bikes distribute the body between the arms and legs, which leaves the butt up and out and means a lot more weight balanced on your hands. They also leave you in a position where on the up-pedal your thighs may end up ‘kicking’ your belly. Not elegant! Upright bikes position the body in a more natural seated position, with most of the weight bearing down on your butt. It’s also a better position for being visible in traffic and seeing what you’re doing.

Most uprights come with wider seats, something to support the butt bones; padding is a personal preference. Here’s a couple embarrassing things you can learn from me. Get the strongest seat post on offer. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. There’s nothing worse than realizing the seat post has bent a bit backwards after time. The other thing is if you’re going to be the only person riding your bike, there is no need for a quick-release adjustment lever. Get that seat post fitted in tightly. Again, nothing worse than realizing your seat is slowly sinking as you are pedaling. Don’t let the cycle shop tell you the lever just needs tightening up – it doesn’t help.

And finally, spend extra on quality wheels and tyres – those things are taking an extra hit each day. It will be worth it.

Above all, find a bike shop or bike mechanic who will listen to you and you are comfortable talking about the needs of big bodied biking. I still can’t believe it took three different bike shops to find someone who understood why I didn’t want a quick-release seat post adjustment thingy!

The Clothes

The cool thing about everyday cycling is you wear everyday clothes. There’s only a couple of things I’ve had to add to the wardrobe.

I wear mainly skirts or dresses, so when I started cycling I needed to manage the thigh-chafe issue as well as the tight-knee-length-pencil-skirt-riding-up issue. I had a couple of pairs of Lycra footless tights which I cut off to just above the knee. These worked quite well. But they were homemade and a bit bulky around the waist. I moved onto a pair of City Chic’s thigh shapers, but of course they’ve since discontinued them, which is annoying because they’re pretty much perfect – right leg length, nice fit – not too sausage-skin squeezing-in and not too sloppy around the waist. I wear them all the time; I find being an active fatty it’s easier to wear these and never have to worry about thigh chafing or carrying 3B cream ever again. Once these pairs die, I’m going to explore tri-shorts or cycle shorts in their place – if anyone has great suggestions of who stocks these locally for a size 22/24 I’d be grateful!

Good rainwear is another annoyingly hard thing to buy for larger bodies. I’m an all-weather cyclist and usually manage it with packing a change of clothes and a hairdryer (if I can be bothered – otherwise ponytail & bathroom hand-dryer for my fringe…) Or I just accept I’m going to get wet. Even if you’re not planning on biking in the rain, it pays to carry a showerproof jacket or poncho for the unexpected rainfall. Most clothing manufacturers seem to think people over a size 20 don’t need rainwear; the only local place I’ve had luck finding a lightweight shower jacket is Ezibuy.

Things to expect

Biking with a big body is going to be both easier and harder than you think it might. Even cycling at a slow speed on the flat, you will get such a sense of freedom and movement; it is truly liberating for your body. Going downhill is even better – the one time where being actively big is an advantage – so be prepared for speed! (This is pretty much the only time I overtake other cyclists).

However, going uphill is as horrible as you might think. But getting off and pushing is no big deal. I live on top of a hill and after nearly two years, I still don’t bother trying to bike up it.

When you start biking, even on an upright, your hands and wrists will feel the stress a bit, but it doesn’t take too long for them to get used to it.

Biking is really good low impact activity for knees and will help strengthen some of the muscles around the area over time. Thighs and lower back will be the body areas where you’ll feel this new activity the most. Thighs don’t take too long to adjust to the new activity, but keep an eye on your back. [Ed note: a protective trick for new riders, or those starting again after a break: consciously engage your core muscles to take the strain off your lower back, especially when pedalling harder. Your back will thank you for it!]

For the first few weeks, start with shorter rides, no more than half an hour, to allow your body to get used to the new pressures and movements. Incorporate stretches into your daily life to offset the extra lower back compression. I’ve taken up swimming as well, which seems to provide the perfect opposite movements to balance out any biking related aches and pains.

Something to accept is that – at first, at least – you will probably be the slowest thing on wheels on the road and you won’t be able to go more than a few kilometres at a time. And that’s perfectly fine. I started biking when I was living in Gisborne, which was awesome – it was flat, if you bike 5km you’re already out in the country, and lots of people bike for economic reasons. So I saw lots of other large and slow cyclists on the road, and it settled a lot of my inner fears and dialogue. By the time I moved to Auckland and started biking here, I’d gotten so used to it I didn’t particularly care about being the slowest or biggest thing on two wheels. The main thing is to find your speed and distance and enjoy it as much as you can.

Street harassment was something I worried about too, but while I’ve had a couple of people yell out their car window, I suspect these morons would yell at anyone. Generally, I’ve not had any grief – although from anecdotes of other big people in public I think this is just good luck. In fact, the kind of comments I do tend to get, while well-meaning, are equally annoying and kinda insulting – platitudes from strangers like ‘Good on you!’ and ‘Keep it up!’ (apparently to their eyes, being so fat, I only just got on this bike and am constantly on the verge of giving up). But you know, people be people… I roll my eyes and ride on.

I love biking so much. I love how I can get places much faster and freer than by walking. I love how much I’m out in and being part of the world. I love how my body is responsible for my commute. Some days it’s drudgery for sure, but from what I remember so is commuting in a car. I’d love to see other fatties out there enjoying it with me – even if it’s just so I get a chance at maybe overtaking another cyclist!

A Plugged-In Postscript

Since first starting to write this article, I’ve upgraded to a sparkly new electric bike. I’d been thinking about getting an e-bike for a couple of years, and I finally took the plunge at the end of 2015. After riding this beauty for a few weeks I can definitely say it’s life changing. I’ve easily doubled both the number of trips I take and the distance I cover.

It’s reopened the city up to me, and means I can get to some of my favourite beaches and shops without resorting to buses or Uber.

I am surprised that the e-bike is not the miracle cure for some of Auckland’s hills I was hoping for – you still have to work a bit, but I can now pedal up the hill to my house without a grind, which removes that barrier to getting out and about easily.

I’ve been interested by people’s responses when I tell them about my e-bike. ‘But that’s cheating!’ they often say. I’m pretty sure it’s only cheating if you enter it into the Tour de France or similar… I mean, I still pedal, and I can pedal as hard as I want to.

Another fit gent said to me ‘But isn’t the purpose of cycling for all that exercise – the hard, grinding-up-the-hill exercise?’ Maybe if I cycled to and from work as my only form of exercise, sure. But to me, that’s like asking a runner why they don’t run everywhere they go, all the time. As a car replacement, the e-bike means I still get a form of light exercise all the time without it being an offputting grind. And after a day at work, a 2km swim, and a visit to the supermarket, it’s a relief to be able to get home with only light effort.

I’m not sad to see the back of my old bike – it’s currently on loan to someone who’s exploring biking as an option – we had some great times, and it was a great entry-level commuter bike. Chances are I will now also buy a road bike for some solid-exercise-type weekend cycling. But the e-bike will reign supreme for getting me around this wonderful, sprawling, occasionally hilly city.

— Genny Stevens

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Header image from cover illustration by Seymour Bull for Liberty magazine, 26 Sept 1942.

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11 responses to ““Fat Lady on a Bike” – the joy of riding at any size

  1. As a “traditionally built” man of a certain age, I love this piece. Once you get over the fact that cruising along at your own sedate pace is perfectly legal, biking becomes a blissful activity. It’s also nice to know that others get off and push sometimes.

    But I have a question for the editor: how would I know that I was “consciously engaging” my core muscles? To be honest, I’m not completely sure I know where all my core muscles are, let alone what it feels like to “engage” them.

    I ask because I recently bought a mountain bike that causes complete havoc with my lower back. My commuting bike causes me no back problems, whether I have the seat high or low. I’m having real trouble working out what’s going wrong biomechanically.

    1. If your spine is concave/sagging towards the top tube when you ride then your core muscles are not engaged.
      Tighten whatever muscles you need to gently straighten your spine

    2. Pilates is a really good way to learn what your core muscles are and what it feels like to engage them… that’s pretty much the first thing you learn so you might only need to go to a couple of classes to know what that means.

        1. “Zip up your insides and tighten your tummy muscles” would be another way to say it, maybe. Thank you for asking for clarification, too, Nick – on behalf of other readers who may be too shy!

  2. Great piece Genny!
    I look forward to the follow up that gets into the details of your ebike 🙂 I live in One Tree Hill and would really like to get into biking as transport and to move. My barriers are my low fitness level (will improve), hills (push/walk!) and distance – it’s about 8km into town or where I would typically like to ride. I love the idea of the ebike for that extra push! I’d love to take up the flag of being another fat butt on a bike.
    I do the same eye rolls when old men at the gym tell me to “keep it up” and “good on you” ughhhh!!!

  3. I love the positive attitude and humour of this piece, also your total confidence to happily go at the pace you enjoy. Congratulations on the huge achievement of going car free, that is a fantastic goal for all of us that is really quite achievable if we focus on what we can do rather than look for excuses. P.S. I like to tell the Lycra road bike guys to ‘keep going’ and ‘keep it up’ when they look like they are struggling up a hill, or even better, struggling to to keep up with an e-bike. Also men in the gym do the same if you are a lady lifting heavy weights. So hopefully we can all continue to annoy each other with less than helpful comments and everyone can continue to not take them too seriously!

    1. Sez a man whose driving (=zero physical activity) is massively subsidised by my taxes and rates…

    2. Yea because she be rolling in cash from tax evasion by the looks. You must be really old Phil

  4. Love this post, thank you Genny! As a fatty on an e-bike (New Plymouth), who bought my bike about two months ago, I also had the same fears about being too unfit / unsightly to switch my weekday commute from car to bike. It’s early days yet, but I love my e-bike! And it is really empowering to know the bike has got my back!
    “Ebikes are not cycling” kiss my big old lycra-clad behind. You can turn the pedal assistance off when you are on the flat or a manageable hill and it is just a normal, heavier-than-average pushbike. Or, you can embrace the assistance and get home after work in half the time. Win-win 🙂

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