Oct 23, 2011

James's Fat Guy Guide for Novice Cyclists

One hope for this blog is to encourage people in my position to experience getting fit. So many people concentrate on calories and pounds and forget what's really important for the obese body: getting fit. A fit body need not worry what the scale says because fitness cures so much of the ill-effects of obesity.

The one big thing I learned in the last few months is that the obese body can become fit. You don't have to wait for the pounds to be gone. It would take years to lose all my excess weight but I started getting fit just a few weeks in.

I've been cycling all my life, avidly. My older brother was a competitive racer who gave me a good foundation of knowledge about bikes and bike mechanics. Cycling is one of my favourite things in the world and one of the things I most missed with my sedentary lifestyle. I've come across a lot of people who are intimidated by cycling and are hesitant to ever get on a bike. I thought I would talk about a few basic things in this blog post that pertain to an overweight first time cyclist.

So, can an overweight or obese person ride a bicycle? Absolutely! Don't be intimidated by those tiny, seemingly hard seats. And don't think you're going fall over. If you can walk without falling over you can ride a bike without falling over. Here are some great reasons why you should try it:
  • It's a great compliment to any other exercise routine because it uses different muscles, or uses the major muscles in your lower body differently. It is essentially cross training for me to ride a bicycle as well as walk/jog. Walking helps me bike, biking helps me walk. It gives my walking muscles a chance to recuperate and get stronger while I do something different.
  • It's empowering. We fatties are used to moving slowly and ungracefully. Riding a bike gives us a chance to move fluidly and fast!
  • It's easy on the joints. Large people often have issues with their joints. Cycling is easy on the joints. It's a gently fluid motion without pounding or jolts to the body. 
  • Having a variety of physical activity helps you enjoy exercising more and give you a better chance and keeping it up. 
  • You can use a bike to commute and it'll save you money. Depending on where you live, it might even save you time due to traffic jams that a bike can fly past.
I love going biking with my kids, as you well know. My parents didn't do anything like that with me. My dad was ten years older than I was when I had my first kid yet he never did any active thing with me or my older brothers. My wife asked me if my parents went biking with me and I had to laugh because the notion was so absurd. It makes me happy to think I can do the things I could only dream my parents would do with me. 

Some thoughts about bikes
A hybrid bike (part mountain bike, part road bike)
I ride a hybrid which is a cross between a mountain bike and what older people think of as a 'ten speed' (road bike.) It has skinny wheels that don't always hold my weight but those thinner wheels are much more efficient on pavement than thicker mountain bike wheels. At my excessive weight, my thin hybrid wheels risk getting damaged so I stay on smooth surfaces like new streets and bike paths.

Mountain bikes solve the problem of weak wheels for the very heavy person. The wheels and tires are thick and withstand a lot of weight because they're built for riding down mountain trails and hitting rocks, bumps and tree roots. However, if you're heavy, I recommend sticking to reasonably gentle surfaces to ensure you don't bend a wheel. Not that's it's the end of the world if you do. They can usually be fixed or "trued."
They do make special bikes for obese people but they cost a small fortune ($2,000) and I don't think they're necessary. 
Mountain bike wheel with a tire meant for rough trails.
Tires: A thick, soft ribbed tire is less efficient on pavement. Any tire, including mountain bike tires can be changed to more smooth or slick tires that can be inflated to a higher pressure. If you're sticking to streets, these tires might make you happier because you'll zoom along with less effort. Tires usually cost between 15 and 50 dollars each. Paying the bike shop five bucks to put them on saves a lot of hassle. More expensive tires are more resistant to flats.
This tire is smooth for efficient riding on pavement but the edges
help with traction should you decide to go on an off-road trail.
Bike quality: Department store bikes and bike shop bikes aren't the same. Department store models are more likely to break down and need repairs, however bike shop bikes start at more than four hundred dollars. I recommend buying a quality used bike and taking it to a bike shop to have them give it a once over. 


Bring lots of water because we large people tend to sweat more. Most bikes are able to hold two water bottles. 

Bring a lock in case you get a flat or something and have to leave your bike somewhere.

Upgrade your seat ("saddle") to a better one than what comes with your bike. There are comfort seats available that make things easier for the casual cyclist. Try them out at the bike shop or return them to the store until you find one that makes you feel like you're sitting on the couch.
Comfort bikes are very popular these days. This is an extreme example of comfort.
Any bike you buy can be customized at a bike shop. They make comfort bikes now that let you sit upright and have comfy seats. This means changing the handlebars and saddle but the rest of the bike stays the same. You can always change things back at a later day if you become all Lance Armstrongy. 

Bike computers are fun. I have one with a heart rate monitor. They tell you what time it is, how far and fast you've gone and other stats that might motivate you.

I like biking in the evenings when it's cooler. They have many inexpensive, very bright LED bike lights now that help you be seen at dusk or at night.

Cycling shoes may help you with comfort. I have very high arches which you can limbo under, so I've had problems on long bike rides. Cycling shoes are hard and inflexible at the bottom and have solved any foot comfort issues I had.

Gloves: Cycling gloves are meant for long rides to prevent blistering. But the casual cyclist benefits from them too, especially us heavy people who have to hold up a lot of weight. It's worth the fifteen bucks plus you'll look cool.

Your bum: Buy a pair of cycling short liners (cycling pants to be worn as underwear) or a loose fitting pair of mountain biking shorts. They have extra padding where it counts and I find it really helps you have a luxurious ride. Most pants come in sizes up to only 2XL but you can sometimes find larger ones online.

A mirror for your handlebars, attached to your helmet or eyeglasses is helpful because turning your neck to see behind you can be challenging, especially if you're bigger.

Caution: Bikes with suspension systems often don't work for heavy people (they collapse under the weight). These systems are meant to keep the wheels on the dirt when you're bouncing down a mountain side. If you're considering a bike with suspension, make sure it can handle your weight. It may require some adjusting and bikes often don't come with manuals.

Give it a try and remember my early posts about how hard it was for me at first and how little hope I had of cycling any time soon. Borrow a friend's or family member's bike and try it a few times. Or just go out and buy one because you've discovered your inner athlete and every athlete needs a bike!

1 comment:

  1. I fell in love with my bike this year. My husband and I bought them a year before and used them only a little because it was late in the summer. This year, we started in the spring and travelled about 800 km overall. The first time we did the bike path to the end and back home, a total of 34 km, was just huge feeling of accomplishment. The best part was being with my hubby but I did bike alone sometimes too. I lost weight (50 lbs), felt the thrill of my muscles working, The breeze in my hair, I felt free and in a weird way.. normal. I was doing a normal activity. I love my bike! I did end up having to replace some spokes at the end of the summer as some of the bikepaths around my home are terriblly uneven and I did a lot of bouncing along. I regret not doing this years ago. I was so scared of being judged because I was sure my butt was going to overhang my bike seat. Then made the decision that I had put off what I wanted too often for fear of what others would think. Or what I thought they might think. My bike is white with hippy kinda beige and black flowers and pink and white trim around the wheels. Not subtle at all and I loved it. I decided to challenge myself and greet each person we met on the bikepath with eye contact and a cheery hello. Hard as hell but empowering. I'm hoping for an early spring so I can get back out there again.