If you’re overweight, biking might be the ultimate way to get active and get in shape. It’s low impact, so you can get an intense workout without crushing your joints and bones. It’s great for building your leg muscles, strengthening your core, burning calories, and for cardiovascular fitness. But best of all, bombing around town on a bike is fun as hell, so you’ll look forward to riding instead of dreading “working out.”
But starting cycling can be daunting—there are equipment questions, safety concerns, clothing questions, and more—and it can be even more challenging if you’re 10 (or 90) pounds overweight. So I talked to Rob Stotts, owner of Burbank, CA’s Stotts Bicycles, about how to get into the sport if you’re a bigger person. Stotts is not only a cycling professional, he’s walked the fat-guy walk too: “I was 280 pounds, and I reduced my weight down to 170 and went back to pro cycling.” Stotts tells me. “It was all biking and diet.”
Step one: Visit your local bike shop
Big box stores and online retailers are great for some things, but when it comes to buying a bike, they’re the wrong place to go. “If you pick up a bike from Walmart, Costco, or places like that, you’re just asking for trouble,” Stotts says. “You see the price point, and it’s very attractive, but those bikes aren’t really set up for people over 200 pounds, especially if you’re planning to put real miles on it.”
Instead of a nearby Target, hit up your local bike shop. Not only will you find a much better selection of higher quality bikes, you’ll be able to talk with a professional who can steer you toward you future steed.
“Any bike shop should be able to accommodate somebody that is overweight,” Stotts says. “I have had customers who are severely overweight. They want to get on a bike, and I’m like, ‘Okay, we have to just set up the bike so that it’s solid and you’re not having to replace parts all the time.’”
Step two: Bicycle options and geometry
There’s no single answer to the question of what kind of bike is best for larger people, but when it comes to road bikes (that is, bikes you’ll be riding on paved roads rather than taking off-road), there are two main categories. “Every manufacturer makes two styles of road bikes,” Stotts explains. “They usually do what’s called an endurance geometry, or they do a race geometry.”
Race bikes are designed for speed. They put users in a more aerodynamic (i.e. hunched over) position, and are stiffer, the better to transfer power from the pedals. Most people consider this a less comfortable ride than the more upright posture and greater flexibility allowed for by “endurance” bikes, especially if they’re out of shape. But that might not be true for you. “When I was coming down from a high weight and going back to professional cycling, I preferred to stay with more of a race geometry,” Stotts says. “My stomach did hang a little bit, but at the same time, [you’ll] start trimming down, and for me, it was a little bit of a motivation to trim down to ride.”
It’s ultimately a personal thing. Personally, I push an old GT hard-tail mountain bike with road tires—it’s slow as hell next to the Bianci performance bikes that pass me, but it’s as comfortable as an old couch. And where do I need to be so fast anyway?
The bottom line: Try out the bike before you buy it and figure out what suits you. This is the other advantage of buying from a bike shop, which will have staff that can answer your questions, and many if not most bike shops will let you take a bike out on a test spin before you buy it. Take advantage, and try out different styles of bike until you find one that’s right for you.
Step three: Make sure the bike fits you
Having the right sized bike is vitally important. While there are plenty of sizing guides online, there’s no substitute for taking with someone knowledgeable at local bike shop, especially if you’re unusually shaped.
Once you’ve determined you have the right size bike, the shop can also help you adjust it for maximum comfort, from adjusting the pedals to positioning the seat and handlebars.
Step four: Get the right clothing
I’m not a gear-snob when it comes to any kind of exercise—you don’t need special water bottles and the lightest pedals on earth to enjoy a ride—but there are two pieces of non-negotiable bike clothing: A helmet (mandatory for obvious avoiding-head-trauma reasons) and a pair of bike shorts.
Your butt-bones aren’t quite as important as your head bone, but a decent pair of bike shorts is still a must-have. “Cyclists in general wear the padding, they don’t buy a saddle with padding,” Stotts says. “Buy a good pair of shorts. Even if you do have a gel saddle, the softer cycling shorts will help add to a softer, more comfortable ride.”
You might not feel comfortable with the Spandex or MAMIL (middle aged man in Lycra) look, but there are plenty of regular-looking shorts with bike shorts sewn in, or bike underwear you can slide your own shorts over. “If you get a chance to hit one of the local trails and you see guys on mountain bikes, they’re all wearing a base, and a kind of padded underwear situation underneath,” Stotts says.
That said, if you want to rock some tight spandex bike shorts, shave your legs and arms, and slip on a bright orange cycling jersey, do it! You’re a cyclist, and it’s cool to look like one, no matter what you weigh.
Helmets and clothing for plus-size bikers
- BALEAF Women’s Bike Pants High Waist 4D Padded Cycling Capris Shorts
- Bikewa Men’s 4D Padded Bike Shorts Cycling Underwear
- Schwinn Thrasher Adult Lightweight Bike Helmet
- Adult-Men-Women Bike Helmet with Light
- Cycling Jersey Women Aogda Bike Shirts
Step five: Find a community
Finding someone to ride with can help keep you motivated and make your rides more fun. But when you’re starting, don’t try to ride with those whippet-thin serious cyclists; you won’t be able to keep up. If you look around a little, you should be able to find a group to cycle with that will fit your level of fitness and your level of commitment. (I know I keep saying “visit your local bike shop,” but if you want to find a more casual group ride for beginners, visit your local bike shop and see if they offer organized rides.)
Step six: Consider an ebike
Motorized ebikes are everywhere. I considered them cheating until I actually rode one. Now I just consider them really fun. An ebike isn’t going to be as much of a workout as a manual bike, of course, but the extra kick of electric assistance might keep you out on your bike longer, and that’s what it’s about.
“What I like about e-bikes is it’s getting everybody on a bike,” Stotts says. “For people that are overweight, you’re you’re still getting a workout, you’re still able to go places, experience cycling at its fullest. But at the same time, you’re not beat up when you get back.”