By Sheila Ascroft
What’s a fat broad like me — 200 pounds of flab squatting over skinny tires — doing on the road? I’m cycling just like everyone else. And regardless of your size, you belong here too! If you like cycling, don’t let your mind cheat your body out of doing something fun and healthy.
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.
So what does it take to ride comfortably as a larger female? Just a few mental and physical adjustments I’ve honed over the years. Here’s what works:
Change Your Mindset
I realized if I waited until I was thin, I’d still be waiting to bike! Don’t let your size stop you from participating. Each ride is a chance to explore the limits of my body and mind.
Over time, you can work through any self-doubt and embarrassment by cycling farther and longer. My first 30 km ride 20 years ago was a revelation. You too can start with a simple goal and build on it. It can even be a short tour of your neighbourhood – just get out there, and then do it again!
Make Your Bike Right
If you have a hand-me-down or your current bike just hurts to ride, maybe it just doesn’t fit your body properly. Maybe all you need is a new saddle or shorter handlebar stem. You could go for a bike fitting at your local bike shop (Giles Bertrand at Cyclo Sportif G.M. Bertrand) or consult a professional such as Mary Paterson at Bike2Body.
Match your bike right
It’s important to match the bike to your planned use. If there are hilly dirt roads at your cottage, a single speed cruiser won’t fit the bill, but a mountain bike will. Don’t be afraid to test ride different types of bikes (hybrids, road, city, mountain) before deciding. (After buying (and selling) several bikes, I settled on a quality sport touring bike for long road rides and a low-end mountain bike for errands.)
Pick The Right Bike Shop
This is crucial. If you don’t feel like the staff is listening to your needs or taking you seriously, go elsewhere. Ottawa is blessed with many good bike shops so you can be choosy. Don’t be intimidated, you have as much right to buy a quality bike as the skinny guy beside you. Visit the shop when it’s not busy so the staff will have more time for you.
Besides the correct size of frame (if you’re quite short or tall, there will be fewer choices), make sure to ask if the frame material is appropriate for your weight. I have been riding ride chromoly steel or aluminum frames for 20 years with no problems.
Sit On The Right Saddle
All butts are different, but the right saddle does exist. If your butt hurts or you feel pressure on your private parts, the saddle could be the culprit. Mary Paterson, a professional bike-fitter, says that, “a saddle will be uncomfortable if the seat is too high.” Make the saddle level or slightly tilt the nose down. “I find people prefer the slightly nose-down position 95 per cent of the time.” Pointed too far down and “you end up sitting on the wrong part of the saddle.” A pointed up saddle puts pressure on the soft tissues at the front of the crotch.
Thankfully, there are more women’s saddles to choose from than ever and no need to let discomfort stop you from cycling. So what is best for your butt?
- Avoid men’s saddles as they are too narrow for a woman’s wider pelvis and sit bones.
- Almost any women’s saddle will do for a casual 30-minute ride, but if you want to ride longer then a saddle that supports your butt is vital. For a useful saddle chart, check out Terry Bicycles.
- You need a saddle wide enough at the rear to support your sit bones (to feel them, sit on a curb); otherwise all the pressure will be on your soft tissue.
- Some saddles may fit you well, but aren’t designed to hold your weight. You might feel the saddle sinking onto its rails – not a good thing. And that wide plush saddle may look comfy but it will be too squishy when riding. It will press on your private parts and hurt.
- It takes three consecutive rides before you can tell if a new saddle is the right one. A hard saddle may hurt for the first two days, but then you come to appreciate its supportiveness. (Ask your bike shop if you can return the saddle if it’s not comfortable after a week.)
- Don’t be discouraged. It may take a few tests to find your ‘right’ model. (My favourite is the Selle Italia Ladies Gel Flow.)
- Any bike saddle will be more comfortable if you wear padded bike shorts.
- Avoid chaffing and saddle sores by never wearing panties under your cycling shorts. Always wear clean shorts and remove them as soon as possible after the ride.
Get The Right Gearing
Given the chance, get a bike with three chain rings. A ‘triple’ has an extra little chain ring with about 30 teeth. It’s called a ‘granny’ for good reason! It helps both the old and overweight climb hills.
Wear The Right Clothes
You need to wear cycling shorts for a ride longer than 30 minutes. The extra padding is more comfortable and prevents chaffing on the inner thighs. If you absolutely refuse to be seen in Lycra shorts, try wearing a padded liner under your civilian shorts or mountain biking shorts. Both will do the job for casual rides.
You also need a pair of cycling gloves. They provide a more comfy grip and reduce the pressure on the handlebars. A helmet is not legally required, but smart cyclists don’t leave home without one! (Besides the latest models are very well vented and will keep you cool.)
Unfortunately, many local bike shops just don’t carry sizes for big women. Usually, they sell ‘pro fit’ jerseys and shorts rather than ‘relaxed fit’. Still, if you find a brand you like, check to see if it comes in larger (such as Louis Garneau) and order it in. Any top that wicks away the sweat will work, but a cycling-specific jersey comes with three back pockets to carry that cell phone, banana, or sunscreen.
Try Mountain Equipment Co-op, which offers a good variety of sizes, although sometimes you may be wearing the men’s version of a jersey. (Who cares as long as it keeps you comfy on the road?)
You can also shop online for cycling clothes, but you’ll usually pay U.S. prices. Georgina Terry offers nice jerseys, shorts and skorts or try Junonia. Aerotech Design offers big-sized cycling wear for women and men.
Learn The Right Road Rules
Finally, a class may be just what you need to feel more confident cycling around the city. Consider Citizens for Safe Cycling; the instructors are well trained and offer a variety of CAN-BIKE courses for children and adults.
© Sheila Ascroft (This article first appeared in Ottawa Outdoors Magazine, Spring/Summer 2009.)
I’ve been cycling for 20-some years and writing about it for the last 10. My articles have been published in newspapers and magazines — and now on the women’s cycling website! I’m a member of the Ottawa Bicycle Club and the Canadian Kilometer Achiever Program. www.sheilaascroft.com