Can an overweight woman successfully ride a bike?
In a word – YES. In this post I’ll admit to being overweight and out of shape and tell you what others are too embarrassed to put in print about themselves. I’m grateful for the handful of overweight women bloggers who guided and encouraged me with their posts on biking … and helped me to discover that fat girls can ride bikes.
Back in April, my friend Andrea and I were planning our travels to the TBEX (Travel Bloggers Exchange) conference in Toronto. Andrea is a writer, a blogger, a television show producer, and a premier marketer who is in top physical shape. At about 4′ 10″ tall she looks like she weighs slightly over 100 lbs. She does yoga, runs, bikes, kayaks – you name it.
I am an overweight 54 year old travel blogger and writer who (in April) hadn’t been on a bicycle since my 29 year old daughter was over my rear bike tire in a child’s seat. And I didn’t much like biking then.
Andrea and I were looking forward to TBEX and the networking with other bloggers, and we jointly made plans for getting to the conference. I arranged for our hotel and airline reservations, Andrea scheduled our pre conference activities. These activities gave attending travel bloggers a chance to mingle with each other and see the city prior to the conference. I was hoping Andrea would sign us up for the Instagram Photography Walk, or the Paddle Toronto Kayaking Adventure, or maybe a foodie or culture tour. But alas, we were late in signing up so the best available option for us was a tour called Urban Renewal on Two Feet and Two Wheels. The event was described thusly:
Steeped in nature and history you will work your way through a nook and cranny tour of one of the top geotourism sites in the world, the Evergreen Brick Works. After learning about the site that was heavily involved in the rebuilding of Toronto after one of the great fires you will hop onto a European style bike and get on the trails. These trails will lead you through a part of the city’s vast natural urban ravine systems, the Lower Don. From urban reclaimed industrial to the nature that still thrives and is being protected, this experience will have you seeing, touching and feeling all the textures of Toronto’s natural side. Non-strenuous walking, biking, and transportation included.
Non-strenuous for whom? Andrea and I would have totally different perspectives on non-strenuous. I wondered what the tour host’s perspective was.
And wait a minute …. Biking. Biking? Biking!
I weighed over 200 lbs and could walk five miles without getting winded. But not having ridden a bike in nearly 30 years, I wondered if the old saying, “…it’s like riding a bike” meaning you never forget was really true. And whomever made up the saying did so when bikes were just two wheels on a frame without gears and gadgets and technology that bikes have today.
The thought of being the fat girl on the tour, throwing my huge leg over a bike saddle in front of travel blogging colleagues from all over North America … and possibly losing my balance …. or falling off … or not being able to get on …. or the worst —- not being able to cut it physically and giving up mid-tour … was frightening. I had an issue to resolve and the way I saw it, I had three choices:
- Admit to Andrea that I didn’t feel comfortable and tell her we’d have to take one of the other options – which at this point was Discover Gay Toronto or one of several art walks (not our niches).
- Say nothing to Andrea, go through as planned and chance being publicly humiliated.
- Research biking for fat ladies, and make an intelligent decision on whether this was possible for someone like me. If yes, go with the tour. If no – go with Discover Gay Toronto whatever else was left.
A WEALTH OF INFORMATION IS ONLINE
So I turned to Google and began looking at what other women did. Who were the successful fatties riding bikes? How far did they usually go? What kind of bike was best? What kind of equipment did they use? How long is the average bike trip? 5 miles? 2 miles? 10 miles? How many gears would I need and how do they work? <–still figuring this one out.
I discovered a few things. Biking is less stressful than walking when it comes to pain in the feet and knees. This was good news. I also discovered that fat girls can ride bikes, but the kind of bike one chooses is key. There are recreational bikes, mountain bikes and road bikes (and many subsets of these).
Road Bikes are the most common seen in stores these days. They have thin tires, large wheels and are light weight. They are designed for riding on pavement. If you live in an area with lots of paved bike trails or if you don’t mind sharing the road with cars, this is a good choice. These are the bikes for serious cyclists — like the ones with those stretchy outfits that go mega-fast on the roads, and sign up for those Iron Man tours and 100 mile trails. Obviously not for me.
Mountain Bikes have thicker tires and can ride on dirt, gravel, uneven road surfaces as well as smooth road surfaces. They have good shock absorbers but usually smaller wheels which make them less desirable for the long “paved bike path” type of trail, but excellent for “off-road” type biking. The biggest hill we have in our region is about 3 feet high. I can’t see myself as the off-road type. This wasn’t for me either.
Recreational Bikes are good for folks who want comfort and a bike that is easy to handle. There are cruisers which do well on flat ground, riding around town, and going short distances. You often see these at the beach. They have upright handlebars, wide seats (saddles) and sometimes only one gear. They are made for comfort. Hybrids are another option. They usually have the comfortable seat and upright handlebars, but also a tire slightly thicker than a road bike tires so non-paved roads are navigable. They go faster than a mountain bike and have versatility and comfort as priorities.
I learned that a recreational bike – a cruiser or hybrid would be the best choice for an overweight woman who is taking up biking. It was likely that urban Toronto would be using this type of bike, so I decided to try one out and see if I could test drive a bike and make this thing work.
CHOOSING A BIKE
After checking out a slew of articles online about how to choose the right bike, I decided I’d turn to my local bike shops. Here are three good posts about choosing the style that’s right for you.
ASKING THE EXPERTS AT MY LOCAL BIKE SHOPS AND TAKING A TEST RIDE
I found the best information I received about choosing a bike came from my local bike shops. I stopped in at 4 different shops on the Delmarva Peninsula.
The guy at Easton Cycle and Sport said he was confident that I could easily ride a bike. Then he showed me the TREK Shift 1 model he had in stock. He explained the benefit of a hybrid-comfort bike – and this bike in particular. Then I asked him about bike racks for the car and he gave me another great lesson on how to transport bikes and tips for riding amid the stress of automobile traffic. I didn’t buy anything that day, nor did I test ride a bike, because I was in my work clothes. But I had that TREK Shift 1 on my mind.
Then I went into ON the Rivet Cycle and Sport in Cambridge and spent 30 minutes getting encouragement and suggestions from the store’s owner. They are more of a bike servicing shop, but the information I received was invaluable. He also touted the TREK Shift 1 as a good first bike for me.
I decided to test drive the TREK Shift 1 and buy it if I could balance myself on it. I called the bike shop nearest my home (Salisbury, MD). They lady on the phone (wife of the owner) said that she had a TREK Shift 1 in stock and that she thought it would be fine for a woman of about 200 lbs. I told her I was on my way in. When I got there, the salesman continued to encourage me to choose the TREK Shift 1. But the shop owner’s wife said that the parking lot was still wet from an earlier rain and she was worried that the bike might get splashed. She said “no” to the test ride. I thanked her and left the store.
From the parking lot of Salisbury Cycle and Fitness, I searched other nearby bike shops on my iPhone. It was 4:00 in the afternoon on a Friday and most shops closed at 5 pm. I found Continental Cycles in Ocean Pines (30 miles from Salisbury) who had a TREK Shift 1 in stock and the guy on the phone said he’d not only let me test ride it that day, but he’d stay open until I got there.
I arrived in 30 minutes and he had the TREK Shift 1 all set out and polished for me …. ready for the test ride. I hopped on and fell in love as I pedaled around the parking lots. I came back in the store and purchased the bike, a helmet, a rack for the back with carrying bag, and a basket for the front. I can’t say enough about the great service Continental Cycles.
Then I took my bike home and began my conditioning for the Toronto bike excursion 1 weeks away.
CONDITIONING MYSELF FOR THE TORONTO URBAN BIKE RIDE
I’m lucky that I live where the biggest hill within 50 miles is only 6 feet above sea level. Not having hills makes cycling much easier at the start, though wind can be a hindrance. The first day I biked 7 miles. The second 14 (that nearly killed me). I only had one week from the time I bought the bike until my ride in Toronto. I rode everyday and found I was able to do 10 miles with almost no issue. I figured I’d be fine. When we met the group in Toronto I could get on the bike and cycle proficiently but I didn’t realize that Toronto has hills – and I mean HILLS. I completed the ride, but wondered if my travel blogging colleagues realized I was about to drop dead from exhaustion. Seriously …. one week was not enough.
5 TIPS FOR FAT GIRLS WHO START BIKING:
- The Hardest Thing About Riding a Bike is starting and stopping. Getting going can be a dangerous challenge. Give yourself room. Actually getting on the bike and starting to pedal takes a bit of maneuvering.
- Stopping is also something to practice… not so much “how to apply the brakes” but what to do with your feet once the bike stops so that you don’t fall over.
- Make sure your seat is adjusted to the right height. Your toes should touch the ground while seated in the saddle (according to my bike shop guy).
- You butt is going to hurt… even if it’s a big butt. Get yourself one of those wide padded saddles with the shock absorbers or get one a padded cover for the saddle. This makes a huge difference.
- Wind can be as challenging as hills if it’s blowing against you. It’s similar to rowing against the current in a kayak.
Once you’re on the road peddling away, the experience is invigorating and easy. If you happen to live in a fabulous landscape like I do the rides can be inspiring.
I found that I loved riding a bike. Walking seems so boring to me now. There are so discoveries I made within a few miles of my home, and now there are so many places I want to ride.
Views From My Bike
Here’s a video that features some of the views I had from my bike this summer. My first 3 months of riding took me all over Somerset County, Maryland – Marion Station, Rumbly Point, Quindoqua, Shelltown, Upper Fairmount, Rumbly, Frenchtown and Crisfield. I also biked the trails at the Assateague National Seashore both on the Maryland and Virginia sides. And, of course there was my urban bike excursion at TBEX in Toronto. In three short months, this fat girl has biked over 300 miles.
TIPS FOR OLD HAGS WHO WANT TO START RIDING A BIKE
See a doctor first – I had just been to my doctor and talked about various exercise regimes. I was given the all clear to bike as much as I wanted to. But balance is an important part of biking, as is bone health and heart health. It’s smart to consult a physician first.
Get the bike that’s right for you – If you get a bike that is not right for your body or your physical ability, you won’t ride it and will have wasted your money. Do some research and talk to the folks at your local bike shop. You’ll get the best advice from the professionals who sell and repair bicycles every day.
Join a local cycling club – Nothing makes a hobby more fun than being able to share it with others. I have my own group of traveling girlfriends – The Travel Hags – and we bike together. But finding your own local group can make the biking experience more informative and fun. Google “cycling clubs [your state]” or ask your local bike shop about cycling groups in your area.
Have fun with mobile apps – I faithfully use Cyclemeter GPS. It’s a $4.99 app for the iPhone that does everything you want … tracks your route, your elevation, average speed, calorie burn, ride time and even allows posting to Facebook and Twitter. I started with Pedometer by Viaden which is a free app (with a $.99 paid version) that does most of the same things as Cyclemeter GPS, but it fades in and out when it comes to GPS tracking and doesn’t post to the social media platforms. Another fun app a friend shared with me is Strava for Cycling. It gives you choices of tested bike routes in any given area.
Stay out of traffic as much as possible – This is my opinion. In my day job I drive between 1500 and 2000 miles per month on rural highways and state roads. The number of drivers I see texting, talking on their phones, searching for music stations or God knows what else – while driving – is astounding. There are so many distracted drivers on the road. Drivers think bikers are watching out for them, and bikers think the drivers are watching out for the bikes. It’s a recipe for disaster. If you are a beginner or someone who is simply biking for the pleasure of it, stay out of automobile traffic as much as possible. Choose rarely traveled roads or exclusive hiking / biking trails.
FOR GOD’S SAKE Wear a helmet – Anything – a large pebble, a small animal, a tire blow out, a simple pot hole – can cause you to fall down on a bicycle. Hitting your head on the ground can cause life-long consequences. This from the NY Dept of Health says it all. “When your head hits the ground, your skull stops but your brain continues to travel, crashing against the skull. The impact of the brain against the skull bruises and damages delicate brain tissue. It often results in lifelong changes in the way you think, act, feel and move. Helmets absorb the shock of the impact, and prevent or reduce the severity of the crash between the brain and skull.” It’s not worth the risk. Wear a helmet.
YOU CAN BE FAT AND RIDE A BIKE
I’m so glad Andrea signed us up for that TBEX bike ride in Toronto. Otherwise, this whole new world would be unknown to me. Since I started riding in May I’ve lost 20 lbs and I feel better than I have in long time. Get the bike that’s right for you, make some friends and enjoy some safe routes, gear and mobile apps. It’s a hobby that brings great rewards. Anyone who is basically healthy can enjoy the ride.
And yes, travel hags … fat girls CAN ride bikes.
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