How to Ride a Bike: A Guide for Fat Cyclists (02.05)

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I wrote this article for the London Cycling Campaign’s magazine, after being angered by the organisation’s constitutional commitment to eradicating obesity. Sadly, that fatphobic policy is still in place, and their attitude to fat cyclists is even worse these days. I cancelled my membership because of that but I get a lot of mail about this article, there’s a need out there for information and support for fat people on bikes.

When people talk about the alleged global obesity epidemic, they are talking about me. The London Cycling Campaign’s commitment to helping eradicate obesity is actually about eliminating people like me. Whilst using this anti-fat rhetoric may be politically useful in generating support and securing funds, and whilst this organisation is far from alone in doing it, this kind of attitude to body shape diversity encourages no one to get on a bicycle. Instead it demonises an often battered section of society, contributes to a moral panic about body size, feeds on fear and shame, and is deeply insulting.

The negative effects of dieting and yo-yoing weight on the body and soul have been well documented, so why follow that route? After a lifetime of health-threatening yo-yoing, together with the knowledge that 98% of dieters regain the weight lost, many of us are no longer interested in trying to punish ourselves with fantasies. It’s better to integrate fatness and good health instead, and learn to develop a healthy appreciation of our bodies, whatever their size. This can be a tall order since most fat people grow up in cultures that demean us as lazy, greedy and ugly, and where many of us believe this to be true of ourselves. Happily, cycling can help.

If you are fat it’s likely that the only time cycling is presented to you in a positive light is as a means to lose weight. This has bound the act of getting on a bicycle with notions of duty, poor self-image, body anxiety and more – could there be a more depressing prospect? It’s unlikely that these feelings would make anyone feel good and excited about riding.

There are lots of reasons why fat people might be reticent about cycling. Perhaps we haven’t cycled since we were kids, or maybe we never learned to ride. Maybe we associate it with punishing weight loss regimes instead of an activity that can be enjoyed in its own right. Some might worry that they are not fit enough, and this combined with emotionally damaging harassment from passers-by – or even the fear of it – is enough to put anyone off from having a go. Bigger fat people might be concerned about damaging a bike, or injuring themselves, and then there is the hassle of finding appropriate clothing that fits.

As a fat cyclist this has been my experience too, but here are some tips and ideas I’ve found over the years that might help others get going:

Get a bike that fits
Even though we were active cyclists as kids, for many of our adult years my girlfriend and I believed that we were physically incapable of riding. The reason? We had mountain bikes. There’s no polite way to put this but there was simply not enough belly space, and our wrists had to support our whole body weight. A holiday in Germany awoke us to the possibilities of upright European bikes: they were built for us, easy to ride and suddenly we felt like superwomen! Since then we have bought big, heavy Dutch bikes, which are smooth, extremely comfy, never break down, have big wide saddles and are hefty enough to get us where we need to go. The lesson? Don’t underestimate the power of fat-friendly design when considering a bike.

Don’t worry about being unfit
You don’t have to make like a lycra-clad bike messenger weaving in and out of the traffic to be a cyclist. Go at a pace that suits you, work with your body’s capabilities, not against them, and treat yourself kindly. If once around the park is enough then so be it. Break up long journeys by taking your bike on the train or carrying it on a car rack. Feeling wobbly? Practise on quiet roads. There’s more than one way to be a cyclist: if you want to build up your fitness levels you can, it’s fine if you just use your bike to go to the shops, and if you’re happy with an occasional ride then that’s okay too.

Learn how to deal with hecklers
Every fat person has a depressing story about being harassed on the street and, because of the problems outlined above, fat cyclists are a rare enough sight that you may be the target of some unkind comments. You probably have your own way of dealing with hecklers, ignoring them is usually the best policy. It’s easier said than done, especially if you are already feeling fragile and on view on your bike, but don’t let mean or ignorant people get to you, and be gentle to yourself afterwards.

Improvise equipment
Most cycling gear is available in smaller sizes only, so you may have to use your imagination a little. Don’t be discouraged by reflector belts that don’t fit, buy a couple and tape them together. Get large-sized waterproofs from industrial outfitters, or buy a rain cape. Some plus-size clothes shops stock sportswear, but if there’s nothing in your area just wear what’s comfortable. If you have time, do us all a favour and lobby specialist cycling clothing manufacturers to produce a wider range of sizes.

Don’t be intimidated
Some members of the cycling community can be very judgmental about weight and body size. Pay them no mind and remember that you have just as much of a right to ride as anyone. If you receive poor or rude service at a bike shop, let them know that you are taking your business elsewhere because of the disrespectful way they have treated you. The more of us that do this means the less they’ll get away with it.

Keep going!
It’s easy to let things slip, especially if you are a nervous cyclist, but don’t give up. Make cycling fun, go for a ride with a friend, cycle in the sunshine, race some kids, just keep pushing the pedals round and round. And if you see another fat cyclist, be sure to ring your bell in solidarity.