Most Bikes Aren’t Made for Plus-Sized Bodies
With the help of some experts, one woman goes on a quest to get back on two wheels.
Over the past year, I’ve gotten into a regular habit of dipping in and out of online marketplaces to browse second-hand bikes. Like so many people during the pandemic, I too have wanted to reconnect with a life on two wheels. I was ready to test ride a bike when my boyfriend, with all good intentions, suggested that I might be too heavy for the one I had found. I am fat, a word I’ve worked hard to reclaim, and it had never occurred to me that bikes might have weight limits. As it turns out, many bike shops and cyclists I have chatted with since aren’t aware either.
As a child and young adult, I spent all my weekends on a bike. It was my transport, leisure activity, social life, and exercise. Now, as a plus-sized woman in my late thirties, I don’t own one. I have ridden them over the years, rented while on holiday or borrowed over weekends, but most of those memories include a sore bottom and broken pedals.
After a bit of research, I discovered that yes, for a lot of bikes on the market, I am too fat. Many frames and components (like wheels and pedals) have weight limits of around 265 pounds, which includes the rider and their kit. Some high performance road bikes have even lower restrictions. Manufacturers have different limits, and some don’t even publish them in their product details—you have to seek this detail out in FAQs or email them. Most manufacturers post a weight limit for liability reasons: a conservative estimate to protect themselves and the product’s warranty. But as a plus-sized person, riding a bike that isn’t supportive of your weight can be dangerous. If components fail, it could cause a nasty accident.
When I walked into my local chain bike shop here in London, I was not able to find a bike suitable for me. There are plenty of specialist shops that offer a better range and chance of finding something appropriate. But unlike buying an off-the-shelf model in a warehouse-style store, purchasing from a specialist, with custom components suitable for my weight, means higher prices. And this fee comes on top of the social cost of having to ask for help related to my size. While most people in bike shops try to be as helpful as they can, in my experience, the vast majority are straight-sized men who often look at me and make assumptions that I am lazy, unfit, and incapable. Larger people are often advised to make healthier life choices, but when pursuing those choices come at increased expense and means facing stigma, you can understand why so many choose not to try.
I am not new to the outdoors: I have spent years exploring beautiful places in all conditions, but I have always done so on foot or by water. I am no stranger to the limitations of my weight—not those imposed by me, but by outdoor apparel and gear brands. It’s a common challenge in the plus-size community that we must creatively adapt our plans and kit depending on whatever we can get our hands on, but for a piece of equipment like a bike, I didn’t want to cut corners. This was going to be an investment, and I wanted to be safe as well as comfortable—but where should I even start?
“The first time I wrote, ‘I’m fat’ on a piece of paper was a year after I got my bike,” says Kailey Kornhauser, an advocate for improved size inclusion in biking. Kornhauser lives, works, and bikes in Corvallis, Oregon, where she is a PhD candidate at Oregon State University. “I started writing about my experience after riding with friends who were a lot smaller than me. My first reaction was to make myself smaller,” she says. Biking is harder for plus-sized people. Heavier bodies have to output more power to climb hills. Like Kornhauser, I too felt like perhaps the biking world wasn’t for me. It felt like something to put on a list of things I can do again when I lose weight. But what if I don’t? I don’t want to be another fat person putting my life on pause. I want to enjoy my life now, and I want to enjoy it by riding a bike.
“It was reading Lindy West’s book Shrill that got me to realize that I am more powerful because I can get myself up a hill on my bike,” says Kornhauser. “I am actually really strong, and this body enables me to do this. So I started writing about it.” Early on, Kornhauser didn’t know any other plus-sized people in the outdoors, but then she discovered groups like Unlikely Hikers and Fat Girls Hiking on Instagram. “It was an oh wow moment,” she says. “There were people saying the things I had been thinking and writing about.”
Then, Kornhauser met Pearl Izumi and Shimano ambassador Marley Blonsky at a workshop where Blonsky was giving a talk about being fat and biking. Blonsky and Kornhauser connected, and they now run webinars and workshops to help other plus-sized people understand how to buy a bike, what to wear, and how they can enjoy biking in a bigger body. The pair featured in a Shimano film called All Bodies on Bikes earlier this year. Their advice: work out the kind of biking you want to do first, set a budget, and remember that weight limits apply to all bike components. “It isn’t just the frame, but other weight-bearing components need considering,” says Kornhauser. “The pedals, saddle, wheels and brakes all need to be looked at.” Also, accept that bike-shop culture will be a challenge and that your butt will still hurt at the end of a day out riding.
Some brands are doing better than others at designing components for bigger bikers. Brooks England offers two heavy-duty saddles for 280-pound bodies, the B33 and B135. Kornhauser recommends pedals with pins instead of bearings, which cost more but last longer. Kornhauser says custom wheels with more spokes are worth investing in: “It’s really easy to swap out the wheels,” Kornhauser says. “A good bike shop will do a trade with you when you buy the bike.” All these elements can be tailored when working with a specialist bike shop, but that customization is pricey, and could leave you spending an additional $300 to $500. “Build this into your budget,” recommends Kornhauser. “It’s better to spend more up front and have to replace less later. It’s also safer.”
But even still, Kornhauser says, “I don’t think the industry has ever thought about what it means to make components for larger riders for the long term. I find myself going through brake-pads quicker than my friends with smaller bodies. Pedals crack, and the rail on a saddle will break.”
After three months of research and deliberation, I don’t feel much closer to actually buying a bike. But with the advice from Kornhauser and Blonsky, I have narrowed down my search to a few brands like Specialized, Surly, and Kona, which have promising options. The Surly Troll and Specialized Rockhopper are worth saving for. Kornhauser favors a Kona Libre, while Blonsky recommends a Surly Bridge Club. With a global shortage of bikes, it could be some time before I am back on two wheels, but I now have a better understanding of what I need. And knowing more about what a bike that will work for my body will look like has put me in a more informed and confident position when I walk into bike shops.