I finally attended my first webinar of lockdown yesterday (that is, my first webinar without Lili). It was about Fat Bikers, not fat wheeled bikes and the people who ride them, but fat, plus sized, large cyclists. Cyclists like me.
I’m fairly new to the fat positivity movement. Positive thoughts about my own fatness began to creep in during our first cycle tour when I realised that touring wasn’t going to make me lose weight, but my body was capable and strong anyway, so what did losing weight actually matter. After that I began to keep an eye out on social media and in magazines, for other fat cyclists. Eventually I stumbled on Kailey Kornhauser (who recently featured on the front cover of the USA’s Bicycling magazine) and Marley Blonsky (who runs a popular blog amongst other things). They are both fat cyclists who talk about their experiences, so when I saw they were running a webinar on creating a size inclusive bike community I had to join in.
So what did I learn?
First off the talk was intensely relatable. From being unable to find technical raincoats which fit fat people, to being patronised on hills by quicker cyclists, there was a lot which echoed my own experiences. One of the things which really stood out though was the way in which cycling is made inaccessible to fat people.
I’m lucky in that i’m what is considered ‘Small-fat’. This basically means that I am fat but I can still usually shop at mainstream clothing stores and can fit into airplane seats or office chairs. Being small fat in itself gives me privilege which makes my life a lot easier than people who are mid, super or infini fat, but it isn’t easy. Cycling should be accessible to everyone, but bikes themselves often don’t accomodate fat bodies. I had never heard before of structural weight limits on bikes or on pedals or saddles. Luckily I am really into 90’s steel framed mountain bikes, which apparently are one of the few second hand bike options avaliable to fat people. But how easy would it be for me, weighing 19 stone, to find a new, affordable bike which can take my weight and the weight of my (overloaded) luggage? And why is my range of bikes now narrowed to super expensive bikes with high weight capacities or second hand steel mountain bikes?
Whilst listening, I remembered how after three weeks on our last tour my pedal broke in half, leaving the metal from the crank arm poking into the bottom of my foot until we got to a bike shop in Reading. The pedals were generic plastic things and I couldn’t quite believe I’d broken one. The man in the shop didn’t once mention my weight, but it would have been great to know beforehand that I might need to spend a little extra on my pedals to get me where I needed to go. In fact, Lili is always commenting on how odd it is the number of little breakages I have on my bike, but it makes perfect sense when I relate it to my size. But 1. why should I pay more to have a bike which works and 2. Why the hell isn’t it standard to have bikes which can accomodate larger bodies?
Part of me wonders if it would make sense to have an index of bikes which were built for fat people and tested by fat people so that other fat people don’t have to go through a million breakages and expensive parts before finding a bike which works for them. So much of making cycling accessible to fat people is about sharing knowledge and I would love to start putting something like this together.
Things like brake pads are also something that I hadn’t considered before! As Kailey talked about whizzing down an Alaskan pass with barely anything to brake with, I was transported back in Switzerland having the exact same problem (and having to stop myself with my feet!) So much of these things need to be communicated in the bike community, by mechanics, by biking organisations, by other cyclists in order to provide the minimum amount of safety to fat cyclists. We should know that we might need to check or replace our brake pads more often. It’s much more fun having a weight advantage as I go speeding down a hill if i’m going to be able to brake effectively at the bottom of it.
Some of you might wonder how to communicate this sort of stuff to fat cyclists. A lot of people, fat or otherwise, cringe at the word ‘fat’. It’s a word which is associated not just to a substance which makes up part of everyone’s body but as a synonym of ‘ugly’ or ‘lazy’ or ‘worthless’. It is used to make people feel bad about themselves. I don’t want to get too into a talk about fatphobia outside of the cycling community today (unless you want to read an essay right now), but if you still associate fatness with these things you would benefit from reassessing your inbuilt prejudices. That being said, telling someone technical information by referring directly to their body probably isn’t a good idea either. It would probably be more useful to have a chart, an infographic or something similar which you could show everyone, allowing them to self-identify and make decisions based on this. Also, it’s worth knowing that a lot of fat people are probably not going to find it easy taking recommendations from a non-fat person about fat specific tech or gear. Fat people are used to being treated pretty badly by society and quite frankly, what does somebody who has never been fat know about what’s right for fat people? In this case, it might be worth questioning whether you are the right person to be giving this information, or if you work for a large company, ask why it is that you have no fat employees?
It’s also important not to make assumptions about the type of cycling a fat person does or the type of gear they’re looking for. The webinar pointed out that not all fat people want big comfy saddles and sit up and beg bikes. Fat people want road bikes and mtbs and tourers and dutch bikes and folding bikes and ebikes as much as anyone else. Being a tourer myself I am so disinterested by super fast carbon bikes. I’m also a very slow cyclist, but I’m happy to keep going for a long distance. When I talk about my journeys with bike mechanics they’re often surprised to hear how far I’ve ridden because there is an assumption that all fat people will lose weight once they’ve started riding and therefore all fat cyclists must be beginners. This is frustrating and can often lead to a lot of time being lost or unnecessary information being shared simply because somebody assumed something about me based on my size, rather than asking me about my cycling.
So what else was the webinar about?
There was a lot of cool recommendations for plus size cycling kit (I’ll add these to the bottom of the page). But because, I’ve already written about cycling clothing for fat tourers here, all I’ll do now is echo (the apparently universal question) WHY CAN’T I BUY A TECHNICAL RAINCOAT FOR FAT PEOPLE ANYWHERE?!?!? Please, I live in Scotland guys, I’m so fed up of getting wet on bike rides. My huge decathlon poncho will only do up to a point!
I think the main thing I took from this talk is how important it is that the cycling community starts having conversations about making itself accessible to fat people. These conversations can be uncomfortable – I don’t know a single person who is at peace with their body- but every cyclist I know understands that joy of movement and that’s the thing we should be trying to introduce and give to as many people as possible. If you leave fat people out of the community, you miss out on such a huge swathe of excellent, creative, interesting, brave, brilliant individuals. You also tend to lose voices from already marginalised communties, which often have a higher percentage of fat folks.
I’d recommend following and reading more of Marley’s and Kailey’s writing if you’re interested in fat cycling. I’m also planning to continue blogging about the people,
communities and information I find as I continue to explore fat cycling. If you have any recommendations of books, films, organisations or anything relating to fat cycling, then please let me know in the comments. I’m especially interested in anything UK or Europe based.
The webinar left me excited about using my voice and talking about my experiences. It has also left me really interested in finding other fat cyclists in the UK to begin building a community. Maybe after lockdown a big, fat, community cycle tour is in order?
Resources from The Fat Biking webinar:
- Marley’s Blog: http://lifeontwowheels.space/
- Kailey’s article in Bicycling magazine: https://www.bicycling.com/culture/a28943613/body-positivity-cyclists/
Fat sports clothing brands: