Tuesday, June 30, 2009

How can the cycling community reach out to the overweight and obese?

Pedalpalooza was truly an inspiring time for bicyclists in Portland, Oregon, the Bicycle Holy Land. We found religion, we toured taco shops, we danced, we played music, and we paid tribute. In times like theses, it was a refreshing oasis of contentment and togetherness. A coming together of all types of people.

One thing I couldn't help but notice while soaking up some sun on the lawn at MCBF, however, was the stark imbalance of body types represented at this community event, specifically, how few overweight people I noticed. Sure, there were a few full-bodied folks strutting their stuff and doing a magnificent job of it, and Lord knows if it weren't for those great people, it would be easy to say that the cycling community is a completely exclusive group, a clique only fit for the fit. But the fact is, the majority of the people who choose to ride bikes and participate in connected events, at least in this town, are obviously of the medium to small build.

I was happy to see at least one attempt to bring those of larger proportion into the fold this year with the Big Girls Ride, which used the tagline "Big girls ride bikes too so let's go for a ride together." It's good to know that there are people out there aware of the need to attract and encourage overweight folks to cycle, but I think that a lot more could be done in the same vein. How about a riding club that caters to larger members of the community? One that teaches them how to choose the right rigs and equipment to accommodate their body type, that brings together those of similar build and helps them through the things that may have been keeping them off the saddle all along?

I would like to start a discussion on this matter. The fact is, I don't think that someone with my phisycal build could actually form and lead a group like this, as I am sure that the coordination and leadership of such a project would be more appreciated by it's members if the person doing it was of the same persuasion. But, because it's also a rather sensitive subject for some, it's also difficult to bring the idea up to specific people, for fear that I may be labeling them as something that they choose not to identify with.

So here are some primer questions to kick off the conversation. Maybe through this we will learn a little more about this un-tapped demographic in relation to cycling, and maybe someone will feel inspired enough to step up and make something happen.

  1. What are is currently limiting overweight and obese people from enjoying cycling, and what are some things that can be done to help those people get past those limitations?
  2. What model of program or group would best serve to reach out to and assist overweight people in getting on bikes?
  3. Obviously cycling has great health benefits, and spending time on a bike will almost always prove a positive treatment to one's body, but should a program or group focus on weight-loss as a goal, or should the idea simply be the inclusion of all body types, regardless of that person's motivation?
  4. What are the equipment and facility needs of overweight cyclists? How do those needs differ from smaller-build riders?
  5. Are there already programs in existence that focus on this issue? In Portland? If so what are they doing right? What more could they be doing?
  6. Are you, or do you know someone who could benefit from a program that assists and encourages overweight people to ride bikes? What fears or hesitations exist that have kept you or that person from riding?
Please use the comments section for discussion. Anonymous entries, provided they are beneficial to the discussion, are welcome.

Thanks for taking time to talk about this,
Deacon Amos


  1. One way is to just get out there and ride if you are obese. It sure worked for me, after all. encourage easy starter rides in yur local cycling club, and make them "no drop" rides with a strong social factor. In short, show people it's fun, and cycling isn't only for kids and Vikings in Lycra riding in packs on Road or Mountain Bikes.

    Get some family rides going, also. If the family rides with the person, he's or she's got more inducement to keep at it.

  2. An old friend of mine said he was afraid to try cycling simply because he was worried he'd break the bicycle. There *are* really strong frames out there, but it's not like the guy can afford a new one.

  3. I dropped a hundred pounds in a few months when I began using a bike as daily transportation. And while it is true in my own case that losing weight was on the agenda, the larger commitment was and is to changing every aspect of my life. I no longer ate transfats or high fructose corn syrup or flour. I no longer used an automobile for anything under ten miles, and eventually got rid of the thing altogether. I got rid of the television. I stopped going to all but the very occasional film. I reduced my alcohol consumption to almost zero. etc., etc., etc. Weight loss will follow . . .

  4. Getting people to enjoy it is the biggest thing. When I talk to coworkers who say I'm crazy for riding to work only see that its difficult exercise and they'd need to get up earlier in the morning. For the overweight i think this hits even harder with thoughts like "I'd look stupid" or "I'd break the thing".

    I think the way to go about getting more riders, especially the overweight is to work through a local bike shop. With their help, organize a short ride for new and beginning riders. Have the shop tell them how to choose and fit a bike for their weight, as well as where and how they ride. Follow that by a quick explanation of bike safety and traffic laws. Take them on a ride, nothing intense, just enjoyable. After the ride, suggest the new riders see how they feel the next day, then if they enjoyed it, come back and purchase a bike. If the bike shop offers a discount to the participants, all the better. It needs to be well advertised for it to have any chance of bringing new riders in.

  5. Tell ya what, I'm not spamming your blog, here, but feel free to use my blog as well. I started out at 581 pounds and had to use Oxygen to ride. I'm down to ~~199 now, since 2005. The URL is http://theamazingshrinkingman.blogspot.com, or feel free to drop by Bike Forums, where I'm the Head Administrator, and visit our Clydesdale and Athena subforum. I'm sure we'dd be happy to help out any way we can.

  6. I would definitely benefit from a program such as this. I have a great bike and just need beginner rides to work on. Like, " That way to the slight hill or here to stay flat." I would also like to know how to get around town by bike. I am so used to the car and don't have a clue were to start. Everyone that I have met through my husband is wonderful and very friendly. I would be left behind if I tried to participate in even some of the "easy" rides. That is not fun. I don't want to hold everybody up.

  7. Deacon Amos,

    I'm actually more overweight rather than obese. My problem is that I'm in the SW / Multnomah area and anywhere outside my front door is uphill! I've actually driven my bike down to the flatlands so I can ride it without having to go over Mt. Everest. I've paid attention to Easy Riders and Northwest Butts on Bikes the last couple months but they don't seem to be focused on rides for beginners. Do some relatively flat rides of up to 15 miles focused on beginners and it will be a hit!


  8. Lots of different types of people have a variety of barriers to cycling, either recreationally or as a means of transport. These barriers can be physical or psychological or a combination of both, and the latter especially for people with weight issues. To reach out to them, you need to go where they are, to interface with existing groups that are already serving them -- groups like Weight Watchers, Overeaters Anonymous, and even SMART groups, which serve some people with food or weight problems. (A SMART group I attended at the Quest Center for Integrative Health had some attendees who were dealing with compulsive eating and attendant weight problems.) I think you're right that you, personally, are not the best person to form or lead a cycling program targeted at overweight people, but you can help build the necessary bridges between existing groups and appropriate resources in the cycling community, even to the point of creating or augmenting those resources if they are inadequate. (Chris W.'s suggestion about local bike shops, for instance, is excellent, IMO.)

    I would think the first step would be to canvas groups that serve the overweight and find out what they are doing, if anything, related to cycling, gauge their interest, and find out what they think they need and what they perceive as barriers. That would alleviate the risk of alienating people who may not identify with being overweight, it would be a way to answer many of the questions you ask, and it would most likely mean that the focus would be more on weight-loss (at least at first). If one of the barriers for many is that they just don't see many overweight people on bikes and don't feel like they "fit in" with the cycling culture, then helping these groups to start or enhance cycling programs or feed into a cycling program you want to start will, over time, help alleviate that. If one of the barriers is that existing groups just don't know how to get started, don't know what to recommend, don't know where to turn, then you could help alleviate that by pulling together resources in the cycling community.

  9. One simple thing I think that we can do is be mindful of how we act on the road. I am not overweight, but I am out-of-shape and ride a single speed, so I tend to go a lot slower than most riders. I really appreciate it when people announce that they are about to pass me, instead of just blowing by me. I also really appreciate it when faster riders wait it out when it would be difficult to pass. Both of these actions acknowledge my presence and are signs of respect.

  10. 1.I think cycling in our culture is most often seen as sport and not leisure. You need special equipment and have to wear lycra. Now, I know this is not true, but the masses may not. I think advancing cycling as leisurely AND healthful is key.

    Also that one does not need special gear, bikes or clothing to ride.

    Clothing part is key. I used to be much larger. I cycled then as I do now, in my civvies. However, I did so partly because I could not find cycling clothing that fit. (It does exist whoever, but it’s also expensive.) And I really would not feel comfortable in anything so form fitting at that time.

    I still wouldn’t.

    2. Fun and social gatherings that have an underlying tone of increasing health and fitness without discomfort. Many sports and workouts are hard on joints, high impact. Cycling is very low impact and easily can switch pace from cardio to cruise.

    Also should appeal to the populous at large, no one wants to be singled out as the fatty cyclists. We feel that way already. I am probly seen more as the medium to large build these days but I still feel FAT, that self image is hard to shake. I would shun any group than singled me out as obese.

    3. No, weight loss should be a happy side effect of being healthy(er). It’s more important to be healthy than to weigh less. Usually you will weigh less as a result of a healthier lifestyle, but an obese person may never get to be svelte but they can be healthy.

    4. I think hybrids, recumbents and cruisers are plus- friendly bikes. A good cushy, sex specific saddle… I can’t say what I would’ve liked in a facility. maybe rentable bikes of all kinds to they can try it out or if they can;t afford a bike, it's like a 'bike-rental gym"

    5.Donno. Fat girls ride happens every year, and I think more than once a year…but I donno. I know there is an easy riders ride some Sundays, and that’s for beginner riders.

    5.I rode when fat and I ride still. I rode less, when I was fatter, but for reasons unrelated to weight. sometimes self image got in the way.

    Riding has increased my health, since going car free I am far more fit, but like a previous poster said, other important life changes had to happen too. Fitness is more than getting on a bike. And I had to want to be healthy, not thin. Weight loss is still not my goal. Body acceptance is. maybe also offering info on how to eat well to cycle well so it doesn't sound like a weight judgement but how can i best get cycling and lifestyle changes to make me healthier? I mean I eat less, bike more, eat whole foods mostly home prepared and rarely anything prepackaged or processed, and I walk more also since I don;t drive, now I got to the gym

    ...it's all cumulative, biking isn't going to change thier life, but it might start the change. it's easy and fun and cheep.

    beast thing to get more big folk on bikes? Seeming More big folk on bikes. catch 22 ya know!

  11. There have been some really good comments here. You all are much more supportive and understanding of the obese than I am. And I'm obese! I find that the hills are the hard part for me. Getting off to walk them hurts my pride. But I have promised myself to ride next time I'm home, in a week. Also, I like a big old fat seat with springs. Less likely to disappear somewhere as I ride. Spandex? I think that's a privilege, not a right. Happy wheeling, Hunter.

  12. One fundamental assumption that you made is that overweight cyclists wanted to participate in Pedalpalooza. I think the large number of overweight people currently on bikes ride for fitness and are not looking to get involved in the Portland bike community. I weigh 275, ride daily (for the past 6 months) and live in Beaverton. However, I had no desire to participate in the 'keep portland wierd' Pedalpalooza event. I ride for my own enjoyment + the added health benefits.

    I think the typical overweight cyclist (not one who hangs out on bike forums and is involved with the culture) just wants to go out and get some exercise (while enjoying the outdoors). I think the currently biking overweight crowd may be interested in some fat-friendly bike rides (Banks Vernonia Trail difficulty or similar) where they would feel welcome and not intimidated (to get started with group riding).

    Now, your specific questions seemed to focus on how to get a non-biker getting on a bike. After a few rides someone will either enjoy biking or not. The goal should be to get them on those first few rides. A few key points:

    1) Most bikes are very strong and durable, particularly mountain bikes. It is quite simple to find and buy a clyde-ready bike. There are no equipment excuses, over on bikeforums there are guys over 500lbs riding w.o. problems. Strong wheels are really the only requirement. Used mountain bikes or touring bikes are great ways to get started.
    2) Biking is great exercise and it is low impact. For heavy people with joint issues biking may be the best solution besides swimming for exercise.
    3) Fat cyclists ofter have a lot of muscle under the fat. Many of us are surprised how quickly we progress (speed, etc.).

    As for programs, I think your best bet would be to set up a program with a weekly ride and some ride mentors (ideally they would be clydes or athenas). Their job is to ride with the people (no matter how slow) and educate them on the finer points of riding (how to start, which brakes to use, bike tips, etc.). Perhaps a 5 minute talk before each ride?

    Now, the place to find big people who actually want to start exercising is an endocrinology center (diabetes), heart center, or local gym. You could also post some literature at video rental places and libraries (sedentary pursuits). Also post some information at popular trail heads (MUPs, etc.) where most Clydes ride. I would recommend starting the rides from a location that rents bikes (minimal expense to get started, lots of fun, etc.). Plan the ride to avoid roads as much as possible... worry about riding the bike w/o problems on a path and then add the element of traffic. I also agree with the comments about clothing. Once people know that it's fun and you don't need lycra then they are much more likely to participate.

    Personally, I don't know of any Clyde/Athena specific program in Portland. There are certainly new cyclist programs at most bike stores but those can be intimidating to the casual rider (i.e. they focus 99% of the time on race bikes, pace lines, etc.). Speaking personally, I got all my info (equipment, support, etc.) from the Clyde forum on bikeforums.net when I got started with cycling.


  13. I started bike commuting, 3 miles each way, and within a year had dropped 40 pounds, going from technically obese to just overweight. I did not change my diet or anything in my lifestyle. Perhaps the group of people at pedalpalooza events tend to the lean side of the spectrum because they love biking, and actually get some exercise on a daily basis.

  14. Just adding one more bike story:

    In October when I moved to PDX, I weighed almost 200 lbs from not exercising, eating crap, etc etc.

    I started biking just little short, easy rides on my three-speed cruiser and I have started eating healthier, but no where near as healthy as I used to be.

    I now am near 135. This is just from a basic diet change and using a bike as my primary mode of transportation. (I now use an 18spd road bike & often am pulling a trailer w/ a 30 lb harp in it.)

    I used to work for a yoga studio in Salt Lake City which promoted itself as "yoga for the rest of us." - Maybe if we promoted a series of short bike rides, ending at different locations where we could discuss the benefits and hardships of healthy eating.

    For instance, I recently stopped smoking and often feel like I could eat someone's face off, so it's helped me to start hanging out with people that don't smoke. (Obviously.)

  15. If you live within 3mi of work, shopping, church, post office, whatever fine, that is a good group to target as a bike is actually useful.

    Heavy people put more stress on the rear wheel so it needs to be tensioned and true. Many shops do not have people who can do this properly, even though the equipment is not that expensive. On the other hand light weight frames are of less value to heavy people, so you can save some money there.

    As far as bicycle for exercise, I do not see it as better than gardening or whatever. I would be suspicious of anyone saying that going around in a circle for an hour is a great idea.

  16. Combine a fun activity like a themed ride with a supportive community. A lot of Clydes and Athenas probably want to ride but don't know where to start or are afraid that all bike riders are elitist.

  17. I think one key is to let riders (of all weights) know that it is ok to start our slow.

    My first ride as a clydesdale was 6/10 of a mile, around my "flat" block. That was when I discovered that a road that looks flat is not always flat. Since then I have ridden metric centuries... all while weighing over 300 pounds.