Being a Curvy Cyclist – One Woman’s Advice for Not Holding Yourself Back

Big thanks to WE Bike NYC member Shannon Smith for her ideas and encouragement to women of all shapes and sizes to get motivated to get on their bicycles and ride like the wind. It’s not unnatural for us to question our ability to accomplish our goals and go after what we want. Shannon’s main piece of advice to women questioning whether their shape or size precludes them from being a cyclist: just do it!

Supermodel Ashley Graham’s image recently flooded our newsfeeds as the first plus-sized model to rock the cover of the Sports Illustrated annual swimsuit issue. As a size 14, she’s the same size as the average American woman, but she’s a unicorn in the bikini-clad cover model world. Regardless, winning the coveted spot on the cover sends a message that women with curves can be strong, beautiful, and fit!

Before I started to get back into cycling a few years ago, I’ll admit my size kept me from biking when I first moved to the city. I knew I wanted to purchase a bike and had a feeling that I wanted to commute to work by bike… but I had my reservations. Aside from the obvious logistical issues of biking to and from work, or dodging the insane Midtown traffic, I held myself back because I thought I was too big to ride. I thought I might be okay if I could find a bike that fit me well, but how would I find the guts to stroll into a bike shop and actually buy one from a skinny hipster bike dude? And what would I wear? And… (this was the biggest hurdle), wouldn’t my booty-liciousness actually spread out as I was seated, making me the laughingstock of the bike lane? Would the bike seat turn into a wedgie, like my underwear sometimes did? I knew I needed the exercise and craved the feeling of the wind on my face as I pedaled my way through the city, but I still hesitated.

Then my magical curvy cyclist fairy godmother appeared, in the form a beautiful woman biking on a gorgeous spring day. She was about my size, happily zipping along the bike lane on a stunning cruiser. She looked healthy, happy, and 100% confident. That was the moment I decided to face my fears and embrace my love for biking. It was right before my 40th birthday, so I decided that #40isfierce and I would treat myself to a bike. I did my research, investigated different types of bikes, set my price range, and shopped around. I found several bike shops wouldn’t even acknowledge me when I walked in the door and I decided I wouldn’t give any shop my money unless they took me seriously as a cyclist. I could walk in the door and know immediately if the place was welcoming or not. I found several shops that were great, but didn’t have the kind of bike I wanted. I finally found my shop when I walked in, announced what I wanted and told the associate my price range. He and another associates looked at each other and joked, “Wow, I wish all of our customers knew what they wanted. This is great!” I left the shop that day with my new companion, my lovely Giant Via I christened Gladys.

Slowly I gained experience on my bike, and finally decided I was comfortable enough to start riding to work. As my confidence and skills increased, I realized I wanted to take my biking to the next level, so I decided to try a group ride. After researching on the internet, I found WE Bike NYC and signed up for their Annie Londonderry ride at Summer Streets – and I’ve never looked back. I now consider myself a bike commuter and hard core cycling nerd – no shame! I’ve acquired another bike to handle longer distances and tougher rides – I rode the NYC Century this past summer and can’t wait to ride it again this year. Through it all my health has improved and I’ve gained muscle along with confidence. I’m still curvy… but I’m a fit, happy, healthy curvy!

I’ve been approached regularly by other curvy women, asking me for tips on cycling. They ask me questions about fit and comfort and wonder how I have managed certain logistical issues. Below are some helpful tips for any woman who wants to ride, but thinks she isn’t fit or thin enough to do so.

  1. Know that you CAN ride, no matter what your size. You don’t have to be thin or athletic to ride a bike. Just get started! It’s good for your heart, lungs, mental health, focus/concentration, and so easy on your joints! You can ride longer than you can run, for example, even when you are a novice. So just go! Start with a quick ride around the block, or on a bike path in a park. As you get more experience, try the streets when traffic is low. Never ride in heavy traffic until you feel confident enough to do so. Join a group ride with WE Bike NYC and gain some experience riding with others! You’ll feel better each time you ride and meet amazing women to inspire/encourage you.
  2. Bike fit is crucial for all cyclists, but particularly important for a plus-size rider. You need a saddle that works for YOU… get measured, test out as many saddles as it takes to feel like you found one that doesn’t hurt when you ride. Here are some tips for getting started on your quest for the right saddle. There is certainly a ‘breaking in’ period with any new saddle, but you shouldn’t experience pain when riding. Having the right kind of bike and saddle will make such a difference.
  3. Keep looking until you find a shop where you feel comfortable and heard. More bike shops are learning that women are a significant source of revenue and the shops that don’t understand this reality won’t be open for long. You deserve to find a bike you love and to be respected as a cyclist. Keep researching until you find a shop that deserves your business.
  4. Take yourself seriously as an athlete. You are capable of more miles than you can imagine, more hills than you think. Start slow and keep challenging yourself. It’s okay to sweat and get out of breath sometimes, it has nothing to do with your size. I’ve seen skinny people in the bike lane who were out of breath immediately – this is exercise, after all! Don’t overdo it, but know that you can be curvy and still get a lot of work done on that bike. And you’ll feel amazing when you’re done! If you’re worried about your health, see a doctor first to make sure you are able to get started safely.
  5. Clothing. You don’t have to wear spandex if you don’t want to, but make sure to get sweat-wicking material. You don’t want to trap sweat close to your body, as this becomes extremely uncomfortable. If nothing else, you can wear bike shorts under your pants or a skirt or dress, it will really help with comfort! Many manufacturers make plus-sized bike clothing and it looks great! Plus-size riders can feel strange at first about wearing form-fitting clothing (I know I did), but layers are a beautiful thing! Here are a few websites** that are worth browsing for plus-sized gear:
  6. Chub rub. Call it what you will, but chafing is a thing. Ouch! You have to find what works for you and your skin type. On long rides, I’ll use Chamois Butt’r** and it’s magical. But for shorter rides, I don’t seem to need it. However, this past summer I had rashes and the creams seemed to make it worse! My doctor suggested baby powder and that absolutely solved my problem. Use it anywhere you sweat, whether it be your nether regions, your bra line, your booty. It’s just like bike fit and saddle fit – find what works for you. Being comfortable means you’ll ride more/longer/better. It’s worth finding out what makes your life more enjoyable.
  7. Be fierce, be confident, be a cyclist. You got this. Get out there and ride! Don’t forget to have fun and know that each pedal stroke will make you feel stronger and more in tune with your body as the beautiful machine it is – enjoy!

If you have any tips to share, join us in the conversation at the Female Bike Forum on Facebook!

**WE Bike NYC does not endorse these products. They are presented here as a matter of opinion.