Now that spring is here (or in any case, I can be relatively certain that it isn’t going to snow) I’ve been thinking a lot about fat and cycling. I bought a new bike this year, for the first time ever—all of my previous bicycles had been chosen for me, first by my folks, and then by my (now former) partner, a bicycle mechanic and avid cyclist.
For a very long time I have had a love-hate relationship with cycling. It started when I was a child and continued well into my adult years. I loved the freedom of it, the speed (I don’t drive so cycling is really about as fast as I go), the carefree feeling of just hopping on my bike and going wherever the spirit moved me. When I was growing up, my little red Supercycle with its white banana seat represented the quickest way to make an escape from bullies or a bad scene at home. My bike enabled me to be just as light and fast and strong as all the other kids I knew. I lived in an area that was just starting to be developed, which meant that in order to get anywhere interesting it was necessary to have wheels of some description.
In my adult years, I also loved that cycling was something that connected me to J, my bike-boy boyfriend.
I didn’t love the fact that, as I got older and transitioned to a more age-appropriate ten-speed, cycling aggravated many of my long-standing health issues–my carpal tunnel, my asthma and allergies, an old knee injury–and I also didn’t love that I always felt a bit like a circus act when I sat, hunched over, rolls of fat rippling gently in the breeze, perched atop my bicycle like a bear in a tiny car. It made me sad that J and I were never able to bond over our mutual love of cycling; he liked to go fast, and far, and I didn’t really feel equipped to do either.
I knew for a long time that my ride–a mountain bike that J had customized, with shocks, knobby tires, and a large, heavy frame–was not for me. The chain knawed away at my clothes, no matter how I rolled or tied or bound them, meaning the bike tended to have an adverse effect on my fatshion choices. I always felt too bent over, my fat belly uncomfortably compressed and being pushed up into my chest as I pedaled, my trendy cycling jersey (a gift from J) bunching up attractively around my middle. The seat was too high and too small for my fat ass. I didn’t feel comfortable riding in traffic because the bike was so heavy and clunky. J had me pretty much convinced that it was because I didn’t ride enough, that I just needed to get out more and my body would adjust. It was a message I was so used to hearing from a variety of sources that I didn’t really question it.
The week before we broke up, J and I took a trip to Boston. While there, we decided to rent bicycles and go on a cycling tour. When we got to the shop, they rented us hybrid bikes (a combination of elements from both mountain bikes and their sleeker, speedier cousin, the road bike). I had never been on a hybrid before, and the moment I started to pedal along on the sidewalk, I knew things were going to be different. The hybrid was lighter than my own bike, which meant that I was able to carry it over my shoulder like a conquering hero as I ascended a pedestrian overpass. It was faster, which meant I was able to keep up with J without feeling even the slightest asthmatic tickle in my chest. And a more upright riding position was easier on my wrists and back. As I propelled myself around the Back Bay Fens, I realized that for once I didn’t feel as though I were trying to squeeze myself into a mold I wasn’t meant to fit.
The weekend that J broke up with me, I broke up with my bicycle. I managed to restrain myself from throwing either one off the balcony (if only because the debris would have inevitably landed on my mother’s terrace several floors below).
Shopping for a new bicycle was harder than I thought it might be. I had been somewhat insulated from this by having my own live-in bike mechanic, but the cycling industry is predicated on thinness. Sales staff in many bike shops don’t really know how to fit fat kids for accessories. Friends of mine have experienced outright fat-hate in some of these establishments. There’s a bit of an attitude of “fatty needs to get the hell up out of our sport, you dig?” As for my part, I have learned that if a fat girl walks into a bike shop asking for a hybrid bike, sales staff will automatically assume she wants a cruiser bike.
Now, don’t get me wrong–there is nothing wrong with cruisers. I love the gorgeous, paint-and-chrome classic look of them, and they are definitely the height of comfort and style. I think they would make a fine addition to any fatshionista’s collection.
People kept trying to talk me out of the hybrid bike I wanted, all the while talking around the big fat reason they felt the way they did. It’s more of a commuter bike, they told me. I don’t know if it’s the right size for you. I don’t know if you’d like the riding position. The thinner tires mean you have to have really good balance. Maybe you’d be more comfortable on something that has a smoother ride. Or, most memorably, I have two female friends the same size as you and they both bought cruisers, and they love them. (That’s right, because all fat people are the same, forever.)
I won’t get into the shenanigans involved in my purchasing the bike (there were some issues with shipping charges) but in the end, I finally got the one I wanted. I had them add a chain guard (so I can finally wear the outfit of my choice while riding my bike) and a basket (into which I can put a baguette and some flowers as I tool around town in a floaty dress on a summer afternoon).
I peeled out onto the pavement a few weeks ago, and oh man, it was glorious. I can’t remember the last time I went so fast. I whizzed down a main thoroughfare, cutting in and out of traffic, taking corners on a dime, keeping pace with the vehicles alongside me. It At one point I rang my bell at a little kid dancing on the sidewalk, who pointed and said, “Look at that fat lady on the bike!” I don’t know how his mom replied (she looked mortified) but in my opinion, the kid’s tone had been one of admiration. I felt like I was back on my little red Supercycle again, racing to the end of the block, ready for life’s next big adventure.
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