Heavy biker seeks bike for heavy biking
March 10, 2009 7:17 PM   Subscribe

What sort of bicycle should a big, heavy guy buy for a short, hilly commute?

I'm 6'2", 330+lbs (yet pretty active and outdoorsy) and I take the train into the city every day. Currently, I get a ride to and from the station, but as the weather gets warmer, I'd like to bike the distance to and from the station. (I don't need the bike in the city.)

I'm used to biking everywhere in flat, well-paved places (Florida and New Orleans), but it's been a few years, and this is New England - there are a series of steep hills going to and coming from, and the roads are terrible. The commute itself is only a few miles, but they're pretty rough compared to my previous biking experience.

I got around OK on a 3 speed beach cruiser, but I don't think that's going to cut it here... and I beat the tar out of my cruisers just with normal use: constantly warping wheels, occasionally snapping chains, breaking pedals, bending handlebars, stems and forks. I don't think a road bike is going to be tough enough, and besides, my body isn't currently configured for the "crouch" position.

Any suggestions for a commuter or "hybrid" bike that's comfortable to ride, good on hills, and nigh-indestructable? (Under $500 would be nice, too. Used is OK.)

As heavy as I am, would a suspension or "shock absorber" seat post be pointless? (Did I mention the local roads are really, really bad?)
posted by Slap*Happy to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If I were you I'd shoot for a hardtail mountain bike built to handle a big person. Definitely not a Wal-Mart bike, and probably not a full-suspension in that range. Like one of these.

After the first set of tires wears out, you can replace them with wide, higher-pressure road slicks. Plus, by that time, you'll have lost a bit of weight riding up and down those hills!
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 7:23 PM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

In that price range, keep a lookout for craigslist postings. I second the hardtail mountain bike recommendation. Think about an early 00's Specialized Rockhopper. They were very common, and likely to be in your price range. When you find one you like, take it to a shop for a once-over. Have them make sure that the spoke tensions are appropriate and that everything is properly lubricated, then have fun!
posted by Wild_Eep at 7:45 PM on March 10, 2009

Another good source of listings for used bikes is your local bike club. Their members have likely taken better care of their stuff, too.
posted by Wild_Eep at 7:46 PM on March 10, 2009

LivingXL (livingxl.com) (which I would link to if I weren't an idiot and could figure out how to do the linky thing) has bikes rated up to 500 lb, with thicker spokes and more durable tires than standard bikes. Not sure if these would fit your other requirements as I'm not at all a bike person.
posted by SweetTeaAndABiscuit at 7:47 PM on March 10, 2009

You could check out bikeforums.net, they have a whole section devoted to bikers over 200 lbs, and one of the first threads within the forum is a listing of bikes used by people who weigh over 270.

I use metafilter for almost any question I can think of, but go to the bikeforum website for bike specific questions.
posted by abirae at 7:49 PM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

You could go for a hardtail mtb, even a dirtjump or park bike, but unless you're riding up and down stairs, slamming curbs, that kind of stuff, I think that it's probably overkill. Better to think touring bike, 29er, that kind of thing.

I love the Salsa Fargo. If that one's too pricey, maybe a Surly Karate Monkey. Both are versatile bikes, built to be durable while handling heavy loads.
posted by box at 8:04 PM on March 10, 2009

You want the following things:
- hybrid/mountain bike with absolutely no rear suspension, preferably no front suspension either, or a tourer
- a custom-built rear wheel with heavier spokes, perhaps more spokes
- low gears that go down to 1:1 or further
- slick tyres, probably about 2" wide

A hybrid is generally something that has low mountain-bike gearing, perhaps suspension, but slick tyres suitable for road use. A tourer is a heavier, indestructible road bike similar in concept to a hybrid but designed to have 50kg of luggage hanging off the back and to be ridden 150km/day, every day, across whole countries. Might be worth googling up models of tourer bike and aiming your second-hand searches at those models because they will be tough and comfortable.

The reason you don't want suspension is that it robs you of energy while pedalling. You'll lose 15-40% of your pedalling power to suspension, so don't even think about going there unless you are actually going to ride off-road frequently. Learn to "be light" when there's a bump - basically means you hop a bit, and you transfer weight to the appropriate (not-dropping) wheel when dropping off a kerb.

I'm 230lbs and when I bought a bike, I broke 2 rear spokes in a month going over train lines. Admittedly this bike has 1" high pressure tyres... but I had the wheel rebuilt with thicker spokes and it's still straight after 10 years and I've not broken any more spokes. A professional wheel rebuild will cost a couple hundred dollars I guess (spokes come to a few tens, the rest is labour) but it is worth it if you're large. Not necessary for the front wheel, just the back, because that's where 70% of the weight goes.

Low gears are what you need for climbing if you're heavy. That means small front cranks, e.g. a 44-32-22 teeth and large rear sprockets, e.g. 11-32 or 11-34 teeth. That means in the lowest gear, your rear wheel is going about 2/3 as fast as your pedals and you're moving REALLY slowly - your balance will be the limiting factor, not the power of your legs. If you can walk up a hill, you can ride up it with that sort of gearing. Don't buy a bike with the cheapest level of components as you'll probably break them. Look for something that says "Deore LX", or "Deore XT"; make sure it's not "Alivio", "Acera" or just "SIS".

Slick tyres will minimise the loss of energy while rolling, which is important as soon as you want to ride more than a couple of km at anything more than walking speed. Do not buy any tyres with knobs on if you're riding on the road - they will be draggy/inefficient and they will offer less traction on hard surfaces. Feel free to buy a second-hand bike with knobby tyres on it already, the slick replacements will be under $50 each. Narrow tyres (1"-1.25") will offer a little less rolling resistance for lighter people but a nasty harsh ride not recommended for bad roads. Wider tyres like 2" will offer a much better ride and probably no additional rolling resistance given your weight.

An Aluminium frame is nice, but again, the saving of 5kg on the bike is pretty much irrelevant. A Cr-Mo steel frame is often stronger than an Al one but don't buy a steel K-Mart or Wal-Mart bike as it will fall apart underneath you. Get a proper brand-name bike (Specialized, Giant, Cannondale (overpriced), Trek, etc) that you would see sold in a real bike shop.
posted by polyglot at 8:28 PM on March 10, 2009

I'd go with a touring bike. Don't worry about getting low on a road-style frame. Its more comfortable to me and I've ridden a lot of MTB too.

The key is easy gears on the climbs, every time.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:42 PM on March 10, 2009

my opinion:
- don't buy used cause bikes on sale are better value.
- don't buy hybrid because they are for really slack riding.
- front suspension mtb is the best compromise for dependability, durability and comfort.
- ride a few at the bike shop, and pick the one you like best.
- when you ride a few, dont think about budget so much at that time
- rem that a good bike will last ten years so a few bucks a wk is a great investment in something you will really enjoy
posted by edtut at 11:56 PM on March 10, 2009

That means small front cranks, e.g. a 44-32-22 teeth

Just a small point of clarification: cranks are not the gears in the front, which are called chainrings, they're the levers that attach the pedal to the chainrings. So a guy who's 6'2" needs anything but small cranks; you want small chainrings (as others have correctly noted), but long cranks, probably in the neighborhood of 180 mm unless you have an unusually short inseam for your height.

Short cranks are just going to make you uncomfortable and, more importantly, shorter cranks actually have the effect of increasing your effective gear ratio, so they'll make pedaling harder.

I think your best bet is a hardtail mountain bike with a rigid fork. If you're riding on the road (even rough road) suspension is just going to slow you down and rob you of energy. Properly inflated tires will provide suspension enough. Knobby tires are also wasted on the roads as well, and will slow you down, swap them out for slicks or semi-slick tires meant for riding on smoother surfaces.

Suspension seatposts are worthless, in my opinion anyway. They weigh a ton and cause you to bounce around on the saddle with every pedal stroke, but will do nothing to cushion a big bump like real suspension would. Don't waste your time -- if the bike comes with one, dump it and get a regular rigid seatpost.

I agree with others that you need to buy a real bike at a real shop where the salespeople know what they're talking about. At a good shop you don't have to worry about all this talk about components, because they won't sell bikes with crap components that are likely to break, and they'll make sure you get something that will fit you well and last for a while.

I disagree about Cannondale being overpriced -- I think they're actually a better value that most other brands -- but that also doesn't make them the right brand for you. I'd actually look for brands known for building rugged, rather than ultralight, bikes. Surly and Redline are two brands that spring to mind.
posted by dseaton at 1:14 AM on March 11, 2009

I'm kinda close to your weight and have two bikes I like: a hardtail mountain bike from REI and a Trek hybrid. The hybrid is slightly more comfortable, so I use it for street riding.

The most important thing is that you find a bike that fits you. Even people the same height and weight can be vastly different - I have longer legs than most people my height, for example. Go somewhere like REI or a good local bike shop that will let you try 20 different bikes, ride each one down the street and up and down a hill, and narrow it down to the one that fits you best.

I agree about seats - I've gone through about 20 fancy seats and I found I get more comfort from a good pair of padded bike shorts and a regular seat.
posted by mmoncur at 5:44 AM on March 11, 2009

Surly Long Haul Trucker with Mavic OpenPro 36-hole rims laced 3-cross to Ultegra hubs, and 28c-32c tires.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 9:51 AM on March 11, 2009

Oh, and I'd run a triple crank on the front and an 12-32 cassette in the rear (with a long-cage derailleur). That'll help you spin up the hills and you'll have plenty of gear for going down as well.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 9:52 AM on March 11, 2009

I recommend visiting the Clydesdales forum on MTBR.com. MTBR is a very active community of users. Consider joining and asking the same question, I suspect they'll recommend a mountain bike with semi-slick tires over a commuter bike. Reason: mountain bikes are built to be more sturdy.

Also, consider investigating bigger wheels. In case you did not know, historically 26 inch wheels have been the standard for mountain bikes. Hybrid/commuter bikes are usually "700c" which is close to a 29 inch size, but is narrower/weaker. A few years ago, 29 inch wheels were the fad and they have now reached accepted status. The "Karate Monkey" mentioned previously is an example of a 29er. Bigger wheels can be better for bigger people, providing a better bike fit. Won't help you climb any better, but you may feel better on the bike because of increased stability and a smoother ride (owing to something called "attack angle"; basically the angle of tire impacting an obstacle is reduced with a bigger wheel). If you go for bigger wheels, watch out for the rims being used ... there's plenty of discussion of strong 29er rims/wheels here.
posted by Dave. at 10:25 AM on March 11, 2009

You might want to look into an electric bike. They can get very expensive, but you can get a low-end version for $319 from Amazon.

I have this one, but I've modified it with a better battery (which cost almost as much as the bike!). I love it for my 12-mile hilly commute in New England. Can't wait to get back on it once the snow is gone.

I have no idea about the "heavy rider" part, though.
posted by acridrabbit at 10:57 AM on March 11, 2009

With no offense meant to acridrabbit, the bicycles used for those $300 electric bikes are of very poor quality, with cheap components, stamped metal parts and low-lifespan elastomer suspension forks. They would not last long under a 330-pound dude.

Furthermore, not that I necessarily support this, but bike shops will look down their noses at repairing or servicing department store quality bikes, especially those upgraded with motors.

The suggestion of a touring bike is good, but will be hard to find in this price range. For example, a Bianchi Volpe uses a mtn-bike long-cage derailleur and a wide gear ratio cluster, but those cost at least $1,000. Plus I think at that weight he might want to start on softer, wider tires.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 3:30 PM on March 11, 2009

Likewise, finding a 29er in the $500 range would also be difficult.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 3:31 PM on March 11, 2009

Actually, I did some searching, thanks to the advice I got here, and the '09 Kona Smoke and '09 Kona Dew are hybrids based on a hardtail steel frame with 29" street tires, and both list for under $500. Going to do a bit more research before deciding, tho...

The mbtr "clydesdales" forum is a great resource... they seem to break their stuff as much as I do, which means they actually ride their bikes on a regular basis.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:07 PM on March 11, 2009

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